Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Film Score of the Week: American Beauty, by Thomas Newman (1999)

Most of the truly great film scores still function as great pieces of music in their own right. One of the things I love about the score to 1999's Best Picture winner, American Beauty, is that it really doesn't. It's a score that seemingly has no centrality to it; like a continuous series of notes that all function together cohesively without actually forming the whole of a melody. Of course that isn't literally true. There is melody here. It just never draws attention to itself. 

The opening title music is among modern cinema's most instantly recognizable sounds. To anyone that's seen the film, five seconds should be enough to identify it. It's unmistakeable partially because it sounds like nothing else, and partially because it so perfectly brings to life the monotony of a life that has no life to it. And yet, I mean that as a compliment. Imagine being tasked to write a piece of music that's meant to evoke lifelessness while simultaneously being intriguing enough to fit the film's tagline of "…look closer." Sounds easy, right?

There are 19 tracks on the American Beauty score, and composer Thomas Newman infuses each one of them with both subtlety and intrigue, all serving their scenes in unique ways that still sound thematically like part of a whole. But the part everyone remembers is the gorgeous, sparse piano that accompanies the plastic bag dancing in the wind:

Music really doesn't get more minimalist than this. The main line is, I think, exactly four notes, followed by exactly seven notes, with each note created by one single key on the piano, played individually, spaced just far enough apart so that each note is almost like its own life. Its own plastic bag, dancing in the wind. For both a film, and a scene, about the hidden beauty of simplicity, a more perfect score is unfathomable. 

Composer Thomas Newman had been in the game for about fifteen years at this point (one of his first film scores was 1984's Revenge of the Nerds), but prior to this he was probably best known for scoring 1994's The Shawshank Redemption, which uses some of the same thematic notes during the great interlude where Brooks tries to make it on the outside. The Shawshank Redemption gave Newman his first Oscar nomination for Best Original Score, and American Beauty gave him his fourth. He's had 12 nominations to date, and lost every one of them. In 1994, he lost to The Lion King, which feels (kind of) justified, but American Beauty lost to The Red Violin, in what seems like a clear case of voters picking the score with the most music instead of the score with the best music. 

Thomas Newman comes from what could justifiably be called the greatest musical family of the twentieth century. His father, Alfred Newman, is the most decorated film composer ever, the winner of nine Oscars (most notably for 1956's The King and I) and loser of an additional 36 of them. His cousin is the great American singer/songwriter Randy Newman, who happens to have won two Oscars--and been nominated for 18 more--in what is practically a side career with film music. Additionally, Thomas has two siblings in the family business, David (one Oscar nomination) and Maria (no Oscar nominations, for shame), as well as two uncles, Emil (one Oscar nomination) and Lionel (11 nominations, one win). So for those keeping track, the Newman family has amassed 90 Oscar nominations and 12 wins. Not. Fucking. Shabby. 


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