9 Favorite Film Scores of Thomas Newman

There’s no denying that Thomas Newman is one of the finest film composers working today. Along with father Alfred, uncles Lionel and Emil, cousin Randy, and brother David, film music runs in his blood. But with an instantly recognizable style filled with interesting orchestrations and exotic instrumentations, Newman has carved out a niche all to himself.

With 10 Academy Award nominations to his name, Newman remains embarrassingly Oscar-less. But like the other members of that talented musical dynasty, Newman’s music has more to do with quality than awards recognition. While you won’t find many blockbusters and only a handful of classic films on his resume, Newman’s intelligent music elevates every film he scores.

9. LEMONY SNICKET’S A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS (2004)

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While this film of the first three books of the popular children’s series isn’t entirely successful, it’s still entertaining, beautiful to watch and to listen to. At turns eccentric and heartbreaking, Newman’s signature sound perfectly captures the odd adventures of the Baudelaire orphans. Plus it has one kickass set of end titles (link above). Sure we’ve heard this kind of score from Newman many times before and since, but that doesn’t make it any less wonderful.

8. ANGELS IN AMERICA (2003)

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With rich dialogue, memorable characters and towering performances, this HBO miniseries demanded a musical landscape that was every bit as monumental as Tony Kushner’s Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning work. I can’t think of a composer that would have been more appropriate to score the over-the-top fantasy moments, as well as the quiet, intimate human dramas at the center of this moving pair of plays.

7. THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994)

[audio:shawshankredemption.mp3]

Say what you will about the Academy Awards, they occasionally bring attention to films that went unnoticed during their theatrical release. SHAWSHANK was such a film. With a clunky title, a first-time director, and the stigma of author Stephen King’s name attached to the source material, there was no reason to expect this prison drama to be as good as it is. The film has grown a cult following over the years, but film music fans knew the quality of Newman’s work from day one. A mixture of stoic orchestral colors and rich Americana harmonies, this is rightfully one of Newman’s most popular scores.

6. OSCAR AND LUCINDA

[audio:oscarandlucinda.mp3]

Based on Peter Carey’s 1988 Booker Prize-winning novel, the film tells the story of an Australian heiress who bets an Anglican priest that he can’t transport a glass church from Sydney to Wales. Ralph Fiennes was fresh off his success with THE ENGLISH PATIENT, but it was Cate Blanchett whom critics noticed. Newman weaves together hymn-like harmonies, chorus and lilting Celtic figures to create damn near a religious experience. I’ve never seen the film and I’m almost afraid to for fear that it won’t live up to the beauty of Newman’s music.

5. AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999)

[audio:americanbeauty.mp3]

This is the quintessential Newman score. Haunting, icy, and poignant, Newman captures the secrets behind the white picket fences and an America that is “dead inside.” The music reminds me of a richer, more mature version of his work on UNSTRUNG HEROES. The popularity of the film brought Newman’s signature sound to the masses and the score actually received radio airplay in Los Angeles during Oscar voting season. But as much as I love Newman’s music, voters made the right choice with John Corigliano’s THE RED VIOLIN.

4. ROAD TO PERDITION (2002)

[audio:roadtoperdition.mp3]

Newman reteamed with Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes (AMERICAN BEAUTY) for this underrated gem of a film. Based on a graphic novel, this film is the thinking man’s UNTOUCHABLES. Newman once again artfully weaves together his signature instrumental experimentations with Americana harmonies appropriate for this mob tale set in Depression-era Chicago. The score is at turns dramatic, poignant, sly and even humorous. Yet another well-deserved nomination.

3. THE GOOD GERMAN (2006)

[audio:goodgerman.mp3]

When Steven Soderbergh announced he was filming Joseph Kanon’s popular novel in black and white using vintage 1940s equipment, it sounded like an intriguing look for the film. Unfortunately, Soderbergh focused on the look and forgot his story, leaving his stars George Clooney and Cate Blanchette adrift in this tedious World War II spy thriller. The main asset of the film is Newman’s homage to Golden Age film music. Borrowing a page from dad Alfred’s book, Newman anchors his score in a classic Hollywood sound while still remaining true to his own voice. A stunning piece of work from beginning to end. While flops like this don’t stand a chance at awards, Newman’s Oscar nomination was a welcome and well-deserved surprise. Its loss to Gustavo Santaolalla’s score for BABEL was not.

