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composer spotlight: JAMES HORNER

It’s been quite a while since the first two outings of this series, Thomas Newman and Randy Newman, so I thought it was high time to return.  I’m a big fan of soundtracks – to a fault, really.  My iTunes are dominated by them probably 2-to-1.  So in honor of how many great soundtracks there are out there, why not feature one of the most prolific working ones in the third spotlight?  He’s been known to do three, four, or more scores in one year.  So, though I couldn’t possibly feature all of the dozens of works he’s put together, here are some of my favorites…

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) – Sure, times have changed, and everyone’s all about the new, edgy J.J. Abrams Star Trek, but what of the originals?  Sure, the first one is sort of a joke now, but isn’t Khan still one of the most-loved outings of Kirk and Co.?

Testament (1983) – Sure, I’m new to the bandwagon of this underrated, low-budget drama, but the score really was interesting.  It’s some of Horner’s earlier work in mainstream films, and he manages to transcend typical ’80s tropes.

Cocoon (1985) – The flick about elderly folks finding the fountain of youth in a retirement village pool overtaken by pod people from outer space is surprisingly poignant, something mostly buoyed by the Horner original.

Aliens (1986) – It’s no easy feat to top an original in a second time around, but most agree this is the case with Aliens.  And James Horner’s rousing action score sure helps.  How do we feel about it compared to the 1978 original?

The Land Before Time (1988) – Let’s all just forget about the 20-odd sequels they’ve spawned since and think just about the classically endearing original.  It really is a perfect example of a non-Disney animated success in the ’80s.

Field of Dreams (1989) – Possibly the most tolerable Kevin Costner has ever been, Field of Dreams was driven by excellent plotting and a mellow, lovely score to match the subtle Iowa backdrop.

Honey I Shrunk the Kids (1989) – Am I the only one who grew up loving this movie?  It’s assuredly a defining one for me, and the music is great fun.  The themes during the lawnmower and ant-meeting scenes are terribly exciting.

The Rocketeer (1991) – Here’s another one that perplexes me.  Such a fun movie, and yet it didn’t really connect with a lasting effect.  And gosh, this is probably arguably my favorite Horner score.

An American Tail: Fievel Goes West (1991) – Now don’t judge me – this one is still hilarious to me as an adult, so I know I’m not crazy.  Sure, a traditional Western score can be overly simple, but it’s Copeland stylings are too much fun.

Sneakers (1992) – Horner’s no stranger to little-seen gems.  If you haven’t seen this incredibly cast thriller yet, please do.  And thanks to Branford Marsalis’s instrumental stylings, it’s jazzy and… well… sneaky.

Casper (1995) – I know this got panned by critics, but it has its moments.  Okay fine – I was a child of the ’90s.  Forgive me if I love Christina Ricci through and through.  Oh, and Horner’s score is quirky and lovable.

Jumanji (1995) – This adaptation was surely flawed, but Bonnie Hunt’s performance was pure gold.  As was the eerie and often lush background music.  Sure, it’s got a lot of similarity to the 2001 film later on this list, but still love it.

Titanic (1997) – Arguably his most famous score.  (Although working with James Cameron again may’ve outdone it in 2009.)  It made synthesizers prestigious again.  Plus it helped give the world DiCaprio and Winslet… so yeah.

The Mask of Zorro (1998) – Not unlike the Western genre, this Latino adventure firm can rely very heavily on typical themes, but Mask seamlessly combined them with Horner’s penchant for low, heavy-handed brass.

A Beautiful Mind (2001) – Sure, it didn’t really deserve Best Picture and all that, but it’s probably the clearest example of everything Horner does best.  “Kaleidoscope…” is such a great track it’s been used in trailers all over.

Avatar (2009) – His last major effort (surprising he’s held for a few years, eh?) Avatar must’ve been quite the undertaking.  It’s a big departure from what we’re used to hearing from him, but it totally pays off in the sweeping epic.

composer spotlight: RANDY NEWMAN

Though you may first think of his work in lyrical music – namely his multiple Oscar-nominated songs or his ’70s career as singer of “Short People” – in the past few decades, Randy Newman has lent his hand to many film projects, from scoring a host of Pixar animated efforts to producing some iconic sports movie music.  So for this Composer Spotlight, I’m going to take a listen back on the best movie music of Mr. Newman since 1984’s The Natural.

