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THE HIGHWAYMEN – Thomas Newman

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Bonnie Parker and Clyde Darrow were two of the most notorious American criminals of the 20th century, bank robbers and murderers who during their lifetimes attained an unlikely level of celebrity and public affection. Their most successful crime spree came at the peak of the Great Depression, in the early 1930s, and as lurid tales of their exploits did the rounds in the pulp press, they quickly became famous as modern-day outlaws, striking back at the ‘system’ that failed so many others. Their story came to an end in a hail of bullets on a rural Louisiana back road in May 1934, when they were shot and killed by a posse of Texas Rangers who had been tracking them for months. Their exploits were famously chronicled on film in 1967 in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde; this new film from director John Lee Hancock takes a slightly different perspective in that it is told from the point of view of Frank Hamer and Maney Gault, the two Texas Rangers who led the investigation and eventually made the decision to open fire on the crooks. The film stars Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson as Hamer and Gault, and has a supporting cast that includes Kathy Bates, John Carroll Lynch, Kim Dickens, Thomas Mann, and William Sadler.

The score for The Highwaymen is by Thomas Newman, who previously scored Hancock’s film Saving Mr. Banks in 2013. This is the first Newman score in almost two years; his last major effort was Stephen Frears’s period drama Victoria & Abdul in 2017, although he did dip his toes into television in 2018 writing music for the Hulu original series Castle Rock. This score marks the end of an unexpectedly lean period for Newman, who has scored at least one or two major films every year like clockwork since 1984, and picked up 14 Oscar nominations along the way. The thing is – and this may be somewhat sacrilegious, coming from me – is that I’m wondering whether his sound is starting to get a little dated and predictable. Don’t get me wrong, I love a great deal of what he does, and I was a big fan of Saving Mr. Banks, Spectre, Bridge of Spies, and Victoria & Abdul; but, when it comes to the Thomas Newman ‘sound’ as we know it in 2019, we know exactly what we’re going to get.

In many ways, The Highwaymen is a quintessential Thomas Newman score. It sounds exactly like you think a Thomas Newman score for a period drama set in the American west should sound. It has the unusual spiky rhythms that have dominated much of his writing since American Beauty in 1999. It has all the familiar metallic percussion items and quirky plucked strings that George Doering, Rick Cox, Steve Tavaglione, and his usual band of musical collaborators have been providing for years. It has a decent-sized orchestra to provide some warmth and emotion, with strings and woodwinds taking the lead. It’s all very familiar, and safe, and comfortable: peak Thomas Newman. Long-time devotees of his music will find themselves gently reminded of scores ranging from Fried Green Tomatoes and The Shawshank Redemption to The Green Mile, Erin Brockovich, Road to Perdition, White Oleander, The Help, and The Judge, although it isn’t as good as any of them. And that’s really the thing about The Highwaymen; it’s absolutely, 100% a Thomas Newman score, right down to its core, but it feels very much like a pale imitation of what we know Thomas Newman is capable of. All the ingredients are there, and in the right quantities, but somehow it has all come out a little bland.

That’s not to say there is no good music in The Highwaymen, because there absolutely is. The main title, “Ford V-8 Deluxe,” introduces many of the score’s recurring elements: virtuoso performances from guitars, banjos, fiddles, and what may be either an electric violin or an electric cello. There are hints of a melody on solo piano, and some rhythmic hootings from the woodwind section, but a lot of it is quite atmospheric and desolate, a depiction of the wind-swept dust-blown environs where much of the film takes place. These textural combinations form the bulk of the score, with the various instruments swapping and changing in cues, taking turns at taking the lead. Twangy guitars dominate “Ain’t She Fun,” cold pianos come to the fore in “Coffeyville,” a rousing fiddle in “Bottle Boy.” Elsewhere, Newman adds stronger and more potent rhythmic ideas to cues like the playful “Red Beans & Cabbage,” and in the second half of “West Dallas Viaduct.”

Things pick up somewhat in “Eastham Prison Farm,” where Newman allows his hitherto hidden penchant for country rock to come to the fore via some funky, upbeat rhythms enlivened further with electric fiddle and snappy percussion. This sound returns later in the similarly catchy “Billy Mace,” into which Newman adds some tremolo strings to give it a bit of swagger, and almost turning it into one of the score’s few moments of action material. Another moment of action comes during “Dope for the Girl,” which is darker and more aggressive than most of the rest of the score, and features thrumming guitars alongside relentless percussion and muted brass. “Metal Man” is another standout, featuring a standalone theme for piano and guitar augmented by curious, quirky metallic percussion.

