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An entertaining film about repression and prejudice, Gary Ross’s Pleasantville stars Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon as a pair of siblings who find themselves transported inside a 50s tv show. As she in particular encourages the residents of the town to lose their inhibitions and start being themselves, the characters and locations gradually start shifting from black and white into colour (note the spelling).

Randy Newman’s note-perfect score is the film’s greatest element and a great showcase of his extraordinary skills as a film composer – on the right movie he was (is) as good as anyone. He was brilliant at the Pixar movies but there’s no doubt that becoming typecast in them led to him scoring fewer dramatic pictures than he may otherwise have done and I do wish his film composing career had managed to be balanced slightly more towards the latter than it’s ended up being – Ragtime, The Natural, Avalon, Awakenings, this – all masterpieces.

Randy Newman

A great half-hour score album was released at the time of the film, and now the Varese Sarabande CD Club has issued the complete score, greatly expanding upon the earlier album and running over an hour with the bonus tracks included. Given how carefully-produced the original album was it can be a little jarring to hear the score in this new form, in a very different order and with many extra tracks, and while I’m not sure it’s a better listening experience than the original it’s well worth hearing.

One aspect that’s quite brilliant is how Newman very subtly (very subtly) incorporates the mock theme he wrote for the show-within-a-show, “The Pleasantville Theme” (a great deliberately saccharine tv theme tune) into the score as it goes along. He does this so carefully – a couple of bars here or there, sometimes cleverly written into the harmony of a seemingly-unrelated theme – as the tv show’s characters begin to transition to real life.

There are so many distinct themes crammed into the score it’s almost unbelievable. The heroic action theme best heard in “Bud’s a Hero”; the rousing awakening theme introduced in “In the Bath”; the orchestral swing of the previously-unreleased “Get Ready”; the light-hearted “Let’s Go Bowling”; the gently, touching Americana of “Real Rain”; the desperate drama of “Burning the Books”; and perhaps best of all the rousing, exceptional “Mural” (at the time everyone went on and on about the temp-track – director Ross forced Newman to get closer and closer to Edward Scissorhands – but it’s its own thing, really). Each of these themes is instantly-memorable, I’ve only named one track as an example of each but they all recur multiple times (more so on the new album, obviously) – for lovers of melody, this is bliss.

Newman’s great gift as a songwriter is to combine the most outrageously beautiful melodies with biting satire and a wicked wit in the lyrics, but sometimes (in songs like “Ghosts” or “Texas Girl at the Funeral of her Father”) there’s no doubt that we are hearing genuine poetry – for my money he is the greatest American songwriter there has been so far. When he’s working on commission he is able to leave any element of cynicism about the world behind and write music that is genuinely sincere. On top form, as in Pleasantville, the results are exquisite. This music comes from within the film, does so much heavy lifting for it, is emotionally on-the-nose, more sophisticated dramatically than it has any right to be – as I said up-front, it’s perfect. Now he is 80, and having suffered an injury which has prevented him from performing, it doesn’t seem particularly likely that we’ll hear much – perhaps any – new film music from him, but even without the extraordinary legacy he leaves behind from his songs, he has every right to also be considered one of the genuinely great film composers and this is one of his best scores, easily the best film music of its year.

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