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Comments about the soundtrack for Little Women (Thomas Newman)
Filmtracks Sponsored Donated Review

Mike Skerritt
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Filmtracks Sponsored Donated Review   Saturday, September 20, 2008 (10:27 a.m.) 

(The following donated review by Mike Skerritt was moved by Filmtracks to this comment section in September, 2008)

Little Women: (Thomas Newman) 1994 was something of a breakout year for Thomas Newman. Though he had been working steadily in Hollywood for more than ten years, like a "rookie" ballplayer whose first shot at the big leagues comes after years in the minors, Newman finally scored pay dirt when he was attached to two A-list projects that year (three, if you count The War), one of which went on to become a modern-day classic (I'll let you guess which one). Having built a reputation for himself as the go-to guy for quirky films in need of a quirky musical voice, Newman wasn't finally thrust for good into the mainstream until the Academy Awards season of early 1995, when the powers that be took notice of a young composer who'd somehow snagged not one but two nominations for Best Score. One was The Shawshank Redemption (the aforementioned classic, which should have beaten The Lion King). The other was Little Women. While Newman had amassed an impressive resume up to that point in his career, including Men Don't Leave, Fried Green Tomatoes and Scent of a Woman, Aussie director Gillian Armstrong's retelling of Little Woman, featuring past, present and future "It" queens Susan Sarandon, Winona Ryder, Claire Danes, and Kirsten Dunst (no offense to Trini Alvarado), was his first real shot at Oscar fodder.

Newman continued to prove himself equally adept at composing for a full orchestra as for a small ensemble of electronics and kitchen appliances, gracing this warmhearted version of Louisa May Alcott's classic story with one of his best efforts, and solidifying what would become his trademark style. The album is opened by the main theme in "Orchard House (Main Title)," a pastoral blend of sprightly fanfare for horns and plaintive melody for strings. Here, in its opening moments, the score lays bare the film's gentle soul. In "Meg's Hair," the second track, Newman establishes his own voice more directly, with a diddy for rhythmic piano opening into a dancing flute solo. The score then continues as many Newman scores do - a mixture of string-washed melodies and tinkling rhythms on various solo instruments. What separates this effort from others like it is the care with which Newman crafts the small pieces to serve the greater whole. Typical of the composer are gorgeous little incidental moments, chief among them a lilting motif for strings first heard in "Spring," and an unusually lyrical melody, by Newman standards, introduced in "Burdens" and reprised in "Beth's Secret." Also of note are the lovely "Snowplay," featuring a wintry rush of bells, and "Valley of the Shadow," a hymnal telling of the main theme with subdued choir. Newman closes his score in fine form with "Under the Umbrella (End Title)," a wide-eyed rendition of the main theme and a glowing finish to a beautiful (albeit short) album.

Little Women might be dismissed today as typical Newman, but it remains one of his best scores, one that is quite possibly overshadowed by the fact that he wrote The Shawshank Redemption the same year. It is moving without being sentimental, lyrical without being simplistic. The one drawback to the soundtrack album is one of form, not content. Thirty-three minutes of score are spread over twenty-two tracks (four negligible non-score cues are interspersed throughout, including public domain period pieces by Francis Johnson, Gaetano Donizetti, Conrad Kocher, and Claudio Grafulla), most around a minute in length, which leaves the whole seeming more stilted and episodic than it is. Unfortunately it's a problem that mires many Newman albums. Still, it should not take away from what is an otherwise sterling effort from one of Hollywood's most reliable composers. ****

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