I have always loved theme music for movies. The very first concert I ever attended was to see Henry Mancini (and it was fabulous). I’ve had the opportunity myself to write theme music for stage plays, which has deepened my appreciation for the skill required to get the mood right for a whole movie. Over the course of the next year, I plan to do a series of posts about some of the great composers for films.
It is easy to argue that, for film music, the Newmans are the first family. Alfred, his brothers Lionel and Emil, sons Thomas and David, and nephew Randy have, between them, scored 497 movies (and counting). They’ve been nominated for 88 Oscars, and have won 12. The family has been scoring pictures from Indiscreet (starring Gloria Swanson) in 1931 to the present day with Thomas’ recent scores for The Debt, The Adjustment Bureau, The Help, and The Iron Lady.
The patriarch of this dynasty was born in New Haven, CT in 1901, to a poor immigrant family. Alfred was a piano prodigy who was given a scholarship by the great pianist Sigismund Stojowski to study with him at age 5. However, Alfred needed to provide for his family when his father lost his job. He found work as the pianist at the Strand Theater in New York City. He was 13 years old. Alfred moved into musical theater work, since it paid better, and learned conducting. Composer David Raskin has called Newman the greatest conductor to ever pick up a baton in Hollywood. Alfred worked with Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern, and Irving Berlin on Broadway. When Berlin moved to Hollywood in 1930 to work in the movies, he brought Newman with him.
Newman found work with independent producer Samuel Goldwyn as well as at United Artists during his first decade in the movies. Then in 1940 he became the music director for 20th Century Fox. Almost everyone in the world has heard Newman’s music, since he wrote the fanfare that accompanies the 20th Century logo on the studio’s films. (The fanfare was rerecorded in 1997 under the direction of his son, David; that’s the recording that’s currently in use.)
Newman was nominated for 45 Oscars, the third highest total in film history (behind Walt Disney and John Williams). He won 9, second only to Disney. In a stretch from 1938 to 1957, he received an Oscar nomination every year, and had the remarkable feat of being nominated 4 times (for Wuthering Heights, The Rains Came, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and the musical direction for They Shall Have Music) in one year. That was also the year of Max Steiner’s score for Gone WithThe Wind, but both composers lost out to Stagecoach.
After retiring from 20th Century Fox in 1960, Newman continued freelance composing as well as scoring, working on The Counterfeit Traitor, How the West Was Won, The Greatest Story Ever Told, Nevada Smith, The Flower Drum Song, and Firecreek. His last assignment was for 1970’s Airport. His health deteriorated during the work on Airport, and he died on February 17, 1970, at age 68. The Airport score became his final Oscar-nominated work.
As an example of Alfred’s work, listen to his score for 1941’s How Green Was My Valley. The winsome use of the violins for the theme makes you feel the longing for home and the memories of family. Click here to listen.
Fifteen years younger than Alfred, Lionel followed in his brother’s footsteps, becoming a pianist and a conductor. He toured in the 1930’s as Mae West’s pianist and orchestral conductor for her live shows. When he joined his brother at 20th Century Fox, he started as a rehearsal pianist before moving into conducting scores as well as writing them. Different from Alfred, Lionel worked extensively in television at the studio, and was named its musical director for the small screen. He composed several classic TV themes, including The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis and Daniel Boone, as well as supervising the music for such series as M*A*S*H, Batman, Lost In Space, Room 222, and Trapper John, M.D.
For the big screen, he did more direction of the music, and was Marilyn Monroe’s choice for a conductor on all of her musical films. Lionel did compose scores for 35 movies, including The Proud Ones, Love Me Tender, Compulsion, and The Boston Strangler. He also scored the music for Hello, Dolly for which he won his only Oscar, out of 11 nominations. Lionel retired in 1985, and passed away in 1989 at age 73.
Lionel’s theme for 1956’s The Proud Ones, a western starring Robert Ryan, Virginia Mayo, and Jeffrey Hunter, may have influenced Ennio Morricone who used the whistling motif when he scored Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns eight years later. Click here to listen.
Born four years before Lionel, in 1911, Emil joined his brothers in Hollywood near the end of the 1930s. Like Lionel, he was mostly known as a musical director. Starting in 1940, he directed the music on movies such as Lifeboat, Laura, Stormy Weather, and The Best Years of Our Lives. 1941’s Sun Valley Serenade brought him his only Oscar nomination, for scoring the picture. It was one of only two movies that showcased the Glenn Miller Orchestra, and it started Norwegian Olympic skating sensation Sonja Henie. The film also featured Dorothy Dandridge and Milton Berle (not two names you usually say in the same sentence).
