The financial success of Finding Nemo (2003) **** provided Newman with power, visibility and a busy future. I am not a fan of movies about adorable little brightly colored baby fishes in jeopardy, especially when I read about the cost to coral reefs’ saltwater fish populations that result from pet store patrons wishing to please their progeny hot upon the heels of a hit movie. Frankly, I would prefer Nemo to be eaten ASAP to put him out of my misery. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the extravagant undersea world evoked by flute, piano and strings as teacher Mr. Ray takes his class on Nemo’s “First Day” of school while swooping and soaring ecstatically. I also like the demented dance Marlon and Dory perform to escape jellyfish, or the variety of musical cues during an adventure in the East Australian Current with surfer dude sea turtles, or the oddly harmonized half-step whole-step motif inside the whale. And praise is due 2007 Oscar hostess Ellen DeGeneres for her voicing of Dory, the dizzy blue fish with a big heart and bad memory who is especially hilarious when trying out whale dialects. If you want more, there is a delicious sequence of Bruce the Shark (on a 12-step program, more timely now than ever) running amok after a whiff of fish blood, with Barry Humphries’ orgasmic chortling, “I’m havin’ FISH TONIGHT!”, and a parody of Hitchcock’s The Birds, with brainless seagulls endlessly chanting “Mine, mine, mine, mine, mine!” before attacking Dory and Marlon. Speaking of Hitchcock, Newman twice quotes from Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho for Darla, the hideous child in the dentist’s office. Finding Nemo is the Newman movie to have on-hand for the entertainment of children and large family gatherings. DVD is the essential medium, but a worthy OST is available on Disney 60078-7 (40 tracks - 60:12). The composer received his sixth Oscar nomination for Best Original Score.
The Salton Sea (2002) ** 1/2 was more interesting for me than Finding Nemo. It’s all about “tweaking,” and I don’t mean surfing the Internet to upgrade premium interconnects for a home entertainment system. On this one, Newman pays tribute to Ry Cooder, or maybe it’s coincidental that the score sounds like both Cooder and Newman. This is a crime caper as well as the story of a trumpet player. It is also a substance abuse flick, so don’t expect to totally follow the path from the dazzling opening sequence of Val Kilmer as dying trumpet player Tom Van Allen sitting in the middle of a pile of money in flames to a much later sequence of Kilmer as police informer Danny Parker confessing to the existential nightmare of being a “rat.” Newman’s score is so quirky that it prevents you from making any coherent assumptions about characters and motives, even about what is happening as you’re watching. You may even feel that music is cast in the role of fellow conspirator. A previous renter of the DVD wrote on the insert “fart smell” under the trumpet, with a balloon caption “This movie blows!” above the trumpet. Although it’s not easy-going and is undone by a stupid sentimental ending, The Salton Sea is worth a rental, especially for the music, which can be enjoyed on OST CD Varèse Sarabande 302 066 351 2 (23 tracks - 47:11).
2002 additionally offered Newman fans a hit with Road to Perdition *** 1/2 and a flop with White Oleander * so depressing that the luminous Michele Pfeiffer has not been seen since. It’s a terrible movie about child abuse, one of the worst scored by Newman. The only reasons for recommendation, such as Newman’s piano solos, languid layering of strings, and sensitivity of long-time orchestrator Thomas Pasatieri, may not be enough. OST is Varèse Sarabande 664172 (18 tracks - 33:41). Road to Perdition, on the other hand, is a minor classic. It is a dark piece of Americana with Paul Newman as an avuncular gangster and Tom Hanks as a hit man on the lam. The OST on Decca 440 017 167-2 (27 tracks - 69:33) has numerous cues not by Newman but is highly recommended for its diversity in tracks like 13 (“The Farm”), 17 (“Nothing to Trade”), 19 (“Virgin Mary”) and 22 (“Cathedral”). Newman plays piano as usual, but also plays a Stroviol, a weird early 20th century violin relative with an attached victrola-shaped horn. Newman received his fifth Oscar nomination for his efforts.
In the Bedroom ** is the acclaimed 2001 film about the impact of a son’s murder on his parents, with Oscar nominations for both Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek. There is more traditional Bulgarian, Croatian and Macedonian choral singing than there is score by Newman, but the OST on Varèse Sarabande 66319 is worth checking out, if only for tracks 1, “The Cannery (Main Title)” and 19, “In the Bedroom (End Title).”
Newman’s best work in 2001 is the minute-and-a-half main title for the extraordinary HBO series Six Feet Under ****, a vivid musical and emotional introduction to the deliriously dysfunctional extended Fisher family, for which Newman received an Emmy Award. A high repeated keyboard figure with triangle introduces the credits for Peter Krause and Michael C. Hall, followed by a pizzicato ostinato for Frances Conroy as two hands tear away from each other. The keyboard reappears for Lauren Ambrose as two hands wash, after which the pizzicato returns for Freddy Rodriguez and Mathew St. Patrick’s credits against a corpse on a slab. The section closes with a cadential intervention to superimpose “and Rachel Griffiths as Brenda” on perfect L.A. clouds. The second section commences with a hospital cart being wheeled toward a bright light that matters not at all to the corpse on it, as a plaintive oboe melody snakes along to a heart-rending half-step rubato phrase ending it seems reluctant to leave behind, except through some modal manipulation, interrupted by a weird and wonderful percussion effect, derived from instruments orchestral, metal, wooden, electronic or imaginative, sounding for all the world like empty cans of embalming supplies having a conversation. After a rising two-chord interruption for a wilting funereal bouquet, the oboe melody and string pizzicato are repeated during outdoor funerary moments, and the main title concludes with the caption “Six Feet Under” appearing on a wooden box buried under a tree. During seasons four and five, there is a strange musical interpolation at the end of the credits—a few bars of bizarre Eastern modality for Alan Ball’s Executive Producer credit. As I recall, we see Newman’s name on a tube of blue embalming fluid. HBO released the soundtrack album on Universal 440 017 031-2.