Home > Reviews > SCENT OF A WOMAN – Thomas Newman

SCENT OF A WOMAN – Thomas Newman

January 19, 2023 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Scent of a Woman is a critically acclaimed drama film directed by Martin Brest. It’s a remake of the 1974 Italian film Profumo di Donna, directed by Dino Risi, which was itself an adaptation of the 1969 novel ‘Il Buio e il Miele’ by Giovanni Arpino. It stars Al Pacino and Chris O’Donnell, with James Rebhorn, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Gabrielle Anwar in primary supporting roles. Pacino plays Frank Slade, a former lieutenant colonel in the US Army, who has become an irascible alcoholic following an accident that left him blind. Frank’s niece hires Charlie Simms, a young student with dreams of getting into Harvard, to be his temporary caretaker over the Thanksgiving weekend, and initially there is a terrible personality clash, but gradually the two unlikely companions warm to each other – until Frank calmly states that, at the end of the holiday, he intends to kill himself. Meanwhile, Charlie is having issues of his own, relating to an incident he witnessed at this school, the repercussions of which threaten to jeopardize his entire future. The film was roundly praised at the time, especially for the performance by Pacino, who won the Oscar for Best Actor for his work here.

The musical moment from Scent of a Woman that everyone remembers – even thirty years later – is the one where Frank sweeps a young woman named Donna (Gabrielle Anwar) off her feet and dances a brilliant tango with her to the strains of “Por Una Cabeza.” The song was written in 1935 by Argentine tango legend Carlos Gardel, just a few months before his tragic death in a plane crash. In the minds of a lot of Americans, “Por Una Cabeza” and this film are inextricably linked, and its use even spawned parodied and homages (Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis dance to it in True Lies, for example); it’s a wonderful piece, passionate and dramatic, and its performance in this film by the group The Tango Project is superb; to this day the song is probably the most widely-recognized Argentine tango in mainstream culture. The soundtrack album also includes another source piece, “La Violetera” by Spanish composer José Padilla, and it is terrific too. Just as a piece of trivia, “La Violetera” was adapted by Charlie Chaplin into the soundtrack of his film City Lights in 1931.

What all this means is that people tend to forget that “Por Una Cabeza” is not actually Scent of a Woman’s score. The score was actually written by Thomas Newman, and it was the last of his three scores from 1992 to be released, the others being The Player and Whispers in the Dark. It was the first of two films Newman scored for director Brest – the other being Meet Joe Black in 1998 – and what’s interesting about it is that it contains no tangos, and no allusions to tangos whatsoever. Instead, it’s perhaps the most perfect distillation of the sound that Newman would craft and perfect over the course of the next decade or so, building on the lush romantic orchestral sound he introduced via Welcome Home Roxy Carmichael and Fried Green Tomatoes, while introducing for the first time the rhythmic marimba-heavy percussive style that would come to dominate his writing in the aftermath of things like American Beauty.

The “Main Title” introduces both main themes sequentially; the first is a gorgeous, wholesome melody for strings and soloist Tom Boyd’s expressive oboe, which acts as a sort of relationship theme for Frank and Charlie, and the way their unlikely friendship positively affects both men’s lives. There’s a faint hint of Irishness in the lilt of the melody which, for some reason, reminds me of Carter Burwell’s score for Miller’s Crossing, while also foreshadowing some of the textures Newman would later employ in scores like The Shawshank Redemption, The Horse Whisperer, and especially Road to Perdition, and it’s just superb. There is initially a touch of melancholy to it, but as it progresses through the score is grows in weight and emotional depth, before becoming bold and triumphant in the finale.

The second theme, introduced in the second half of the “Main Title,” is a more vibrant and playful theme for marimbas, vibraphones, dulcimers, and various plucked and struck string instruments, in the inimitable Thomas Newman style. This theme follows Frank and Charlie round on their various comedic/dramatic adventures in Manhattan; it’s upbeat and full of energy, capturing the hustle and bustle of the city.

