Tag Archives: Thomas Newman

A best guess approach to picking the lesser known 2014 Oscar winners

oscar

Remember when movies were cheap?  Like, not-bank-breaking-to-see-one-a-week cheap?  It wasn’t that long ago that you could wander into your local multiplex without having to fork over the proverbial arm and leg for your ticket and bag of popcorn, or slice of pizza.  My friends and I used to try to venture out weekly, which was occasionally rough going during those dry months when the studios were dumping their guaranteed flops into the rolling-tumbleweed timeslots said dreck was similarly guaranteed to disappear quietly within, while doing the least damage to their reputations as producers of quality entertainment.  But it also meant you had a better than average shot of seeing all the movies that were up for awards contention.

Having said that, seeing the movies didn’t mean you were in any better position to judge whether or not they would win awards.  There are distinct, often inexplicable differences between the mind of the critic, the average viewer, and the award voter.  And what wins is a matter not necessarily of quality, but of an unfathomable brew of popularity, body of work, perceived merit and good old fashioned ad campaigns.  In the end the whole affair is about money anyway – someone did a calculation once where they figured out the percentage by which an Oscar win would boost a movie’s box office revenue or an actor’s asking price, with the typical caveat that in Hollywood, there is no such thing as an absolute:  F. Murray Abraham certainly isn’t pulling in $20 million a picture.

So if you’re trying to win your office Oscar pool, what do you do?  You read umpteen columns like this one, both professional and amateur, try to get a general sense of the trends, and toss your darts accordingly.  I’ll go through each category in brief and offer my own uninformed thoughts and guidelines.  You’ll note that as per the title of the post I’m staying away from the big ones like Actor, Actress and Picture, and focusing instead on the technical and “minor” categories, because a) I’m curmudgeonly that way and b) everyone else is doing posts about the big ones, so I’m standing up for the little guy.  You know, like Rob Ford says he does.

Animated Feature Film

Nominees:  The Croods, Despicable Me 2, Ernest & Celestine, Frozen, The Wind Rises

Frozen is rightly being celebrated as Disney’s return to the form of its Renaissance era after years struggling in the shadow of Pixar, and it deserves every accolade it gets.  It doesn’t matter how highly regarded The Wind Rises’ director Hayao Miyazaki may be, nor even that he announced it would be his final film – the Academy will not stand idly by and let the wild success of Frozen go unacknowledged.  The other three contenders may have their own individual merits, but they had the misfortune of being nominated in Frozen‘s year.

Cinematography

Nominees:  The Grandmaster, Gravity, Inside Llewyn Davis, Nebraska, Prisoners

There are two schools of thinking here.  The Academy tends to prefer movies that are shot outside as nature is harder to light than a soundstage.  They also like slow-paced films where the shots look like paintings.  However, they bend the rule when it comes to mind-blowing images that have never been seen before, which is why Inception won this award in 2010.  One thing mentioned universally in reviews of Gravity was that it made you feel like you really were in space.  The cinematography was one of the biggest components of that so this one would be my pick.

Costume Design

Nominees:  American Hustle, The Grandmaster, The Great Gatsby, The Invisible Woman, 12 Years a Slave

Anyone who remembers Priscilla, Queen of the Desert‘s designer Lizzie Gardner picking up her award in a dress made of AmEx Gold Cards will note that award-winning costume design is all about flash over substance, so the sequins and dazzle of The Great Gatsby are the odds-on favorite over the drab outfits of 12 Years a Slave or the coked-out American Hustle suits.

Documentary Feature

Nominees:  The Act of Killing, Cutie and the Boxer, Dirty Wars, The Square, 20 Feet from Stardom

The rule for documentaries has always been, “pick the one about the Holocaust.”  Absent that, any documentary about war, death or the general inhumanity of man is the strongest contender, although the Academy does have a soft spot for movies about entertainers or the entertainment industry in general.  20 Feet from Stardom could be the dark horse, as it’s about backup singers.  However, you have The Act of Killing about mass murder in Indonesia, Dirty Wars about America’s dark foreign policy or The Square about the Egyptian uprising of 2011.  Go with The Act of Killing.

Documentary Short Subject

Nominees:  CaveDigger, Facing Fear, Karama Has No Walls, The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life, Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall

Otherwise known as the “your guess is as good as mine” category.  The latter is about a man in his 80’s dying in a prison, so given the goodwill shown towards hopeful prison movies like The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption in the past, I’d lean towards it.

Film Editing

Nominees:  American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, 12 Years a Slave

Editing is always a tricky category to gauge in that the best editing is the kind you don’t notice, however, if the film is edited in a particularly audacious and in-your-face manner, it may get awarded simply for calling attention to itself.  Absent that whatever wins Best Picture wins Best Editing, so this one would be between 12 Years a Slave and Gravity.  I would favor Gravity again because even in the trailers and clips that you’ve seen, editing is up front.

Foreign Language Film

Nominees:  The Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium), The Great Beauty (Italy), The Hunt (Denmark), The Missing Picture (Cambodia), Omar (Palestine)

This is the category where the winner always gets played off in the middle of his speech while he’s trying to make a point about important issues in his homeland.  And there wasn’t a foreign language film this year that crossed over into the mainstream, the way previous winners Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Life is Beautiful did.  So you guessed it – dartboard approach again.  As a general rule, Somber beats Laugh Riot, Stately beats Fast-Paced.  It would be interesting to see Omar take the trophy as a Palestinian film, to my recollection, has never won before.

Makeup and Hairstyling

Nominees:  Dallas Buyers Club, Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, The Lone Ranger

This one is pretty easy to figure.  The latter two are Johnny Knoxville in latex as an old man in a gross-out comedy or Johnny Depp with a dead crow on his head in a universally disliked big budget remake of an old 50’s radio show.  The former is likely to see two acting winners on Oscar night.  As they all say, you do the math.

Original Score

Nominees:  The Book Thief, Gravity, Her, Philomena, Saving Mr. Banks

Saving Mr. Banks was composed by perennial also-ran Thomas Newman, who was nominated and lost for Skyfall last year, so cross him off straight away.  The score for All Is Lost, which won the Golden Globe, wasn’t nominated, and The Book Thief is by John Williams who already has a pile of Oscars.  Can you hum the score from Her or Philomena?  So that really leaves Gravity – unless the Academy decides to be charitable and end Newman’s Lucci-esque losing streak.

Original Song

Nominees:  “Happy” from Despicable Me 2, “Let it Go” from Frozen, “The Moon Song” from Her, “Ordinary Love” from Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom

Again, I am biased here, but “Let it Go” is the front runner, with one Ireland-sized caveat:  “Ordinary Love” is by U2, and the Academy gets giggly about the possibility of giving out song Oscars to famous singers – improves the TV ratings, dontcha know; plus Bono gives infamous acceptance speeches.  However, you’re not exactly seeing masses of folks post YouTube covers or parodies of “Ordinary Love,” and it is miles removed from the realm of U2’s best work.  The lyrics are so vague that you’d never guess it was from a movie about Nelson Mandela, and it will be forgotten as soon as the Oscar show ends.  Whereas “Let it Go,” like the movie it’s from, is a cultural phenomenon.

Production Design

Nominees:  American Hustle, Gravity, The Great Gatsby, Her, 12 Years a Slave

Pick period here, every time.  That kiboshes Gravity and Her right out of the gate.  And like costume design, the flashier the better.  I would hazard that 20’s glam Gatsby will outperform the bleaker 70’s and 19th Century.

Animated Short Film

Nominees:  Feral, Get a Horse!, Mr. Hublot, Possessions, Room on the Broom

You saw Get a Horse! if you saw Frozen, and its fourth-wall-breaking inventiveness, homage to classic animated shorts and of course, popularity, will help it triumph over the four titles nobody’s ever heard of without breaking a sweat.

