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THE LITTLE THINGS – Thomas Newman

February 9, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

On paper, The Little Things should be a guaranteed smash hit. It’s written and directed by John Lee Hancock, the man behind Academy Award nominated films like The Blind Side and Saving Mr. Banks. It stars three Oscar-winning actors of genuine pedigree – Denzel Washington, Jared Leto, and Rami Malek – and has an excellent supporting cast of reliable character actors, as well as top-notch behind the scenes crew. The plot concerns the hunt for a serial killer in Los Angeles in the 1990s, a traumatized ageing detective called back into action, a hotshot young investigator who clashes with his superiors, and a cat and mouse chase through the darkest parts of the Southland which pits the hunter(s) against the hunted. It’s a recipe for success. So how did it end up being so terrible? How did the screenplay get so that it was both confusing and predictable at the same time? How did these three acclaimed thespians veer so wildly between somnambulance and embarrassing over-acting? How on earth did both the Golden Globe voters and the members of the Screen Actors Guild think that Leto’s off-putting performance as a dead-eyed weirdo was in any way awards worthy? These are questions to which I will likely never know the answer, but there we are.

The score for The Little Things is by Thomas Newman, who previously worked with director Hancock on Saving Mr. Banks in 2013 and The Highwaymen in 2019. Newman’s output has slowed to just one or two scores a year over the past few years, and although he received acclaim and an Oscar nomination for 1917 in 2019, his work of late has been mostly low-key and understated, concentrating on minimalist, rhythmic scores that are significantly removed from the strongly thematic works that endeared him to so many through the 1990s and early 2000s. The Little Things is very much one of these quieter works. There’s no orchestra per se – it’s a score made up mostly of piano riffs and electronic loops, plus the usual array of jangling guitars and unusual percussion items courtesy of Newman’s usual complement of instrumental soloists Steve Tavaglione, George Doering, and Rick Cox. It’s a score that dwells in mostly atmospheric and dark places, adding to the overall tone of murkiness, and suiting the look of the film, with its grimy apartments and trash-strewn streets. It’s a score that follows the investigation with an array of hypnotic grooves, inquisitive and dogged. And then occasionally it becomes unexpectedly hopeful, allowing the briefest hints of warmth and redemption to peek through the gloom. It suits the film well enough – but in terms of a listening experience, it tests the patience a great deal.

There are two main ideas that people will likely be drawn to the most. The first is the music for Jared Leto’s character, Albert Sparma, as he insinuates himself into the serial killer investigation and leads the detectives on a merry chase of suspicion and misdirection. The opening cue, “Chevy Nova,” features strong, bold, intensely jazzy piano riffs, backed by electric guitars, synth tones, and metallic percussion textures, creating a sense of relentless forward motion and determination of purpose. Later, “Shirley Temple To Go” offers a variation of this idea re-worked into an action chase piece, dramatic and pulsating and with the rhythmic part of the motif switching between piano and electric guitar. Finally, “I Won’t Bite” begins with a set of eerie high-pitched whines and drones underscoring the tense confrontation between cop and suspect in a police interrogation room, before the jazz piano from the opening cue returns in earnest.

The second recurring idea relates to the hesitant friendship that develops between Deke and Jim, Washington and Malek’s characters, as they bond over their obsessive desire to catch the killer, and the toll that obsession has on their personal lives. This music is the most recognizably ‘Newmanesque’ music in the score, often pairing soft piano riffs against a pretty sampled string wash, tinkling chimes, and light woodwinds bolstered by synths. Cues like “Hollywood Cross,” “La Loma Bridge,” and “End of the World” feature this style prominently, and it really helps give depth to the relationship between the two men who grow to respect and even admire each other, despite their differences.

