What’s the score with Thomas Newman?

Thomas Newman is a film composer best known for his work with Disney and Sam Mendes. His film scores utilise many rare and ethnic instruments, often not heard in mainstream film scores, and his style is incredibly unique. Despite being nominated for 14 Academy Awards, he has never won one, making him one of the people with the most Oscar nominations but no wins. In my mind, he is the biggest Oscar Snub since DiCaprio, and this is why.

Thomas Newman was born into a huge Hollywood Composer dynasty. His Father was Alfred Newman, winner of nine academy awards, composer of the infamous 20th Century Fox logo fanfare, and known as one of the three godfathers of film music. His other family members include the composers Lionel Newman (Uncle), David Newman (Brother) and Randy Newman (Cousin). This very musical family tree meant it was unsurprising that Newman decided to join ‘the family business’. His early scores included music for The Great Outdoors, The Lost Boys and Desperately Seeking Susan, but he gained much wider recognition when in 1994 he scored for ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ and ‘Little Women’ both of which were Oscar Nominated, but both of which lost to Hans Zimmer’s ‘Lion King’. This gave him much wider recognition, and this continued when he scored for ‘The Green Mile’ and created the iconic music for 1999’s American Beauty (his first collaboration with Sam Mendes, with whom he’s composed for all but one of his films).

American Beauty’s score is beautifully crafted and wonderfully simplistic. Newman utilized percussive instruments over big string sections, stating that he “favoured pulse, colour and rhythm over melody”. The music’s simplicity creates a great pace to the film, but also adds moral ambiguity. The film centers on characters who are all disturbed, and this score only seems to emphasis the gap between the idyllic suburban life and the disturbed characters that live there. This experiment with less conventional music continued, and while his earlier scores showcased a more orchestral, theme driven approach, his style has become more about creating an atmosphere with rich textures and sound design.

Newman continued scoring, and in 2004 he created, in my opinion, his masterpiece and my all-time favourite film score. His score for ‘Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events’ is utterly sublime, and combines so much depth to create a beautiful atmosphere. To replicate the bizarre, unclassifiable tone of the novels, Newman used many old or ethnic instruments including a Hurdy Gurdy, Marimbas, Sitars and various Dulcimers, alongside the usual strings and brass. On a more personal level, he uses the piano (the instrument that I play) to layer up beautiful melodies over the atmosphere. His skill as a pianist means that he actually plays the piano himself on the score, and this makes it even more special. In my mind, the score he created for this film is faultless, with so many tones created for the various characters and scenes. After an entire film that relies on quirky instrumentation, the penultimate track (“The Letter Than Never Came”) becomes a beautiful sweeping orchestral melody that never fails to bring a tear to my eye.

Thomas Newman’s career has spanned over three decades, and in that time, he has also scored for such films as Finding Nemo and its sequel, Wall-E, Saving Mr Banks, and the latest two Bond Films, Skyfall and Spectre. His ability to create atmosphere with his music is unrivalled, and his scores are some of the best around.

If you’re interested, here are my Top 10 favourite Thomas Newman scores (as well as a key track from each that I recommend):

  1. Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (‘The Letter That Never Came’, though the entire album is stunning)
  2. American Beauty (‘Dead Already’)
  3. Finding Nemo (‘Wow’)
  4. Saving Mr. Banks (‘Westerly Weather’)
  5. Passengers (‘Space Walk’)
  6. Spectre (‘Los Muertos Vivos Estan’)
  7. Skyfall (‘Day Wasted’)
  8. The Shawshank Redemption (‘Stoic Theme’)
  9. Green Mile (‘Coffey’s Hands’)
  10. Wall-E (‘Eve’)

For more insight into Newman’s career, check out this video from Oxford University:

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