The Natural, 1984
It seems as though Newman’s work has become very recognizable since the Pixar years, but this early scoring effort for the Robert Redford-starring baseball classic is surprisingly devoid of any typical Newman tropes.  With that instantly recognizable horn line (it’s been used so many times since in homages you often forget it originally came from this movie), it signifies what is clearly an inspiration flick – and it helps that this one happens to be a supremely well-made one. Newman’s traditional use of brass front and center is made obvious here more than ever.  As far as comparisons, there’s nothing else in his filmography that really sounds the same – although I here a tinge of A Bug’s Life in there on occasion. [Link]
Awakenings, 1990
Though the film would end up nominated for three Oscars, including Best Picture, Awakenings didn’t result in a nod for composer Newman.  The score is surprisingly delicate for Newman’s tastes though.  The bombast of future Toy Story intros is nowhere in sight.  I mean, the film is also a rather delicate one, following the sudden “awakening” of dozens of catatonic patients making up for lost time.  The best sampling from the soundtrack (linked below), entitled “Dexter’s Tune,” is a basic piano melody that perfectly exemplifies the mood of what’s happening on-screen.  It may be one of his lesser known works, but this score is very lovely.  [Link]

Toy Story, 1995
Arguably Newman’s biggest and most noted contribution to movie scores has got to be Toy Story.  From those first now-iconic bars (since used as the official Pixar musical intro) to the entire overture that ensues entitled “Andy’s Birthday,” he’s outdone himself in terms of creativity.  And when you’re scoring the first full-length computer-animated film, there are high expectations for the visual and aural elements at play.  The brass and woodwinds (namely the clarinet that would seemingly become Newman’s go-to fave among the orchestra in later years) are dealt loads of frantic melodies throughout the duration, and the themes are so brilliantly orchestrated, there need not be an accompanying image to elicit an emotion from the listener.  Truly one of the all-time great soundtracks.  [Link]

Pleasantville, 1998
One of the great forgotten and shamelessly unappreciated spectacles of the 1990s, Pleasantville boasted a truly unique premise bolstered by stellar performances from its cast, incredible costumes, and an in-your-face message.  And to top it off, Randy Newman’s work on the music is a brilliant addition to the magic at play.  Utilizing piano and strings much more than usual, Newman discovers the need for flutes and clarinets in a film with so many message moments.  The whole soundtrack is a light but moving piece of work, and I hesitate to say that there is no other Newman work that really compares to the themes and orchestrations that are presented in Pleasantville. [Link]

A Bug’s Life, 1998
The clarinet that would later be heavily used on his score for Seabiscuit makes its first major appearance in the themes to the second Pixar outing A Bug’s Life.  While it’s often forgotten amongst the bigger-name classics in the Pixar canon, a repeat viewing will remind you that A Bug’s Life is beautiful to look at, boasts a stellar screenplay, and ranks up there just as equally with more lauded studio productions.  Though Newman’s score for this film is hardly as memorable as Toy Story‘s, there is some great adventure/journey music produced here.  Sounding on its face a lot like the soundtrack to a spaghetti western, the adventures of an ant named Flik are rendered far more thrilling thanks to Newman’s work.  [Link]

Toy Story 2, 1999
It’s no easy task to take a pre-existing (and highly recognizable) movie score and adapt it for a sequel without losing the feel of the original while creating something new (Howard Shore managed it for The Lord of the Rings, and John Williams pulled it out for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.), but Newman does just that with Toy Story 2.  Sure, the original themes that made Toy Story‘s score so delightful are ever-present throughout this sequel, but the new themes added to the mix are so essential to the trilogy’s history this score is at times outdoing the original.  My favorite track, “The Cleaner,” has the look and feel of Pixar without immediately feeling like a regurgitation.  [Link]

Monsters, Inc., 2001
It should be nothing new to any frequent reader of this blog to hear that I find Monsters Inc. to be one of the most under-appreciated greats of recent years (thanks a lot Shrek).  The score that Randy Newman crafted for the flick is very very different from earlier Pixar incarnations.  Throwing in some jazz piano and heavy use of various saxophones, and sampling his Oscar-winning song “If I Didn’t Have You,” it’s a truly original work.  Newman has never been this much fun (except for maybe on Political Science), and its evident in the jaunty jazz combo that provides the orchestrations for this ridiculously original movie.  [Link]