The rest of the score is, essentially, made up of moody instrumental textures and electronic stylistics that (with just a few exceptions) don’t really go anywhere or do anything of note other than add aural ambiance at the expense of silence. This is the sort of Thomas Newman scoring I find the most frustrating; it’s very clearly Thomas Newman’s work – his fingerprints are all over the score in the shape of numerous little motivic ideas, little chord progressions and little instrumental touches that have been hallmarks of his scores for decades – but in those other scores these are used as background flavoring for the thematic content, before the meat of the score kicks in, not as the focus of the score entirely. It’s all sort of wishy-washy and intangible, not saying anything of note, but just sort of floating around in the background to give the film’s sound mix a little bit of color.

One or two of these cues are somewhat notable. “Musica Latina” is an unusual, dreamy combination of piano and synth textures alongside ethereal vocals. “Gentlemen’s Club” is groovy, and a little sleazy, featuring prominent finger snaps and vocal scatting. “Buck Twenty” provides the first appearance of an idea that blends a plucked harp with soft vocals and is much more prominent in the film itself, appearing in several different scenes. “Reverend Captain” features strummed guitars, harps, and Newman woodwinds, and has a tuneful and folk-like sound that is very pretty when compared with the music that surrounds it.

At the other end of the scale, “Mosman’s” is a chilling cue that uses eerie insect-like electronic sounds and an array of processed vocals that sound like choristers from hell. “Strong Box” showcases dark electronic throbbing and dense percussive patterns. “Red Barrette” blends quirky metallic pulses with light woodwinds to create an atmosphere of reflective introspection. The final two cues offer an entertaining coda; “A Dead Girl Wakes” begins with a return to the warmer fraternal textures related to Deke and Jim, and becomes more energetic and lively as it develops, leading into the end credits piece “Little Things”. This finale features heavy percussion, rambunctious and fast jazz pianos, highly rhythmic bass and electric guitar strums, glass bowls, fluttering woodwinds and an array of electronic textures in the background. It builds up a nice head of steam as it progresses, and is an entertaining way to end the album.

For fans of Thomas Newman’s more abstract and experimental work, there is a decent 20 minutes that can be easily gleaned from The Little Things – a nice suite perhaps comprising “Chevy Nova,” one of the pleasant Deke and Jim cues, “Buck Twenty,” and the final two tracks. The problem, really, is that when you extrapolate it all out, the score as a whole just feels so insubstantial. So much of the score is given over to ambient drones and electronic filler that waiting for the moments where the score actually has something to say feels like too much of a waste of time. Ironically, the fact that this score is so clearly a Thomas Newman score is what makes much of it so disappointing; you are so familiar with these personal idiosyncrasies from so many other better scores that you’re constantly waiting for the ‘real score’ to kick in, and when it doesn’t you’re left feeling musically unfulfilled. In the end, the score for The Little Things feels very much like the film itself – it has impeccable pedigree, a few moments of quality, and taking everything into consideration it should be great, but ultimately feels like an echo of past glories rather than the real thing.

Buy the Little Things soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Chevy Nova (3:00)
  • Musica Latina (1:56)
  • Motion to Dismiss (1:16)
  • Meat Wagon (1:06)
  • Second Story Walkup (1:46)
  • Gentlemen’s Club (1:23)
  • Hollywood Cross (1:24)
  • Shirley Temple To Go (4:48)
  • Buck Twenty (2:21)
  • Vacation Days (1:22)
  • St Agnes (2:29)
  • Wing Mirror (0:44)
  • Jack Aboud (1:30)
  • La Loma Bridge (2:08)
  • Reverend Captain (0:48)
  • Mosman’s (1:30)
  • New Disciple (1:08)
  • I Won’t Bite (4:47)
  • Padlock (0:51)
  • Get Up (1:40)
  • Strong Box (3:48)
  • End of the World (2:41)
  • Red Barrette (2:33)
  • A Dead Girl Wakes (5:00)
  • Little Things (3:46)

Running Time: 55 minutes 32 seconds

Watertower Music (2020)

Music composed by Thomas Newman. Orchestrations by Carl Johnson. Featured musical soloists Steve Tavaglione, George Doering and Rick Cox. Recorded and mixed by Shinnosuke Miyazawa. Edited by Shinnosuke Miyazawa. Album produced by Thomas Newman.

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