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AVALON – Randy Newman


Original Review by Craig Lysy

Avalon offered Barry Levinson’s third installment of his semi-autobiographical tetralogy of ”Baltimore Films” – Diner (1982), Tin Men (1987), Avalon (1990) and Liberty Heights (1999) – which explored immigrant life in his hometown Baltimore from the 1940s through the 1960s. He served as producer, director and screenwriter for the project and his production company Baltimore Pictures financed the film. He brought in a first class cast, which included Leo Fuchs as Hymie Krichinsky, Lou Jacobi as Gabriel Krichinsky, Armin Mueller-Stahl as Sam Krichinsky, Joan Plowright as Eva Krichinsky, Israel Rubinek as Nathan Krichinsky, Eve Gordon as Dottie Kirk, Elizabeth Perkins as Ann Kaye, Aiden Quinn as Jules Kaye and Elijah Wood as Michael Kaye. The film offers a commentary on the challenges of immigrant Russian-Jews trying to assimilate in America. Sam, the patriarch of the Krichinsky family, arrives in 1914 to forge a new life, eventually settling in Baltimore where he works as a wallpaper man. Matriarch Eva is firmly grounded in the old ways and ensures the family stays true to its roots. Conflicts between old country familial culture and modern American culture are inevitable and elicit generational clashes as Sam and Eva struggle to balance the old with the new. Despite hardships, which include an armed robbery, a devastating home fire, and children abandoning their surname for an American one, the family holds together, weathering the storm, united in love. The film was a commercial success and secured four Academy Award nominations including Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design and Best Film Score.

Levinson had greatly enjoyed his collaboration with Randy Newman on The Natural in 1984 and felt he was a perfect fit for the film. He relates: “Randy came up very quickly, I obviously worked with him on The Natural, but I thought this would be perfect for him, because the piano was an important element in the piece. You know, we see it being brought down the street in a rainstorm and into the house, and the grandfather can play the piano. So I thought ‘piano.’ When I was writing, I was thinking of Randy.” Newman understood that this was when all was said and done, the story of a family struggling to adapt to a new country, a new culture and new technology, which challenged the comfort and familiarity of the old ways. As such, he astutely chose a small ensemble for his soundscape. There is a “Once Upon A Time” sensibility, and a strong undercurrent of aching nostalgia that permeates the score, yet this is coupled with a comfortable and enduring familial warmth. Newman would provide waltzes, which bring old world charm as well as well as blessing us with a multiplicity of exquisite solo performances by flute, piano, trumpet and violin. The score is supported by three primary themes including; the Main Theme is multi-phrasic in construct. It offers a slow, minor modal valzer dolce with its tender A Phrase carried by solo piano gentile with woodwind adornment. Its B Phrase is more elegant and lyrical, carried lush strings. There is whimsical and nostalgic quality to this theme, yet one, which imbues a warm, and rose-tinted perspective.

I believe Newman perfectly captured the essence of Levinson’s vision with this beautiful piece. The Brothers Theme is kindred to the Main Theme in that it also emotes with the sensibilities of an waltz, in this case, a valzer gentile which Newman infuses ethnic Jewish auras. We are graced by a heartfelt solo violin, which is accompanied by kindred strings with woodwind adornment. The Family Theme is in many ways the most moving, as it is intrinsically bound up in the very fabric of the Krichinsky family. Newman reveals his mastery of his craft in weaving a melodic construct, which offers a multiplicity of emotions where sadness, nostalgia and familial warmth find a stirring confluence. For me, this theme may be one of the finest in Newman’s canon. Lastly, Newman understood that to ground the story he needed to infuse his soundscape with contemporaneous music of the era. As such a multiplicity of source music was woven into the fabric of his score.