He did compose scores for 40 movies, including three John Wayne pictures, Big Jim McLain, Island in the Sky, and Hondo. Most of his other scores, though, were for B pictures. After scoring 1965’s The Great Sioux Massacre, a very poor retelling of Custer’s Last Stand, Emil stopped working in Hollywood. He died in Woodland Hills, California, in 1984.
The theme he wrote for Hondo is quite serviceable for the movie, but nothing special. It must have been hard, to be a middle child between Alfred and Lionel. To listen, click here.
Randy was the son of a fourth Newman brother, Irving, who had also come west to Hollywood but who made his living as a doctor. Born on November 28, 1943, Randy was a professional songwriter by age 17. Often his music became hits for other artists such as Judy Collins (I Think It’s Going To Rain Today), Three Dog Night (Mama Told Me Not To Come), and Joe Cocker (You Can Leave Your Hat On). But he did have good success as an artist himself with the classic Sail Away, the anthem I Love L.A., and the tongue-in-cheek Short People. He continues to give concerts of his songs around the world.
Randy first dipped his toes into the family business by doing the music for Cold Turkey in 1971. The movie, about a town where everyone swears off smoking, was written and directed by legendary television producer Norman Lear and starred Dick Van Dyke. Ten years later he did the music for Ragtime, followed three years later by The Natural. After that, Randy was regularly working on film projects. Some of the other movies he’s scored are Awakenings, Maverick, Pleasantville, and Seabiscuit.
It was serendipitous, though, when Randy started to work with Disney/Pixar. His first work with Pixar was for the wonderful Toy Story. Since then he’s done the other two Toy Story pictures, A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc, and Cars. He’s currently working on the sequel Monsters University. Randy also did the stop-motion movie, James and the Giant Peach, as well as the recent classic-style animation movie, The Princess and the Frog.
He set a record for Oscar nominations without a win (14) but finally got his trophy for Best Original Song in 2002 for Monsters, Inc. He’s now had 20 nominations and two wins, the second another original song win for Toy Story 3. He came close to matching Alfred in 1999 when he received nominations for three different movies (A Bugs Life, Babe: Pig in the City, and Pleasantville) in the same year.
The home run scene at the end of The Natural illustrates how music can deepen the emotional impact of a scene. There’s just a touch of music at first, specifically when Redford sees his broken bat. Then the music builds on the final pitch until it explodes with the lights. You could play this piece of music for anyone who’s seen the movie, and they would immediately remember the scene. To watch the scene, click here.
David is the older of Alfred Newman’s two sons who have followed their father into composing movie music. David had studied both conducting as well as violin when he was a music major at the University of Southern California.
His first theme work was for Tim Burton’s short film Frankenweenie in 1984. After doing Danny DeVito’s first movie as a director, Throw Momma From the Train, DeVito used David for all his subsequent directing assignments. David has now scored over 100 films, and for many producers he’s become the go-to guy for scoring comedies. Like Randy and his brother Thomas, David has scored animated movies, and it was for one of them, Anastasia, that he received his only Oscar nomination.
As an example of his music, I’ve chosen his theme work for a personal favorite movie of mine, Josh Whedon’s Serenity. The story is basically cowboys in space, and you’ll hear elements of the western motif in the theme. The adagio that begins this clip fits beautifully with the end of the movie, when a couple of beloved characters are laid to rest. To listen, click here.
Last, and definitely not least, is Thomas Newman. Thomas is a year younger than David, having been born in 1955 when his father was already in his mid-fifties. He has come close to matching his father’s success, working on prestigious films, and he’s been nominated for 10 Oscars. So far has not won a trophy, though one hopes that oversight will soon be corrected.
Thomas attended USC like David, but then got his Master’s degree at Yale. One of the composers he studied under was David Raskin, who was given his start in the movie industry by Thomas’ father Alfred. Thomas got his start in the mid-1980s, composing the scores for comedies like Revenge of the Nerds, Desperately Seeking Susan, and Girls Just Want to Have Fun. These led to more prestigious work in the 1990’s, doing Fried Green Tomatoes, The Shawshank Redemption, The Horse Whisperer, The Green Mile, and American Beauty, among others. He also wrote the theme music for HBO’s Six Feet Under.
In the past decade, Thomas has scored The Road to Perdition, Cinderella Man, and Jarhead. He’s also worked with Pixar like his cousin Randy, doing the music for Finding Nemo and WALL-E. He’s had a long-standing relationship with Director Sam Mendes, having done all his films, and is currently working on Skyfall, the new James Bond movie that Mendes is directing.
Different from his father’s sweeping orchestrations, Thomas has a delicate touch that blends themes and instruments in a subtle way. As with jazz, it’s often the parts he leaves out of a theme that make the music even more striking. You’ll notice this in his theme for American Beauty. To listen, click here.