Pictured: Thomas Newman.
by Gordon Williams
The American Beauty soundtrack is a fascinating blend of dedicated composition and pre-existing music called for by the plot. The original music however is by Thomas Newman, a member of probably the most accomplished family in movie music history.
His father Alfred wrote the 20th Century Fox fanfare.
Brother David is an Oscar nominee.
Uncle Lionel won an Oscar for adapting the music of Hello, Dolly!.
Sister Maria composes mostly for the concert hall but has made a specialty of scoring old silent films.
And cousin Randy is an Oscar-winning songwriter.
Newman’s music is always marked by an original sense of sound, and uncanny choices of instrumentation. The Shawshank Redemption (1994) is an orchestral score, but American Beauty is immediately recognisable by virtue of its ensemble of marimba, out-of-tune mandolin, tabla...And it manages the right tone of wry comment.
Truly, it is very simple. ‘American Beauty’ features the piano in basically a three-part texture with the odd piquant dissonance, to accompany the scene of the dancing plastic bag.
‘Dead Already’ consists basically of a marimba riff with very slight variations.
‘Angela Undress’ is a very simple piano organum.
Some critics have argued that American Beauty’s original music doesn’t live outside the film, but in a sense it does - even if it’s not usually found in a concert. In fact, that opening marimba riff forms one of most people’s strongest association’s with the film, even if they don’t remember specific scenes. Perhaps, as Ball’s Ricky Fitts might say, the music points to ‘the entire life behind things’.
THOMAS NEWMAN American Beauty (selections)
HERRMANN Psycho: A Suite for Strings
TIMOTHY CONSTABLE New work for strings and percussion (World Premiere)
BARTÓK Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta