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The Judge
  • Composed by Thomas Newman
  • WaterTower Music / 2014 / 47m

David Dobkin’s The Judge sees Robert Downey, Jr, play a lawyer who returns home from the big city to attend his mother’s funeral only to find that his estranged father, a judge played by Robert Duvall, stands accused of murder.  Needless to say, he ends up defending him.  It sounds like it should be based on a John Grisham novel, but it isn’t, it’s an “original” film; most reviews have highlighted the lack of originality as the film’s major flaw, but have highlighted its performances from its strong cast (which also includes Billy Bob Thornton as the prosecutor) as its greatest asset.

You can always tell when Oscar season has arrived because a film like this comes out boasting a score by Thomas Newman.  It seems his radar may have been slightly off for once on this occasion, since the film seems highly unlikely to be troubling any awards givers.  That doesn’t necessarily rule him out of getting some attention personally I guess, but The Judge doesn’t really feel like a special Newman score.  It’s got quality and class oozing from every pore, as his music always does – he’s an outstanding composer, an outstanding film composer – but listeners would be forgiven for thinking they’ve stumbled across a few cuts from his back catalogue.

Thomas Newman

Thomas Newman

This is as close as you’re going to get to finding a Thomas Newman score that’s pedestrian.  It’s all extremely familiar – the energetic percussion, quirky touches from a host of plucked and struck instrumental oddities, a charming piano theme, darker moments highlighted by synths.  It’s a formula that has – apart from a shift from electronic to acoustic around American Beauty time – remained fundamentally the same since the composer first announced his presence in the 1980s.  There have been diversions along the way into much more traditional orchestral territory, which he does as well as anyone, but it’s obvious that it’s this style that the composer prefers to work in.

As ever, the ideas come as little nuggets – the 47-minute album is split into 27 tracks – and many of these are very distinctive, not to mention distinguished.  The colour palette seems to suggest America’s Deep South to me, but the film isn’t set there so perhaps it’s just a device to signify a more generic brand of small-town America – in any case, it’s certainly evocative of something!  And the dramatic passages are at times absolutely captivating – “Light a Match” is a simple construction, but it seems to have such energy it’s very easy to be drawn under its spell, the same for the later “Aye of Knute”.  “Missing Time” is, at five minutes, by far the longest piece on the album and that gives the composer time to really develop something within the confines of a single cue, allowing the drama to have a much more fluid feel.

There are a few moments of warmer emotion that remind us (as if it were necessary) just how special this composer is at such things.  It’s very brief, but “Samantha” is so beautiful.  “Carla’s Father” is more subtle but also touching, a fragment of nostalgia perhaps trying to edge its way into the frame.  “I Choose You” is gorgeous, a glowing and rich piece which combines various warm feelings with one of relief.  The dreamy finale “Wabash River Float” is like a kaleidoscope of colourful little patterns, vintage Newman.

This is a Thomas Newman score that’s straight down the middle – everything about it is so familiar.  It’s high quality, there’s no doubting that – Newman is as classy a film composer as there is right now and his assured touch is reassuring, as impressive as ever.  What The Judge lacks is something truly distinctive to set it apart from all the other similarly high quality, classy works Newman’s done so many times through the years.  “Pedestrian” is the word I used above, and it must be stressed that the word has a different meaning when applied to someone like Thomas Newman – his standards are so high – than more ordinary film composers.  But there’s no escaping the feeling that everything here has been done quite a large number of times before by the composer and it would be a surprise to learn that people would reach for this album to play ahead of the any of the large number of stronger examples of the style found elsewhere in his discography.  By others’ standards this would be highly impressive, by Newman’s it just lacks that special spark that would set it apart.

Rating: *** | |

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  1. tiago (Reply) on Saturday 18 October, 2014 at 19:09

    This score has a better audition than Skyfall and Saving Mr. Banks, but, unfortunately, isn’t Newman at his best yet. I hope, one day, he compose something as astonishing as Shawshank Redemption, The Horse Whisperer or The Green Mile.

  2. Matt (Reply) on Tuesday 4 November, 2014 at 16:25

    This isn’t a bad score and it actually works quite well in the film. It isn’t Newman’s best, but I love his scores in this Americana, rural style (The Help, American Quilt, etc). I am still waiting for a release of Phenomenon! The Judge is quiet, reflective and a nice listen, but the cues are so short, there’s not much of chance for Newman to develop his themes. But I would take a mediocre Thomas Newman score in this style any day. I really like his reflective stuff.

  3. Ian Simpson (Reply) on Thursday 13 November, 2014 at 23:05

    Yeah, I’d put this score in the same sort of category as the one for Side Effects. Nothing special, but “quietly” pleasant to listen to, although the Side Effects one achieves this in a different way. I’m looking forward to his scores for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel 2, the next two Pixar films and possibly Bond 24 (the last one isn’t confirmed yet, but looks very likely)- those assignments should push him out of “playing safe” and are effectively sequels to scores that I enjoy listening to.