Live Action Short Film

Nominees:  Outside of their immediate families, does it matter?

Sorry to be blunt and cynical, and it is a real shame that more audiences don’t get to see these (a fact pointed out in every acceptance speech made by every winner of this category every single year), but nobody knows the movies, nobody knows the people who made them, and thus nobody knows how to pick the winner.  Eeny, meeny, miney mo is probably the best method.  Good luck!

Sound Editing

Nominees:  All is Lost, Captain Phillips, Gravity, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Lone Survivor

It’s interesting to see The Hobbit get one of its only three nominations here when you consider what an Oscar powerhouse the original Lord of the Rings trilogy was.  Perhaps the attitude towards it is a little on the “been there, done that” side.  No matter, it’s not likely to win anyway.  Sound Editing concerns created sound effects, and the most popular movie always wins, so go with Gravity again.

Sound Mixing

Nominees:  Captain Phillips, Gravity, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Inside Llewyn Davis, Lone Survivor

Sound mixing is more about the overall tonal quality, or sonic atmosphere, of a movie as opposed to explosions, footsteps and gunshots.  It’s also rare that a movie will win both sound awards, so I would suggest avoiding Gravity.  Instead I’ll go with an ostensibly oddball pick, Inside Llewyn Davis, and that’s chiefly because the movie is about music.

Visual Effects

Nominees:  Gravity, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Iron Man 3, The Lone Ranger, Star Trek Into Darkness

Remember that Forrest Gump won this category in 1994?  (You’re saying “huh?  I don’t remember any effects in that movie.”)  But it did, both for making audiences think Gary Sinise was a double amputee and letting Tom Hanks have conversations with dead Presidents.  Visual effects applied to realistic, non-fantasy films are always preferred over flights of wild imagination.  The dragon was cool as was the starship rising from the ocean, but here it’s gonna be  Gravity, Gravity, Gravity.

Adapted Screenplay

Nominees:  Before Midnight, Captain Phillips, Philomena, 12 Years a Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street

Yay, the writing awards!  The first of the two categories is generally the more boring, and easier to predict.  It only gets shaken up when a celebrity writer is nominated, like Aaron Sorkin for The Social Network in 2010, or someone who’s famous for something else gets a nod for “aw, look, they can write too!”, i.e. Emma Thompson for Sense and Sensibility in 1995.  Absent that, look for 12 Years a Slave to come up trumps here, because movies favored for Best Picture are also the best written, correct?  You’d think so.

Original Screenplay

Nominees:  American Hustle, Blue Jasmine, Dallas Buyers Club, Her, Nebraska

The winner here is always the movie that lives and dies by its concept.  Stories that hinge on absurd premises, mind-bending twists or brilliant, quotable dialogue are the way to go.  The race here is between American Hustle and Her, and I give the edge to Her because the idea of a man who falls in love with Siri is more out-there than the misadventures of con artists in the 70’s, and also because it’s the only award it’s likely to win on Sunday night.

So there you have it – absolutely, positively, 100% not guaranteed to help you triumph over your cinephile friends, because every year we do these lists and every year the Academy throws us a curve (or several).  About the only thing you can ever reliably predict about the Oscars is that they will be long and that the host will make a joke (or several) about how long they are.  But we’ll all stick it out for the Best Picture award, of course, and the winning producer’s claim that the movie’s victory will be a watershed moment in the human struggle with whatever the movie was about.  Which of course, it won’t be.

Happy viewing!

