Portrait of a Composer: Thomas Newman
By Beau Thomas
27th January 2022
When film music comes to mind, most people’s thoughts spring to Hans Zimmer and John Williams; others might think of Danny Elfman, or even James Horner. Though each is great in his own right, it’s unlikely you would have come up with the name Thomas Newman. With a career spanning 42 years, and a filmography including many of the films that have made Hollywood what it is today, Newman may just be the most underappreciated composer of his generation. In his lengthy period of activity, he has amassed 15 unsuccessful Oscar nominations, the joint most in the Academy’s history, and a portfolio boasting such blockbusters as The Shawshank Redemption, Skyfall, and even Finding Nemo. With such a wide and diverse filmography, Newman may not be the most famous composer in Hollywood, but the style of music he creates will always be, for me at least, the most unique. Perhaps by examining three of his other films: Little Women (1994), Road to Perdition (2002), and 1917 (2019), I might convince you of this as well.
1994 was a breakout year for Newman in which he received two academy nominations for two great films. The first, and the one most will be most familiar with, was for The Shawshank Redemption, a prison drama. The second was Little Women, a film based on the book by Louisa May Alcott, following the March sisters as they come of age. Though overshadowed in recent times by a 2019 remake, it is this 1990’s take on the classic story which endures in my memory, in no small part due to Newman’s naturalistic score.
Starting from the beginning, the opening track, ‘Orchard House’, quickly sets the hopeful and optimistic tone for the rest of the film. Opening with a low pedal note, anchoring the quivering strings above, Newman first introduces the delicate main theme on a lone woodwind. This is later repeated by the full orchestra as we open onto a winter scene populated by snow-covered trees and sleds. As the journalist Bobby Finger rightly points out, the score cleverly mirrors the changing of the seasons as time passes. Whilst in winter, bells imitate the sound of nearby Churches, in spring the rolling strings follow the wind. This sense of momentum in the film is reflected throughout in Newman’s heavy use of alternating texture, at times triumphant and rich at others subtle and light. As well as being a technique visible throughout the score of Little Women, such as in ‘Harvest Time’, it is a tool almost ubiquitous in Newman’s work as a whole. In the case of Little Women, the score ends as it began; with warm tones – the main theme, played this time by the brass, for a triumphant fanfare.
If Newman’s score for Little Women stood for hope, Sam Mendes’ Road to Perdition offered a different challenge. Following a gangster and his son, both out for blood in the gloomy world of prohibition era Chicago, Newman’s score seeks to encapsulate a very different emotion: emptiness. For this task, Newman employs his signature ambient style employed in American Beauty and The Shawshank Redemption. The score is dominated by sparse textures and reverberating block piano chords – most prominent in the track ‘Road to Chicago’, where a haunting melody and tense string pulses drive up the tension. Bells feature once again in this film, but no longer do their tolls suggest a warm Christmas by the fire. Another notable track, ‘Cathedral’, employs a combination of synths and strings, creating an eerie effect later supplemented by choral music at its close, appearing out of the dim like the ghosts of those the mobsters have killed. However, it is in the ending track, ‘Road to Perdition’, in which we see the full expression of Newman’s ambient style. In the final shots of the film, we depart from the rainy streets of the windy city and find ourselves, almost paradoxically, confronted with long shots of open sea and countryside. Accompanying this, Newman’s score morphs into more of a reflective piece, its yawning synth tones giving a distinct submerged impression, as if the cold Chicago rain remains ever present.
Newman would once again work with Sam Mendes in 2019 on the film 1917, which focuses on two British soldiers, Blake and Schofield, on the western front as they set out on a journey to avert catastrophe. In many ways, Newman’s score combines the two approaches he took in the previous two films discussed. The opening, marked by ominous synth tones over the backdrop of rolling hills, seems reminiscent of the end of Road to Perdition. Likewise, the score also shares many of the orchestrally inventive qualities found in Little Women. For example, when we first exchange the idyllic countryside for a muddy trench, the descent is imitated by a slow descending motion in the strings, an ominous warning of what is to come. This combined approach is no clearer than in the track ‘The Night Window’, in which the unconscious Schofield is awoken by arpeggiated bell chords slowly built up by ambient synths. However, 1917 is at its core an action movie and as such Newman adds in a third style marked by urgent percussion bursts and a relentlessly building texture. Though present in various sections of the film throughout, it is at the climax (marked by the track ‘Sixteen Hundred Men’) that this style is fully realised. Following Schofield as he desperately rushes towards his goal, the score is marked by a tense driving rhythm and rising strings punctuated by distant drumbeats. As time runs out in the action on screen, the music then launches into a triumphant frenzy with intense percussion and triumphant brass all intertwined with a constantly building texture. Yet, like Road to Perdition and even to some extent Little Women, Newman’s masterstroke comes at the end of the film. The final track ‘Come Back to Us’ accompanies a somewhat cyclical ending. Schofield returns to rest under a tree in much the same position as we found him at the beginning, while he reflects on his fallen ally and the journey he has undertaken. Accompanied by a lone violin, reaching high up into its range, Newman confronts us not with triumph or even relief but a stunning sense of futility. Perhaps it is this ability to consistently play with our emotions which truly marks Newman out as one of the most significant film composers of our time.