Music in the movies: Thomas Newman

From Desperately Seeking Susan to Wall-E, this week’s Music in the movies celebrates some of the finest compositions of Thomas Newman...

Having previously looked at the works of Randy Newman, I thought it would be suitable to look at another member of one of film composing’s most prominent families.

Thomas Newman’s first foray into film composing was assisting John Williams in conducting part of the score for Return Of The Jedi. Since working with one of the biggest all time composers, Newman carved out an incredibly successful career for himself in both movies and TV (notably Six feet Under and Angels In America,) which has seen him nominated for an Academy Award ten times. But he has yet to take home the statue, making him the active composer who has been nominated the most times without a win.

Below are some of the notable movie scores Newman has composed:

Desperately Seeking Susan

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Newman’s breakthrough came courtesy of his contribution to this Madonna vehicle with his new wave-tinged score suiting the feel of the mood perfectly, also going on to provide the musical blueprint for many other scores he would compose in that era, including, to a certain extent, his contribution to The Lost Boys soundtrack.

The Player

Newman’s score for Altman’s outstanding satire, The Player marked a maturation of sorts for his style and approach to composing. Doing away with the new wave stylings that he earned a name with through his earlier work, the score for The Player is a wonderfully eccentric clash of styles, which is perfect for anyone looking for a break from traditional score structures.

Atmospheric at times and outright crazy at others, this score really is a fantastic piece of work and is something to behold.

Scent Of A Woman

I often struggle with this film. For the most part, I really like Al Pacino’s work, but he’s insanely over the top here and this is the role he wins the Academy Award for. Madness!

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Anyway, back on track with the score, Newman’s most classical score to date really heightens the importance of music for film in general, but especially to those without sight. This is something that is explored beautifully in the film, as Newman’s score accentuates some quite tender moments. I might not be a huge fan of the film, but the score is a thing of beauty.

The Shawshank Redemption

Newman earned his first Academy Award nomination for his work here. Sure, it wasn’t his finest work at that point, but the critical goodwill directed towards the film highlighted the score as one of the film’s many highlights.

Mainly consisting of subdued and moody piano pieces, the score evokes a sense of longing for freedom, as well as an inner darkness at the heart of the film’s protagonist. The emotional pa off of the score is excellent, and whilst he has done better work on scores such as The Player, this really is an outstanding score.

The Horse Whisperer

I’ll acknowledge that this is quite a manipulative score in places, but I still love it, despite the fact that you may as well have someone shouting “Feel sad! Cry!” in your face. Still, where other scores that are so overt in their efforts to elicit emotion fail, Newman’s score for The Horse Whisperer succeeds, asit’s so well crafted and executed.

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I play this score from time to time. But it’s not on heavy rotation by any means. However, returning to it for the purpose of this article proved to be highly enjoyable.

Meet Joe Black

Not the most complete or successful score Newman has composed, in my opinion, but it’s interesting to hear how some of the ideas explored in Meet Joe Black developed and were used later in his score for American Beauty.

It doesn’t go all out in the emotional exploitation stakes as his work on The Horse Whisperer, but there are some hugely moving themes, particularly those that act as romantic themes, heard in the score.

American Beauty

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Another score that saw Newman get a nod from the Academy, and marking the finest score of his career to date, this treatment is packed of moments of humour and beauty that accompany the film perfectly, with it subtlety enhancing the poignancy of the key scenes.

My enjoyment of the film itself may have diminished over the years, but the score remains one of my absolute favourites. It stands as one of the most experimental and inventive pieces Newman has produced to date, utilising a variety of instruments and effects to create almost dreamlike soundscapes.

Finding Nemo

With cousin Randy having provided musical accompaniment to some of Pixar’s most beloved films, the studio called upon Thomas to score their underwater coming of age tale. The dreamlike sounds produced on American Beauty proved to be one of the main draws for his talents, as they lend themselves perfectly to the aquatic setting.

Part of why I think this score is so successful is that it doesn’t seem as though he approached the project as if he was scoring a kids movie, which many composers do. As a result, this is a remarkably mature piece of work for what is a quite a deep film. (Really, no pun intended there.)


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A second collaboration with Pixar produced more outstanding results, as the score really is more important for a movie such as Wall-E than it is with many of the studio’s other releases, given the fact that much of the film plays out without dialogue, meaning the score carries the emotion of the work.

It was, no doubt, a lot of pressure, but Newman rose to the challenge and created a score on a grand scale, utilising a 52 piece orchestra as well as incorporating a number of unusual instruments, which is something that’s typical of his work.

He was unlucky to lose out in both Best Original Score and Best Song categories at the Academy Awards, as his work here is hugely impressive.

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