2. LITTLE WOMEN (1994)

[audio:littlewomen.mp3]

Louisa May Alcott’s classic story returned to the screen yet again, and a welcome return it was. Beautifully acted and produced, the story of the March sisters is a timeless one. So is Newman’s score. From the opening English horn solo of the main theme to the rousing trumpet fanfare, Newman foregoes his usual instrumental experimentation and relies on a beautifully classically orchestrated score. If you can resist the simple piano statement of the main theme and the haunting children’s chorus as Beth dies, you’re made of stone. As much as I like Hans Zimmer’s work on THE LION KING, this should have been the first of Newman’s Oscars.

1. FINDING NEMO (2003)

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It’s only fitting that my favorite Pixar film is accompanied by my favorite Newman score. Newman’s music broke through the more traditional sounds of cousin Randy’s work on the earlier Pixar films. This was not mere Mickey Mousing, Newman wrote a full-bodied, exciting and emotional work that is equal to any live action score. From the jelly fish scherzo and the pulse-pounding shark chase to the surfer sounds of the East Australian Current, Darla’s hysterical “fish in my hair” scene (link above), and a poignant finale, Newman’s music captures all the danger, excitement, beauty and wonder of life under the sea. Pure musical magic.

34 comments

  1. I’ve experienced the sonic joy of Oscar and Lucinda and Finding Nemo thanks to you, Jim.

    I must confess that The Good German really disappointed me. The whole retro premise and the thought of Thomas writing a score in Alfred vein really got me excited; the end product, however, left me a bit cold. It’s got some nice Thomas themes, and I do appreciate the conceptual execution. I’ve just always felt like it was a missed opportunity.

    I have no point of contention with anything else on your list, though. Great scores, all. I’d only consider (possibly) adding Meet Joe Black. Tom certainly does deserve an Oscar.

    1. I can see why GOOD GERMAN left you cold. But it’s a cold story, so maybe that’s appropriate. There is really no emotion in there. But the compositional craft is so stellar I was bowled over.

      1. It must be especially poignant for such an ardent Alfred Newman fan. I’m quite tempted to give it another go today…

  2. I agree with your choices, Jim. Of course, my own rankings would be different, and I might drop one or two of your choices and substitute my own, but such is the nature of personal opinion.

    And, for once, I’m not going to mention the Oscars, because in the case of Thomas Newman it’s a subject that is likely to put me in a foul mood for the remainder of the day (it’s only 9:30am here).

  3. You know I’m pretty much stuck in the silver age, and it takes a pretty amazing composer for me to stick my head above the parapet these days, but Thomas Newman is the man. His beautiful chord changes and rich orchestrations are instantly recognisable and so compelling. My personal favourite is Road to Perdition. The main theme is one I return to an awful lot. An interesting aside – I was interviewing Stewart Copeland for FilmInk magazine, and although we were there to talk about The Police he perked up when I managed to steer the conversation to film music. He told me that when he returned to the states he was having dinner with TN, as they had become friends sharing the same sensibilities about film music composition. The thing is, since I heard that, when I listen to Copeland’s film music, I can hear echoes of Newman’s syncopated styles.

    1. I’ll have to go back and check out some of Copeland’s stuff. Not really familiar with it. But if he’s channeling Newman, even a little, then it’s gotta be good. LOL

  4. Great list, Jim! I have all his soundtracks, and mostly agree with you. I would have put The Green Mile, The Horse Whisperer and Meet Joe Black in my top nine. It seems he hit a really amazing stride in that period of his work. He surprises you and always brings creativity to his work. Thanks for highlighting him!

    1. Hey Travis, thanks for commenting! Those other three are also good scores, I’m just not as familiar with them. But it’s time to go back and revisit them. MEET JOE BLACK seems to appear on most everybody’s list.

  5. Jim, this list is perfection. Little women is just a brilliant score. Suprisingly unsentimental and yet still able to force some tears out. beautiful. Thomas Newman is one of my favorite composers.

      1. Same here. Little Women was an eye opener and I have been pleasently surprised over and over again with TM. And I am amazed to learn that he has such a following. Beth’s theme, as you point out, is heart breaking and one of my favorites. I would add to that, however, from Lemeny Snicket, The Letter Not Delivered. I listen to it time and again. But, it’s all great.

  6. I will join in the praise of Thomas Newman. Angels in America is one of the most moving scores ever, in my view. Meet Joe Black is very much worth listening to although, unlike Oscar and Lucinda, not so much worth seeing. Thank you for encouraging me to listen to some of the others. Finding Nemo! I took my kids to that and will need more convincing that I missed something.

    1. It took me many listens to come around to FINDING NEMO, even after seeing the film. I think it was because it defied any expectations of what I thought an animated score should sound like. The more you listen to it, the more layers you find. An absolutely brilliant score. Give it another shot (or more).

