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1917
  • Composed by Thomas Newman
  • Sony Classical / 78m

After spending a few years concentrating on James Bond, director Sam Mendes has gone in a different direction now with 1917, a WWI movie which follows a pair of soldiers desperately trying to get a message to British troops about an upcoming German ambush (a story apparently based on one told to Mendes by his grandfather, who fought in the conflict). Its conceit is that it is designed to appear to have been done in a single shot and (as with most of the director’s movies) it has certainly gone down well with the critics.

Almost all of those critics seem to have praised Thomas Newman’s score, which is highly unusual but also not exactly promising, given the sort of score praised by mainstream cinema critics these days isn’t often the sort of score I favour myself. But we all know what Newman’s capable of – while the dazzling creativity which made his name hasn’t been so much in evidence in the last few years, he’s undoubtedly one of the best around.

Thomas Newman

So, let’s get straight to it – 1917 is essentially his version of Hans Zimmer’s Dunkirk (another score lavished with praise by movie critics). You wouldn’t put the two scores next to each other and say they’re the same – Newman is far too distinctive a composer for that – but in its attempt to get a visceral sound, to steer away from doing too much emotional commentary – the similarities are certainly there.

For large parts it is quite subtle – a tense atmosphere is carefully created using a heavy electronic presence alongside acoustic effects from the usual array of unusual instruments. There’s a lot of percussion sitting there driving things forward, guitars (and similar instruments) also used for rhythm. It’s OK for its atmosphere-building ambition but it has nothing really to offer the album listener.

It’s a very mixed bag though because just occasionally we get to hear Newman at the absolute peak of his powers, with a couple of outstanding cues that are all the more arresting because of their contrast with the general style of the score.

The opening cue, “1917”, which is actually from the middle of the film is deceptively melodic and a bit later third cue, “Gehenna”, offers a lovely piano piece over the top of the uncomfortable atmospherics, before trademark Newman strings and horns build and build over the top to a powerful crescendo. The lengthy “A Scrap of Ribbon” starts with all the atmospherics again but then that piano theme reappears – it’s so raw, it really hits home. The first and only real “action” (and I use the word cautiously) comes in “Lockwood” – again it’s basically just little rhythmic jolts over a bed of atmosphere but it’s more propulsive than has been heard so far. Later, “Croisilles Wood” is very simply but has a certain ethereal beauty to it. The finale, “Come Back to Us”, is very good, with beautiful (if mournful) material spread throughout.

One of the two stunners is “The Night Window” – this is warm, string-led melody which is both exquisitely beautiful and really emotionally powerful. Fans of vintage Thomas Newman will be in their element. It is just a soaring, magnificent piece of music. The other is “Sixteen Hundred Men”, and here Newman seems to be referencing another Hans Zimmer score, the magnificent The Thin Red Line, taking elements from that score’s two best cues, “Journey to the Line” and “Light”, and bringing them together into a fine piece of real power (which is frankly about the least Thomas Newman-sounding piece of music I’ve ever heard him write).

This lengthy album is a very difficult one to summarise. A very large part of it is really not at all satisfying away from the film, but then every now and again something comes along which is just outrageously good – and part of the reason it’s so good is the contrast with what’s around it. So I suspect you have to take the rough with the smooth in this case, and when you do you get a few minutes of the best music Thomas Newman has written in years, but even so it’s a very hard slog to get there and I suspect this is one of those scores best left in the film.

Rating: **

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  1. DrTenma (Reply) on Monday 13 January, 2020 at 09:45

    I much agree with your review, the score is very good inside the movie, specially because it’s use is very smart. For example, “Gehenna” is very effective. The difference with Dunkirk is that Mendes is not afraid of silence, so when the music kicks in (or out) you notice it.

    But, indeed, in the album the music is hard to listen. I didn’t care for it until after seeing the movie.

  2. K.K.A. (Reply) on Thursday 16 January, 2020 at 03:40

    I thought the score was excellent top to bottom and it’s held up very well for me as an album. I’ve always admired his electronic music (in fact some of the cues reminded me of “White Oleander,” of all scores), so I enjoyed it here, especially in “Milk,” which plays during a particularly tragic part of the movie, which was also excellent.

    But yes, the orchestral work is some of the best he’s ever written, including “The Night Window,” “Sixteen Hundred Men,” and especially “Come Back To Us,” which is my favorite cue (I love solo cello).

    I certainly hope this wins Newman his first Oscar but if it doesn’t, that says more about the Academy than about this score or Newman.