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.
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)[audio:angelsinamerica.mp3]
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)[audio:findingnemo2.mp3]
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.