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THE GREEN MILE – Thomas Newman

December 10, 1999 Leave a comment Go to comments

greenmileOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

It seems to be that Stephen King’s best works all take place in prisons. The same can be said of director Frank Darabont, although this statement is just a little misleading because he has only made two movies to date, both of which are Stephen King adaptations set in prisons. The former, The Shawshank Redemption, was one of the best movies of the last decade. It could be said that Darabont made a rod for his own back by taking on such a similar movie so soon, thereby inviting comparisons between the two that the new movie could never hope to achieve. The Green Mile does not quite emulate the success of Shawshank, but is an excellent movie in itself, boasting a core of superb performances, several moving scenes, one horribly realistic execution-gone-wrong, and a whole load of none-too-subtle religious connotations.

The film stars Tom Hanks as prison warder Paul Edgcomb, in charge of the death row (nicknamed “the green mile”) at a southern penitentiary in 1930s Alabama. Along with his colleagues Brutal Howell (David Morse), Dean Stanton (Barry Pepper), Harry Terwiliger (Jeffrey De Munn) and sadistic Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchison), Edgcomb is a firm but fair jailer, ensuring that the prisoners in his care are properly prepared for their time of execution. Into their midst comes John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan), a mountainous but child-like black man, convicted of murdering two small children, but whose demeanor leads Edgcomb to believe that Coffey is innocent. For a while, life on the green mile remains normal, until the day it transpires that Coffey possesses the ability to heal people through the power of touch.

The Green Mile is a 3-hour film of two halves: firstly, painting a vivid portrait of life on death row, and the trivialities that brighten up the lives of the people who live and die there. The comings and goings of a tame mouse named Mr. Jingles seems to be a completely pointless and arbitrary sub-story until, two-thirds of the way into the picture, the significance of the rodent’s presence becomes completely clear. The second half of the movie is given to exploring Coffey himself: his past, his crime, and his powers. It can be no coincidence that his initials are J.C. – letters which reflect the name of another, slightly more famous healer of the sick, or that the peripheries of his story significantly parallel those of Christ. He is initially misunderstood by those around him, is convicted of a crime he did not commit, he greatly enriches the lives of those around him, and is eventually executed for refusing to proclaim his own innocence.

Once again returning to score Darabont’s movie is composer Thomas Newman. Like the film, comparisons between his work here and his work on The Shawshank Redemption are unfair: the latter movie dealt with themes like hope, faith, and friendship. This film is primarily about despair and injustice. But this is not to say that The Green Mile is a sad score – on the contrary, much of Newman’s music is rooted in the sounds of the deep south, with several interesting cues written for an eclectic ensemble including such weird and wonderful instruments as a bowed travelling guitar, a Vietnamese banjo, a jaw harp, bass marimbas, a tonut and the omnipresent saz, the latter of which I still have no clue as to what it looks like. Occasionally, the music attains a kind of hypnotic sensibility that draws the listener in, but at other times it never presents anything more than a set of fascinating rhythms and textures.

Cues such as the opening ‘Monstrous Big’, ‘Red Over Green’, ‘That’s The Deal’ and ‘Boogeyman’ mix Newman’s lush, orchestral style with the more unorthodox orchestrations in a highly satisfying manner. ‘Limp Noodle’, ‘Wild Bill’ and others are down and dirty country blow-outs, while the light hearted pizzicato string and plinky-plonky percussion motif for Mr. Jingles offers a few amusing interludes, with cues such as ‘The Mouse on the Mile’, ‘Circus Mouse’ and ‘Morphine & Cola’ finding Newman in unexpectedly frivolous mood.

The most attractive material occurs in the final tracks, ‘Coffey on the Mile’, ‘Now Long Gone’ and ‘No Exceptions’, all of which are reminiscent of Newman’s most beloved lyrical work on scores such as Meet Joe Black and Little Women. Written for light, but heartfelt strings, these cues effectively illustrate Newman’s innate talent for writing music which draws the human emotion from any given scene. There is some darker material as well, notably ‘Two Dead Girls’ and ‘The Bad Death of Eduard Delacroix’, during which Newman engages in some unexpectedly brutal passages. The latter cue is especially violent, underscoring the awful execution scene with savage blasts of brass and percussion bolstered by growling, whirling string work of great power and intensity.

Rounding out the album are a half dozen or so songs and source music cues. Both Fred Astaire’s “Cheek to Cheek” and Billie Holliday’s “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” are used superbly well in the context of the film, but only detract from Newman’s score on the album. Worst of all is the placement of “Charmaine”, performed by Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians, which appears slap bang in the middle of the score’s emotional climax and totally shatters the mood Newman has worked so hard to create. Fans of Thomas Newman’s idiosyncratic scoring style are likely to approve of his work on The Green Mile and, like the film itself, it has both positive and negative aspects. It’s too long, and drags a little bit in places – but when it works, it’s breathtakingly good.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • Old Alabama (written by Alan Lomax, performed by B.B. and Group) (0:59)
  • Monstrous Big (1:50)
  • The Two Dead Girls (3:02)
  • The Mouse on the Mile (1:30)
  • Foolishment (1:50)
  • Billy-Be-Frigged (2:08)
  • Coffey’s Hands (1:58)
  • Cheek to Cheek (written by Irving Berlin, performed by Fred Astaire) (2:38)
  • Condemned Man (1:34)
  • Limp Noodle (1:03)
  • Scared of the Dark (1:03)
  • Wild Bill (1:15)
  • Cigar Box (1:50)
  • Circus Mouse (1:29)
  • The Bad Death of Eduard Delacroix (3:49)
  • Boy’s Eye (0:55)
  • Two Run-Throughs (1:19)
  • Red Over Green (2:58)
  • I Can’t Give You Anything But Love (written by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields, performed by Billie Holliday) (3:27)
  • That’s The Deal (1:37)
  • L’Homme Mauvais (2:21)
  • An Offense to the Heart (1:08)
  • Morphine & Cola (2:56)
  • Night Journey (2:12)
  • Danger of Hell (2;27)
  • Done Tom Turkey (1:00)
  • Did You Ever See A Dream Walking (written by Harry Reed and Mack Gordon, performed by Gene Austin) (2:52)
  • Trapingus Parish (0:51)
  • Boogeyman (3:26)
  • Shine My Knob (0:54)
  • Briar Ridge (0:42)
  • Coffey on the Mile (5:12)
  • Punishment (1:52)
  • Charmaine (written by Lew Pollack and Erno Rapee, performed by Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians) (2:25)
  • Now Long Gone (1:08)
  • No Exceptions (0:57)
  • The Green Mile (3:38)

Running Time: 74 minutes 37 seconds

Warner 9-47584-2 (1999)

Music composed and conducted by Thomas Newman. Orchestrations by Thomas Pasatieri. Featured musical soloists George Doering, Michael Fisher, Rick Cox, Sid Paige, Steve Kujala, Jon Clarke, George Budd, Bill Bernstein and Thomas Newman. Recorded and 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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