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ANGELS IN AMERICA – Thomas Newman

December 7, 2003 Leave a comment Go to comments

angelsinamericaOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

The quality of original television music in recent years has improved immeasurably. Long gone are the days when all a TV-movie could hope for was a rising star or ageing has-been hiring a small orchestra or, worse still, mocking it all up on synths at home. Now, with recent excellent works like Brian Tyler’s Children of Dune, Laura Karpman’s Taken and Michael Kamen’s Band of Brothers, the upper echelons of television scoring is equaling – and occasionally surpassing – that of the cinema. One of these scores which surpasses almost everything written for the cinema is Thomas Newman’s Angels in America, by far one of the best scores written for any medium in 2003.

The film is directed by Mike Nichols, and is based on the award-winning stage play by Tony Kushner about the onset of HIV during the 1980s. It is based around the lives of several gay men – Prior Walter (Justin Kirk), his lover Louis Ironson (Ben Shankman), deeply religious Mormon Joe Pitt (Patrick Wilson), and harsh right-wing political advisor Roy Cohn (Al Pacino), who refuses to acknowledge his homosexuality for fear of damaging his career – let alone that he (and the others) are dying of AIDS. As the lives of these men intersect, with the specter of Reaganite politics looming in the background, Prior is unexpectedly visited by an angel (Emma Thompson) on his death bed, and given a prophecy from God which will change his life – and the lives of everyone around him – forever. Nominated multiple times for every television award possible (including seven Golden Globes), Angels in America has been heralded as a high watermark in television production, and looked destined to be remembered as one of cable channel HBO’s most fruitful ventures.

Although he has contributed themes for TV series such as Six Feet Under and Boston Public lately, Thomas Newman has not written for television since his 1992 score for Citizen Cohn, a biopic of Roy Cohn, who ironically features prominently in Angels in America. He’s one of the few really high-profile composers to tackle a TV project of this scale, and although this is Newman’s first collaboration with Nichols, the end result is simply awe-inspiring. It’s easily one of the best scores of his entire career and, had it been written for a cinema movie, would have been a shoo-in for Oscars.

Imagine the percussive vibe of American Beauty, the pastoral beauty of The Shawshank Redemption, the angry action of The Green Mile, the theme-driven brilliance of Meet Joe Black, the offbeat orchestrations of virtually his entire career – plus a choir – and you have something close to what Newman achieves in Angels in America. For such a dramatic, heart-rending story, Newman had to wring every last drop of emotion from his orchestra; to my mind, he does not do this nearly as often as he should, because when Newman lets his passions and his thematic brilliance fly, as he has shown in the aforementioned scores, as well as the likes of Little Women, he can be one of the most effective composers at moving a listener – or a viewer – to tears.

Tracks such as ‘Angels in America’, ‘Ellis Island’, ‘Bayeux Tapestry’, the hypnotic ‘Mauve Antarctica’, the fiddle-led ‘The Mormons’, ‘More Life’, ‘Garden of the Soul’ and ‘Bethesda Fountain’, are veiled in true beauty, filled with stunningly realized woodwind solos, a multitude of chimes and bells, and shimmering orchestral washes, resulting in some of the most engaging cues Newman has written for a while. The familiar Newman echo, which makes the music sound as though it was recorded in a vast cathedral, is again very much in evidence, giving the score a sense of scale and grandeur. Whereas Newman’s other 2003 score, Finding Nemo, was enjoyable but disjointed, this score flows beautifully from one cue to the next, creating a mood of contemplation and introspection, but infused with a sense of hope.

On the other hand, there is some defiantly different, and occasionally quite dissonant music there too. Cues such as ‘Spotty Monster’ are vibrant interludes, almost middle-eastern in style with rattling percussion and lively bells. ‘Quartet’ takes ambient sound design to new levels during it’s 6-minute duration; ‘Her Fabulous Incipience’ explodes into a fury of electric guitars and percussion; ‘Submit!’ covers the same ground, but the added majesty of an enormous choir; and the frenzied ‘Black Angel’ is quite awe-inspiring, reverberating with a potent savagery one does not normally associate with Newman’s work.

Inevitably, the choral writing – which is virtually ever-present in the second half of the album – is superb, and is something that Newman does not attempt as often as he should. ‘The Infinite Descent’ could have been written by Handel; ‘Broom of Truth’ recapitulates the motif heard in the opening cue, and could have been written by Georges Delerue; ‘Heaven’ is slightly more abstract, and could have been written by James Horner in the 1980s; the solo performance in ‘Tropopause’ is gorgeous; while ‘Plasma Orgasmata’ could have been written by his father – and in that, I am bestowing upon Thomas the highest praise I can. The end credits cue, ‘The Great Work Begins’, could well be the best single cue Newman has written since the finale of Meet Joe Black, five years ago. It more than matches, and in some ways surpasses, the magnificence of that score.

It is perhaps too much to hope that Newman will dispel with the dispiriting style of scoring he employed on White Oleander, The Salton Sea, In the Bedroom, and far too many other scores of late and concentrate on doing what, in my opinion, he does best – this kind of powerful orchestral writing. Alas, I feel that Newman gains more satisfaction from his sound design ensembles than he does from this kind of project and instead I will have to be satisfied with hearing him write this kind of excellence only occasionally. As it is, I cannot recommend Angels in America highly enough. It is easily one of the best scores of the year.

Rating: *****

Buy the Angels in America soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Threshold of Revelation (0:56)
  • Angels in America (2:17)
  • Lesionnaire (0:40)
  • Ellis Island (2:05)
  • Acolyte of the Flux (1:15)
  • Umdankbar Kind (1:24)
  • The Ramble (1:07)
  • Ozone (0:58)
  • Pill Poppers (1:17)
  • Quartet (6:43)
  • Solitude (written by Eddie De Lange, Duke Ellington and Irving Mills, performed by Duke Ellington) (3:10)
  • Bayeux Tapestry (1:49)
  • Spotty Monster (0:48)
  • Mauve Antarctica (4:47)
  • Her Fabulous Incipience (1:06)
  • The Infinite Descent (0:54)
  • A Closer Walk With Thee (traditional, performed by George Lewis and his Ragtime Band) (2:54)
  • Broom of Truth (2:50)
  • Submit! (1:15)
  • Plasma Orgasmata (2:57)
  • Delicate Particle Logic (1:57)
  • The Mormons (1:51)
  • Prophet Birds (2:42)
  • More Life (2:10)
  • Black Angel (4:10)
  • Garden of the Soul (4:03)
  • Heaven (2:00)
  • Bethesda Fountain (1:17)
  • The Great Work Begins (3:57)
  • Tropopause (2:55)
  • I’m His Child (traditional, performed by Zella Jackson-Price) (3:36)

Running Time: 71 minutes 44 seconds

Nonesuch 79837-2 (2003)

Music composed and conducted by Thomas Newman. Orchestrations by Thomas Pasatieri. Featured musical soloists George Doering, Michael Fisher, Steve Tavaglione, George Budd, Rick Cox, Steve Kujala, Leslie Reed, Sid Page, Oliver Schroer, John Beasley, Bill Bernstein and Thomas Newman. Special vocal performances by Elin Carlson, Dwayne Condon, Chris Ibenhard, Susan Stevens Logan, Susan Montgomery, Bobbi Page and Sally Stevens. Recorded and mixed by Armin Steiner. Edited by Bill Bernstein. Mastered by Joe Gastwirt. Album produced by Thomas Newman and Bill Bernstein.

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