Home | Reviews by Title | Reviews by Composer
Excellent music: but what did it actually do for the film?
It's difficult to overstate the brilliance of Sam Mendes's American Beauty: just about everything about the film is spot-on. The key to the film's success is how acutely well-observed it is: I don't think there can be many people who have seen it who don't identify in some way with one of the main characters. Technically, too, everything is brilliant: acting is first-rate, particularly from Kevin Spacey, but also (more surprisingly) from the young supporting cast; Conrad Hall's photography is imaginative; and Mendes's direction promises much for the future from the director.
But what of Thomas Newman's score? In my review of the composer's work on The Horse Whisperer, I commented that he doesn't so much score the characters, their emotions nor the situations they are in, but rather he scores the atmosphere of each scene: in many ways, his music is more an elaborate series of sound effects than anything else, and could almost do with a further dramatic underscore beneath it. The music in American Beauty is brilliant: truly imaginative and inventive, and great to listen to. But what does it actually add to the film? In my opinion, nothing: if there were not a single note of Newman's music in the entire film, it would not have been any better or worse.
Newman is one of the most awesome talents around (something in his genes?) and it's no surprise to see the bizarre list of solo instruments credited in the CD booklet: tablas, kim-kims, bird calls, appalachian dulcimer, processed bass flute, detuned mandolin, saz and piano (the piano being a particularly bizarre instrument there). Sometimes I despair at how Newman's combinations sound on CD, but American Beauty just works: simple as that.
There are two main themes, the quirky (an adjective that may well have first been coined with Newman in mind) and lively "Dead Already" (which seems to be heard repeatedly in the film) and the slightly more emotional and sombre "Mental Boy". Aside from these, there are few melodies of any real note, but rather a hypnotic, almost drug-like atmosphere created by the composer.
At 37 minutes, the album is probably just about short enough to not outlive its welcome; while in terms of Newman's own music there isn't much new here, it's nevertheless still quite exciting to hear his totally unique style being applied to such a brilliant film, and for my money American Beauty may just be Newman's best album so far.
Total Time 37:31
Artwork copyright (c) 2000 SKG Music LLC; review copyright (c) 2000 James Southall.