As the world faced a new millennium, it took a British theater director, Sam Mendes, to expose the dirt and secrets beneath the white pickets fences and manicured lawns of suburbia with his the Oscar-winning AMERICAN BEAUTY. With its slick direction, acerbic screenplay by Alan Ball, and pitch-perfect performances by Oscar-winner Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening, the film also boasts a now-classic score by Thomas Newman.
Alternating between percussive sounds (tablas, kim-kim drums, bird calls), exotic instrumentations (Appalachian dulcimer, bass tin whistle, ewi, de-tuned mandolin, processed bass flute), and more traditional instruments for the film’s reflective moments, the music perfectly captures the despair behind the characters as they search for meaning in their lives. The hollow tone of the film is set in the opening scene with its memorable 5-note motif and percussion and string combinations.
With seven Oscar nominations, there was never a doubt that Newman’s music would be nominated as well. The score was the odds-on favorite to win, especially since it was getting radio airplay (!) in Los Angeles during the voting period, but Newman lost to John Corigliano for THE RED VIOLIN. Newman did, however, pick up a BAFTA and Grammy Award for his work.
At the time, the score bore a striking resemblance to Newman’s earlier Oscar-nominated work on UNSTRUNG HEROES. Since then, the score has been a calling card for Newman’s unique sound—much imitated but never equaled.