Music in Film...Thomas Newman
Welcome to the fifth installment in a series of hub articles dedicated to music in film. Each article focuses on one director, and the composers and songwriters he or she has collaborated with over the years.
The link to the introduction of this series and first installment (Steven Spielberg) appears below:
This installment examines the collaboration from the composer’s perspective, and the directors he has worked with over the years. Thomas Newman is one of the most talented, versatile and sought-after artists and composers in this industry. His father was Alfred Newman, the longtime music director at 20th Century Fox Studios and winner of 9 Academy Awards. Composer Randy Newman is his cousin. Thomas has been nominated for 12 Oscars. Ironically, he has yet to win. You may recognize his music from such films as Little Women, Pay It Forward, Finding Nemo, The Green Mile, American Beauty, The Shawshank Redemption, The Help, and Skyfall. Compositions for television include Six Feet Under, Angels in America and The Newsroom.
The Collaboration Between Composer and Director
The composer usually becomes involved during post-production before the film has been fully edited. During the creative process, music and film marry, becoming inseparable. The film score should never clash with or upstage the action depicted on-screen lest the viewer be subjected to a kind of lovers’ quarrel. The collaboration and communication between composer and director are therefore vital to the film’s success. Creative differences can occasionally lead to an impasse, a.k.a. “my way or the highway.” (Having once worked in the entertainment industry, I can assure you that such conflicts do arise, albeit not often.)
Newman is well-known for having a unique voice and the absence of an ego-centric approach which enables him to collaborate successfully with directors. The clip which follows shows the various stages of scoring the film soundtrack for WALL-E. Thomas and director Andrew Stanton also worked together on the award winning animated film, Finding Nemo:
The Newman Sound
Often referred to as “traditional Hollywood,” the orchestral, melodic film scores have harmonic progressions and repetitive motives or musical phrases. (A motive, or motif, is the sequence of notes we hear that is central to the composition or musical idea.) We listened to several in the Spielberg, Scorsese and Redford installments of this series. Newman also created the melodic score for Redford’s The Horse Whisperer.
More modern scores often include electronic elements. A contrast to the melodic is the technically ingenious action score such as Hans Zimmer’s from The Dark Knight. Zimmer presents us with a distinctly non-melodic feeling. What is predominant instead are striking timbre and rhythm. The strings and brass build on the pervasive tension and movement anchored by two instantly recognizable notes that repeat throughout:
Newman utilizes both schools and elements with compositions for large orchestras; simpler, more subtle content for smaller ensembles of musicians; and percussion-driven scores. He also employs a hybrid approach with distinctive rhythms, repeating phrases, and a duality of emotion that is ingenious. Newman prefers to experiment by using unusual instruments juxtaposed with standard orchestral sounds.
Meet Joe Black
The 1934 film, Death Takes a Holiday, was the inspiration for this romantic fantasy directed by Martin Brest. The Angel of Death (Brad Pitt) pays a call on William Parish (Anthony Hopkins), a wealthy and powerful CEO of a media empire. Death informs Bill that before taking him to “that next place,” he wants to remain in his world for a brief time to experience what life is truly like for mere mortals. In exchange for Bill’s services as a tour guide, he will have more earthly time to take care of his affairs before departing for the Hereafter. Left with little choice in the matter Bill accepts his proposal.
In order to move through the human world incognito, Death (Joe Black) takes the form of a young man who was killed earlier that day after a coincidental meeting with Bill’s daughter, Susan (Claire Forlain), in a coffee shop. Joe’s arrangement with Parish is further challenged when he and Susan, who is unaware of Joe’s true identify, fall in love.
Newman’s modern classical theme is both rich and romantic. In the following clip, the strings build in harmony to a crescendo (the kiss), and a motive that is repeated. It is Newman’s beautiful score that helps to make this film special. His music begins at the 1:25 mark:
The Road to Perdition
Directed by Sam Mendes, Perdition was adapted from Max Allan Collins’ novel. Mike Sullivan (Tom Hanks) is a hit man for the Irish mob in Depression-era Chicago. His employer, John Rooney (Paul Newman), has strong ties to Al Capone. Sullivan was raised by the generous Rooney who loves Mike as a son. Their relationship is tragically tested when Mike’s own son, Michael, inadvertently witnesses the execution of a man at the hands of Connor Rooney (Daniel Craig), John’s cruel and duplicitous biological son. Despite the boy’s promise to remain silent, Connor, who has been stealing from his father’s operation for years, takes matters into his own hands. During a failed attempt to silence the boy, he murders Sullivan’s wife and younger son, Tommy.
