Academy Award season is upon us, and I thought I'd pay tribute to someone who has been criminally overlooked for a quarter of a century! Oh, it's not as bad as the Oscar snubs given to people like Cary Grant, Peter O'Toole, Richard Burton, or Alfred Hitchcock, but it's bad! In our house, composer Thomas Newman has taken on god-like status. Let me build the case... I first took notice of Newman in 1991, with the release of Robert Altman's comeback film-The Player. It is a brilliant movie that skewers Hollywood with a decadent wit and throws in a murder mystery to boot. It has a percussive score that sounded like no other I had ever heard. The film begins with a legendary tracking shot, an eight-minute seamless segment with no edits, especially apropos since it is taking place while two of the characters debate famous movie tracking shots!
That's when I noticed Newman, but he had already scored two dozen movies by then and was an established figure. In fact, the family name is iconic in the film industry. Alfred Newman was the composer of countless movies from 1930 to 1970 and a NINE-time Oscar winner! Younger brother Lionel Newman won an Oscar and was nominated for nine more. Alfred's son, David Newman, has an Oscar nomination. Nephew Randy Newman is, of course, the great pop ironist of our time. Before he turned to film scoring, he recorded many albums, had a few incendiary hits (e.g. "Short People"), and proved more than able of giving a 20th Century spin to the most glorious melodies in the Stephen Foster tradition. I saw him twice in concert. Since Randy turned to film scoring, he has picked up two Oscars and composed the music for such popular hits as The Natural, Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., and Cars. There are more musical Newmans. Thomas Newman was one of Alfred's children. He has been nominated FOURTEEN times without a win!
Let me throw a few clips at you from a small selection of Newman's representative scores--without which those films would not have had anywhere near the emotional impact they produced. These films and TV series are as follows: The Shawshank Redemption, American Beauty, Finding Nemo, Angels in America, Six Feet Under, Wall-E, and what may be the most beautiful and poignant of all, the score for Revolutionary Road. In fairness, at least the score for Six Feet Under won an Emmy! Think about it though; none of the films below copped an Oscar for its scoring. Thomas Newman is the most nominated composer to have never won. That's just wrong.
Newman started at USC and then switched to Yale. Following his training, the legendary Stephen Sondheim took Newman under his wing. As you can tell from the clips taken from The Player, American Beauty, and Six Feet Under, Newman likes to experiment with sound, particularly with percussive instruments. For me, Newman's greatest work is the soundtrack to Sam Mendes' film Road to Perdition, based on the graphic novel and starring Tom Hanks. It is a major work in the Felter household! I remember driving my daughter home from a prospective-college trip, and we turned the volume up to eleven, and blasted this score on the home stretch. Good times. The music for the Irish wake scene and the opening credits includes mandolins and hurdy-gurdys and Uilleann pipes along with the cellos and oboes. Below are two clips from the film that don't offer major spoilers. Following that is a musical pastiche from the entire score. This past year, Newman composed the soundtrack for the Stephen King TV series Castle Rock. Let's hope he has a couple of movies coming out and that justice is finally done.