Home > Reviews > ROAD TO PERDITION – Thomas Newman

ROAD TO PERDITION – Thomas Newman

roadtoperditionOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

One thing that cannot be taken away from Thomas Newman is the fact that (with the possible exception of Elliot Goldenthal) he is, by far, the most original voice working in film music today. Newman has, literally, created a style of writing that no-one has heard before, and through recent films like American Beauty and Erin Brockovich and In the Bedroom, given Hollywood a unique musical perspective on modern life. Imitators follow his lead, but Newman’s unique brand of quirky rhythmic techniques and innovative orchestrations remain as one of today’s truly distinctive voices. What people tend to forget, though, is that for all his marimbas and sazes and funky monkeys, Newman is equally excellent at the “big orchestral thing”. Road to Perdition, his latest work, reaffirms that.

The follow-up effort to American Beauty by director Sam Mendes, and based on the critically acclaimed “graphic novel” by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner, Road to Perdition stars Tom Hanks in a rare anti-hero role as Michael Sullivan, a hired hit man for Irish gangster John Looney (Paul Newman) in 1930s Chicago. The relationship between Sullivan and Looney is father/son close – so much so that it alienates Looney’s natural born son, Connor (Daniel Craig). Sullivan is a decent, if flawed man, with a wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and children to support – and as Chicago is Capone’s town, the underworld offers a level of security Sullivan cannot afford to turn down. However, when Connor kills Sullivan’s wife and youngest son in a fit of jealous rage, Sullivan vows revenge upon those who took his family away from him. Sensing Sullivan’s anguish, Looney reluctantly employs a hit man of his own – the quiet Maguire (Jude Law) – to thwart Sullivan’s plans.

Returning to the composing style that won him so many fans with the likes of The Shawshank Redemption and Oscar and Lucinda, Thomas Newman brings the full orchestra back into play for Road to Perdition, and the effect is startlingly good. The inherent Irishness of the Chicago setting is inherent in Newman’s effective music, but not to the extent that pipes and pennywhistles ram it down the audience’s throat. The instruments are used, along with mandolins and a hurdy-gurdy amongst others throughout the score, but their effect is more subtle and used as color and flavor than as the basis for the entire score. They combine with the familiar, bass-heavy string wash to excellent effect in the lovely opening cue ‘Rock Island 1931’, and remain present yet understated in the score thereafter.

Much of the rest of Newman’s underscore evoke dreamlike textures than actual themes themselves – nostalgic glimpses and evocative landscapes of music that drift by – listen to ‘Wake’ and ‘Just the Feller’ for perfect illustrations of the technique. Other cues are notably simply for an individual orchestral effect or compositional style – such is Newman’s electric, jumpy style that one cue can be a wholly individual piece, yet fit in perfectly with the rest of the score The deep pizzicato cellos and squeaky oboes of ‘Mr. Rance’ are both funny and menacing at the same time; ‘Road to Chicago’ begins with a lovely piano solo which gradually swells into a superb multi-layered string theme; ‘Meet Maguire’ offsets pizzicato string scales with a lazy, rolling woodwind rag and throbbing timpani rolls; ‘Dirty Money’ and ‘Shoot the Dead’ are a couple of barreling action cues with light, almost dance-like rhythms; ‘Nothing to Trade’ offers a strong string beat coupled with buzzing, jazz-like muted trumpet inflections (which reminded me of Morricone); while ‘Lexington Hotel, Room 1432’ has that same cataclysmic feeling as the drainpipe sequence from Shawshank.

Newman’s more experimental techniques come to the fore in ‘Murder in Four Parts’ and ‘Finn McGovern’, the latter especially with its deeply disturbing whining brasses. However, when they come, the full orchestral statements of themes are moments to be cherished, equally here as in any Newman score. The delicate piano-led beauty of ‘The Farm’ and ‘Virgin Mary’, the introspective ‘Grave Drive’ and ‘Ghosts’, and the sumptuous ‘Cathedral’ are obvious highlight cues, the latter featuring and unexpected boy’s choir performance. The finale, ‘Road to Perdition’, is an upbeat, thematically satisfying conclusion to the gentle desperation that preceded it. Three tracks of source music add to the authenticity of the period, but should really be programmed out to appreciate the score’s true scope.

After the modern musings of his last few scores, it’s nice to hear Newman returning to the predominantly orchestral sound that has served him so well in the past. Road to Perdition’s closest musical cousin is probably The Shawshank Redemption, albeit with a slightly darker and more confrontational aspect this time around – where Shawshank was, quite literally about redemption, this is all about revenge, and the gloomier mood is reflected in the music. Nevertheless, Road to Perdition is still an accomplished work, and a commendable addition to the Newman canon.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • Rock Island, 1931 (3:22)
  • Wake (1:55)
  • Just the Feller (2:44)
  • Mr. Rance (1:38)
  • Bit Borrowers (2:25)
  • Murder (In Four Parts) (7:54)
  • Road to Chicago (3:06)
  • Reading Room (1:25)
  • Someday Sweetheart (written by Benjamin Spikes and Charles Spikes, performed by The Charleston Chasers) (3:06)
  • Meet Maguire (1:44)
  • Blood Dog (1:06)
  • Finn McGovern (2:11)
  • The Farm (2:09)
  • Dirty Money (3:10)
  • Rain Hammers (2:41)
  • A Blind Eye (2:27)
  • Nothing to Trade (2:25)
  • Queer Notions (written by Coleman Hawkins, performed by Fletcher Henderson and his Orchestra (1:20)
  • Virgin Mary (2:40)
  • Shoot the Dead (2:25)
  • Grave Drive (1:20)
  • Cathedral (2:40)
  • There’ll Be Some Changes Made (written by Billy Higgins and W. Benton Overstreet, performed by Chicago Rhythm Kings) (2:59)
  • Ghosts (3:40)
  • Lexington Hotel, Room 1432 (1:45)
  • Road to Perdition (3:55)
  • Perdition – Piano Duet (written by John M. Williams, performed by Tom Hanks and Paul Newman) (1:39)

Running Time: 70 minutes 11 seconds

Decca 440-07-167-2 (2002)

Music composed and conducted by Thomas Newman. Orchestrations by Thomas Pasatieri. Featured musical soloists Eric Rigler, Jon Clarke, Steve Kujala, Steve Tavaglione, George Doering, Michael Fisher, Rick Cox, Chas Smith, Nico Abondolo, Bill Bernstein and Thomas Newman. Recorded and mixed by Armin Steiner and Tommy Vicari. Edited by Bill Bernstein. Mastered by Joe Gastwirt. Album produced by Thomas Newman and Bill Bernstein.

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