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Avalon
  • Composed by Randy Newman
  • Reprise / 1990 / 37m

The third of Barry Levinson’s semi-autobiographical four-movie “Baltimore series”, Avalon is a beautiful film chronicling the life of a family of Russian Jewish immigrants in Baltimore in the early 1950s.  Armin Mueller-Stahl is superb as the patriarch, struggling to keep his family together as they and the world around them go through deep changes.  The film was littered with critical praise and lots of attention from the awards-givers but seems to have faded somewhat into obscurity now, which is a shame because it’s a film worth knowing.

Randy Newman’s career as a film composer had been occasional at best up to that point – a whole decade passed between his first two scores (1971’s Cold Turkey and 1981’s Ragtime) and only two more followed in the rest of the 1980s (The Natural – for Levinson – and Parenthood).  But he became considerably more prolific over the next decade or so and Avalon followed very shortly after Awakenings in 1990.  What was very clear was that what he lacked in quantity he certainly made up for in quality – and his mode of rich nostalgic Americana reached its zenith in Avalon, for me his finest achievement in film music.

Randy Newman

Randy Newman

Newman cleverly offers his score as a kind of constant anchor point within a sea of change in the film itself.  It begins in “1914” with the gentle waltz theme, heard at first on solo piano before strings play the B-section.  Delicate and elegant, it’s a piece full of whimsy which perfectly reflects the film’s rather rose-tinted view.  Another waltz follows, “Weekend Musicians”, related to the main theme but this time with a distinctly Jewish character.

The secondary theme is introduced in the first half of “Avalon / Moving Day”, a deeply moving melody tinged with multiple emotions – there is something profoundly sad there yet somehow the composer manages to keep up the warm nostalgic glow which shines over the whole score, and then that comes even more to the fore in the second half of the piece, the piano and winds acting like a nice warm comfort blanket.  In “Jules and Michael” Newman turns his main theme into a lovely examination of the relationship between two brothers.  There’s a little comic relief in “Television, Television, Television”, a short celebratory scherzo marking the arrival of the family’s first tv; the mood continues in “Circus”, with just a hint of a Russian influence over its distinctly American big top feel before the gorgeous secondary theme receives one of its most moving arrangement in the score.  “Wedding” is another showcase for that theme, here bathed in a summery glow and highlighting a beautiful trumpet solo.

The focus returns to the main theme in the beautiful “Family”, a deliciously restrained set of variations on the melody becoming ever warmer and more touching.  The mood turns in “The Fire”, a moody opening leading to a lonely-sounding trumpet variant on the secondary theme; even here, conveying tragedy, Newman’s music is quite lovely.  The brief “No More Television” offers a little light relief before the emotional powerhouse of “Funeral”, a piece of great affection which aims straight for the heart.

The score’s main ideas are all reprised in the seven-minute end title cue which closes the album, an album which features world class film music, one of the best scores of its kind.  Avalon‘s great strength comes from its emotional directness, which is blatant yet somehow doesn’t ever feel overwrought.  Part of that directness comes from the frequency of solo instrumental performances (most commonly piano, violin, trumpet or flute) and the rest from the exquisite melodies.  Randy Newman may not have written many scores for this type of film but that’s such a shame – only Elmer Bernstein might have come up with something as sumptuous as Avalon.  Warm-hearted and moving, this is one of the most treasured items in my film music collection.

Rating: *****

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  1. Craig Richard Lysy on Saturday 24 May, 2014 at 15:04

    I fully agree. This is one of Newman’s masterworks an essential score for any collector. Nicely done James.