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TOLKIEN – Thomas Newman

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The great English author John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, who was born in 1892 and died in 1973, is generally regarded as being the author who popularized the high fantasy genre in literature, via his classic novels The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion. Although the stories themselves are now part of our established cultural lexicon – thanks in no small part to Peter Jackson’s films – the life of Tolkien himself is not especially well known. Director Dome Karukoski’s film, which stars Nicholas Hoult as Tolkien, seeks to address that, and in so doing explore how his life experiences shaped his literary output. The film is set mostly in World War I, specifically the Battle of the Somme, where Tolkien served as a second lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers. Tolkien spent much of the war ill as a result of the terrible conditions in the trenches, and as he recovers the film reveals his life in flashback: the death of his mother, him growing up in an orphanage (where he meets his future wife Edith), his school days in Birmingham, the formation of the Tea Club and Barrovian Society (a group of like-minded lifelong friends dedicated to self-improvement through art, music, poetry, and literature), and his subsequent study at the University of Oxford, where a fortuitous encounter with a professor of philology encourages his love of language and his appreciation for great Old English and Nordic sagas like Beowulf, the combination of which would help define his work.

Tolkien is a very English story, told with an attention to period detail and an eye for the societal conventions in which he grew up, but one of the things I liked about it was how it allows Tolkien aficionados to muse about how his life informed his work. Karukoski’s film asks the viewer to draw comparisons between the bloody battlefields of northern France and the hellish landscape of Mordor; the smoke from the German bombs swirls into nightmarish demons, flamethrowers turn into fire breathing dragons. The members of the TCBS instill in Tolkien the notions of brotherhood and honor that would come to define the relationship between Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin. Tolkien’s relationships with the paternal Father Morgan (Colm Meaney) and the scholarly Professor Wright (Derek Jacobi) morph into the form of Gandalf, who is made to adopt the best personality traits of these two men. And, of course, the love of his life Edith (Lily Collins) provides inspiration for both Arwen and Lúthien, the Elvish princesses whose love stories provides the backbone for much of his works. The pace is slow, but it’s a fascinating and entertaining look at the way in which art imitates life, and how the desperation and devastation of war can inspire great artistic beauty in those who survive it.

Dome Karukoski’s films in his native Finland have inspired some excellent scores, most notably Panu Aaltio’s The Home of Dark Butterflies from 2008, and Tolkien is no exception. The score for Tolkien is by Thomas Newman, who was apparently given much longer than usual – something approaching a year, by some accounts – to prep, research, and write the score. It’s very interesting to think that, in the minds of most people who pay attention to these things, anything to do with hobbits or Middle Earth is accompanied by the music of Howard Shore, and of course Thomas Newman sounds nothing like him, in tone or approach. I wonder how this will be received? Of course, the real life story of JRR Tolkien has no logical reason to sound anything like the music Shore composed for Lord of the Rings, but I do fear that many people will hear this music and fall prey to a disconnect which stops them from appreciating it fully simply because it sounds nothing like ‘traditional’ Lord of the Rings music.

What it sounds like instead is a very traditional Thomas Newman score. It has all the things that has made Newman famous throughout the years – the pianos, the effortlessly elegant strings, and the unique complement of specialty metallic and woodwind instruments twanging and fluttering away in the background, which in this instance include a psaltery, a hurdy-gurdy, a Bansuri wood flute, and a hammered dulcimer. It contains many of the gorgeous orchestral textures we have come to associate with Newman’s writing over the years, and in this case also finds time to work in a subtle and occasionally quite unusually-voiced choir. If one was to make comparisons to other scores in Newman’s past, works like Oscar & Lucinda, The Horse Whisperer, and The Shawshank Redemption, crossed with a little bit of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and a splash of Victoria & Abdul, spring to mind. Unfortunately the one thing that it lacks, and which stops it from reaching the exalted heights of those other scores, is thematic strength.