Seabiscuit, 2003
One of Newman’s mellower scores, Seabiscuit doesn’t live up to The Natural as far as sports movie music goes, but it utilizes what Randy does best.  Sure, the brass lines sometimes harken to often to his work on A Bug’s Life, and that main clarinet tune is used frequently, but there is something to be said for the coherency of this soundtrack.  The story certainly lacks, which obviously doesn’t help Newman create an ambience with his score, but overall its no mar to the composer’s filmography.  The racing music can get a little been there done that, but the more solemn moments provide some great elegies.  [Link]

Cars, 2006
Quite clearly the weakest effort of the Pixar crew (though just barely managing to walk away without being deemed an actual failure), Cars is a bit misguided, but eventually is worth it for the visuals at the very least.  (Why the studio’s risking their first-ever critical drubbing by sequelizing this out of a wealth of better options is beyond me.)  So, Newman’s task is a bit more difficult considering the film isn’t an ace in the hole.  But his work here signifies transcendence of the story itself.  Sure, there’s a lot of bombast in the earlier portions of the score (and the docile moments don’t have the poignancy of The Natural or Toy Story because of the unlikable characters), but the soundtrack exceeds the movie, so it can’t be considered a loss for the composer.  [Link]

The Princess and the Frog, 2009
Though the real greatness at play with this soundtrack is the excellent song score (has there been a Disney one this great since The Lion King?), Newman’s accompanying score perfectly encapsulates the Cajun spirit in The Princess and the Frog.  I think at times the music dips a little bit too much into familiar territory, but he mercifully stays true to the southern spirit, particularly in his opening theme music.  The movie wasn’t a behemoth at the box office, which causes the unfortunate side effect of not enough people adding this music to their soundtrack playlists.  Though Newman is no longer Pixar’s go-to composer, Disney is smart to keep him around, as evidenced by the pitch-perfect soundtrack here.  [Link]

Toy Story 3, 2010
Even though the film itself is utter brilliance, the score doesn’t quite measure up to the bar set by Toy Story 2.  The soundtrack is still fun, and the Oscar-nominated track “We Belong Together” is a great addition the Pixar lyrical pieces, but there isn’t enough originality at play in this outing.  The highlight, though, is easily the closing music.  “So Long” works quite well on its own at rendering the listener a blubbering mess.  In addition, his “Ken’s Theme” and “Spanish Buzz” tracks are practically separate from the rest of the soundtrack but at least keep the emotion in check with some more traditional laughter sequences.  [Link]

composer spotlight: THOMAS NEWMAN

Chances are if you’ve ever watched an Oscar ceremony (at least in the past couple decades) or looked closer at your soundtrack’s credit list, you’ve at least seen the name Thomas Newman one time or another. As a 10-time Oscar nominee (and remarkably zero-time winner, considering the breadth of his work), he’s a bit ubiquitous in the film composing world. Thanks to a friend of mine going a little gaga over the Little Women soundtrack last night, I figured it was high time I highlight one of my favorite aspects of filmdom, starting with one of today’s hardest working cogs. I’m bound to miss quite a few of his works as I go through and analyze my favorites here, but I’ll do my best to give him his due. So, let’s go chronological here, which brings us back to 1985…

Desperately Seeking Susan, 1985

Scoring the star vehicle for the legendary music artist Madonna is probably no easy feat for an up-and-comer. But in this Golden Globe-nominated comedy, where lonely Rosanna Arquette lives out her fantasy of real-life excitement by snooping on a personal ad relationship, Newman does what he’s supposed to. Though there are no big revelations to be found in his score, he fits to the ’80s comedy mold by including plenty of synthesizer. It is interesting how you can already start to hear his musical voice in these tracks, though – there’s definitely some bits of Lemony Snicket hidden in the “Battery Park/Amnesia” selection. [Link]