  7. I’m really happy to see Finding Nemo be placed at the top. A lot of people I talked to said they weren’t too fond of it because it’s too “bitty”, but personally I loved every moment of it and it really enhanced the film for me, especially its emotional and sublime moments. Dory’s theme is a real favourite of mine too. Also I think 2008’s Wall-E is one of his best recent scores.

    1. For me, WALL-E works better in the film than on its own, though there are some great moments like the arrival of the spaceship and the sublime “Define Dancing”.

  8. Jim—Again, a terrific post. I’ve been a Newman since his early work on things like Reckless, Desperately Seeking Susan, and Lost Boys. Loved every single one of your choices here. I’m not sure the *entire* score would make such a list, but the main theme to “Scent of a Woman” is pretty amazing as well, in my book.

    Great work on the site—always a pleasure to check out what you’re digging!

  9. Unstrung Heroes
    The Shawshank Redemption
    Desperately Seeking Susan
    Little Children
    The Road to Perdition
    How to Make an American Quilt
    Oscar and Lucinda
    Meet Joe Black
    The Linguini Incident

  10. Please don’t mention the words “Thomas Newman” and “Oscar” in the same sentence, as that is likely to sink me into a depression. The fact that this man is 0-10 at the Oscars (when he should be closer to 4-6) is Reason No. 1 why I no longer put much credence into what they pick. WALL-E’s loss to Slumdog Millionaire was the last straw.

    With that out the way, I’m not going to bother to rank my favorite Newman scores because he’s never written a score that I disliked (I even enjoyed some of his funkier ones like The Salton Sea and Mad City). But if I had to pick 9, they are:

    Road to Perdition (my all-time favorite)
    WALL-E
    Revolutionary Road
    The Green Mile
    The Good German
    Angels in America
    The Horse Whisperer
    Finding Nemo
    Red Corner

    1. I know what you mean about the combination of “Thomas Newman” and “Oscar” in the same sentence. It’s so sad. The world isn’t going to end or anything because of it, but it’s a shame that he hasn’t been honored yet. I keep hoping though.

    2. I love everytime i see people highlighting thomas newman’s work. He has been my favorite music artist since i was a little boy. It happened to me, throughout my childhood i kept loving music for some films and it turns out when i got into it and started finding out the scorers, thomas newman was in all of my favorite ones. It was a surprise. My favs:

      Road to perdition
      Shawshank Redemption
      Meet Joe Black
      American Beauty
      The green mile
      The second best exotic marygold hotel

  11. All great choices, you have good taste! Ones I would have put myself are as follows.
    1. Wall-E
    2. The War
    3. The Green Mile
    4. Pay it Forward
    And I can’t wait for his work on the upcoming Bond Flick “Skyfall”!!! :)

  12. for me, one of his best (and perhaps underrated) scores would be fried green tomatoes at the whistle stop café and amazing piece of music!

  13. I totally agree!! I have to say though, 2 more movie scores need to be added. Newman is one of my favorites movie scorer, his scores are full of sensitivity and gorgeous melodic colors.
    The horse whisperer is a great score, as well as How to make an American Quilt, the movie with Winona Ryer.
    Now here’s another movie with his great music : Fried green tomatoes!
    thanks for writing this article!

  14. i will add my two scores to the list

    “less than zero”
    “men dont leave”

    thomas newman’s music has been rooted in my subconscious for decades now
    thomas newman definitely has his own sound and as the author of this article states correctly newman’s work raises the bar for a bunch of otherwise ho-hum films
    i have an opinion why he hasnt won an oscar– those snooty high brow members who vote hate that a composer can so easily get the tears falling in an otherwise forgettable movie– in other words, they hate to be so physically/emotionally manipulated by little vignettes lasting only a few moments

  15. Loved his work on resent Matt Damon film ‘the adjustment bureau’ – one of his best imo

  16. I had a Thomas Newman month not so long ago. Turns out I’m not such a big fan of his music, but my top 9 consists of scores that I approve of :)

    1. The Help
    2. Revolutionary Road
    3. Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
    4. The Horse Whisperer
    5. American Beauty
    6. How To Make An American Quilt
    7. Saving Mr. Banks
    8. White Oleander
    9. Lemony Snicket’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events

  17. I’m not quite sure how “Less Than Zero” isn’t on ALL of these lists. It’s arguably Thomas Newman’s finest hour. Now, maybe it’s because it never got a full release which is a real shame but there’s no question it’s superb from beginning to end. Here’s hoping it does get released soon (are you listening La La Land Records?) because I believe if and only then will it get it’s proper credit. A+

    1. just noticed that the less than zero score has been “officially” released (1500 copies) as of 9/16

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