American Beauty

Dead Already

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.

American Beauty soundtrack
“Dead Already”
“American Beauty”

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.

  1. This score essentially marks the break when Tom stopped writing lush, long-line-melodic scores (a la Little Women, Meet Joe Black, etc.), in favor of this quirky, plucky type of music that has now become the signature “Thomas Newman sound.” As much as I appreciate the unique style and innovation represented in American Beauty, I lament the fact that its popularity (seemingly) steered him away from writing more traditional (and far more gorgeous) material.

    1. I too love his work on LITTLE WOMEN. And GOOD GERMAN was a welcome, albeit brief, change. I’ve never heard MEET JOE BLACK. I think this quirkier style has certainly got him more work though. And usually within this style there are some lovely moments, like in FINDING NEMO, ROAD TO PERDITION, the end of LEMONY SNICKET, etc. He’s a pretty remarkable composer. Even when a score of his doesn’t tread any new ground for him, there’s always something fascinating to listen to. I wish he wrote more actually.

      1. *cough* *splutter* You’ve never heard “Meet Joe Black”?! This oversight must be corrected at once. :D

          1. So it is written, so it is done (or something like that :D ). Check your emails. :-)

      2. As much as I like Thomas Newman’s music, I still think that Corigliano totally deserved it that year.

        So did you listen to MEET JOE BLACK yet? That 9 minutes cue is a stunner.

        Thomas Newman is a true original. ANGELS IN AMERICA or even a more recent one like WALL-E fascinates me.

        Newman’s end titles for LITTLE CHILDREN is a prime example that they are an integral part of a movie. Let’s stay put and listen to outstanding music.

        1. Hi Martin, thanks for commenting. I too think Corigliano deserved it. :)

          Yes, I did listen to MEET JOE BLACK. You, Tim and Michael are all correct. It’s a wonderful score and that last cue IS a stunner.

          There’s nobody who writes like Newman, much like his father. I’m thankful that I have the opportunity to listen to both of them.

  2. P.S. What do you guys think of the new video? It may not be YouTube and it may be missing the classy plugin border, but it works well enough, I think.

    1. The video is a very good addition to your comments Jim.
      Like for the audio clips, it helps us contextualize what you are talking about.

      I love that opening sequence. it is a brilliant script: When Lester says: That’s my wife Carolyn. See the way the handle on those pruning shears matches her gardening clogs? That’s not an accident.
      So funny.

      1. That’s my favorite line of the opening too! That and how a certain action in the shower is the highpoint of his day. Cracks me up.

        Glad the videos are helping. Now I just have to reload them all and replace all the dead YouTube links. That’s going to definitely take some time. Ugh.

  3. I loooove me some Thomas Newman- The score to Little Women is heartbreakingly subtle and beautiful. Road to Perdition, Revolutionary Road and Little Children are also wonderful- that man knows how to hit just the right chord (no pun intended) with just 2 or 3 notes on a piano with a pause in between. Let me not get started with his brilliant Pixar work… It’s criminal that he hasnt won an Oscar… Definately one of my favorite composers…

    1. I hope Newman’s Oscar eventually happens. And I hope it’s for a deserving score. I don’t think he’s been undeserving of any of his nominations (at least the ones I can think of off the top of my head), but I really want him to win for a great score. I thought for sure FINDING NEMO would do it for him, then a little movie called LORD OF THE RINGS came out. Oh well.

  4. Yea I guess you’re right. I wouldnt have minded if he won the year Road to Perdition or The Good German were nominated. I think he shouldve won for song last year but that was the year Slumdog Millionaire molopolized awards it didnt deserve *cough*bestpicture*cough

    1. And here’s another comment that I missed. Ugh. Sorry for the late response.

      2002 was a tough year with some particularly good scores. So as good as ROAD TO PERDITION is, I wouldn’t have awarded it over Elliot Goldenthal’s FRIDA (the winner) or particularly Elmer Bernstein’s FAR FROM HEAVEN.

      Yes to THE GOOD GERMAN over BABEL. :)

      I would have definitely awarded WALL-E over SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE for Score, though I thought “Jai Ho” was a totally infectious song. And I agree that SLUMDOG shouldn’t have won Best Picture. My choices would have been BENJAMIN BUTTON or THE READER, actually even MILK or FROST/NIXON would have been better choices IMO. Ah well. Worse films than SLUMDOG have won in the past.

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