Home > Reviews > MARRIAGE STORY – Randy Newman


November 26, 2019 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, before he became the King of All Pixar, Randy Newman often wrote scores for sensitive, small scale dramas – titles like Parenthood, Avalon, Awakenings, and then later Pleasantville. It’s been quite a while since he scored something similar, but Marriage Story is one of those types of films. It’s a contemporary drama that, essentially, takes an intimate look at the breakdown and eventual end of a marriage, and all the absurdities, legal wranglings, and emotional challenges such an event brings. The film stars Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as Charlie and Nicole, the couple whose relationship we witness coming to an end. Charlie is a brilliant and mercurial New York theater director, and Nicole is an actress, his muse, and the mother to their young son. As the film unfolds we see them beginning to come apart at the seams – slowly at first, and despite them having the best intentions to keep everything civil – until, eventually, all the raw emotion and suppressed anger comes flooding to the surface. Driver and Johansson are absolutely astonishing in their performances – open, multi-faceted, wholly believable, devastating – with one scene in Driver’s apartment standing as one of the best-acted single scenes I have watched in many, many years. There’s also terrific support from Alan Alda, Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, and Julie Hagerty, and a sparkling screenplay by writer-director Noah Baumbach.

It’s clear that Baumbach saw his film as something of a contemporary version of one of those French New Wave films of the 1960s, akin to something Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais, or François Truffaut might have directed in their heyday, where the inner lives and personal turmoils of ordinary people are laid bare for a cinematic audience. This also translated into his vision for the score, because Baumbach temped the movie with classic film scores of the period by Georges Delerue – things like Hiroshima Mon Amour, Le Mépris, and Jules et Jim, among others. As such, when Randy Newman came onto the project, his remit was clear: to emulate the sound of Delerue through his own lens, for a very modern story.

As pure music, Marriage Story is outstanding. It’s used quite sparingly in the film – the 25 minutes or so of score on the soundtrack album is basically everything – but Newman’s lyrical and emotional quality makes it a compelling listen nonetheless. He uses a fairly small ensemble comprising strings, piano, light woodwinds, harp, and occasional trumpets – and it’s all based around two recurring themes, one for Nicole and one for Charlie, both of which are presented in full in the first two cues, “What I Love About Nicole” and “What I Love About Charlie”. Both themes are very similar in tone and texture, and if you’re not listening closely the two melodies can easily bleed into each other. It’s actually quite clever, what Newman does, because he starts off by having the themes play almost contrapuntally, inexorably intertwined, and then over the course of the score he gradually unwinds them into two distinct melodic ideas, just like Charlie and Nicole separate from being one into two.

The textures and chord progressions are pure Randy Newman, with that slight hint of whimsy and delicacy underpinned by the heart and emotion that always comes through in his music. He moves his melodies around between the different instruments with effortless grace and elegance, refined violins over here, prancing woodwinds over there, pretty pianos over there, arranged in endlessly gorgeous combinations and harmonies. “Last Critique” has an especially lovely duet for oboe and piano at its core. “Procession to the Trailer” has some quirky, lightly jazzy brass as its prominent sound. “Trick or Treat” presents Charlie’s theme with a ragtime lilt in the piano. The swaggering piano line at the end of “Sockpants/Dirty Sockpants” will remind Newman song fans of the arrangement of “Shame” from his 1999 studio album Bad Love.

Later, “Shouting and Shopping” gives the piano the opportunity to engage in some flourishes and adornments. The conclusive “Sgt. Pepper Shoelaces,” which leads into the extended “End of Story” end credits sequence, offers beautifully rendered, tenderly emotional statements of both main themes, firstly for solo piano, and then for a slightly larger orchestral ensemble. Anyone who has ever enjoyed any of Newman’s family drama scores will find this album absolutely attuned to their taste.

But… here’s the thing. In the context of the film, it actually doesn’t work, or at least it didn’t for me. Newman says he saw the film as being as much of a comedy as it is a drama, especially in terms of the ridiculous legal shenanigans and loopholes both parties have to jump through. It’s a minefield of ludicrousness, Seinfeld meets Arrested Development, and that’s clearly a valid interpretation, but by frequently playing this more comedic angle Newman often undercuts and undersells the more serious drama. The audience watches a devastating emotional meltdown from one of the characters, a confrontation fuelled by bitterness and resentment, or a put-down or slight that cuts one of the characters to the core… and then in comes Newman’s pretty and delicate music as the scenes transition, and it immediately defuses all the tension. The audience is never allowed to properly invest in the emotional weight of what they have just seen, to digest it all and take it all in, before Newman makes it all feel light and dainty and – dare I say it – happy again.

It might be an odd criticism to make, especially coming from me, but I personally needed Newman’s score to be slightly less intrusive in context, because as soon as Newman’s music came in it invariably ruined the mood. By pitching the music with this tone, Newman was making me feel emotions that felt completely at odds with how Driver and Johansson had been acting, what their relationship was, and how the screenplay seemed to want me to feel. It’s a rare and almost unprecedented tonal miscalculation from a composer who is normally exemplary at this sort of thing, and I hate that I can’t be more positive about it from that point of view.

However, for anyone who has not seen the film (or has no plans to), this is all moot, and what is left is a completely captivating, wholly lovely listening experience that anyone who has appreciated any of Randy Newman’s previous intimate drama scores will surely take to heart. It’s rare in 2019 that a composer is asked to channel the spirit of New Wave-era Georges Delerue, and even rarer when a composer does it with this much taste and dexterity. The themes are lovely, the arrangements are sublime, and at just a touch under 30 minutes in length is a perfect accompaniment to a petit déjeuner of café au lait, pain au chocolat, and maybe a Gauloises or two.

Buy the Marriage Story soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • What I Love About Nicole (3:26)
  • What I Love About Charlie (3:43)
  • Last Critique (1:41)
  • Procession to the Trailer (1:20)
  • Nicole Tells Her Story (1:01)
  • Mommy Phase (1:32)
  • Trick or Treat (1:19)
  • New House (1:32)
  • Sockpants/Dirty Sockpants (1:27)
  • Shouting and Shopping (1:40)
  • Separate Lives (1:12)
  • What I Love About Charlie (Reprise) (1:36)
  • Sgt. Pepper Shoelaces (1:07)
  • End of Story (Credits) (2:46)

Running Time: 24 minutes 58 seconds

Lakeshore Records (2019)

Music composed and conducted by Randy Newman. Orchestrations by Don Davis. Recorded and mixed by David Boucher. Album produced by Randy Newman.

  1. 13mesh
    December 10, 2019 at 12:02 am

    Amazing score by Randy Newman for sure!

    I also happen to write a review about Marriage Story, here’s the link: https://meshthemoviefreak.wordpress.com/2019/12/09/marriage-story-2019-movie-review/ 🙂

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