Home > Reviews > THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU – Thomas Newman

THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU – Thomas Newman

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Looking back over Thomas Newman’s career to date, it’s interesting to note how much his musical style has altered over the years. During the late 1980s and 1990s he was very much his father’s son; scores such as The Shawshank Redemption, Little Women, Oscar and Lucinda, Meet Joe Black and The Horse Whisperer showcased his lush, theme-driven, string-heavy music, and made him a popular favorite within the film music world. Then, in 1999, he wrote American Beauty, and from then on began his gradual transformation into a composer whose music relies on sound design, instrumental texture and unusual instrumental combinations than the straightforward orchestral through-composing that made many – including me – such an admirer. Since the turn of the millennium, for every Cinderella Man or Angels in America, there have been a half-dozen other “quirky” scores dominating his filmography: Erin Brockovich, White Oleander, In the Bedroom, Jarhead, Little Children, Revolutionary Road. These scores show flashes of the orchestral brilliance of which he is capable, but more often than not eschew the lyricism in favor of rhythm and texture, with very little thematic content to grab hold of. Unfortunately, The Adjustment Bureau is more of the same.

Based on a short story by Philip K. Dick and directed by George Nolfi, The Adjustment Bureau is a romantic thriller with a sci-fi/paranoia twist. Matt Damon stars as David Norris, a charismatic US senator who, while embarking on a hesitant relationship with a beautiful ballerina (Emily Blunt) discovers a terrifying secret: that a secret government agency called the Adjustment Bureau has the capability to stop time, and is manipulating the world as they see fit. The film, which also stars John Slattery, Anthony Mackie and Terence Stamp, plays a little like a reality-based version of Alex Proyas’s Dark City, asking questions about the nature of predestination versus free will, fate, and the power of love.

Much of Thomas Newman’s score is built around little rhythmic devices that nervously repeat over and over, alluding to the endless sequences of chases in which David seems to find himself, to the unclear lines between reality and fantasy, and the unsettling omnipotent Bureau’s presence everywhere. Tom-toms, marimbas, and all manner of rattling and tinkling percussion effects are overlaid with glass bowls, celestes, xylophones, and an occasionally more strident electric guitar beat, all of which is underpinned by electronic pedal notes. Tracks such as the opening “Fate”, “Inflection Points”, “Square-One Reset”, “Richardson”, “New Leaf”, “Pier 17” and the actually rather impressive “Escher Loop” are prime examples of these rhythm cues; while acting as a solid undercurrent for the action to build from, and containing some admittedly complicated layers of instrumental invention, the music never really leaves much of an impression of its own. Rhythm and forward motion is fine in itself, and works in the context of the film, but you need more than energy and 15 different instruments all rattling away to make the music truly compelling.

“Elise”, Emily Blunt’s character, has a theme which has a vaguely Middle Eastern inflection in the intonation of the chord progressions, but is unexpectedly bolstered by a rock-style drum beat and more electric guitars. It gives the theme a contemporary edge, but despite the presence of a more romantic string wash in the second half of the cue never really manages to capture the essence of true love that the lead character shares with his dancing paramour. The electric guitar motif for Elise reappears in the perky and upbeat “The Girl on the Bus”, which shimmers with brushed cymbals and a thrumming electronic beat, but other than that plays a curiously muted role in the rest of the score.

A gentle, repetitive piano theme appears in “Four Elections” and later in “Real Kiss” and towards the end of the aforementioned “Escher Loop”, while in “None of Them Are You” Newman’s music briefly becomes gentler and romantic, pitting an enlarged string section and a warm acoustic guitar against a lovely, lyrical, slightly moody-sounding oboe line. It’s in cues like this that I’m reminded why I love Thomas Newman’s music so much, and why I lament the fact that he so rarely writes this kind of music anymore.