Jumpin’ Jack Flash, 1986

He got his fill of teen comedies in the time between Desperately Seeking and this, an action comedy starring a relatively new Whoopi Goldberg as a banker who gets caught up in a KGB money-laundering scandal. His two contributions that are available on the soundtrack recording are starkly different. One, in typical ’80s comedy fashion, utilizes heavy saxophone and snippets of light jazz, while the other is Newman what he would later rely heavily on for Revolutionary Road, simple piano melodies. Again, this is hardly earth-shaking work, but it’s welcome and fitting for the task at hand. [Link]

The Lost Boys, 1987
At last – it seems Newman finally got to take a turn at horror, though The Lost Boys borders on the laughable it seems with its cast of ’80s usual suspects, Kiefer Sutherland and Coreys both Haim and Feldman. The music at hand is genuinely fun for the most part. It relies heavily on organ chords, though, that are far too reminiscent of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, which incidentally opened the year before. Not having seen this movie, I would imagine that its notoriously hokey nature was probably trumped by Newman’s semi-eerie score. [Link]

Fried Green Tomatoes, 1991
After a series of little-seen movies, Newman finally landed a high-profile critically-acclaimed drama in the form of this film, telling the tale of a young nurse listening to stories of yore from a nursing-home patient. This soundtrack proves a lot subtler than some of Newman’s work on comedies and action movies in the ’80s. In addition, we see the beginning of his love affair with woodwinds, as oboes and clarinets are heavily used throughout. The pieces in this score are less familiar to me in his earlier or later work, so perhaps this one stands on its own rather well. [Link]
Scent of a Woman, 1992
Though this movie has its fair share of detractors out there (namely those who were upset that this was the one Al Pacino finally won his Oscar for, as opposed to his more highly regarded earlier work), its story of a blind man’s relationship with a young assigned buddy is buoyed by Newman’s score. There are definitely heavy influences of non-traditional string instruments used in Lemony Snicket at play here, and the flowing portions of cellos in the more docile pieces are seemingly pulled right from the Finding Nemo score. But it’s only fair that composers pull from their own previous work, I suppose; especially one with such prolific tendencies. [Link]

The Shawshank Redemption, 1994
Arguably the writer’s greatest score to date, The Shawshank Redemption is probably one of the most sampled entries in cinemas of the past 25 years. And 1994 proved to be Newman’s big break in terms of the Academy Awards, as this and the entry below it tied for his first and second nominations. Aside from the fact that the film he’s working on here is fantastic, his score is sweeping, epic brilliance. You really can’t get much more gorgeous than this, and the Oscars truly should’ve responded as such. Sure, he’s had some stellar works since, but this has got to be the pinnacle. [Link]

Little Women, 1994
Starkly contrasting his other work from the same year, the delightful score to Little Women, the timeless tale of four sisters and their doting mother in Civil-War-era America, is equally beautiful but so much more full of life. Thanks to his wintry uses of strings and oboes, and then later to his grandiose uses of those same strings and now brass to signify a robust Christmas spirit, it’s pretty glorious to listen to. As I’ve found, it’s one of the most inspiring soundtracks to listen to when writing. Seriously, give it a try and you’ll never turn back. [Link]

The Horse Whisperer, 1998
Though I’ve never seen this critically polarizing Robert Redford starrer, I was told recently that the soundtrack was worth a listen. And it’s true – Newman has some very unique work here. It’s difficult to place the music with the film’s plot, a man brought in to mend the being of a horse and a troubled girl simultaneously, with its jaunty tendencies, but it’s great fun to listen to, and there are some very romantic segments. Let’s just hope it did something to aid what some critics felt was zero chemistry between Redford and the wonderful Kristin Scott Thomas. [Link]

Meet Joe Black, 1998
Sure, this movie was called overlong and maybe a bit too into itself, but I hesitate to say that the 3-hour flick about a man (Anthony Hopkins) being advised in life decisions by Death (Brad Pitt) is a wonderful film. And to boot, it has one of the loveliest main melodies I’ve heard. Check it out – it’s haunting with its use of the string section (it sounds as if every string player in the world had a part in this), and though the movie had its flaws (its runtime probably one of them), it seems as though Newman was really hitting his dramatic stride in the late 1990s. [Link]

