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The Name’s Newman…Thomas Newman

For the first time since The Color Purple in 1985, someone other than John Williams will be scoring a Steven Spielberg movie.

The Spielberg/Williams connection is among the most prolific and longest-running partnerships in cinema history, but after nearly thirty collaborations in forty years, it’s high time a new composer stepped in to offer a completely different sound.

The new Spielberg movie is a cold war period thriller called Bridge of Spies starring Tom Hanks, and the composer picking up the baton from John Williams is Thomas Newman. Williams was unavailable to score Bridge of Spies because he took some time off recently due to health issues, but worry not: Williams has since recovered and is indeed still scoring Star Wars: The Force Awakens this Christmas, and he will reportedly return to the orchestra pit to score Spielberg’s subsequent movie, an adaption of Roald Dahl’s children’s book The BFG.

Thomas Newman comes from a famous family of musicians and he’s been scoring movies for decades. His gentle and ethereal signature style for such classic modern-day dramas as Scent of a Woman, The Shawshank Redemption, American Beauty and Road to Perdition tend to blend into his lighter motifs for movies like The Player, Finding Nemo and Wall-E, but he occasionally delivers something completely indelible, and he proved with the most recent James Bond flick Skyfall that he can compose something exciting and grand for a giant action picture. Newman also has a tenuous connection to John Williams that makes his assignment as his substitute on Bridge of Spies somewhat appropriate: he served as an (uncredited) orchestrator for Return of the Jedi.

Will Thomas Newman shake things up a bit and give audiences an entirely new musical soundscape for a Steven Spielberg picture?

Or, like co-producer/composer Quincy Jones did for The Color Purple, will he produce lovely orchestral music that simply emulates the distinctive John Williams style?

We’ll know when Bridge of Spies premieres in October. A month after that, we’ll get to hear what Newman has concocted for his second 007 adventure, SPECTRE.
Between the new Spielberg film, the latest James Bond outing, and the upcoming Finding Nemo sequel Finding Dory in 2016, it’s an exciting time to be a fan of Thomas Newman.

While we await his newest movie music, here’s a brief tour of some of my favorite Newman themes.

Revenge of the Nerds (1984)

Newman catapulted to the ranks of my favorite film composers by contributing to a string of popular ’80s movies—including Real Genius, Gung Ho, The Lost Boys, Less Than Zero and The Great Outdoors—but his entry into my personal movie composer hall of fame was cemented when Poindexter took to his electric violin to kick off the Lambda Lambda Lambda/Omega Mu talent show.

Now Hear This:

Scent of a Woman (1992)

If you can’t hear the desperate futility of blind and suicidal Colonel Frank Slade (Al Pacino, in his Oscar-winning role) and then notice the uplift of his spiritual reawakening through his newly forged paternal bond with sad-sack prep-school student Charlie Sims (Chris O’Donnell), you need to get the wax out of your ears.

Now Hear This:

“Main Title”

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Newman’s score for Frank Darabont’s flawless adaptation of the Stephen King novella is a signature mixture of soft and haunting melodies juxtaposed with grand and soaring symphonics. Every poignant note reinforces the story’s underlying message: “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”

Now Hear This: “Stoic Theme”

“So Was Red/End Titles”

Meet Joe Black (1998)

Brad Pitt is a childlike Angel of Death, and he’s come to take away Anthony Hopkins—but only after a tour of earthly pleasures and a fling with the soon-to-be-dead man’s youngest daughter. Newman’s lush orchestral score runs the gamut from quiet introspection to playful quirkiness to big and gushy sentimentality. It’s as corny as the movie warrants, and it all works like gangbusters. Fireworks explode during the movie’s ludicrous but transcendent finale, and you might just have some tears in your eyes by then, but Newman’s score works its most sublime magic during the softer moments.

Now Hear This:

“Peanut Butter Man”

“Whisper of a Thrill”

American Beauty (1999)

Newman brought his wistful touch to Sam Mendes’ directorial debut, and his bouncy score charts the many little spiritual deaths and jubilant rebirths (and, ultimately—spoiler alert!—the actual death) of the film’s tragi-comic main character.

Now Hear This:

“Dead Already”

Wall-E (2008)

There’s virtually no dialogue throughout most of the first act of this Pixar classic, and it’s due primarily to Newman’s music that we barely notice.

Now Hear This:

“The Axiom”

“Foreign Contaminant”

Skyfall (2012)

The late, great John Barry defined the James Bond sound with his stringy/brassy/percussive scores for a dozen 007 pictures, and it wasn’t until David Arnold picked up the baton for Bond 18 that any other composer came close to recapturing that sonic magic.

Fans were skeptical when Skyfall director Sam Mendes brought with him his usual composer Thomas Newman, but Newman delivered a gorgeous and grand score—sometimes bombastic, sometimes haunting, and always distinctively Bond, even without heavy reliance on Monty Norman’s famous “James Bond Theme.” Newman also managed to do something subtle but vital that the non-Barry/non-Arnold composers usually neglected to do: he wove into his orchestral score elements of the title song.

He also snagged an Oscar nomination, and though the statue for 2012 went to another composer, his mere nomination is ample validation that Mendes chose the right man for the job. I can’t wait to hear what he’s got up his sleeve for SPECTRE.
Now Hear This:

“The Bloody Shot”

“Komodo Dragon”

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