Mar 4, 2007

SCOREcard – THE GOOD GERMAN (2006 Thomas Newman)

Often I have seen really bad movies that are made watchable by a good score. Sometimes, a great score can transcend a movie, and in some cases, almost save disasters. Not in this case, THE GOOD GERMAN is a wooden movie, a failed experiment in trying to capture the look and feel of Hal B. Wallis’ tenure as a Warner Bros. producer in the 40s. But what does succeed is the Thomas Newman score which is a delightful throwback to the work of artists of yesterday -- specifically Max Steiner (CASABLANCA, GONE WITH THE WIND).

Newman’s opening credits have the feel of a grand story about to unfold. It’s melodramatic in nature, but a lot of the Warner scores of the 1940s not to mention most of the other scores of that time, tended to set the mood/tone right off the bat given that credit sequences were always set to title cards, and didn’t have action going on during them like most modern films do. This is also the most orchestrated score I have heard in a while. Classic scores tended to be underscore the action less obtrusively, except for when it was necessary to punctuate a dramatic moment on screen, and this score follows in that vein. In fact, it’s very nice to be able to listen to the soundtrack free of the clunky movie thanks to Varese Sarabande’s fantastic compact disc release – tough to find on store shelves, but it’s out there.

The Newman family has produced some of the most prolific scores for motion pictures, beginning with Alfred Newman (ALL ABOUT EVE, PANIC IN THE STREETS) who had a long illustrious career at 20th Century Fox (the scoring stage there is named after him). There is also his brother Lionel Newman who was a film score supervisor and conductor and Alfred’s other brother Emil Newman who was also a film music conductor and musical director. Then of course there is Randy Newman, well known for great scores like THE NATURAL, AVALON, RAGTIME and PLEASANTVILLE and his work for PIXAR including TOY STORY. Randy is the big songwriter in the family, having written the tune I LOVE L.A. and most of the songs for the Pixar films among others. One curious note is if you ever get the chance to hear Randy’s rejected AIR FORCE ONE score (ultimately Jerry Goldsmith scored the film) you’ll be amazed to hear Randy’s attempt at an action score, and applaud the filmmaker’s decision not to run with it. David Newman is one of Alfred’s sons, and he has scored films such as ICE AGE, DEATH TO SMOOCHY and NORBIT.

That brings me to Thomas who really has become one of the premiere composers in Hollywood with such great efforts such as AMERICAN BEAUTY, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, ROAD TO PERDITION, CINDERELLA MAN, PAY IT FORWARD among others, and most recently LITTLE CHILDREN and THE GOOD GERMAN. He’s really the best dramatic scorer out there, and falls into the same category as James Horner, but a little better. Yes, like all film composers with the tight deadlines, he has tended to copy himself (you’ll hear a lot of the familiar refrains from AMERICAN BEAUTY for instance in a lot of his work, or will be able to point out similar refrains from THE GREEN MILE, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION and THE HORSE WHISPERER) but in the end his scores have an elegance and sophistication that tends to be missing from the modern film score that all kind of sound uninspired, and amount to nothing more than 90 minutes of un-melodic noise (comedies in particular feel it necessary to fill every moment with some sort of musical cue to cover up for often lackluster material, or overcompensate in that the filmmakers feel the need to tell the audience how they should be responding to the material). Given all that, THE GOOD GERMAN has that classic feel, a sheen and polish that most scores seem to lack and succeeds where the movie ultimately fails. Thomas Newman is one of those composers who will indeed stand the test of time, and I would definitely have no problem placing him the same league as John Williams or the late Jerry Goldsmith. THE GOOD GERMAN is a great place to start if you are unfamiliar with his work, but I also highly recommend THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (one of those scores that for a while, and still does, is used in every dramatic trailer – much like Horner’s LEGENDS OF THE FALL), LITTLE WOMEN (also a big source of trailer music for the 1990s), THE HORSE WHISPERER and AMERICAN BEAUTY.

I should also note that cousin Joey and Thomas’ sister Maria are also aspiring film music composers – and if they are all cut from the same mode as Alfred, Randy or Thomas, we have more great scores to look forward to.