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First Thing We Do, Let’s Change the Theme Song: The Newsroom Season 2

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HBO

Aaron Sorkin took his fair share of flack over Season 1 of The Newsroom.  Some of it was merited, some of it was the inevitable result of riding high on an impossible sense of public anticipation.  If you had The West Wing and a fresh Oscar for writing The Social Network on your CV, you’d be hard-pressed to come anywhere near meeting, let alone exceeding, those expectations.  It also does not help that Sorkin is on record in several places as a hater of the Internet in a world where that’s the equivalent of proudly declaring your undying allegiance to the carrier pigeon in the face of the emergence of the telephone.  It’s too bad, too, that he gave up on Twitter after a mere two messages – an ignominious third was a hacked spam fragment about some working-from-home scam.  Be that as it may, it was probably just as well, as more than a few of us scribes have bemoaned how much Twitter eats into our productivity.  And he’s got an entire season of television to bang out, not to mention a movie about Steve Jobs.

As an Aaron Sorkin aficionado (Sorkinado?  If that term doesn’t already exist I’m trademarking it) it’s often difficult to separate the work from the man, for his is not a style that disappears easily beneath the veil of the proscenium.  In terms of recent efforts, Moneyball was probably him at his lowest key, but in fairness he wasn’t the final writer on that movie.  Compare him to other prominent TV showrunners – would you be able to distinguish, say, Mad Men‘s Matthew Weiner’s writer’s voice in another work?  With Sorkin the tropes stand out.  In a way, watching a Sorkin program is a bit like television geocaching.  Or, more crudely, the stuff of drinking games.  “Musical theatre reference!  Do a shot!”  And so, as Sunday night’s “First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All the Lawyers” unspooled, we saw an old favorite return – the flashforward/flashback and catch-up, set in a familiar Sorkin environment, a lawyer’s hearing room.  For those of you really paying attention, one of the lawyers’ names is “Gage,” and at least three prior Sorkin projects (The West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and The Social Network) feature – wait for it – lawyers named Gage.  Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) finds himself in a hearing with a $1500-an-hour attorney played by the wonderful Marcia Gay Harden, over a colossal cock-up apparently committed by his NewsNight broadcast – the airing of a false story accusing the U.S. government of using nerve gas against Pakistani civilians – which will, it seems, form the main thrust of this season’s story arc.  We then race back to the aftermath of Will’s Season 1-ending remark accusing the Tea Party of being the American Taliban, which has resulted in Atlantis Cable Media being shut out of Republican-led House hearings on the SOPA Internet copyright bill, much to the disgust of ACM president Leona Lansing (Jane Fonda).  Changes are in store around the newsroom as well as the lovesick Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr.), despondent over his failure to win over Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill) asks to be reassigned to the Romney campaign bus (we’re still in mid-2011, show time), resulting in the arrival of a new producer who sets the wheels in motion for the revelation of something called Operation Genoa, which can “end presidencies” according to the TV panelist who first drops the hint.  We also see the ever-hungry Neal Sampat (Dev Patel) trying to get executive producer MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) interested in the rumblings of something called Occupy Wall Street.  And there’s the usual lightning-speed banter, reversals, repetition, what you’ve come to expect when you sign on for a Sorkinfest, with the occasional F & S bomb since it’s HBO.

My ongoing issue with The Newsroom is that I’m finding it difficult to latch onto any of the characters.  I can’t even remember their full names at any given moment.  Perhaps it’s not fair to compare it to The West Wing, but as an ensemble, that cast was considerably stronger than this group, who still haven’t learned how to sound like they came up with the words spilling from their mouths.  Ironically, far less attention was paid to the personal lives of the Bartlet White House staff, but we still managed to get a better sense of who they were and what they stood for.  The archetypes emerged fairly quickly:  Sam Seaborn was the idealist, Josh Lyman was the scrapper reveling in the fight, Toby Ziegler was the conscience, and so on.  By contrast, The Newsroom‘s second tier doesn’t seem to stand for or want anything, and their personal lives are deadly dull.  I’m still not sure why Thomas Sadoski’s Don Keefer is even there, as Don officially abandoned NewsNight in the series premiere and Sorkin seems to be struggling to find excuses to have him hang around – and since he’s now broken up with Maggie in this episode, his raison d’etre is even less.  Rather, the characters are little more than rotating mouthpieces to deliver Sorkin’s judgments.  I was particularly let down to see young Neal (Scott Pilgrim reference!  Drink!  Okay, that’s just me…) belittle the Occupy Wall Street organizers with the same line conservative media ultimately used to discredit them, a surprising and condescending sentiment from the left-leaning writer of the “American Taliban” line and a little out of character for the wide-eyed Neal, especially when he called it America’s own Arab Spring earlier in the hour.

