Composer Thomas Newman


“In the end, it’s in everyone’s best interest for it to be done right. While there may be a schedule looming, there’s also everyone’s arrogant sense of excellence. Sometimes, though, you just have to swallow hard and do the work. Those are the moments when you face huge kinds of primal fears. But the good thing about movie music is that oftentimes you defeat those fears and it teaches you something basic about your nature.”
— Thomas Newman in 1998
Legendary Golden Age composer Alfred Newman was the winner of nine Academy Awards and the longtime music director at 20th Century Fox Studios. His death in 1970 came as his son Thomas was just 14, and yet, the legacy of Alfred Newman’s career has been carried on in Thomas Newman’s prolific, if not paradoxical film scoring career. Despite the magnificent musical talent applied to films and television in the past and present, Thomas unintentionally stumbled into the scoring business by accident. He is well known for writing spectacular scores for large orchestral ensembles, and yet he personally prefers writing for small ensembles and producing quirky, off-beat rhythms. He continues to be one of the most sought-after composers in Hollywood, despite his lack of ego and an insecurity he often feels about his own scores (though his frustration at his continued lack of an Oscar persists). Newman works today in the same old Pacific Palisades studio that his father used for years.

That studio, once adorned with a piano and a stopwatch, is now a hi-tech center of computerized recording equipment, complete with some of Newman’s favorite unusual instruments. Moving effortlessly from dramas to sharp satires to period pieces, he has earned a reputation as one of the most versatile composers working in Hollywood today. With regular collaborators Bill Bernstein, Thomas Pasatieri, and others, Newman often utilizes a set of unusual and rare instruments alongside a standard symphony orchestra to create an enigmatic and highly unique sound that is both lush and pastoral, but infused with the rhythms and textures of world music. Unceasing experimentation, often using an ensemble of players that Newman has employed in previous scores, helps define his approach. He thus manages to elicit an enormous amount of the emotional content of a film without being obvious about it. The directors with whom he has worked agree that Newman has an original voice and is a genuine collaborator. In 2003, his apprehensive effort to enter the realm of his cousin Randy Newman and score an animated picture, Finding Nemo, was a remarkable success.


Composer John Williams

The last decades have proven to be an unpredictable period in John Williams’ career. Although maintaining his high standard of European classical music, Williams’ long tenure on the throne as “the very best composer in Hollywood” has come under question. His reigning days of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones scores in the 1980’s have partly faded, and Williams has moved on to a variety of heavy, dramatic film assignments. And yet, even though composers such as James Horner and Jerry Goldsmith have been commercially threatening Williams’ dominance atop the world of film music, he continues to produce exceptional scores.

John Williams is the master of the long-term Hollywood relationship. He has remained loyal to directors such as Steven Spielberg (scoring all but a few of his feature films) and Oliver Stone. He is also the master of the sequel, scoring more sequels for seperate major motion picture series than any other composer in the history of Hollywood, including sequels to Jaws, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Home Alone, Jurassic Park, and Harry Potter. Because of this trend, Williams has also become the master of weaving original themes from previous films into new efforts, and interpolating the combination into a thematically impressive suite of new and old music. The most difficult task he has faced has been the continuation of the Star Wars saga into six films, for which Williams must contend with over a dozen themes to weave into each new entry.

Some people recall the “Johnny Williams” days of swinging jazz scores of the 1960’s (How to Steal a Million, John Goldfarb, Please Come Home, A Guide for the Married Man), or the Academy Award winning master of disaster epics in the 1970’s (The Towering Inferno, Jaws, The Fury). Even though most people remember him for his classics of the late 1970’s and 1980’s (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T.), some of Williams’ best work has been for smaller, more serious, or failing movies. During all the hooplah surrounding Home Alone in 1990, Williams produced one of the most haunting and effective scores of his career, Presumed Innocent. Never before had Williams captured the feeling of frustration and dread so well. The following year, Williams fans were delighted when theatrical trailers for Steven Spielberg’s Hook included original music by John Williams. This fanfare, which is included on the CD release, became part of a Williams classic. Hook has more enjoyable themes in one neat, long package than almost any other Williams score. In 1992, in a time when James Horner was stirring up the film music community with ethnic Irish music, Williams created a similar epic score for Far and Away.

 Williams conducts a concert in 1994

Arguably the best single year for any composer in Hollywood’s long history, Williams produced Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List in 1993, and both became top commercial sellers. After the acclaim he received from these scores (including another Academy Award), he went on a drought. He took a year off from scoring, and then returned with three less popular scores for Sabrina, Nixon, and Sleepers. In 1997, though, with re-releases of his Star Wars trilogy (special edition) in theatres, he provided impressive, dramatically eclectic scores for The Lost World, Seven Years in Tibet, and Amistad. Saving Private Ryan in 1998 proved that Williams’ hand at heavy drama wavers none. In between blockbuster scores for the Star Wars prequels and the start of the Harry Potter series, the maestro combined song and score for the beautiful A.I. Artificial Intelligence in 2001 and paid tribute to Bernard Herrmann in Minority Report the following year.

Williams’ personality is admired by many, but intensely disliked by others. In concert, both at the Boston Pops and on tour, his sense of humor captivates the audience almost immediately. On the other hand, other professionals claim that Williams’ ego has become too inflated –perhaps due to his enormous worldwide success. In a 1997 interview regarding the Academy Awards (and his nomination for Amistad), he claimed that he wasn’t so much concerned with the many Oscars he’s won as much as all those he’s lost over the years to other composers. But regardless of his reputation and/or personality, the scores of John Williams, from the perspective of orchestral music-lovers and his fellow peers, have changed the course of film music history.