There are themes in Tolkien, but for the most part they are like gossamer, fleeting, imperceptible, gone before you realize you’re listening to one, and difficult to bring back. Having listened to the score multiple times, and seen the film, it’s clear what the themes should be, but for some reason Newman never follows the leitmotif lead of Wagner – whose music plays a major part in the plot of the film – and instead provides little proto-melodies, recurring textures and cellular ideas, which are lovely but very rarely coalesce into anything you can really grasp on to.

Having said that, the most obvious recurring idea appears to be what I am calling the ‘Helheimr Theme,’ so named after the Nordic yawp of encouragement the four friends adopt as their battle cry. The theme is a wonderful amalgam of darting pianos, trilling metallic instruments, lithe woodwinds, and a sheen of warm strings, energetic and playfully positive. The most unique aspect of the theme, however, are the vocals, which are clearly live people, but have been distorted and electro-acoustically manipulated in post production to sound like synths. The voices don’t appear to be saying anything tangible, and my feeling is that they are intended to represent the origins of the languages Tolkien creates in his head, gradually developing but not yet fully formed. You can hear these ideas clearly in cues like “Impecunious Circumstances,” the excellent “The TCBS,” and later in “A Good Man in the Dirt,” “Sunlit,” and “Everything That’s Good”.

The Helheimr Theme is counterbalanced by the much more serious music which underscores Tolkien’s experiences of trench warfare during World War I. Cues such as “Dragons,” “The Great War,” “Army of the Dead,” and “Black Rider” are written mostly for piano, strings, and synths, and have a desolate, eerie sound. It is in these sequences that Tolkien has his visions of monstrous demons, spectral figures of shadow and smoke which haunt the expanses of no-mans-land and turn his friends into smoldering husks of forgotten humanity, but which would later inspire him to create orcs and the Nazgûl, Sauron and the Balrog. Some of the later cues introduce disconcerting whispering effects, and occasionally become quite angry and dissonant, offsetting low brasses against shrill strings.

Tolkien’s life-defining romance with Edith seems to have a recurring motif, a 5-note idea for harp, which makes itself heard in cues like “White As Bone” and “Eik,” and often finds itself combined with feathery and iridescent synths, twisty and circuitous strings, and exotic-sounding writhing woodwinds. However, this idea is also mixed up with additional writing which seems to also relate to other things Tolkien loves: the English countryside and its pastoral nature, exotic languages, and ancient tales of knights and warriors, so it’s not entirely clear where one idea begins and the other one ends. Tolkien romanticized Edith as an elf princess named Lúthien Tinúviel, and in the cue of that name Newman uses soft pianos, lilting solo voices, and magical-sounding chimes that conjure up a vaguely Celtic atmosphere similar to the music of Enya and Clannad. Cues like “Vinátta” and “Other Sorts of Scars” also adopt the Enya-esque sound, with the choir singing the word ‘vinátta’ like a requiem in the former. Meanwhile, in “The Ascanius,” which is the name of the boat on which Tolkien leaves for war, Newman accentuates the sad parting between John and Edith with melancholy pianos, breathy voices, a soft string wash, and chimes which sound like rain.

Other moments of note include a brief, dramatic piece for pianos and strings for a scene where Tolkien plays “Rugby,” the hesitant romance of “Dutch Courage,” the peculiar groaning voices towards the end of “Starlit,” and the softly hooting oboes for “Geoffrey,” Tolkien’s best friend and the member of the TCBS who teaches him about unrequited love from the most unexpected perspective.

The finale of the score begins with “Dark Magic,” which is pretty and elegant, airy and soothing, and underscores the scene where – much later – Tolkien describes to his young children what his new book will be about. The subsequent “Fellowship” is for me the outstanding cue on the album, a lyrical piece which is built around a 7-note piano motif, appears to combine elements from both the Helheimr theme and the Lúthien Tinúviel love theme, and regularly emerges into a series of gorgeous, effortlessly Newmanesque textures. There is a pretty lilt in the strings, the woodwinds float in the breeze, and the vocal stylings speak of peace and tranquility. “Helheimr (End Crawl)” plays over the end credits, and is an especially lovely version of that theme, but which ends with a slightly bittersweet piece of writing for solo dulcimer, gently recalling the brotherhood of friends that Tolkien loved, and lost.