Similarly, the center of the show, Will McAvoy, remains a cipher.  What he wants and why we should care about him remain gray.  Despite his willingness to make bold statements from time to time, i.e. the sorority girl rant and his opinions on the Tea Party, he is forever sliding back into inertia and uncertainty, sitting on his balcony listening to Van Morrison and smoking joints in the middle of the night – unreachable, impenetrable, aloof.  Fundamentally, one must ask, what is the worst thing that can happen to Will, or any of the people he works with:  NewsNight gets cancelled and they all go home?  Screwing up on The West Wing usually meant a cost in human life.  On The Newsroom mistakes mean the unspeakable tragedy of lost rating points, the same flaw that doomed Studio 60.  When the stakes are so low, it’s difficult to find reasons to care overmuch for these people.  The only person we then find ourselves caring about is Aaron Sorkin, and what he is saying about the state of news and the delivery of information in the world, which, at its worst, is all The Newsroom is anyway.  Would not a simple documentary suffice, then?

Off-screen, Sorkin made much of the revamping of the show which now includes a much larger staff of writers and consultants to assist him.  One change I’m disappointed with though is the remix of the great Thomas Newman’s beautiful theme music.  When you’re lucky to get music at all in most programs nowadays, a lush and lovely theme is a rare treat, and they’ve gummed this one up by remixing it to make it faster-paced and sound more like breaking news.  Aaron Sorkin of all people should know that slapping on a fresh coat of paint ain’t gonna fix rotting timber, and that if one is relying on an update of the theme to draw in new viewers (a la Star Trek: Enterprise Season 3) then one is going to be sorely disappointed, not to mention the target of the wrath of folks who thought the old one was just fine.  Imagine a similar choice on the part of the makers of Game of Thrones?  Red Wedding anybody?  Besides, one should not mess with Thomas Newman.  Period.  (To quote the panelist from this episode.)

I’ll stick with the show, of course, as television is always better with even a mediocre Sorkin offering than without it.  But these characters need to find something to go after with real stakes attached, and soon, otherwise they, and the show with them, will continue to flail under accusations of being nothing more than a weekly lecture on how news is Doing It Wrong.  We don’t want to be lectured, we want to be captivated for however long you’ve asked for our attention.  Please, Aaron, this stupid basement-dwelling blogger* begs you.  Learn how to captivate us again.  And for the love of Gilbert and Sullivan, don’t f*** with the theme song anymore.

*For the record, I have a basement, but I do not live in it.  I am unfortunately, however, a blogger.  Stupid, not stupid – that decision is entirely up to you.

We need to go darker

Katy Perry in the video for “Wide Awake,” conjuring some musical magic.

Katy Perry’s “Wide Awake” has been on my playlist all week long, an incongruity even sandwiched inside an eclectic playlist that includes Hendrix, Dylan, the Byrds, Tom Petty, Richard Ashcroft, Thomas Newman, Jerry Goldsmith, Mychael Danna and Hans Zimmer.  I cannot stop listening to it.  It accomplishes the remarkable feat of being both catchy and soulful, bruised yet full of hope.  Apart from innocently fancying Ms. Perry herself (which my Alexander Skarsgard-adoring better half assures me she’s totally okay with) I’ve been indifferent toward her music until now.  Her breakout hit “I Kissed a Girl” is the giggle of a nine-year-old too chicken to truly explore questions of confused sexuality lest her parents think badly of her.  “Firework” is a well-meaning song undermined by Perry’s inability to hit and sustain high notes.  The lack of proper rhymes in “California Gurls” and the Brady Bunch-esque misdeeds of “Last Friday Night” are a saran wrap-deep package unwilling to chafe against the very successful mould in which she’s been forged.

