Thomas Newman: The Eclectic

Born in 1955 in Los Angeles, Thomas Newman was born into the prestigious musical Newman family. Thomas joined the family as son of golden age composer/conductor Alfred Newman and nephew to Emil and Lionel (both Hollywood composers/conductors). His slightly older brother David began as a studio violist before becoming a composer. 

Surrounded by music growing up, Thomas studied violin and piano as a child. While not forced into film music, he decided to compose music professionally after his father’s death in 1970. Newman went to the University Of Southern California (USC) to study composition and orchestration, and studied with film composer David Raksin. Newman eventually graduated from Yale with a Master’s in music composition. In the late 1970s Newman played keyboards in the bands The Innocents and Tokyo 77. One early champion of his was Stephen Sondheim, a mentor who praised his musical theater work Three Mean Fairy Tales. 

Even after orchestrating a cue for Return of the Jedi (1983), it was casting-agent (now producer) Scott Rudin who helped Newman enter the film scoring world with Reckless (1984). From there he scored a lot of fun pictures like Revenge of the Nerds (1984), Desperately Seeking Susan (1985) and Real Genius (1985). In the television world, Newman scored two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Amazing Stories in both 1985 and 1986. He also scored the Ron Howard film Gung Ho (1986) and the teen vampire flick The Lost Boys (1987). 

Newman received attention for his score to Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), showing off his eclectic instrumentation and large orchestral style.  The Rapture (1991) seems to be the first score that shows of his personal style – the mix of instrumentation, synthesizers and orchestra that he is still known for). 1992 saw his work on the cable movie Citizen Cohn (1992), thriller Whispers in the Dark (1992), The Player (1992) for director Robert Altman and was praised for his luscious orchestral score for Scent of a Woman (1992). 

Newman’s banner year was 1994, gaining more prominence with the lyrical scores for Little Women (1994) and The Shawshank Redemption (1994). Both scores were nominated for Grammys as well as his first two Oscar nominations in the same year. He was nominated for another Oscar the next year for his score to Unstrung Heroes (1995). That same year, he explored more styles in How to Make An American Quilt (1995). 

For the city of Cleveland’s bicentennial in 1996, Newman composed the symphonic work Reach Forth Our Hands. For Up Close & Personal (1996), Newman reunited with director Jon Avnet (previously together on Fried Green Tomatoes and The War). Around the same time he scored The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996) and drama Oscar and Lucinda (1997). Newman maintained his orchestral style within two stunningly melodic scores for The Horse Whisperer (1998) and Meet Joe Black (1998). Newman reunited with director Frank Darabont (previously of The Shawshank Redemption) for another Stephen King adaptation, The Green Mile (1999). For the dramatic movie American Beauty (1999) with director Sam Mendes, Newman composed an experimental score, full of percussion and world music instruments. For the score he would win a Grammy, receive a Golden Globe and Oscar nomination. 

The same percussion-heavy interesting sound was also brought to the films Erin Brockovich (2000) and Pay It Forward (2000). In 2002, his quirky style was used for the Grammy winning theme to the HBO series Six Feet Under (2002). Newman and Mendes reunited for the crime drama Road to Perdition (2002), giving him yet another Oscar nomination. 

2003 would lend to some more fan favorites. He composed the theme and score for the HBO miniseries Angels in America (2003). Departing from the scores and songs of the past (written by cousin Randy Newman), for the next Pixar project, director Andrew Stanton chose Newman to score Finding Nemo (2003). The unique animated score naturally featured Newman’s mix of instruments and electronics and was ultimately nominated for the Best Score Oscar. Speaking of Oscar, he was nominated yet again for the quirky score to Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events

The orchestral sound found in scores like ‘Shawshank’ returned with the score for Ron Howard’s biopic Cinderella Man (2005). That same year he reunited with Sam Mendes for Jarhead (2005), with its hard-edged score. Working again with director Steven Soderbergh (previously for Erin Brockovich) for The Good German (2006), Newman’s score is reminiscent of 1940s film scores. For this score, he was nominated for another Oscar.

Newman got another hit with his next Pixar score (again with director Andrew Stanton) – Wall-E (2008). His musical style naturally fit the storytelling, and the score was nominated for an Academy Award. The song “Down to Earth” with Peter Gabriel was also nominated for an Oscar, Golden Globe and won a Grammy. Also in 2008 was the Mendes-directed drama Revolutionary Road (2008). In 2009, he composed It Got Dark, a concert piece originally for the Kronos Quartet. The work eventually was arranged for quartet and orchestra and had its world premiere by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. 

Not known up to action films, Newman put his spin with The Debt (2010) and The Adjustment Bureau (2011). It ended up being a busy year, with biopic The Iron Lady (2011), Indian-influenced score to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) and the hit The Help (2011). In 2012 he came back to HBO, composing the main titles for The Newsroom. His largest challenge was collaborator Sam Mendes on the newest Bond film, Skyfall (2012). His outside the box action score was nominated for an Oscar and won the BAFTA award for score. 

So far in 2013, Newman reunited with director Soderburgh for the minimal score to Side Effects. Also recently announced was his involvement in the upcoming Pixar film, The Good Dinosaur, which is slated for summer 2014. 

Thomas Newman's scores are always a mixture of many elements.  There are often the interesting instrument arrangements, plenty of mallet percussion, solo piano moments, electronic elements, off-kilter rhythms and a good use of ambient sound.  While comfortable with the large orchestra, his scores tend to be geared toward smaller-size ensembles for typically smaller films.  Besides Danny Elfman, Thomas Newman is one of the few working composers today with a definite identity as a composer.  His unique style is found throughout his film scores, yet he is still able to tailor each score.  Above all, he is a creative storyteller.  Many times his scores create atmosphere and mood, rather than hitting along with the action.  He has several "sneak-up" emotional moments in his scores, which prove he is a master at setting the mood with each film.  

Up to this point, he has received 11 Oscar nominations with no wins - but his success goes beyond that.  Thomas Newman is always finding new audiences, whether from his Pixar projects or a box-office hit like Skyfall.    

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  1. Why Thomas Newman has not won an Oscar considering his influence on modern film is simply unbelievable.