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AMERICAN BEAUTY – Thomas Newman

September 17, 1999 Leave a comment Go to comments

americanbeautyOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

It’s difficult to imagine another film this year achieving the level of perfection American Beauty achieves. Perfect direction from Sam Mendes. A perfect screenplay by Alan Ball. Perfect performances from Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch and Chris Cooper. It’s just a shame that, in the synopsis, the movie sounds so dull because, in reality nothing could be further from the truth. We have seen scathing examinations of suburban American before. We have witnessed breakdowns of family units in the cinema, and exposed the sordid underbelly of the lives of people whose outward “normality” masks a level of cynicism, hate and deprivation. American Beauty does all those things, but somehow puts a fresh new spin on them that turns the familiar clichés on their head with wit, energy, humor and genuine emotion.

Spacey plays Lester Burnham, a frustrated magazine writer whose banal existence with his narcissistic estate agent wife Carolyn (Bening) and disaffected daughter Jane (Birch) is shattered when he begins to manifest sexual fantasies for his daughter’s cheerleader friend, teenage tease Angela (Mena Suvari, whose naked, rose-clad figure adorns the CD cover). As Lester’s irrational and unexpected lust for Angela increases, it inspires in him a desire to alter the nature of his life before it becomes too late – so he quits his dead-end job and embarks upon a new career in a burger bar (“something with as little responsibility as possible”), starts body building in his garage, and acquires a new taste for smoking marijuana. But Lester’s increasingly irrational behavior puts strain upon his friends and family, forcing his Carolyn into the arms of rival real estate businessman Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher), and daughter Jane into the arms of boy next door Ricky (Wes Bentley), a gentle loner who films everything he sees with his camcorder and supplies Lester with his dope, but who lives in constant fear of his father Frank (Chris Cooper) a violent, homophobic former Marine.

It’s difficult to know what to say about Thomas Newman’s score, except that it can probably be summed up by one simple word: unconventional. You only need to look at the list of instruments used in the score’s make-up to see what I mean – tablas, kim-kim drums, bird calls, mandolas, Appalachian dulcimers, lap steel guitars, ukuleles, arpeggiated violins, detuned mandolins. And a saz – whatever a saz is. Of the 19 cues, the two best are undoubtedly the first and last: ‘Dead Already’ and ‘Still Dead’. In essence, they are nothing more than repeated rhythmic textures overlaid with various solo instruments banging and clanging over the top, adding interesting layers of sound and integrated musical effects, but they are nevertheless engrossing, if abstract, pieces which somehow conspire to draw in the listener, fascinating and hypnotic.

The only real recurring thematic element in the score is the gentle, soothing piano motif used to represent the growing attraction between Jane and Ricky. Cues such as ‘Mental Boy’, ‘Structure & Discipline’, ‘Any Other Name’, and the extended title track ‘American Beauty’ integrate the motif deep into the mix, coming across as a subtle amalgamation of the quieter parts of The Shawshank Redemption and Meet Joe Black. The material is reprised further in ‘Angela Undress’, but with a very different intent – the pure lust that once drove Lester’s infatuation with Angela gradually imitates the tenderness and innocence of the relationship between Jane and Ricky, and the change in musical style cleverly represents the change in Lester’s thinking.

The majority of the rest of the score is much of a muchness, not varying greatly in musical content. ‘Lunch w/ the King’ is one of the better tracks, and is stylistically similar to some of his music from The Horse Whisperer in terms of tempo and orchestrations, with piano, percussion and various plucked strings conjoining well. Similarly, cues such as ‘Mr. Smarty-Man’, ‘Bloodless Freak’ and ‘Weirdest Home Videos’ leave satisfyingly positive impressions, especially when the tentative strains of a familiar string section begin to appear. However, at completely the other end of the scale, cues such as ‘Root Bear’, ‘Spartanette’ and ‘Choking the Bishop’ are wholly peculiar, the former of which accompany Lester’s fantasy sequences with harsh metallic percussion, the latter resulting in a cue which sees the first (and, I pray) the last appearance of the detuned mandolin.

I admire Thomas Newman for his creativeness. He is often cited by his peers as being one of the most exciting and talented young composers working in the film music industry today, and I myself have always appreciated his large-scale orchestral works, especially scores such as Little Women, Oscar & Lucinda, The Shawshank Redemption and Meet Joe Black. In the past, though, I have decried his tendency to veer off into the realms of the bizarre, where he writes odd little scores for mixed-up musical ensembles that do very little than quench Newman’s own thirst for musical innovation. American Beauty is really the first “oddball” score of his that I have truly liked, although I have to say I liked it far more after I saw the movie than I did before. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is about American Beauty that works so well. Perhaps it’s the juxtaposition of Newman’s abstract music and the straightforwardness of Lester’s world. Or perhaps it is Newman’s own comment on the film’s main focus: that everything in the world has its own beauty – even if not everyone can see it. Whatever the case may be, I sense Oscar nominations heading this way.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • Dead Already (3:18)
  • Arose (1:05)
  • Power of Denial (1:44)
  • Lunch w/ the King (2:25)
  • Mental Boy (1:43)
  • Mr. Smarty-Man (1:11)
  • Root Beer (1:05)
  • American Beauty (3:05)
  • Bloodless Freak (1:36)
  • Choking the Bishop (1:51)
  • Weirdest Home Videos (2:02)
  • Structure & Discipline (3:05)
  • Spartanette (0:59)
  • Angela Undress (1:43)
  • Marine (1:34)
  • Walk Home (1:19)
  • Blood Red (0:34)
  • Any Other Name (4:06)
  • Still Dead (2:46)

Running Time: 37 minutes 31 seconds

Dreamworks 044-50233-2 (1999)

Music composed and conducted by Thomas Newman. Orchestrations by Thomas Pasatieri. Featured musical soloists Michael Fisher, George Doering, Rick Cox, Steve Kujala, George Budd, Chas Smith, Steve Tavaglione, Bruce Dukov, Bill Bernstein and Thomas Newman. Recorded by Dennis Sands and Tom Hardisty. Mixed by Dennis Sands and Thomas Newman. Edited by Bill Bernstein. Mastered by Joe Gastwirt and Ramón Bretón. Album produced by Thomas Newman and Bill Bernstein.

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