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THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION – Thomas Newman

September 23, 2004 Leave a comment Go to comments

shawshankredemptionMOVIE MUSIC UK CLASSICS

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

As it is currently enjoying a limited cinematic re-release to celebrate its tenth anniversary, and has recently been released on a special 3-disc collectors DVD, I thought I would take the opportunity re-visit and re-review Thomas Newman’s score for The Shawshank Redemption. When I first saw this film back in March 1995, I thought it to be a worthy, enjoyable film, taking into account my comparative immaturity and lack of experience in things cinematic. Now, a decade later on, I consider it one of the best films I have ever seen; a warm, uplifting, moving tribute to the indomitable human spirit, the power of friendship, and the need for hopes and dreams.

Based on the short story Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King, and which appeared in the 1982 anthology book Different Seasons, the film was directed by then-debutante Frank Darabont and starred Tim Robbins as Andy Dufresne, a mild-mannered financial clerk in the 1940s wrongly sentenced to life imprisonment for murdering his wife and her lover. Incarcerated inside the tough Shawshank prison, Dufresne finds he needs to adjust quickly to life inside: despite clashing with brutal prison guard Byron Hadley (Clancy Brown) and locking horns with stubborn warden Samuel Norton (Bob Gunton), he makes friends with the prison’s worldly-wise fixer, fellow lifer Red (Morgan Freeman), and several of the other inmates. Despite the year-on-year sense of desperation and tedium, it is through his enduring friendship with Red that Andy maintains his sanity, and keeps alive his dreams of freedom.

There are so many good things about The Shawshank Redemption it’s hard to know where to begin. The performances of the leads – Robbins, Freeman, Gunton, Brown, William Sadler, James Whitmore – are utterly perfect, never once hitting a false note or seeming contrived.  Freeman’s portrayal of sage-like world-weariness was a career changer that has since seen him gone on to be one of the greatest character actors of his generation. Robbins’s clever balance of shrewd intellect and genial naïveté allows his character to survive in a world where calling too much attention to yourself can get you killed. Robbins’s Andy has a quiet dignity and sense of inner peace that makes him spellbinding to watch. Darabont’s direction and screenplay are both flawless, visually conveying the drabness and drudgery of life inside through clever camera work and a muted color palette, while peppering the tedium with humor, lightness and a sense of camaraderie not often found in prison pictures.

But beyond all this, the ideals of the film are what drive it: the notion that friendships and the endurance of dreams can keep you alive in the most desperate of circumstances. The key to the entire film is Red’s edict “get busy living, or get busy dying”, and it is this central idea of making the best of your circumstances, no matter how grim, that keeps the film from being just another familiar reflection of time inside. The film touches on other themes, notably the common problem of institutionalization, whereby former inmates find they cannot function without the regimentation of the prison walls they used to despise, but these are mere sidebars. Ultimately, The Shawshank Redemption is a film about hope. As the tagline goes, fear can hold you prisoner; hope can set you free.

Thomas Newman received his first Academy Award nomination for The Shawshank Redemption back in 1995. Although he ultimately lost the final award to Hans Zimmer’s all-conquering Lion King, Shawshank has since gone on to be one of the best-loved works of Newman’s career, alongside such critically acclaimed scores as The Horse Whisperer, Meet Joe Black, American Beauty, and his second Darabont film, The Green Mile. When I first reviewed The Shawshank Redemption back in 1997, I commented on how much I liked the cello-based opening, and the sweeping and lush finale, but that some of the more “quirky” elements left me cold. Since then, however, I have grown to appreciate the score in its entirety.

The clever thing about the Shawshank Redemption, as it appears on the album, it its development. It starts as a somber reflection of a man’s life in turmoil, from the fiddle-led “May” through to the downbeat “Stoic Theme” for Shawshank prison itself, which uses a grinding bass passacaglia to underline the drudgery of life in the slammer. The amusingly bouncy “Rock Hammer” is the musical representation of Andy trying to inject a sense of levity into his existence; “An Inch of His Life” and the angry “His Judgement Cometh” illustrate how life in any institution can be terribly dangerous.