“1914” offers a score highlight with a full rendering of the exquisite Main Theme. It supports the roll of the opening credits, which usher in commentary by Sam Krichinsky as he relates his story of coming to America. There is a sense of wonderment in his eyes as he watches the festive celebration of the 4th of July, alight with fireworks. Newman juxtaposes with the waltz, which speaks to the old world charm of Sam’s former life with his new life in America. We feel Sam, and Newman in a masterstroke captures the story’s emotional core. In “Weekend Musicians” we are offered another score highlight as Newman introduces his second primary theme. Sam relates to his retinue of young children how the five brothers after a hard week of working as wallpaper men, would celebrate life and family as musicians. They would as a violin quintet play at Balls and other formal social gatherings gracing the events with the elegance of old world charm. The scene offers an exquisite exposition of the Brother’s Theme as we see them playing on the balcony over a grand dance floor. The theme gains emotive power when Sam and Eva’s eyes lock, and we see the flame of love kindled. Soon the crowd vanishes and at 1:18 we see Sam and Eva dancing, a world unto themselves and as they dance in a flowing circle, so too does the music, revolving in graceful elegance.

“Jules & Michael” reveals Jules returning to his car on Christmas night to drive home with his son. He is brutally robbed and stabbed before Michael’s eyes. As they ride together in the ambulance to hospital, Newman belies the gravity of the situation and the anxiety in Michael’s eyes with gossamer like rendering of the Main Theme on piano delicato. At 1:20 strings affanato usher in a plaintive shifting of the melody, which descends with despair, ending without resolution as Jules in a delirium of blood loss flashes back to his childhood, regressing to the warm and loving embrace of his father. “Television, Television, Television” was dialed out of the film. Newman’s conception was to offer a playful oompah comic ditty to celebrate the arrival of the family’s first TV set. The following binary cue is sequenced backwards on the album from the film. At 1:09 in “Moving Day” we see Michael and his mother watching their home’s furniture being loaded into the moving vans. Newman supports the scene with a beautiful free-flowing melody carried by piano gentile and woodwinds delicato. The scene is seen from Michael’s child-like perspective; the music is kindred to the Main Theme, yet more optimistic and sunny in its expression. In a scene change with “Avalon” Sam reminisces with Jules in the now empty house about their early life here as a family. Jules is uprooting his family to move to the suburbs and Sam is aching with nostalgia, viewing the departure with an abiding sadness. Newman supports the heartfelt moment with a wistful rendering of the Family Theme, replete with an elegiac trumpet, which fleshes out both the overt and unspoken emotions felt by Sam and Jules.

In “Circus”, the Family Circle of relatives is debating the venue of the next meeting as they swelter in the heat. They all rush out front when they see the circus parading down the street. Newman supports its progress with classic big top circus music emoted as a methodical marcia festoso, replete with kettle drums and tuba! At 1:35 we flow into a wondrous score highlight as Newman graces us with perhaps the score’s most gorgeous rendering of the Family Theme. The music is heartfelt, warm and abounding with familial love. The final statement by clarinet, which closes the scene, is just so moving. As Sam sits with the kids, he reminisces about the days when he owned a nightclub. Newman supports the nightclub scene with a classic Swing piece that features trumpet, alto sax animato, piano and festive female vocals. This music was not included on the album. In “Wedding” the nightclub scene continues, and Jules and first cousin Nathan inform Sam that they each got married. When Sam asks to see the wedding certificates he becomes enraged, as Jules has changed his surname to Kaye, and Nathan to Kirk. He shouts that they are Krichinskys and we see the anguish in his eyes, the betrayal of the family name, and the abandonment of the old ways. Newman speaks to the powerful emotions here with a nostalgic rendering of the Main Theme with an evocative statement by a beautiful trumpet solo. At 1:22 the warm and more hopeful closing statement by solo flute informs us that love will prevail, and that the family will weather the storm.

“The Family” offers one of the score’s finest cues. It reveals Eva and Sam greeting her long lost brother who survived a Nazi concentration camp at the train station. As the family meets at Gabriel’s house to organize contributions to support them, Sam is enraged when they refuse to offer aid. Argument with hurtful words ensues, which causes Sam to resign as President of the Family Circle and to leave, declaring to Gabriel that he will never return. As they drive off Newman graces us with a wondrous exposition of the Main Theme, rendered in a multiplicity of variations, which supports a montage of scenes; a soliloquy by solo piano carries their silent and sad journey home. At 1:36 the piano line becomes rich and emotes as source music as we see Sam playing the piano for Michael. At 2:00 we change scenes to Sam wallpapering his bedroom for Sam and Ann’s new baby, advising Michael that they will be moving out to find their own place. A bridge by solo violin and kindred strings, ushers in a stirring confluence of strings, woodwinds and twinkling piano, which supports a panorama of the town, department store and neighborhood, bringing us to hospital where Ann departs with the new baby. As Sam hugs his grandchild and then departs, we return to the solo piano and conclude with the waltz, now bittersweet, yet also tender, and full of familial love. “No More Television” was excised from the film. Eva cannot get the TV to work, and Sam says just turn it off, bellowing – we will listen to the radio. Newman’s conception for the scene was a farcical and festive piece carried by string and horns animato to support Eva’s futile and comical efforts to get a picture.

