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Marriage Story
  • Composed by Randy Newman
  • Lakeshore / 25m

Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story is a smart and impressive look at the marriage breakdown of a couple who just drift apart, the effect it has on them and their son. Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver are both good, there is excellent support from a range of familiar faces in the supporting cast; it’s one of the best films I’ve seen this year.

People who’ve been around here for a while will know I’ve always loved Randy Newman’s work on Pixar films – he’s built up an incredible body of work on those that is simply full of joy. But while he’s a master at those scores, I have long felt that it has probably denied us the opportunity of hearing him truly at his best as a film composer – on serious dramas, his signature brand of Americana which served him so well on Ragtime, Avalon and all the rest earlier in his film composing career – another niche, but one where he was truly at the top of his game.

Randy Newman

He did score Baumbach’s previous film The Meyerowitz Stories – at the director’s request, with a solo piano. It was very nice but A Marriage Story is on a whole different level – in fact, as a film score, it’s on a different level from anything else I’ve heard this year. Newman is old-school – he was around when film composers were truly discovering what film music could do in terms of getting under the skin of films and telling you what you couldn’t see for yourself. There are plenty of ways of scoring films (and on Pixar films and the like, of course it’s perfectly appropriate to do the “score what’s on the screen” thing) but this one feels like a slightly lost art.

It’s there right from the off – the opening pair of cues, “What I Love About Nicole” and “What I Love About Charlie” underscore the respective partners saying what they love about their partners as they make one last desperate attempt to save things – and while they are different cues, Newman makes sure that there is enough in common to make it clear that actually, what they love about each other is so complementary.

The long film has a short score but whenever it appears, Newman pulls things back to elements of those opening cues – and (this is why it is such a sharp score) he uses it at moments when things are going badly, when things are tough – always pulling you back as a viewer to the things the partners love about each other. The combination of that with the narrative going through places where they are focusing on what they hate about each other is what makes it so powerful, and does a lot of work in making the film powerful. Credit to Baumbach for allowing such a powerful use of music in a film like this – it stands out so much and has such an impact despite its brevity, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see it nominated for most of the awards coming up soon.

The orchestration is so rich and beautiful – quite simple, similar in many ways to Newman’s songs of the 1970s – the melodies are unmistakably him (one of the primary thematic elements sounds a bit like his wonderful song “Marie”) – while it’s a short and somewhat repetitive album, it’s such a pleasure to listen to.

Whether it triggers some sort of late-career renaissance in more serious films I’m not so sure (as Newman himself has said recently, there just aren’t that many films like this being made) – but how wonderful it is to hear the master at work again. A Marriage Story is a beautiful, touching score for a beautiful, touching film which frankly anybody who fancies a career as a film composer for something other than crash-bang movies would be very well advised to sit and study.

Rating: **** 1/2 | |

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  1. Nic (Reply) on Sunday 8 December, 2019 at 16:22

    Great review, James! I’d maybe rank it a little lower but the way the score is spotted after the tragic fighting and confrontation was so effective. I read that Newman approached the film as Delerue may have and that’s more than ok with me!