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Passengers
  • Composed by Thomas Newman
  • Sony Classical / 2016 / 68m

Written by Jon Spaihts and directed by Morten Tyldum, Passengers is about a 120-year spaceship voyage where one passenger (Chris Pratt) wakes up 90 years early and, seeking company, then wakes up fellow passenger Jennifer Lawrence.  One thing leads to another and they find themselves in a variety of sticky situations.  The film was highly anticipated but has opened to lousy reviews.

This isn’t the type of film that would usually attract Thomas Newman, but I guess if he can do James Bond then anything’s fair game.  Spaihts says he wrote the script while listening to Newman’s music and I guess the composer fancied the opportunity of working on something different.  But if the film is not the sort of thing he would usually do, the music he wrote for it most certainly is.  I don’t think it’s possible to get more Thomas Newman than Passengers – if you put everything he’s ever done into a mixing bowl and baked it in the oven for an hour, when you fetched it out you’d get Passengers.

Thomas Newman

Thomas Newman

Offbeat rhythmic propulsion – check.  Pretty piano tunes – check.  Unorthodox instrumental solos – check.  World music flavours – check.  Electronic dreamscapes – check.  Big orchestral drama – check.  It’s all here.  Many people have compared the score with Wall-E which is understandable because that’s the closest he’s come in the past to science fiction, but really it’s like dozens of other scores too.  It’s the Thomas Newman equivalent of something like Bicentennial Man.

This is no bad thing, really – Newman’s a great composer and it’s always good to hear him just doing his thing.  The catchy rhythmic opening “The Starship Avalon” with its whistling synth effect gets you tapping your feet; the beautiful electronica of “Rate 2 Mechanic” is really quite wonderful; the frenzied buzz of “Precious Metals” (which reminds me in particular of his Best Exotic Marigold Hotel scores of all things, even with the Indian flavours) is really quite something.

I guess it’s the more overtly electronic music that stands out a bit – virtually the whole score has a lot of electronics in it but when Newman goes to town with it a bit, such as in the tense “Robot Questions”, it’s particularly effective.  In the following cue, “The Sleeping Girl”, the electronics continue but now the orchestra reaches its biggest proportions so far, strings swelling and horns blaring out in dramatic style, albeit briefly – and when it dies down again the emergent soundscape is just beautifully hypnotic, trance-like.

The first hint of a vintage Newman orchestral theme emerges in “Build a House and Live In It”, one of those trademark oboe solos floating in and out, How to Build an American Quilt-style.  It’s sumptuous.  And the dreamy “Spacewalk” – a perfect musical representation of weightlessness – and romantic, too.  This section of the album is my favourite – the first third or so is about mystery and anxiousness, then this middle section goes all light and melodic and wispy.

An urgency suddenly appears during “50% of Light Speed”, then things turn distinctly darker in “Cascade Failure” which actually turns into some pretty frantic action music, a rarity indeed for this composer.  (Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t last long.)  Things are pretty bleak in “Zero-Gravity”, the strings frantic, the horns unsettling, fast-paced electronic percussion keeping everything moving at a canter.  Then in “Looking for Wrong”, the dark drama reaches new heights, slightly abrasively perhaps but stirringly so.

As the end of the score approaches, “Chrysler Bldg.” offers a welcome return to a dreamier world, where the score comes closest to Wall-E‘s magical sound.  Then “Untethered” sees that wonderful floating feeling come back before things go south again at the start of “You Brought Me Back”, at five and a half minutes the album’s longest cue, but as its name suggests it does lead to happier feelings in the end.  The tender “Starlit” is a piano-led reprise of some material heard early in the score but this time with a much calmer, more reflective feel to it, and again it’s just gorgeous.  The end title, “Sugarcoat the Galaxy”, doesn’t offer a big sweeping resolution, but it’s a nice upbeat cue with lots of interesting textures weaving in and out of each other and a lovely chilled-out atmosphere.

Passengers really is the quintessential Newman score.  I guess what pulls it back from actually being one of his very best ones is that by having a little bit of everything, perhaps there is a sense that there is a lack of some real single identity to hold on to.  Melodies are there, great ones at times, but they are so fleeting – there are so many interesting textures – I love the electronic world which is crafted so carefully – yet the whole feels just a tiny bit less than the sum of its parts and at 68 minutes perhaps the album is longer than it really needs to be.  It’s smart music, no doubt, and no fan of Thomas Newman could fail to like it – add to that how beautiful it is at times and it’s an album that’s very easy to recommend.

Rating: ****

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Deny the passenger, who wanna get on
Deny the passenger, who wanna get on
Deny the passenger, who wanna get on
Wanna get on
He wanna get on
Wanna get on
He wanna get on

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  1. Sullivan on Wednesday 21 December, 2016 at 14:54

    Congratulations on reaching your 20 year milestone James. I have enjoyed your reviews throughout, in particular the ones in the past.

    By posting the Elton John lyrics in this review I believe you have reached “peak Southall” and should consider whether it can get any better. If not, consider retirement.

    Deny the passenger, who wanna get on
    Deny the passenger, who wanna get on
    Deny the passenger, who wanna get on
    Wanna get on
    He wanna get on
    Wanna get on
    He wanna get on

  2. James Southall on Wednesday 21 December, 2016 at 21:33

    Thanks, I think.

  3. Chris Gilmour on Saturday 24 December, 2016 at 17:27

    Loved this soundtrack and saw the film today. Do you know if the track listing fits chronologically with the film? I wasn’t sure.

  4. James Southall on Saturday 24 December, 2016 at 17:54

    I don’t know… hopefully somebody can help. Newman’s albums usually don’t but there are exceptions.

  5. Mefisto on Friday 30 December, 2016 at 02:38

    No, the tracklist isn’t in chronological order.