American Beauty, 1999
Though I’ve never truly understood the big giant hoopla surrounding this suburban drama, despite some great performances from its two leads, it’s too bad the score wasn’t one of the wins it achieved on Oscar night. It’s interesting to note here, though, its profound similarities to his other suburban melodrama (though set in an earlier decade), with its simplistic piano tropes. Unfortunately, in the end, I find its protege, Revolutionary Road, to have a superior score (though I can’t say the same of the film itself). [Link]

In the Bedroom, 2001
What a treat! What I found to be a truly original score in his filmography, I was sort of surprised to find out that this wasn’t written by James Newton Howard. The movie itself is brilliant, mixing family drama with a tinge of romance and a whole lot of unnerving suspense. The score is a unique entry in this list – the use of unusual stringed objects (I presume?) is so jarring it beautifully associates with the movie you’re viewing. And not to mention the cover art make a great accessory to this soundtrack. [Link]

Road to Perdition, 2002
A first-time entry for Mr. Newman, this Oscar-nominated score accompanies a film about a hitman taking considerations about his life when his son becomes witness to his crimes. The score has the rise and fall, ebb and flow effect that is standard in a Newman score – though I appreciate its literal use best in the next entry, and I hate to say it, but it’s hardly a memorable entry. Though I’m sure its effect in the film itself (perhaps someone else can verify) meets its purpose, but I don’t find it all that riveting or unique from this stand-alone standpoint. [Link]

Finding Nemo, 2003
Aaaaand, I take everything bad I just said back. I find Newman’s score to the sweet Pixar blockbuster Finding Nemo to be both far too lovely for your average animated movie and playful at all the right moments. As I said, the ebb and flow effect obviously makes complete sense in this setting. And as this movie so delicately portrays the bond between father and son, the music just can’t be beat in terms of identifying with its characters. Well done. [Link]

Angels in America, 2003
Gosh, I love it when film composers dabble in television work on occasion. And somehow HBO has a knack for convincing them to make that change. Newman’s score for the miniseries Angels in America, channeling the lives of people directly or indirectly affected by the AIDS epidemic, is regal when it needs to be (there are assuredly portions, namely the fantastical Emma Thompson archangel segments, that call for this) and heartbreaking when it doesn’t (check out that Main Title for proof). It’s truly a shame this couldn’t have won him his eventual Oscar – I’d rank it in my top 5 of his pieces most likely (but get back to me later on that one). [Link]

Lemony Snicket, 2004
There comes a lot of pressure when a popular children’s novel or series of novels go(es) into production on a filmset. Everybody wants the next Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings on their hands. And though Daniel Handler’s series of well-written gems didn’t really take off in cinemas (not enough to gain a sequel), this one-off entry had so much to offer visually and aurally. Though it seems the type of work that would usually be given to Danny Elfman, Newman makes great things happen in the drab, but whimsical, world of the Baudelaires. It’s a treat to listen to, if a bit repetitive at times. As an avid reader of the original series, he totally capture the right themes here, though. [Link]

WALL-E, 2008
Thank goodness those geniuses over at Pixar had the good sense to pay Thomas Newman a return visit to work on the gem of their crown, WALL-E. The movie is about a naive little trash-compacting robot who finally sees the universe around him through the eyes of his one true love, fellow robot EVE (stop – I know how sappy I am). The score combines the best flavors of great sci-fi John Williams scores with the childish whimsy you’re used to seeing in Disney music. While he uses his usual strings and woodwinds, he understands the need for billowy brass when there’s a world to save. And his incorporation of those bits from Hello Dolly! is priceless. [Link]

Revolutionary Road, 2008
I’m going to end with this one as it seems I’m getting a little excessive with my tribute (but goes to show what I said earlier about his prolific tendencies is true, eh?). Newman’s best effort of late is clearly his 2008 work. With the magic of WALL-E, he paired this, a suburban melodrama. The music relies heavily on a central theme played effortlessly on the piano (his mainstay throughout his career, even though in earlier years it was an electric piano). Though the movie was a major downer for theater-goers, his theme and variations approach to the soundtrack worked wonders with the brilliant art direction. [Link]

**Additional Newman works not included here, but perfectly notable: How to Make an American Quilt, Phenomenon, Oscar and Lucinda, The Green Mile, Erin Brockovich, White Oleander, and Little Children**

Now tell me, what are your favorite Newman efforts?