Grief-stricken and enraged, Mike takes his revenge while on a road trip to the town of Perdition where he plans to leave Michael safely with his aunt. Capone’s organization refuses to cooperate with Sullivan because of Rooney’s influence, and hires a hit man to kill him. John Rooney is furious with Connor, but ultimately protects his son and refuses to give him up. “This is the life we chose; the life we lead. None of us will see heaven,” he tells Mike.
Rooney and Sullivan once played a piano duet at John’s home during a wake. On the final evening of his life, John and his bodyguards walk toward his car during a storm. We hear only Newman’s music. The soft piano notes wander in the quiet night rain. Bright flashes in the distance mark the silent explosion of bullets that tear into the bodyguards through the darkness. Rooney is left standing alone, awaiting his own death. The piano tones fade as Sullivan emerges from the shadows and walks slowly toward his former boss and friend. Rooney’s eyes meet his, and we can see in both men the regret and sorrow over what has been lost and what is now unavoidable:
If the haunting piano tones in the above video sound familiar, you have a very good ear as you’ll hear when playing the following clip from the film, American Beauty:
Similar to the Perdition scene, we are presented with an evocative, beautiful aura that moves the soul. The piano notes drift with the floating movements of the bag…its beauty, unnoticed by society. The simplicity of the castoff dancing in the wind against a hardened and indifferent background is lyrical and almost heartrending in its grace, as if whispering, “This is what you have lost.”
The Oscar-winning American Beauty was directed by Sam Mendes. Alan Ball wrote the original screenplay that centers on the longing for youth, beauty and esteem in a society preoccupied with superficial facades. The story follows the rebellion of Lester Bernham (Kevin Spacey), a cynical, middle-aged family man experiencing a severe midlife crisis. His wife and daughter deal with their own frustrations and resentment as they try to cope with the value changes taking place in this “perfect America family” that has long since stopped communicating.
In creating the film score, Newman used instruments from the percussion family of which the piano is a member. His brilliant compositions capture the rhythmic pulse of humor, beauty and tragedy which interfold throughout the story.
The Shawshank Redemption
Adapted from Stephen King’s novella, Shawshank was written and directed by Frank Darabont. The film tells the story of Andy Defresne (Tim Robbins), a banker who is sentenced to life at Shawshank State Penitentiary following the unjust murder conviction of his wife and her lover. In prison, he befriends fellow inmate, Ellis “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman), a seasoned lifer. Andy survives the brutality of prison life for many years by drawing on his intelligence, dignity, and his unshakable belief in hope despite the cynicism of his friend, Red: “Hope is a dangerous thing; hope can drive a man insane. It’s got no use on the inside.”
Many viewers theorize that Shawshank is a metaphor for the prison in which we might find ourselves at some point in our lives. Red personifies the spiritual arc in the story. Andy is the redeemer, and the catalyst of self-realization and triumph of the human spirit through which adversity is overcome.
The only music we hear with melody and harmony in this magnificent film relates to Andy as the inspiration. For example: During the rooftop scene with the bottles of beer; the Mozart opera Andy plays over the prison loudspeaker; his escape from Shawshank; Red’s discovery of what Andy left for him hidden under the rocks in the field; and his final journey to see his friend and begin his life anew in the video that follows. Red’s closing words as narrator are, “I hope” :
Skyfall once again teams Thomas Newman with director Sam Mendes. In this exciting 23rd installment of the iconic James Bond legacy, Bond (Daniel Craig) investigates an attack on MI6 by a former operative, chillingly portrayed by Javier Bardem. Mendes re-energized the Bond franchise with this exciting action thriller. Scoring the film presented Newman with a new set of challenges in combining the “tuxedo vibe” from the previous installments with elements that were more modern and refreshingly new:
Note: My apologies for omitting such film scores as Finding Nemo and Angels in America. Several hubs would be needed, at minimum, to encompass Newman’s entire body of work.
· Film Music Magazine; Interview with Thomas Newman; Daniel Schweiger; November 5, 2012
Written content has been copyrighted, 2014, by Genna Eastman (Genna East). All rights Reserved. Said copyrights do not extend to the videos that are utilized solely for learning purposes.