Reading the Ratings
While it’s called a buyer’s guide, this feature is also a listening guide, as it includes mention of unreleased music. These ratings are relative to the rest of the composer’s oeuvre, and do not compare directly to the ratings in our Reviews section.
**** A must-have. One of his finest works and belongs in every soundtrack collector’s collection.
*** Highly recommended. Close to being a classic, with lots of replay value.
** Recommended with reservations. A score with representative moments, but not a consistently enjoyable listen.
* For completists only. You’re unquestionably a Newmaniac!
Thomas Newman, the youngest son of the great Alfred Newman (1901-1970), is one of the finest film composers of our time and is currently enjoying a particularly productive period. His distinctive musical voice has become one of the most widely imitated in the industry, and he is the recipient of substantial recognition from critics and peers, as well as many awards. But there is one prize that unaccountably continues to elude him: the Academy Award for Best Original Score. During the Oscar ceremony on Feb. 25, Newman is seen briefly in the opening montage of nominees. Director Errol Morris says, “So, you have failed to win an Oscar eight times,” to which Newman dryly responds, “No, I have failed seven times. Tonight will be my eighth.” The reference is to The Good German (2006) ****, one of his finest scores—unabashedly melodic, lavishly orchestral, romantic and thrilling, with or without the references to Casablanca, To Have and Have Not and other classics from Hollywood’s rich musical history. The OST on Varèse Sarabande 302 066 781 2 (29 tracks - 44:28) is beautifully recorded, and track 7, “A Good Dose,” features one of Newman’s most luscious but disquieting motifs, a perfect musical evocation of duplicity. Unfortunately, few people saw the film and even fewer liked it. The liner notes include a complete listing of the excellent musicians, as do those for Newman’s other 2006 score, Little Children **, for which Kate Winslet and Jackie Earle Haley also received Oscar nominations. The “End Title” on New Line NL 39076 (19 tracks - 37:40) is particularly gripping, and Newman plays both piano and five-string electric violin on the recording. As we look forward to the next Newman opus, this seems an appropriate time to survey his remarkable output. For beginners, expanders, Newmaniacs, or those simply wishing to enjoy some of the finest film music of the last 20 years, there is fortunately plenty of Thomas Newman available. And one of these days he will receive that Oscar.
Both of Newman’s 2005 projects were disappointments. Jarhead * 1/2 is a forgettable Iraq war movie, and Cinderella Man *** 1/2 a period boxing movie remembered for Russell Crowe’s telephone tantrum in New York and low grosses. The OST of Jarhead on Decca B0005983-02 (25 tracks) is 61 unaccountable minutes (with the possible exception of “Raining Oil”) and recommended only to completists. The CD of the score for Cinderella Man on Decca B0004561-02 (25 tracks - 46:49) is excellent and essential, in particular for skeptics of this movie or music. In fact, I think a fast route to Newman fandom is this menu from the OST: tracks 1 (“The Inside Out”), 5 (“Weehawken Ferry”), 10 (“Corn Griffin”), 11 (“Shoe Polish”), 13 (“The Hope of the Irish”), 14 (“Hooverville Funeral”), 19 (“Pugilism”), 21 (“Big Right”), 23 (“Cinderella Man”) and 24 (“Turtle”). This is another score where Newman gives his main themes a full workout, allowing them to culminate in the final reel. Newman plays both piano and processed piano on the recording.
Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004) *** provides a perfect anthology of Newman’s many talents, with the only unfortunate event being the acting of Jim Carrey, who mugs so shamelessly that he ruins an easy grammar joke in a close-up with Meryl Streep, but provides unexpected motivation for Emily Browning’s outburst: “By the way, you’re a terrible actor!” The full range of Newman’s gifts is on display with the special edition DVD, including outtakes on a second disc, such as “Violet’s Rock Retriever,” “Monty’s Montage” and “Olaf’s Escape.” Highlights include the abrupt transition from the chirpy cartoon song “Loverly Spring” (co-credited to Bill Bernstein) to ominous chord progressions, as Jude Law portentously announces “The movie you are about to see is extremely unpleasant”; an eerie waltz for the Baudelaire children; a percussion and pizzicato triple-time tour of Count Olaf’s castle; a wistful string elegy punctuated first by harp and then piano for the children’s frustration; a suspenseful buildup for the train incident; and an exotic waltz with percussive accents for the reptile room. The final 18 minutes, from the family mansion morphing into burned ruins and a special mail delivery through the closing credits, are wall-to-wall Newman and represent him at his best. The OST is available on Sony SK 93576 (29 tracks - 68:42), with an invaluable listing of complete music credits, instrumental soloists and orchestra musicians (Newman plays piano and quarter violin). Such listings provide helpful information on the names of unfamiliar musical instruments. Newman received his seventh Oscar nomination for Best Original Score.
Angels in America (2003) *** 1/2 earned Newman a Grammy nomination. The melancholic main theme simultaneously evokes the waste and pain of a sadly recent era while bathing us in the nostalgic glow of a time not forgotten long enough. Having been fortunate enough to see Tony Kushner’s two-part drama on Broadway twice, I could not imagine it as a cable television special. The formidable Mike Nichols, who conjured classic work from Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Anne Bancroft, Dustin Hoffman and Ann-Margret, among many others, not only found a way to film it, but also smoothes over problem areas with editorial genius, and has preserved for the ages a cast of major American theater and film professionals at the height of their creative powers. Has Meryl Streep ever been better? Is this Al Pacino’s greatest performance? HBO was smart to employ Newman for one of its finest endeavors, and his music makes our spirits soar, especially on the Nonesuch WEA 79837-2 OST CD (31 tracks - 71:52).