Naturally, my favorite moments occur when Newman brings out his string section and performs a series of warm, wholesome-sounding string harmonies. “16 Bullets” and “Maney Gault” embrace this style wholeheartedly, while in “Across Texas” Newman allows his music to be effortlessly appealing, blending his gorgeous string cascades with the almost subliminal sounds of chirping cicadas which speak to the heat, the dust, and the landscape of the place. “Into Oklahoma” has a similar sound, but is more aggressive and determined, with a strong country sound for fiddles and guitars. “The Other Fifty” is perhaps the best example of this style of writing, and the music soars when Newman brings in his noble-sounding brass section.

The finale of the score – which, of course, accompanies the build-up to the confrontation between the Rangers and Bonnie & Clyde, the gunfight itself, and its aftermath – is curiously underwhelming, and never seems to fully embrace the gravity and drama of the situation. “Bienville Parish, LA” has a slight sense of inevitability, but “Ringgold Road” is actually somewhat slow, dreary, and droney, as if it is addressing the subdued emotions of the highwaymen rather than the intensity of the encounter itself. I can understand the decision to score it that way, if that’s how director Hancock is framing the moment in terms of the story, but it certainly seems to down-play what the shocking severity happened from a musical point of view. The aftermath of the shootout, in the cues “The Shame of Arcadia” and “Terrible Gift,” again under-dramatize the whole thing, although Newman’s use of eerie vocals to accompany the sad pianos makes for an interesting tonal addition.

The end title cue, “The Highwaymen,” features yet more virtuoso performances for banjo, fiddle, and electric cello, which are lively and drenched in the sound of the American west, and pick up a real head of steam. One thing to note, though, is that through all of this there is nothing that one can really identify as being the score’s main theme. This is odd, as Newman has always been an excellent writer of strong and memorable themes. The Highwaymen certainly has plenty of melody, and a couple of fun one-off tunes, but at the end of it all the score has a curious sense of anonymity to it, as if it’s all texture and nothing tangible.

And, for me, that will be my ultimate takeaway from The Highwaymen. It’s a score filled with appropriate instrumental ideas which are perfect for the setting and the period, and it screams Thomas Newman from every pore, but I won’t be able to recall a note of it afterwards. I would never accuse a composer of ‘going through the motions,’ because I know from experience that that never happens, but there are times in The Highwaymen where it does feel like Newman just brought out his usual bag of musical tricks and threw them all at the movie. Honestly, if you want to hear Thomas Newman’s musical depiction of prohibition era America or the landscape of the old west, go listen to one of those scores I name-checked in the third paragraph, because not only will you get everything that The Highwaymen has, but you will also get a lot more of what it lacks.

Buy the Highwaymen soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Ford V-8 Deluxe (Main Title) (3:39)
  • Eastham Prison Farm (1:21)
  • Bonnie and Clyde (2:04)
  • Ain’t She Fun (2:05)
  • 16 Bullets (1:04)
  • Maney Gault (1:51)
  • Coffeyville (1:28)
  • Red Beans & Cabbage (0:54)
  • Across Texas (2:21)
  • Into Oklahoma (1:34)
  • Laudanum (1:55)
  • Bass Man Jive (written by Cecil Mullins, performed by Ocie Stockard & His Wanderers) (2:33)
  • West Dallas Viaduct (3:15)
  • Bottle Boy (1:19)
  • Pump Jockey (1:39)
  • The Other Fifty (2:13)
  • Bad Seed (4:34)
  • Billy Mace (1:10)
  • Dope for the Girl (5:09)
  • Afraid to Dream from “You Can’t Have Everything” (written by Mack Gordon and Harry Revel, performed by Benny Goodman & His Orchestra) (2:42)
  • Easter Morning (1:38)
  • Metal Man (1:44)
  • Candelaria (5:26)
  • Bienville Parish, LA (2:37)
  • Cement City (1:41)
  • Ringgold Road (4:09)
  • The Shame of Arcadia (4:02)
  • Terrible Gift (2:57)
  • The Highwaymen (End Title) (6:29)

Running Time: 75 minutes 33 seconds

Sony Classical (2019)

Music composed and conducted by Thomas Newman. Orchestrations by J. A. C. Redford. Featured musical soloists George Doering, Rick Cox, Steve Tavaglione and Charlie Bisharat. Recorded and mixed by Thomas Vicari. Edited by Bill Bernstein. Album produced by Thomas Newman.

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