Despite the lack of truly strong thematic content, I enjoyed Tolkien quite a lot. However, as I said, my fear is that some people will dismiss it for one of two reasons. Firstly, the fact that the sound and style of Howard Shore is so ingrained into popular culture as being the ‘true’ sound of Lord of the Rings could make it difficult for some listeners to accept another composer’s stylistic approach. Secondly, the fact that this score is so rooted in Thomas Newman’s well-defined career-encompassing sound may cause some listeners to dismiss it as being ‘the same old Thomas Newman,’ the usual plinky-plonky pianos, string washes, and zinging dulcimers we have heard a hundred times before, and which now have nothing new to offer. While there may be some merit in these criticisms, especially the second one, I still found this score to be a delight. It has a warm, inviting sound that draws you into Tolkien’s flights of fantasy and imagination, allows you to experience the world through his eyes, and encourages you to gain some insight into the inspiration behind one of the great literary masterpieces of the twentieth century.

Buy the Tolkien soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Dragons (1:14)
  • Impecunious Circumstances (1:26)
  • The Great War (1:42)
  • The TCBS (2:48)
  • White As Bone (3:29)
  • John Ronald (1:33)
  • Vinátta (Friendship) (0:42)
  • Rugby (0:49)
  • Kings and Queens (1:25)
  • Army of the Dead (1:48)
  • Lúthien Tinúviel (1:45)
  • A Good Man in the Dirt (2:45)
  • Dutch Courage (1:46)
  • Sunlit (1:15)
  • Starlit (2:26)
  • Everything That’s Good (1:18)
  • Geoffrey (1:21)
  • Eik (Oak) (1:37)
  • The Ascanius (1:53)
  • Black Rider (3:21)
  • Scuppered (Ancient Things) (2:17)
  • Other Sorts of Scars (2:51)
  • Dark Magic (1:17)
  • Fellowship (5:06)
  • Helheimr (End Crawl) (3:30)

Running Time: 51 minutes 35 seconds

Sony Classical (2019)

Music composed and conducted by Thomas Newman. Orchestrations by J.A.C. Redford. Featured musical soloists George Doering, Paul Clarvis, Nick Cooper, Andrew Cronshaw, Sonia Slany and Phil Todd. Recorded and mixed by Simon Rhodes and Shinnosuke Miyazawa. Edited by Bill Bernstein. Album produced by Thomas Newman.

  1. supermegaa
    May 16, 2019 at 5:20 pm

    To be fair, when you see titles on the album literally named “Dragons” or “Fellowship”, you expect some kind of reference to Howard Shore’s themes for said object, at least a quick, one-off one. It’s not exactly unreasonable for people to expect the fellowship theme to pop up when Tolkien is creating the concept.

  2. Kev
    May 19, 2019 at 9:40 pm

    It’s funny you mention Oscar and Lucinda, Shawshank, et al for similarities. I actually thought this was a slightly more refined Saving Mr. Banks, another movie about a famous British author.

  3. Ian Simpson
    May 22, 2019 at 4:56 pm

    Yes, I was pleasantly surprised by this score, after being a bit disappointed by Thomas Newman’s score for The Highwaymen and expecting the score for Tolkein to be “the same old Thomas Newman”. I think this one manages to break beyond that, and I particularly like the theme in “John Ronald” and also the tracks “Fellowship” and “Helheimr (End Crawl)”. I didn’t think much of the film when I saw it but I think this is one of Newman’s best scores of recent years, though still not quite in the same class as Meet Joe Black and Angels in America.

  4. Lily Lotus Rose
    October 29, 2019 at 9:21 pm

    Excellent review. I agree with much, if not all, of your comments. Yes, Thomas Newman’s score seems to be comprised of his “usual bag of tricks,” yet somehow, the score manages to be beautiful and engaging nonetheless.

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