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.
In 2000 Newman composed Erin Brockovich **, for which Julia Roberts received her Oscar. The OST is available on Sony SK 89239 (23 tracks - 35:10) and offers Newman a chance to experiment with elements of jazz and rock as well as his trademark interval patterns, chromatic oddities and strange tunings. The CD offers Newman fans an opportunity to enjoy substantial amounts of his piano playing. These cues are striking: 1 (“Useless”), 4 (“Classifieds”), 6 (“On the Plume”), 10 (“Two Wrong Feet”), 15 (“Holding Ponds”) and 20 (“Water Board”). Newman also scored Pay It Forward **, the OST for which is Varèse Sarabande CD 302 066 195 2 (27 tracks - 45:44). Previews, terrible reviews and poisonous word-of-mouth resulted in my vow to skip this one forever, although the score is mildly interesting, mostly as a descendant of American Beauty. Here is the tantalizing list of instrumental soloists on the OST: electric autoharp, dutar, guitars, song bells, wave drum, processed loops, tap eko gate 1, freeze 3, prepared guitars, alto flute, spit rhythms, processed glass, slow tube, phonograph, EWI, processed saz, and Newman on “piano, etc.” Listen to tracks 17 (“Pay It Forward”), 21 (“Desert Drive”) and 25 (“Velocity Organ”). Also in 2000, Newman contributed an efficient, guitar-driven main title theme to David E. Kelley’s award-winning TV series Boston Public **.
American Beauty (1999) **** is not only one of the best films of the year, but also likely a classic American tale of turn-of-the-millennium self-absorption. At the time of release, which now seems like 100 years ago, there were reports of stores on the West Coast boasting of excellent sales for the OST, a masterpiece by Newman, and his score became both widely admired and incessantly imitated. The hypnotically repetitive wooden mallets and many other percussive effects, some of which suggest articles found while cleaning under the sink, out in the garage, or down in the basement, help to create a unique sonic world, especially with the occasional yearning string or piano counterpoint or even electronic variations. The OST on DreamWorks 0044-50233-2 (19 tracks - 37:31) is one that happily exists as a piece of contemporary music separate from the success of the movie. Newman received yet another richly deserved Oscar nomination (his fourth) for original score, as well as a Grammy and the BAFTA Award.
The Green Mile (1999) ** 1/2 is the other highlight of a very good year for Newman and is particularly recommended to fans of his felicitous use of pizzicato, notably on tracks 4 (“The Mouse on the Mile”), 14 (“Circus Mouse”), 17 (“Two Run-Throughs”), 23 (“Morphine & Cola”) and 26 (“Done Tom Turkey”). The OST on Warner Bros. 9 47584-2 (37 tracks - 74:37) contains the first mention I recall of “the Fox Newman Scoring Stage,” named of course in honor of Alfred Newman, and the obligatory credits for instrumental soloists, including bowed traveling guitar, Vietnamese banjo, laud, jaw harp, bass marimba, vibraphone, struck metal, tonut, phrase samples, bowed bass dulcimer, violin, alto flute and flute, oboe, bass recorder, drones, saz, and naturally, Newman on “piano, etc.”
Movie music fans are forever debating virtues of a soundtrack separate from the film in which it is a single component. Since this music was never intended to exist separately from the movie, some argue that if you remember the music, buy the soundtrack and actually listen to it, you are wasting your time and money. Nonsense. More than half of my Jerry Goldsmith soundtracks are more interesting than the movies for which they were composed, in many cases the music being the only point of interest. There are numerous Newman soundtracks I have heard but never expected to experience in context. It was a big mistake to check out the DVD of Meet Joe Black (1998) * 1/2 and sit through it for the sole reason that Newman wrote the music. At a pitch meeting, it may have seemed a good idea for handsome blond expensively attired Brad Pitt as Death to fall in impossible love with Claire Forlani, but any first-year film student could have told the producers that Death prefers to play a good game of chess or badminton. There are not enough negative things to say about this awful film, except to add that Newman’s luscious and expansive melodic accompaniment does not help at all. If anything, his professionalism makes the movie even worse. Rarely has an orchestra seemed more wasted. On the Universal OST UD-53229 (20 tracks - 52:01) a few cues fare better: listen to tracks 2 (“Everywhere Freesia”), 5 (“Peanut Butter Man”), 9 (“Fifth Ave”) and 19 (“That Next Place”).
Move on to The Horse Whisperer (1998) ** 1/2 and the OST CD on Hollywood HR-62137-2 (28 tracks - 57:56), especially if you are a fan of films about horses. There is some lovely orchestral and chamber music writing separate from the obvious western provenance, and this may be your last chance to enjoy Robert Redford before he became a local waxwork. The CD insert with names and credits is again a major soundtrack collection consideration. How else can you be sure that instrumentalists are playing guitars, mandolins, phrase loops, prepared guitar, bowed bass dulcimer, violin, percussion, phrase loops, EWI, flutes, cello 1 and 2, oboe, English horn, pedal steel guitar, piano, birdsong and wind, with Newman on piano? As is often the case with Newman OSTs, there are multiple credits for the ubiquitous “etc.” Outstanding cues are #s 19 (“Your Misfortune”), 23 (“Grace”), 27 (“Percheron Stallion”) and 28 (“End Title”).
Coming in the next and final installment of the Thomas Newman Buyer’s Guide: Everything else!