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FRIED GREEN TOMATOES – Thomas Newman

December 30, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Fried Green Tomatoes is a sentimental comedy-drama directed by Jon Avnet, based on the popular novel by Fannie Flagg. The story jumps between the past and the present and explores the relationship between Evelyn Couch (Kathy Bates), a middle-aged and disillusioned housewife, and Ninny Threadgoode (Jessica Tandy), an elderly woman who lives in a nursing home. Evelyn pays weekly visits to Ninny, who tells her stories about her youth in the small town of Whistle Stop, Alabama, where her sister-in-law, Idgie (Mary Stuart Masterson), and her ‘friend’ Ruth (Mary-Louise Parker) ran a café. As Ninny’s seemingly whimsical story unfolds, more serious themes relating to lesbianism, racism, and even murder gradually begin to emerge, and the influence of the strong women from Ninny’s childhood inspire Evelyn to make positive changes in her life in the present. The film was a hit with both audiences and critics, and earned two Oscar nominations, including one for Tandy as Best Supporting Actress at the age of 82.

The score for Fried Green Tomatoes was by Thomas Newman, and it’s one of the most important works of his career. Prior to this score Newman was something of a synth-rock minimalist; his scores for popular films like Desperately Seeking Susan, The Lost Boys, and Less Than Zero, among others, had been mostly rooted in this sound, and although he had dabbled with a broader orchestral palette with Welcome Home Roxy Carmichael in 1990, it was still the exception rather than the norm. Considering his lineage and pedigree as the son of Hollywood legend Alfred Newman, it was probably only a matter of time until Thomas embraced the emotional orchestral tones of his father, and it was on Fried Green Tomatoes that they finally emerged in full – and initiated a change in sound that dominated his work for the rest of the decade, and beyond.

Everything in the score builds out from the music in the astonishing main title cue, “Ghost Train,” which established for the first time something that would become apparent as Newman’s career developed, which was his extraordinarily beautiful writing for woodwinds. The cue begins with a gorgeous, fluttering motif that jumps between oboes and clarinets, the basis of the main theme, and is possibly one of the most quintessential Newman textures, but then it quickly makes a left turn and erupts into a superb, soulful, gospel-inspired piece full of jazzy piano licks, sultry clarinets, and prominent brass counterpoint. There is an especially wonderful wordless vocal performance by Marion Williams, who growls and hums with a sassiness bordering on the lewd, while the percussion section includes train whistles, alluding to the physical location of the café in question at the side of the railroad. It’s one of Newman’s all time great themes, and it illustrates the film’s Southern setting immediately and perfectly.

The textures of the main theme are prominent throughout the rest of the score in one guise or another; they are heard both in the contemporary scenes of Evelyn visiting the aged Ninny in the nursing home, and in the flashback scenes involving Idgie and Ruth, and in doing so illustrate the tangible connection between to the two time periods. In cues like “Whistle Stop, Ala,” “The Treehouse,” “Buddy Threadgoode,” the haunting “Wallpaper,” “The Smell of Coffee,” and others, the theme is soft and quietly emotional, and is often tinged with melancholy, but also often features a stirring string accompaniment accentuated with gentle harps.

On the other hand, “Xmas in Hooverville” is warmer, and uses a bank of horns in a triumphant, almost cathartic fashion, accompanying Ruth and Idgie’s eye-opening train ride through a nearby slum. The two “Night Baseball” cues revisit the main theme with more good-natured pizzazz, and are lively and upbeat and drenched in Gospel soul, again featuring the vocals of Marion Williams, while “The Bee Charmer” is awash in bluegrass-style guitars.

A secondary theme emerges in “Whither Thou Goest I Will Go,” which is also based around short clarinet phrases, and acts as a theme for Idgie and Ruth, whose lesbian relationship was forbidden by almost all of society at that time. There is a magical sheen to Newman’s music here, illustrating the attraction and passion between the pair, but there is a sort of charming innocence to it all too that is completely captivating. The shimmer in the strings reminds me very much of the music Newman would later write for scores like The Shawshank Redemption, The War, How To Make an American Quilt, even The Horse Whisperer, and it’s just sublime. This theme reaches its emotional peak in “Visiting Ruth” when Idgie sees her cancer-stricken ‘friend’ for the last time, and Newman’s lilting woodwind duet captures the devastating heartbreak in the situation.

The darker aspects of the film, involving the racism and antagonism of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, and how their activities impact upon Idgie and Ruth via their family cook, Sipsey, are explored in cues like “Klansmen” and “Big George”. Here, Newman’s music takes on a tense, bitter edge, with brass and strings playing a series of uneasy minor-key chords that illustrate the danger the KKK poses to everyone, not just the local black community. Williams’s vocals in the second of these cues are haunting, but have a tone of noble defiance too – the musical legacy of the many victims of racist murders and lynchings.

The final cue, “The Whistle Stop Café,” sees the main theme returning for one final full orchestral treatment, which is rousing and memorable, and ends the score on a high. The short album is rounded out by two performances of traditional gospel songs by Marion Williams, “A Charge to Keep I Have” and “Didn’t It Rain,” plus a piece of lively piano-based honkytonk source music called “The Town Follies,” performed by the great Ralph Grierson.

The score for Fried Green Tomatoes is somewhat rare these days – it went out of print quite quickly after it was first released, and was overshadowed by the vastly more popular song soundtrack compilation, which only features two pieces from Newman’s score. Copies of the score album go for between $40-$100 on the secondary market these days, making it a prime candidate for a thirtieth anniversary expansion and re-release.

Fried Green Tomatoes is a landmark Thomas Newman score, and is absolutely essential for anyone wanting to understand and experience the origins of the sound which garnered the composer so many fans, and so much acclaim, throughout the 1990s. It’s a score packed with southern charm and gospel stylings, but is also filled with the outrageously beautiful string-and-woodwind writing that characterized so much of his top tier work in the decade.

Buy the Fried Green Tomatoes soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Ghost Train – Main Title (3:09)
  • Whistle Stop, Ala. (1:16)
  • A Charge to Keep I Have (written by Charles Wesley, performed by Marion Williams) (2:34)
  • Xmas in Hooverville (1:50)
  • The Treehouse (1:11)
  • Night Baseball (0:57)
  • Whither Thou Goest I Will Go (1:53)
  • Buddy Threadgoode (1:19)
  • Didn’t It Rain (traditional, performed by Marion Williams) (2:53)
  • The Bee Charmer (1:59)
  • Wallpaper (1:30)
  • The Smell of Coffee (1:12)
  • Visiting Ruth (1:44)
  • Miss Otis Died (1:27)
  • The Town Follies (performed by Ralph Grierson) (0:45)
  • Klansmen (2:04)
  • Smokey Lonesome (1:22)
  • Big George (1:50)
  • Night Baseball – Mandolin Reprise (1:01)
  • The Whistle Stop Cafe (2:28)

Running Time: 32 minutes 56 seconds

MCA Records MCAD-10634 (1991)

Music composed and conducted by Thomas Newman. Orchestrations by Thomas Pasatrieri. special vocal performances by Marion Williams. Recorded and mixed by John Vigran . Edited by Bill Bernstein. Album produced by Thomas Newman, John Vigran and Bill Bernstein.

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