In “The Fire” Michael and Teddy set fire to a model airplane in the department store basement, which they thought they extinguished, yet now believe caused a massive conflagration that destroyed Jules’ and Nathan’s department store. Newman scores the scene sowing darkness with forlorn horns, which give way to a plaintive trumpet elegy. Despite the tragedy hope remains as the Family Theme returns at 1:24 offering both solace and warmth. Later as Michael confesses to Jules we discover that the fire started as an electrical fire on the 4th floor, which exonerates Michael. At 2:17 woodwinds reaffirm familial love and hope, and we close with a moving tribute to a father’s love for his son. “Funeral” reveals Eva again complaining of indigestion. She leaves the picnic to take a stroll to walk it off with Michael and Teddy. The piano carried Main Theme carries their progress until she collapses. At 1:04 strings doloroso usher in the cemetery, where Eva is laid to rest. As Sam and Jules’ family departs, Sam relates his devastation that so many family members did not attend, even Eva’s brother. Newman harnesses the powerful emotions of grief, despair and disappointment with a stirring string requiem, so full of heartache, which culminates with an elegiac trumpet farewell. We conclude with a final reprise by solo flute, which never resolves, instead fading to nothingness.

“End Titles” offers a wonderful score highlight, a classic suite which features the score’s primary themes. We open with the Main Theme transfers the melody among woodwinds and solo violin with piano adornment. At 2:00 solo violin carries us into the Brother’s Theme, joined by kindred strings and piano for a wonderful extended iteration. At 4:24 we are graced with the Family Theme, which emotes with familial warmth and tenderness. We close at 6:10 with a whimsical and nostalgic reprise of the bittersweet Main Theme.

This review of Randy Newman’s masterwork score for Avalon is based on the original 1990 soundtrack release, and I believe the score merits a reissue in complete form with current state of the art digital mastering. I believe this score fully realized Barry Levinson’s vision, achieving in scene after scene a wondrous confluence of film narrative and music. This is a score, which demonstrates Randy Newman’s mastery of his craft. His three primary themes fleshed out and enhanced the powerful intersection of emotions of this family’s journey, always nurturing amidst the difficulties, struggles and tragedy, a kernel of hope. This is a score that graces us with his remarkable gift of melody, a score, which you feel deeply. I consider it a gem of the Bronze Age and one of the finest in Newman’s canon. I highly recommend it s addition to your collection.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a Youtube link to the Main Title “1914”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D-tsnSW8vcI

Buy the Avalon soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • 1914 (3:42)
  • Weekend Musicians (1:34)
  • Avalon / Moving Day (2:35)
  • Jules And Michael (2:39)
  • Television, Television, Television (0:45)
  • Circus (3:43)
  • Wedding (1:53)
  • The Family (5:00)
  • The Fire (3:35)
  • No More Television (0:44)
  • Funeral (3:21)
  • End Titles (7:19)

Running Time: 36 minutes 50 seconds

Reprise Records 7599-26437-2 (1990)

Music composed and conducted by Randy Newman. Orchestrations by Jack Hayes. Recorded and mixed by Frank Wolf. Edited by James Flamberg. Album produced by James Flamberg and Frank Wolf.

  1. Suzanne Noel
    April 9, 2019 at 9:29 am

    Thank you for this in-depth analysis of the soundtrack. I, too, love this score. The pieces bring back memories of each scene, so beautiful and bittersweet. Especially evocative for me is “Avalon/Moving Day.” How Randy Newman didn’t win an Oscar for this score, I’ll never know.

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