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AWAKENINGS – Randy Newman


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

In 1969 the acclaimed neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks was a 36-year-old physician at Beth Abraham Hospital’s chronic-care facility in the Bronx in New York. While there, Sacks began working with a group of survivors of the 1920s sleeping sickness encephalitis lethargica, who had been unable to move on their own for decades, and existed in a state of catatonia. After surmising that the new experimental drug L-DOPA may have a positive effect on his patients he began administering it to a test group; it had immediate, miraculous results, with several patients emerging from their stupor and regaining almost all of their cognitive faculties. Unfortunately, the effects of the drugs were short lived, and the patients eventually regressed to their catatonic states, but not before many of them related their experiences and life stories. Sacks eventually published the details of his work in the non-fiction book Awakenings, which was adapted into this film by Steven Zaillian in 1990. Robin Williams starred as Malcolm Sayer (Sacks by another name), with Robert De Niro turning in a tour-de-force performance as Leonard, one of the patients he revives. The film was directed by Penny Marshall, and co-starred John Heard, Julie Kavner, Penelope Ann Miller, and Max von Sydow; it was also a tremendous critical success, receiving Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor for De Niro, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

The score for Awakenings was by Randy Newman, and was one of several completely serious dramatic scores he wrote in the 1980s and 1990s, alongside things like The Natural, Avalon, and The Paper. Although Newman remains best known for his work in Pixar animation, scoring an endless litany of Toy Story movies, Cars movies, and Monsters Incs., as well as for his brilliant and sardonic songwriting, I have always had a very strong connection with his drama scoring. Newman has always been incredibly sensitive to this sort of drama, quickly finding the underlying emotion in his films, and using his small orchestral ensembles and quietly moving themes to enhance it. I still think he’s undervalued in this regard, and Awakenings is a prime example of why, because it’s a superb, subtle, but emotionally powerful reflection of the overarching themes of the movie – the joy of reclaiming a life you thought you had lost, and the tragedy of seeing it slip through your fingers.

Newman uses a small and mostly consistent set of orchestrations to carry his score, concentrating on solo woodwind, harp, and piano performances backed by light strings and a small, almost imperceptible synth keyboard. There are several recurring themes that emerge out of the score, including one for De Niro’s character Leonard, one for Dr Sayer, and a lightly romantic theme to illustrate the tender but ultimately ill-fated potential relationship between Leonard and Paula, the daughter of another hospital patient. Some listeners may have trouble distinguishing the themes from one another, because they do tend to play consecutively and contrapuntally alongside each other throughout the score, and the fact that all the themes are carried by the same instrumental ensemble almost makes them feel like interchangeable extensions of each other. Despite this, the overall tone is lovely – reflective, thoughtful, sometimes a little upbeat, but mostly a little sad, commenting on the frustration that Sayer feels as he slowly learns that his efforts to save his patients are mostly in vain.

Leonard’s theme is, appropriately, introduced in the opening cue “Leonard,” a whimsical and child-like piece with an intimate and gossamer-light waltz rhythm underpinning the melody. Towards the end of the cue the theme becomes a little twisted, tinged with tragedy, as this previously healthy child’s life is stopped in its tracks by a virus that renders him institutionalized for the next 40 years. How can that not be heartbreaking? The subsequent theme for “Dr. Sayer” is calm and cautious, as befits a man who is dedicated to science and medicine, but it also has a vague hint of jazz in some of the chord progressions, commenting on his tendency towards creative out-of-the-box thinking. The piano writing in this cue is especially lovely, earmarking Sayer as a good and decent man.

“Lucy” features another downcast theme for another patient on Leonard’s ward; this cue is suffused with a touch of bitterness and overwhelming melancholy, but this doesn’t last long as the hopeful tones of “Catch” – which underscores the scene where Leonard reacts to, and catches, a thrown baseball, much to the astonishment of everyone – raise the spirits. The subsequent “Rilke’s Panther” introduces the lovely, gentle romance theme for Leonard and Paula, which features the most prominent use of subtle electronics, and has some echoes of The Natural while also foreshadowing parts of Pleasantville, especially through the carefully-rendered jazz inflections in the oboes.

The rest of the score mostly comprises a series of reprises of these themes in different combinations, creating a lovely overall sheen of peaceful reflection, wide-eyed wonderment to capture Leonard’s appreciation of the new world around him, and the determination that Sayer shows as he tries to make the catatonic reversal by the “L Dopa” drug permanent. The title cue “Awakenings” is an especially lovely 5-minute arrangement of several themes one after the other, with a notably intense and determined piano motif that comes in around the 4:00 mark. “Escape Attempt” is the score’s one attempt at suspense and light action, a 50-second rumble of brass and percussion. Later, “Dexter’s Tune” features a piano solo by Newman which is very likely a tribute to jazz legend Dexter Gordon, who had a non-speaking cameo role in the film, but sadly died of kidney failure just a few months after shooting his scenes.

The penultimate cue, “The Reality of Miracles,” is a pretty but desperately sad return to the romance theme as Leonard is forced to say goodbye to Paula, him having realized that his decline back into catatonia is imminent. The conversation between Sayer and his chief nurse Eleanor, in which Dr. Sayer says to her “You told him I was a kind man. How kind is it to give life only to take it away again?”, only for her to philosophically reply “It’s given and taken away from all of us,” is the core message of the film, and Newman’s quietly moving orchestral textures offer a rumination on this idea. The conclusive “End Title” is a six-minute reprise of everything the score has to offer in suite form, and would be the cue to listen to if you’re wondering whether or not to give the full score a try.

Awakenings is a quiet score, not given to significant outbursts of sentimental emotion, but which instead follows the journey of these two men in a way that is both life affirming and hopeful, but also sad, much like life itself. Randy Newman’s subtle orchestral textures, elegant themes, and moments of understated romance will appeal to anyone who appreciates the other scores in his filmography that follow a similar path – The Natural, Avalon, Parenthood, Pleasantville, and others – but anyone who finds his work to be a little too twee or overly-saccharine may have a hard time connecting with it. Personally, I think it’s one of Newman’s best.

Buy the Awakenings soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Leonard (4:32)
  • Dr. Sayer (1:39)
  • Lucy (3:11)
  • Catch (1:10)
  • Rilke’s Panther (3:11)
  • L Dopa (3:09)
  • Awakenings (5:43)
  • Time of the Season (written by Rod Argent, performed by The Zombies) (3:14)
  • Outside (1:05)
  • Escape Attempt (0:50)
  • Ward Five (3:29)
  • Dexter’s Tune (2:39)
  • The Reality of Miracles (2:29)
  • End Title (6:00)

Running Time: 42 minutes 20 seconds

Reprise Records 7599-26466-2-8 (1990)

Music composed and conducted by Randy Newman. Orchestrations by Jack Hayes. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Jim Flamberg and Laura Perlman. Album produced by Randy Newman and Jim Flamberg.

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