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Bridge of Spies
  • Composed by Thomas Newman
  • Hollywood Records / 2015 / 48m

Steven Spielberg’s latest is a chronicle of the negotiations that followed the famous U-2 incident of 1960, when Bono and Larry Mullen said something very naughty indeed and almost triggered World War 3.  Bridge of Spies stars Tom Hanks as the lawyer trying to secure the release of the shot down American pilot, in exchange for a KGB agent (played by the great Mark Rylance) held by the Americans.  The film has been well-received critically, though in common with some of Spielberg’s other more “serious” films lately it hasn’t really made the box office impression the money men may have wanted.

For over 40 years, with one solitary exception a Steven Spielberg movie has meant a John Williams score.  One of the most enduring and productive composer/director relationships in cinema history, it has produced some of the great film music of its (and in some cases, of any) era.  But now, there are two exceptions – Williams had cleared time from his Star Wars schedule to work on his most enduring collaborator’s film but a health issue prevented him from doing so, leaving Spielberg with a decision to make over his composer for the first time in decades (the previous time he didn’t use Williams, the decision was not his to make).  People had speculated for years over who the director would choose in such a circumstance – he is a lover of film music and has expressed admiration for a number of different film composers over the years (always reserving his highest praise for Williams, of course).  With hindsight, the choice was obvious – Thomas Newman is not only one of the pre-eminent film composers of the day, he’s also part of a family that Williams was very close to earlier in his career (the great composer having worked with Thomas’s father Alfred and uncle Lionel on numerous occasions) – and Thomas himself did some work on some of Williams’s Fox scores very early in his own career.

Thomas Newman

Thomas Newman

I don’t think there was ever a real danger of this, but fortunately Newman hasn’t tried to write a score that emulates Williams – his is one of the most distinctive musical personalities in film music, and so is Williams’s.  It’s a Thomas Newman score through and through, the expected combination of orchestra with some exotic soloists and colours, a sheen of class running all over it.  Having said that – the opening cue is rather unexpected, the brief “Hall of Trade Unions, Moscow” featuring a deep male Slavic choir – but that’s over almost as soon as it begins and we come to by far the most Williams-like moment in the score, with the beautiful Americana that heralds the opening to “Sunlit Silence”; but when the string runs and percussion come in, it’s 100% Thomas Newman, very reminiscent of parts of Scent of a Woman and then as that subsides and the composer’s trademark gorgeous wind writing alongside gently rolling strings we could be back in The Horse Whisperer.  It’s a sumptuous, glorious piece of film music.

The Russian element isn’t usually expressed as forcefully as in that opening choral track: in “Ejection Protocol”, Newman subtly weaves balalaika around the orchestra.  It’s a tense cue, choppy strings and muted brass and some atmospheric (but again, subtle) electronics.  “Standing Man” is very beautiful, impressively restrained and with a gorgeous glassy feel.  Then, it honestly couldn’t ever get more Thomas Newman than “Rain”, rhythmic pulses accelerating and decelerating, a dizzying array of soloists (percussion, wind, synths) and quirky string phrases.  “Lt. Francis Gary Powers” is a dark piece – the synth choir gives it a slight religioso air, chaotic bursts from the orchestra mirroring an uncomfortable nightmare.  In “The Article”, I’m reminded of Angels in America (still Newman’s masterpiece, in my opinion) – it’s dark but dynamic, a shame it’s so brief.

The choir makes a return in “The Wall”, a great piece of Cold War suspense (hey, I wonder if anyone’s ever considered this guy for a James Bond movie) that ultimately soars away with grandeur.  By contrast “Private Citizen” is introspective, quite sad, the piano solo seeming to have a hint of anguish to it, which is pushed further in “The Impatient Plan”, which conveys a great sadness.  “West Berlin” is very brief, a propulsive piece that gets things moving again; then “Friedrichstraße Station” has a delightful lightness of touch, at the same time as continuing the energy.

This leads into the closing three tracks of score, which take up around half the album between them and make a wonderful trio of cues.  “Glienicke Bridge” starts off small, with various swellings along the way always falling back once they’ve risen.  First from the horns, later the choir, it’s beautifully done.  Along the way come various transitions from darkness to light, and in the middle a lovely little passage which reminds me a bit of Mike Oldfield.  It travels a long road but Newman keeps it all impressively coherent.  “Homecoming” is even better, full of a great warmth, the main theme given a beautiful piano arrangement followed by a lush string treatment, bookended by noble trumpet at the start, gorgeous oboe at the end.  Finally there’s a superb end title piece, reprising most of the score’s main ideas.

Bridge of Spies is the third of Newman’s four scores this year.  It’s a diverse bunch – a gentle comedy, a moving documentary, a political thriller and a Bond movie.  They’re all very good but for my money this is the pick of them.  It’s got real life to it and, while Newman employs a number of familiar techniques, he manages to keep everything sounding fresh and always engaging.  It’s already been announced that John Williams will return for Spielberg’s next movie, The BFG, but when the time does eventually come to choose his successor, the director need look no further.

Rating: **** 1/2 | |

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  1. Michael McDaid (Reply) on Friday 6 November, 2015 at 00:37

    Couldn’t agree more. Fabulous score and those last 3 cues are amazing. Nice review as always.

  2. Visakh (Reply) on Sunday 8 November, 2015 at 17:12

    “I wonder if anyone’s ever considered this guy for a James Bond movie”

    James, Skyfall and Spectre are by Newman.

  3. David Ortiz (Reply) on Sunday 8 November, 2015 at 19:16

    Visakh, allow me to introduce you to a little thing called “sarcasm.”

  4. Visakh (Reply) on Sunday 8 November, 2015 at 21:15

    @James..yup, I realized it once I clicked the submit. But being at Amsterdam airport waiting for my flight back home might have contributed to the delay in my decision making….:-)

  5. Kalman (Reply) on Monday 9 November, 2015 at 19:10

    I do hope Newman will not be Williams’ successor in future Spielberg movies. He is one of the composers whose musical style just doesn’t “click” with me. I only own four of his scores but his orchestration and style haven’t managed to reach me so far.

    I haven’t seen Bridge of Spies yet so I can’t say how this music works in the film but as a standalone listen it’s not my cup of tea.

  6. Luc Van der Eeken (Reply) on Thursday 12 November, 2015 at 17:12

    Excellent score and a much better effort than his latest Bond score which just doesn’t grab me the way Skyfall did.