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PAY IT FORWARD – Thomas Newman

October 20, 2000 Leave a comment Go to comments

payitforwardOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

There’s a worrying trend developing in the career of Thomas Newman – peculiarity. Now, I’m all for innovation in film scoring. When a composer does something unexpected to enhance the mood or feel of a film, it is a refreshing and invigorating experience. When Thomas Newman did it on American Beauty, I was pleased. Newman has always been one of Hollywood’s most unconventional mainstream composers, equally at ease with lush symphonic writing (a la The Shawshank Redemption or Meet Joe Black) and experimental sound design (as in Flesh & Blood or Red Corner). Of late, though, Newman seems to have been stuck in this percussive rut, with seemingly no way out. In effect, he has written the same score for his last three movies: American Beauty, Erin Brockovich, and now Pay It Forward.

Pay It Forward, directed by Mimi Leder, is what is technically known as a “feel-good” movie. Based on the novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde, it stars young Haley Joel Osment (from The Sixth Sense) as seventh grader Trevor McKinney who, upon starting a new school in Las Vegas, finds the harsh realities of his life beginning to affect him: his mother, Arlene (Helen Hunt), is an alcoholic who works two jobs to pay the bills then drinks like a fish when she thinks no one is looking, and his father (Jon Bon Jovi) has long since vanished. With the encouragement of his unconventional social studies teacher Eugene Simonet (Kevin Spacey), Trevor comes up with a plan to, he believes, make the world a better place: basically, he will perform three acts of unsolicited kindness with the only requirement being that each recipient of his goodwill must “pay it forward” to three other people – and so on and so forth. However, much to everyone’s shock, Trevor’s pay it forward scheme suddenly becomes a national phenomenon, bringing its share of benefits and hardships along the way.

Thomas Newman’s approach to Pay it Forward is interesting for one single reason: it seems that the same kind of music can be used to score the opposing flipsides of American culture. On the one hand, you’ve got the rancid underbelly of suburbia in American Beauty, scored with plinky plonky percussion and an odd assortment of instruments. On the other hand, you’ve got goodwill and kindness emanating from a big-hearted kid in Pay It Forward, scored with plinky plonky percussion and an odd assortment of instruments. There are two ways to look at this: either Newman is such a clever composer that he can alter his style of writing in incredibly subtle ways so as to affect the overall tone of a film, or he writes music that is so vague and non-specific that he can slap it onto any film he chooses without hardly changing a note. As I write this review, I’m undecided as to which of the two is the truer.

As an album, Pay It Forward has little going for it, providing less of a score and more of a collection of sampled sound effects and rhythms. The single main theme, first heard in ‘Possibility’ and restated in ‘Tardiness’ and ‘Desert Drive’, has that familiar-of-late Newman sound, combing guitars and piano with all manner of off-kilter percussion. It’s always great fun to look down the list of instruments Newman uses in his score: this time round, he’s got an electric autoharp, a dutar, a slow tube, the omnipresent saz, and something called a “tap eko gate”, which sounds more like something you would fix your drains with than a musical item. I dread to think what “spit rhythms” are. Other cues of note on the album include the soft piano tones of ‘Fixture Vodka’, ‘One Kiss’, ‘Night and Day and Night’ and ‘Sleepover’, and the soothing (and quite lovely) orchestral overtones of ‘In Recovery’, one of the highlights of the album as a whole. However, the majority of the rest of the cues, especially the likes of ‘Car Trouble’, ‘Cereal Bum’, and the wholly bizarre ‘The Bad Thing’ are made up of little more than drones, and have very little redeeming value as a standalone listening experience. Even the song at the end, Jane Siberry’s “Calling All Angels” is middling at best.

I sincerely and truthfully hope that the “American Beauty” syndrome is just a phase in the career of Thomas Newman, and that he dazzles us with some more of the supremely engaging orchestral scoring he does so well during the next few years. God forbid this style of scoring to become more popular; it would be a living nightmare if other composers began to adopt Newman’s oeuvre in their films, eager to cash in on the comparative success of films such as American Beauty and Erin Brockovich. Track five, ‘Come Out Jerry’, says it all. I’d love to hear what he, or any other composer, would have done with Pay It Forward.

Rating: **

Track Listing:

  • Possibility (2:33)
  • Car Trouble (1:07)
  • Washer Vodka (1:52)
  • Cereal Bum (1:03)
  • Come Out Jerry (1:09)
  • Fixture Vodka (1:36)
  • Rat Bastard (0:56)
  • One Kiss (1:47)
  • Tardiness (2:11)
  • In Recovery (1:02)
  • Jaguar (1:04)
  • Dumpster (1:11)
  • Sleepover (4:33)
  • Cosmic Aristotle (1:55)
  • Euphemism (1:05)
  • Homeless (1:00)
  • Pay It Forward (1:05)
  • Night and Day and Night (1:09)
  • Asthma (0:58)
  • Powers of Three (1:03)
  • Desert Drive (1:34)
  • Wasted Air (1:42)
  • The Bad Thing (0:50)
  • Gasoline (1:39)
  • Velocity Organ (1:27)
  • I Forgive You (2:26)
  • Calling All Angels (written and performed by Jane Siberry) (5:32)

Running Time: 45 minutes 29 seconds

Varèse Sarabande VSD-6195 (2000)

Music composed and arranged by Thomas Newman. Orchestrations by Thomas Pasatieri. Featured musical soloists George Doering, Michael Fisher, Rick Cox, Steve Kujala, George Budd, Steve Tavaglione, Bill Bernstein and Thomas Newman. Recorded and mixed by Joel Iwataki. Edited by Bill Bernstein. Mastered by Joe Gastwirt and Ramón Bretón. Album produced by Thomas Newman and Bill Bernstein.

  1. Mike Boyd
    September 2, 2018 at 9:09 am

    And 18 years later, I just watched American Beauty for the first time and thought “I know that music – that Haley Joel Osment film…”

    And now I also remember Erin Brockovich…

    Glad I’m not going crazy.

  1. May 23, 2021 at 11:53 pm

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