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SEABISCUIT – Randy Newman

seabiscuitOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

It’s been quite a while since Randy Newman scored something “serious”, having spent the last five years or so scoring either Pixar animations (A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc.) or comedies (Meet the Parents). His last movie of real dramatic worth was Pleasantville, directed by Gary Ross, and he re-teams with the creative forces behind that film for Seabiscuit, a heart-warming true story of triumph over adversity in horse racing. Seabiscuit is based on a non-fiction book by Laura Hillenbrand. Set in Depression-era America, it stars Jeff Bridges as Charles Howard, a millionaire businessman, and owner of a racehorse named Seabiscuit, whose small size and tendency to injure itself indicates that the thing will never win a race. Sensing hidden depths in the animal, Howard hires revolutionary trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), who sets about rehabilitating the poor pony with his new-fangled methods. One of these methods is to hire a new jockey, in the shape of Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire), a failed boxer who is considered too tall to be a jockey, and who has spent much of his life on the streets. However, bit by bit, Seabiscuit’s form improves – to the stage where, much to everyone’s surprise, the former failure has a shot at winning the 1938 Triple Crown.

Films about triumph over adversity in sport are common – take Rocky, for example, or another horse racing movie Champions (about a British steeplechase jockey who overcomes cancer and rides a formerly lame horse to victory in the 1981 Grand National). It is rare, however, for a film of this nature to be truly worthwhile and worthy. Everyone knows the outcome, everyone can see the finale a mile away, but it is testament to the skill of director Ross and the cast that the journey to the inevitable destination is so enjoyable.

Randy Newman’s music has always had a strong sense of nostalgia running in its veins, as though it continually seeks to illustrate a time and place when things were better, people were nicer, the streets were cleaner and everything was more wholesome. Even his songs tend to long for an America that does not exist any more – tender reminders of a bygone era. Seabiscuit follows firmly in the footsteps of such sepia-toned scores as Avalon, The Natural and Awakenings by presenting many cues which are redolent of the American dream, with their Copland-esque pastoral feeling and sense of longing. Where Seabiscuit differs from these introspective scores, however, is in its vivid depiction of Spanish culture, and its large-scale action elements.

The opening track, ‘Main Title’ is quintessential Randy Newman. The familiar woodwinds that speak of reliable Americana, the gorgeous guitar solos have an expressive tenderness, Jim Thatcher’s noble horns are warm and inviting, and the whole thing topped with a string wash that seems to ooze wholesomeness. Further cues, notably ‘Call Me Red’ ‘Tanforan’, ‘Pumpkin’ and ‘The Unkindest Cut’ reinforce these themes, and give the whole score a sense of time and place in history. Newman’s 59-second piano performance of the main theme in the fourth track has an equally rare tenderness and delicacy.

Of the other cues, ‘Idea’ features some more upbeat orchestral performances that dance around the ensemble in a way that reminds me of Hollywood’s earliest western scores: it’s almost as though Newman took inspiration from works such as Richard Hageman’s Stagecoach or She Wore A Yellow Ribbon. ‘Call Me Red’ and ‘Infield Folks’ features some toe-tapping, finger-strumming guitar work that is new ground for Newman, and which would not sound out of place at a country hoedown, while ‘Marcela’ is an expressive rendition of a Spanish melody on a beautiful classical guitar, which gradually emerges into a full-throated Latin dance. Similarly, ‘La Tequilera’ is a Newman-penned Mariachi piece, that sounds as authentic as anything to come north from Mexico.

The most memorable cues, ‘Red’s First Win’, ‘The Derby’ and the finale ‘A Nice Ride’, embrace a sense of heroism that, in other hands, would come across as schmaltzy, but in Newman’s hands is nothing less than heartfelt. Every now and again, in the more upbeat flag-waving moments, one is reminded of the rejected score he wrote for Air Force One, or ‘Flik’s Theme’ from A Bug’s Life, but by and large this kind of upscale orchestral grandeur is quite new territory for Newman. Similarly, the occasionally dark dissonance of ‘Night Ride/Accident’ is a new branch to the Newman canon, and is impressive in its construction. Having spent far too long writing music that is undervalued, under-represented, or both, its gratifying to finally see Newman letting rip on a movie which will get him noticed for something other than his sardonic songs.

I have a strong suspicion that Seabiscuit will bring Randy Newman his seventeenth Oscar nomination next May, and it would be well deserved. Newman’s dramatic sense, and melodic capabilities have never been in doubt, but in Seabiscuit there is a feeling of it “all coming together”. Some less discerning score fans may have trouble in accepting the intentionally old-fashioned feel of this score, but those who allow it to weave its delicious spell will be well rewarded.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (2:05)
  • Idea (2:08)
  • The Crash (3:06)
  • Seabiscuit (0:59)
  • Call Me Red (2:54)
  • Frankie (1:22)
  • La Tequilera (performed by Mariachi Reynas de Los Angeles) (1:14)
  • Marcela/Agua Caliente (2:23)
  • Campfire (1:17)
  • Red’s First Win (3:35)
  • Tanforan (1:43)
  • Infield Folks (1:38)
  • Pumpkin (1:36)
  • The Derby (3:14)
  • Wedding (2:06)
  • Night Ride/Accident (1:41)
  • To the Line (3:37)
  • The Unkindest Cut (3:30)
  • Ready? (3:01)
  • A Nice Ride (3:16)

Running Time: 46 minutes 27 seconds

Decca B0000772-12 (2003)

Music composed and conducted by Randy Newman. Orchestrations by Jonathan Sacks, Ira Hearshen, Joey Newman and Randy Newman. Piano solo performed by Randy Newman. Featured musical soloists Malcolm McNab, Jim Walker, Jim Kanter, Jim Thatcher, Bruce Dukov, Michael Fisher, George Doering, Dean Parks, John Goux and Charlie Bisharat. Recorded and mixed by Frank Wolf and Armin Steiner. Edited by Bruno Coon. Mastered by Patricia Sullivan-Fourstar. Album produced by Randy Newman, Frank Wolf and Bruno Coon.

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