Then her marriage to Russell Brand broke apart, and she wrote, recorded and released “Wide Awake” as a meditation on what she’d been through and where she is now.  And it’s a great song.  This isn’t a pig-tailed goofy girl jumping up and down on a beach – it’s the honest testament of an emotionally bruised woman picking herself up off the concrete.  Katy Perry has established such a niche for herself that she didn’t have to record this song – she could have released yet another ode to partying in the sunshine and achieved plenty of accolades and album sales.  But she chose to try to say something profound about who she is and how she’s feeling about the world.

I’m not going to go faux-Lester Bangs and suggest that “Wide Awake” is a watershed moment in music.  But it illuminates a larger question that I think most artists grapple with.  Is introspection by its nature a journey of sadness?  Does something have to be dark to be good?  Is the stuff of genius found only in the minor chords?  There’s an old axiom that says all real comedy is born from pain.  So too does it seem that the best music is that which reflects lessons learned at great cost.  This is not to say that everyone gets it right – it seems that every Kelly Clarkson song is about breaking up with someone and being better off because of it, but unlike Katy Perry in “Wide Awake,” you get the sense that Kelly’s just reading the lines someone else wrote for her instead of feeling them through the notes, and that’s why, at least to my ears, “Wide Awake” will have greater staying power than the grating and empty “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)”.

Bob Dylan told John Lennon when they first met that he needed to get personal in his lyrics.  You begin to witness the transformation through the Beatles middle period as songs like “I’m a Loser” on Beatles for Sale and “Help!” lead to angry kiss-offs like “Norwegian Wood,” the existential exploration of “Nowhere Man” and the psychedelic dream state of “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and the Sgt. Pepper era becomes the truly dark, soul-baring Primal Scream anguish that closed out the Fab Four and realized itself fully in John’s solo career.  Had Lennon and the others chose to rest on their laurels and sing nothing but upbeat generic pop for their entire careers, they might have done very well.  They might still be touring casinos and retirement homes today.  But they wouldn’t be legends.  It was their choice to share their vulnerability, their humanity, that made them so – the gods who dared to admit they were the very same as the mortals who worshipped them.  In the documentary Imagine, there’s a scene where Lennon confronts an obsessed fan who is trespassing on his property, who wants to know how Lennon could have known so much about this fan’s life as to write songs that seemed to be about him.  Lennon responds, frankly, that “I’m singing about meself.”

The stories that have the deepest impact on us are tales of catharsis; of people like us who are tested to the limits of their endurance, who go all the way to the point of breaking and come back changed, improved, and renewed.  To find the brightest light, one must brave the darkness, because it is only in the dark that light can shine.  Every artist who starts out warbling giddily about rainbows and lollipops will face a crossroads at some point, where they will be forced to decide whether to continue skipping along the yellow brick road or stumble off into the gloomy forest – with no guarantee that something better waits on the other side, only faith that it does.  It’s a journey that is always worth taking.  The Dixie Chicks’ music improved immeasurably after their fracas with the American right over their Bush-inspired version of John Lennon’s “bigger than Jesus moment”, when they got away from karaoke-ready dreck like “Goodbye Earl” and opened up with powerful anthems like “Not Ready to Make Nice.”  Brian Wilson struggled his entire career against the goofy surfin’ tunes that characterized the Beach Boys and that his record label insisted he continue to produce, and as a result we were blessed with lasting gems like “God Only Knows.”  I have no doubt whatsoever that someday Justin Bieber will grow a goatee and release an acoustic album, and you know what – done with the right intentions, and not just as a sales gimmick, it’ll be terrific.

Until then, play “Wide Awake” again and think to yourself, damn, Katy Perry makes for one fine-looking goth.