As the score unfolds the music usually adopts one or the other of these two styles, but there is considerable crossover too. the plucked and struck instruments often make guest appearances in cues where the more emotional theme is dominant, and vice versa. The Relationship theme is prominent in the opening moments of the wonderfully evocative :45 in 25,” before becoming more thoughtful and introverted in its guitar-led second half, and it is prominent again later in the lovely, appealingly tonal “Beyond Danger”. The warm guitar textures also return in the second half of “Park Ave,” to excellent effect. Elsewhere, the Manhattan theme reappears with pleasing frequency in cues like “Balloons” and “Witnesses,” before going on to play a major role in the more serious and dramatic finale, which begins in “Assembly”.

There are several other cues of note too. “A Tour of Pleasures” features a thoughtfully muted theme for solo piano, later reprised in “Long Gray Line”. “Tract House Ginch” introduces a bold, strident, spirited theme for brass backed by tambourines that is used to underscore Charlie’s life at his exclusive prep school, and which is then reprised for strings in “The Oakroom”. Cues like “Cigars, Pt. Two,” the first half of the aforementioned “Park Ave,” and the sometimes rather bleak-sounding “Other Plans” are darker, occasionally verging on the dissonant, and tend to accompany scenes of Frank at his lowest moments, especially the those where he is seriously considering suicide. Newman tends to use low, rumbling string lines and glassy electronic textures to get into Frank’s distraught state of mind, but then tempers the darkness with some more optimistic oboe textures that peek through the gloom and offer him a glimpse of redemption.

The finale of the score, “Fleurs de Rocaille,” underscores the film’s triumphant conclusion as Frank successfully defends Charlie from a board of school administrators seeking to end his scholarship, and then – almost as an act of personal defiance – flirts with one of the very same school administrators by successfully identifying the perfume that she is wearing; the ‘scent of a woman’ of the title. Newman brings back the main Relationship theme here for one last reprise, and initially gives it a stirring, orchestrally bombastic arrangement that is just glorious, before paring it all back down to its core elements – lilting oboe, lush strings, warm emotions. The “End Title” rounds out the score with a piece that blends all the score’s main ideas together into a lyrical whole, although even here Newman isn’t out of new ideas, bringing in some snare drum riffs, solo horns, pizzicato textures, and flighty dancing strings that don’t feature anywhere else in the score.

While “Por Una Cabeza” will likely always be the defining musical centerpiece of Scent of a Woman, people should not overlook Thomas Newman’s score either. It contains so many of the ideas that made him successful through the 1990s and beyond, from the tenderly emotional orchestral lines, to the beautiful writing for oboe, to the idiosyncratic and highly personal rhythmic style that has come to be a defining hallmark of his entire career. Come for the tangos, stay for the excellent orchestral score. Whoo-ah!

Buy the Scent of a Woman soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (2:57)
  • A Tour of Pleasures (0:50)
  • Tract House Ginch (1:03)
  • 45 In 25 (3:23)
  • Balloons (0:54)
  • Cigars, Pt. Two (2:30)
  • Por Una Cabeza (written by Carlos Gardel, performed by The Tango Project) (2:14)
  • Long Gray Line (1:02)
  • The Oakroom (0:35)
  • Park Ave. (4:28)
  • Witnesses (1:19)
  • Beyond Danger (2:44)
  • La Violetera (written by José Padilla, performed by The Tango Project) (3:34)
  • Other Plans (2:09)
  • Assembly (2:02)
  • Fleurs de Rocaille (2:50)
  • End Title (2:36)

Running Time: 37 minutes 26 seconds

MCA Records MCAD-10759 (1992)

Music composed and conducted by Thomas Newman. Orchestrations by Thomas Pasatieri. Recorded and mixed by John Vigran. Edited by Bob Badami and Bill Bernstein. Album produced by Thomas Newman.

  1. Kevin
    January 20, 2023 at 2:01 pm

    Great review for one of Newman’s best early scores. I really like the “Tour of Pleasures” theme. It depicts Frank Slade’s journey and personality very well, especially in “45 in 25” and “Park Ave”.

    This score also demonstrates Newman’s ability to write great music for oboe. Do you know if he plays it? I know he studied piano and violin.

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: