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Spotlight: Thomas Newman

15-year career highlighted by 'Beauty'

The only two movies Thomas Newman scored last year turned out to be among the year’s most talked-about: “American Beauty” and “The Green Mile.” They were also two singular experiences in Newman’s 15-year career.

The music of “American Beauty” is an unusual collection of moods and colors created largely by percussion instruments; “The Green Mile” reunited him with his director on “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994), Frank Darabont, and is, at 95 minutes of music, the longest score Newman has yet written. He spent six months on the project.

Initial inspiration for the sound of “American Beauty” came from director Sam Mendes. “Sam wanted things that hammered and thwacked a bit,” Newman says. “He was interested in percussion and mallet instruments, so I started working on various ideas that involved xylophones and marimbas.”

Experimentation, using an ensemble of players that Newman has often employed in the past, helped define the approach. “You try to come in with just enough material to guide the music, and then you get into what-if mode,” the composer explains.

The percussion (tablas, bongos, cymbals and more) plus guitars, piano, flute and various world-music instruments, helped to propel the film along without disturbing the “moral ambiguity” that Newman found so fascinating in Alan Ball’s script. “It was a real delicate balancing act in terms of what music worked to preserve that ambiguity.”

Intense experience

Newman’s job on “The Green Mile” was to provide “a kind of hyper-reality to intensify the sense of mysticism,” the composer notes. As with “Shawshank” — which netted him one of his three Oscar nominations, the others being “Little Women” (1994) and “Unstrung Heroes” (1995) — his music suggested the Southern locale (guitar, banjo, jaw harp), lent atmosphere (delicate use of strings) and created mood (notably in a quietly powerful theme for the condemned men who walk “The Mile” to their deaths).

Like “American Beauty,” “The Green Mile” did not demand a series of hummable tunes. Instead, Newman serves the film with music that provides color and emotional support. “An old-fashioned sweep with a modern sensibility” is how director Frank Darabont describes Newman’s contribution.

Newman, youngest son of the legendary Alfred Newman (the most honored composer in Hollywood history, with nine Oscars), worked on “The Green Mile” from March through July, took a break to write “American Beauty” over four weeks in August, and returned to “The Green Mile” in the fall.

The composer — whose other films include “The Horse Whisperer” (1998) — believes in subtlety. “You want to say as little as you can,” he says, “and get the most punch out of it, always with the knowledge that people are not in the theater to listen to your music so much as to respond to the movie. You’re a part of that experience.”

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