Before long, however, sparks of life and energy and beauty begin to creep into Newman’s musical world. “Brooks Was Here” illustrates the old-timer’s first taste of the real world in half a century with a bittersweet piano and string combination. “Suds on the Roof” sees the first appearance of the lovely, folksy Hope Theme, used whenever the inmates of Shawshank have a brief taste of freedom, or think about their dreams. Here, Newman’s music accompanies the men as they drink beer like free men, having tarred the roof of the plate factory, courtesy of the hardest screw that ever walked a turn at Shawshank State Prison.

The spine-tingling “Shawshank Redemption”, which accompanies Andy’s daring bolt for freedom, is one of the score’s most memorable cues – a dark, dense, powerful cue which concludes with a series of sensational crescendos to accompany the stunning visual element: Andy Dufresne, standing in a river, drenched in rain, backlit by lightning, arms aloft to the heavens, thanking God for his freedom.

“Workfield” and “Sisters” revisit the fiddle and Stoic themes respectively, “Zihuatanejo” accompanies Andy’s tales of the Pacific Ocean with a wistful piano solo and a gentle variation on the Hope theme, and “Lovely Raquel” brings lightness and humor to Warden Norton’s shocking discovery, but by far the most joyous aspect of The Shawshank Redemption is its finale. The four cues from “And That Right Soon” onwards stand as ten of the most wonderful minutes Newman has ever written, encompassing entirely the sense of freedom and redemption the film so eloquently portrays. When the Hope theme kicks in for the final time in “So Was Red/End Title”, he plays it in its fullest, most lush form yet; the thematic beauty and sense of epic scale it brings stands as one of the high points of Newman’s career to date.

A couple of source music songs by The Inkspots and Hank Williams pad out the running time, and there is also a selection from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro; Red himself sums this piece up perfectly when, in narration, he says “they were singing about something so beautiful, it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. Those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a grey place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.”

Ten years on, Newman’s score for The Shawshank Redemption remains one of his finest achievements. When he writes full-on orchestral music such as this, with this kind of intelligence and creativity, he is among the best practitioners of film music working today, and is without peer when it comes to extracting an appropriate emotional response from his audience without sounding contrived or clichéd. The Shawshank Redemption is inarguably one of the best scores of the early 1990s.

Rating: *****

Track Listing:

  • May (0:33)
  • Shawshank Prison (Stoic Theme) (1:53)
  • New Fish (1:50)
  • Rock Hammer (1:51)
  • An Inch of His Life (2:48)
  • If I Didn’t Care (written by Jack Lawrence, performed by The Inkspots) (3:03)
  • Brooks Was Here (5:06)
  • His Judgement Cometh (2:00)
  • Suds on the Roof (1:36)
  • Workfield (1:10)
  • Shawshank Redemption (4:26)
  • Lovesick Blues (written by Cliff Friend and Irving Mills, performed by Hank Williams) (2:42)
  • Elmo Blatch (1:08)
  • Sisters (1:18)
  • Zihuatanejo (4:43)
  • Duettino – Sull ‘Aria (from The Marriage of Figaro by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, performed by Deutsch Oper Berlin and Karl Böhm) (3:32)
  • Lovely Raquel (1:55)
  • And That Right Soon (1:08)
  • Compass and Guns (3:53)
  • So Was Red (2:44)
  • End Title (4:05)

Running Time: 53 minutes 44 seconds

Epic Soundtrax 478332-2 (1994)

Music composed and conducted by Thomas Newman. Orchestrations by Thomas Pasatieri. Recorded and mixed by Thomas Newman and Dennis Sands. Edited by Bill Bernstein. Mastered by Joe Gastwirt. Album produced by Thomas Newman and Bill Bernstein.

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