Thomas Newman is a whole series of paradoxes. He is the son of the most honored composer in Hollywood history, yet his occupation - film composer, like his dad - was something he stumbled into by accident.
He has often written for large orchestra, achieving spectacular results, as in his Oscar-nominated music for Little Women. Yet he seems to prefer small-ensemble scores with offbeat sonorities, a la his music for Unstrung Heroes and American Beauty, both Oscar nominees as well.
He is one of Hollywood’s most sought-after composers, picking up one A-level assignment after another - The Horse Whisperer for Robert Redford, The Green Mile for Frank Darabont, Erin Brockovich for Steven Soderbergh - yet he is well-known in the music community for his surprising lack of ego, and often insecurity, about his creative endeavors.
As this year’s winner of BMI’s Richard Kirk Award for outstanding career achievement, Newman joins such illustrious composers as John Williams, Alan Menken, John Barry, Dave Grusin and Jerry Goldsmith. Yet during the May 15 event in Beverly Hills, he was typically modest and self-effacing about it all.
That night, Newman briefly reflected on his legacy. Father Alfred Newman was the winner of nine Academy Awards and the longtime music director at 20th Century-Fox; he died in 1970, when Thomas was just 14. “I think he’d be proud,” Newman said. “For better or for worse, with absolutely no intention, I ended up in the same profession as him. So his influence on me has clearly been deep and profound.”
Thomas works in his dad’s old studio in Pacific Palisades, although today it is filled with computers, unusual musical instruments and the high-tech gear that most modern composers use. “When he was there it was just pianos and a stopwatch,” the younger Newman recalled.
He grew up not only in the shadow of his father Alfred, but also uncles Lionel and Emil. Lionel, who succeeded Alfred as music director for Fox, gave Thomas his first scoring assignment (on a 1979 episode of television’s The Paper Chase). Emil, best known as a conductor at Fox and Goldwyn Studios, was responsible for the young composer’s entry into BMI. Cousin Randy Newman, meanwhile, was already a popular singer/songwriter (and now also a Grammy-winning film composer), while brother David was a studio violinist who also joined the ranks of film composers in the 1980s.
Thomas studied at both USC and Yale, was mentored by Broadway great Stephen Sondheim and backed into a film-scoring career when producer Scott Rudin hired him as a musical assistant on the 1984 teen-angst drama Reckless. He wound up scoring the movie, the first of a batch of hip and popular films to boast Newman scores, including Revenge of the Nerds (1984), Desperately Seeking Susan (1985) and The Lost Boys (1987).
As the ‘90s dawned, it became clear that Thomas Newman’s modus operandi was an endless odyssey in search of just the right sound for each movie. The choices are vast, especially considering Newman’s facility both with the traditional orchestra and the ever-growing electronic palette.
There were the off-kilter chimes and percussion of Robert Altman’s Hollywood satire The Player (1992); the rich 19th-century Americana idioms of Little Women and the dark, brooding strings of The Shawshank Redemption, which won him dual 1994 Oscar nominations; the delightfully strange ensemble of zither, hurdy-gurdy, psaltery and dulcimer used in Diane Keaton’s comedy Unsung Heroes (a 1995 Oscar nominee); the shifting romantic moods of Up Close & Personal (1996); and the ambitious and haunting orchestral-and-choral accompaniment for the period Australian drama Oscar and Lucinda (1997).
Last year’s two great Newman scores - the Best Picture-winning American Beauty and the Tom Hanks prison drama The Green Mile - were, typically, poles apart. The music of American Beauty was a memorable collection of moods and colors created largely by percussion instruments; The Green Mile reunited him with Shawshank director Frank Darabont and is, at 95 minutes of music, the longest score Newman has yet written. He spent six months on the project.
Initial inspiration for the sound of American Beauty came from director Sam Mendes. “Sam wanted things that hammered and thwacked a bit,” Newman says. “He was interested in percussion and mallet instruments, so I started working on various ideas that involved xylophones and marimbas.”
Experimentation, using an ensemble of players that Newman has often employed in the past, helped define the approach. “You try to come in with just enough material to guide the music, and then you get into what-if mode,” the composer explains.
The percussion (tablas, bongos, cymbals and more), plus guitars, piano, flute and various world-music instruments, helped to propel the film along without disturbing the “moral ambiguity” that Newman found so fascinating in Alan Ball’s script. “It was a real delicate balancing act in terms of what music worked to preserve that ambiguity.” The result for Newman was an Oscar nomination and a British Film Academy Award.
Newman’s job on The Green Mile was to provide “a kind of hyper-reality to intensify the sense of mysticism,” the composer says. His music suggested the Southern locale (guitar, banjo, jaw harp), lent atmosphere (delicate use of strings) and created mood (notably in a quietly powerful theme for the condemned men who walk “the mile” to their deaths).
The directors with whom he has worked agree: Newman has an original voice, and is a genuine collaborator. Gillian Armstrong, for whom Newman created warm and sumptuous symphonic scores for Little Women and Oscar and Lucinda, says: “His work is full of atmosphere, tension and layers like no other composer I know of . . . Above all, he thinks about storytelling, how music can carry subtext, and subconscious meanings.”
Notes Jon Avnet, the director of Fried Green Tomatoes and Up Close and Personal: “He creates a kind of visceral situation whereby you’re able to experience the narrative. You won’t see in Tom’s music a lot of `stings’ and hits and `look at me.’ Instead, you’ll see a kind of airy weave that allows you to feel what’s going on.”
Adds Frank Darabont: “What he does is equal to what the actors do and what the writer has done. He really is a co-storyteller. He manages to elicit an enormous amount of the emotional content of the film without being obvious.”
American Beauty director Sam Mendes sums it up: “Tom’s exquisite score added a dimension to the movie I could not possibly have imagined.”