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Comments about the soundtrack for American Beauty (Thomas Newman)

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Filmtracks Sponsored Donated Review #2
• Posted by: A.C. Stewart   <Send E-Mail>
• Date: Sunday, June 22, 2008, at 3:38 p.m.
• IP Address:

(The following donated review by A.C. Stewart was moved by Filmtracks to this comment section in June, 2008)

American Beauty: (Thomas Newman) Upon viewing this film and listening to the score, I have found myself torn. This score worked in so many ways for me yet fell short in areas I consider to be important. The film itself was incredibly powerful. It achieved its complexity and depth in rather unconventional ways, however. Unlike most movies no one character is the center of focus. Instead, this vague story lent to the audience four principal characters and possibly three secondary characters; all of which were so well written and acted that these numbers are highly debatable. The stories of these richly unique characters culminate in a surreal ending that begs you to find its meaning. Albeit powerful, this oddly crafted film feels very eccentric. Thomas Newman's score for American Beauty is exactly that. Eccentric.

This score parallels the film remarkably. On a very superficial level one can relate the orchestration of very unique sounding instruments to the sundry assortment of distinctive characters. The distinct orchestration, although out of the ordinary, is not rare; many composers utilize peculiar instrument combinations. But Newman's sonorities are very curious. Most abnormal instruments combinations yield a single sonority; one that is created through the absolute blend of those instruments. With Newman's amalgamation, however, no sole sonority is achieved. Instead, each individual instrument longs to be heard within the complete picture Newman paints on the staves; a quality equivalent to the characterizations in the film.

In respect to affect and mood, Newman has truly realized the disposition of this film. In my opinion Newman excels at linking tone colors, mode, and musical idioms to the emotions surrounding a character or scene. Here again, he pulls off several notable sections. Of particular merit is track four, Mental Boy; the piano cues associated with the Ricky Fitts character are terribly ominous and introspective. Aside from the aforementioned, however, (and typical to Thomas Newman's compositional style) these sections are realized in, what some might call, thematically lean cues. Herein lies the fault in this score. I consider myself an open minded individual with decent musical knowledge. Yet, I cannot make myself enjoy a score that is so meager in terms of thematic material. Unless you are fond of harmonic droning and seemingly unrelated instrumental interjections, or have elevated yourself to genius status and can hear some complex structure within the majority of cues throughout this score, American Beauty will only provide a displeasing and, possibly, painful listen. As a stand-alone score, American Beauty fails. Miserably.

I am not discounting the merit in this score. As I stated before, Newman conveys emotions through his music remarkably. Now it's time to take the next step. We know he can write a nice melody and many of the leitmotifs he invents display ample potential for development. But not once have I heard direction or fruition in a Thomas Newman score. The raw emotion and promising motifs must be combined and then developed within a score so as to give it some sense of growth and fulfillment. The story and characters of American Beauty displayed intense growth and evolution in the film --while the emotions surrounding these aspects were somewhat realized, thematic development would have been far more impressive.

    Score as Heard in Film: ***
    Score as Heard on CD: **
    Overall: **

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