Two songs by Richard Ashcroft, former front man of the British rock band The Verve, pad out the album. One, “Future’s Bright” is an original track written by Newman and Ashcroft and plays over the opening credits, while the other, “Are You Ready”, features a sample of the old Bee Gees song “Our Time”. Both songs are pretty decent if you like Ashcroft’s voice and repetitive lyrical style – which I do – but I’m not entirely sure what they are doing here. The less said about Sarah Vaughan’s hideous re-imagining of the classic Peggy Lee tune “Fever” the better.

It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that the Thomas Newman I loved in the 1990s has morphed into a new composer with a new style, and that I’m not getting the old guy back, except in brief snippets here and there. The modern Thomas Newman seems to revel in intricate percussive ideas, clever rhythms, and unusual instrumental combinations, which are all fine and dandy, but what this Thomas Newman lacks is emotion: that intangible, indescribable connection one feels with certain kinds of film music, and which scores like The Adjustment Bureau lack almost entirely. Whatever grace and beauty once flowed from Thomas Newman’s scores has now almost entirely dried up, and anyone looking for it here will find the well virtually empty.

Rating: **½

Buy the Adjustment Bureau soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Fate (0:39)
  • Inflection Points (1:42)
  • Elise (3:27)
  • Four Elections (1:46)
  • Future’s Bright (written by Richard Ashcroft and Thomas Newman, performed by Richard Ashcroft) (5:51)
  • The Girl on the Bus (2:42)
  • Square-One Reset (2:21)
  • Richardson (2:21)
  • None of Them Are You (2:15)
  • New Leaf (2:53)
  • Pier 17 (3:22)
  • Recalibration (1:35)
  • The Substrate (1:32)
  • Real Kiss (1:54)
  • Fever (Adam Freeland Extended Remix) (written by John Davenport and Eddie Cooley, performed by Sarah Vaughan) (7:02)
  • The Illusion of Free Will (2:32)
  • Escher Loop (4:14)
  • The Ripples Must Be Endless (End Title) (3:14)
  • Are You Ready (written by Richard Ashcroft and Maurice Gibb, performed by Richard Ashcroft and the United Nations of Sound) (5:02)

Running Time: 56 minutes 33 seconds

Relativity Music Group (2011)

Music composed and conducted by Thomas Newman. Recorded and mixed by Tommy Vicari. Album produced by Thomas Newman.

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  1. Kevin
    March 11, 2011 at 7:08 am

    Good review, and unfortunately I have to agree. As a big Newman fan, I long for the day when he will write some grand, romantic-driven score like for Angels in America or The Good German. But given his past few scores, that seems to be less and less likely to happen.

    By the way, I really wouldn’t group Revolutionary Road or Little Children with In the Bedroom and Jarhead. The first two are more or less predominantly piano/string-driven, while the last two have almost no orchestra. Just the end titles suite to Revolutionary Road alone proves that point.

  2. Gary
    September 15, 2012 at 12:31 pm

    I disagree. Given the nature of the film, Newman composed as score that fits quite well. For the most part, this film wouldn’t work with a big, string-driven, lush score like Little Women, or Meet Joe Black. Like you said, it’s the sci-fi paranoia that drives this film. It’s romantic, but not in the same way as the other films. Also, like any good film composer, he’s very good at figuring out what the director/producers are after. Being a film composer myself, I know you don’t get to do whatever you think fits the bill. Part of the job. Also, I wouldn’t say there’s “little thematic content” in the scores you mentioned. They’re just presented in a different way which can be way harder to do than with all your strings and brass thrown in. Revolutionary Road has a beautiful piano driven main theme. I would say the end title cue from AB, “The Ripples Must Be Endless” has a very catchy motif. Not a big sweeping melody, but very haunting in its own way.

    I also wouldn’t say Shawshank and Oscar & Lucinda are ‘his father’s’ style. They’re very atmospheric and modern in a lot of ways. This is one of the reason’s I love Newmans’ work….his ability to create very haunting, lush and original atmospheric sounds…..very hard to do. Thomas Newman has changed in time but still manages to create beautiful original themes again and again. Easy to talk about, very difficult to do.

  1. March 12, 2011 at 2:59 am

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