He shoots, he scores

You can hear it in your head, can't you?

My tastes in music have always been a bit of a joke among my closest friends.  I was about five years late to the party buying a CD player, and my first CD purchase wasn’t the White Album, or any of the chart-topping or even lesser known indie bands at the time – it was the soundtrack from Kevin Costner’s Waterworld, not even a movie for which I had any particular affection.  In fact, over the years I’ve probably purchased dozens of soundtracks from movies I didn’t like that much, swelling to a collection of hundreds.  The sole reason?  I loved the music.

Music and film have long been committed companions, from the beginnings of the silent era when a live musician would sit in the theatre and play piano to dramatize the grainy black-and-white images flickering across the screen.  The coming of the talkies, thankfully, did not diminish the need for music to continue its cinematic journey.  Early composers like Max Steiner, Erich Korngold, Alfred Newman and Miklos Rosza developed upon the traditions of the classical masters to fashion, together, a new musical language for the 20th Century’s most popular new art form, a tradition expanded upon by men like Bernard Herrmann, Maurice Jarre, Nino Rota to name but a very few.  How many of the incredible movie moments have been etched into our collective memories in large part because of their music?  Scarlett’s longing for the halls of Tara in Gone with the Wind.  Janet Leigh’s shocking death in Psycho.  The lonely trumpet that opens The Godfather.  Robert Redford’s home run blast in The Natural.  Rocky Balboa’s race up the Philadelphia steps.  The mere glimpse of the photo above can conjure immediately the haunting John Williams motif of the yearning of the hero to set out on adventures bold, much as thoughts of sharks can summon his remarkably economical two-note overture for Jaws.  The movie score is its emotional brush, painting the subtext of the characters’ deepest passions directly onto our hearts, uniting the audience in a shared experience of joy, pain, despair, and most endearingly, hope.

The 1990’s were a rough era for lovers of orchestral soundtracks.  Madonna’s Music from and Inspired By Dick Tracy begat a misguided and disappointing era of music marketing whereby soundtracks were reconfigured as pop/rock/rap compilation albums that had little to do with the movie itself – maybe one or two songs at most were used in the film and the rest were chosen at random by committee.  And yet some brilliant scores were flying beneath the radar.  I’ve been listening a lot lately to American composer Thomas Newman’s work on 90’s epics like The Shawshank RedemptionNewman’s music isn’t as recognizable as someone like John Williams, who works very much, particularly in his Spielberg and Lucas collaborations, in the mode of leitmotif – assigning a specific theme to each character and recurring emotional beat.  Newman’s music is always more subtle, relying on gentle piano, soft percussion and swaying strings, yet its emotional resonance is just as strong.  His scores for American Beauty and Road to Perdition are a masterwork of forlorn and melancholy understatement, letting you peel layers from the characters and see directly into their wounds.  American Beauty in particular is a movie that would not work with the more upfront, heroic style that Williams is so good at – as Wes Bentley’s character Ricky describes being overcome by the beauty he sees in the world, even in innocuous things like a plastic bag floating in the wind, Newman’s soft piano embraces both him and us, and just for a moment we can see through his eyes.  In a sense, the music is that intangible, untouchable beauty, capturing the moment in a way that dialogue, performance and image cannot.

Joseph Campbell suggests that amidst our billions of stories, there is only one – the journey of the hero with the thousand faces.  Cinematic scores likewise number in the thousands, some remarkable, some forgettable, but singular in their indispensability as storytellers.  They can be our emotional anchor as we fly off into the strange new worlds of the imaginations of directors, writers and actors, and a truly magnificent score can come to define moments in our own lives as well as the ones we see on the screen.  Truly, who hasn’t imagined the music swelling at our most heroic, and even our most despondent hours?  Stories, like our emotions, are our universal connectors – and music goes with us on the journey as a narrator, speaking the truth in notes and phrases through all barriers to comprehension when words sometimes fall short.