The pairing of Thomas Newman and Sam Mendes has to be one of the greatest collaborations in film of the 21st century. The list of incredible films they've worked on together is outstanding. None of them however created such an impact than that of their first collaboration, American Beauty.
The film is very score driven, which is evident from the first frames of the film where it opens with an odd sounding marimba rhythm. This distinctively sets the tone, we know we're in for an off balance take on American suburb life.
I find the score to almost feel hypnotic. The lead Character, Lester Burnham, is supposed to be this middle age, middle class man who's fed up with life. He's bored with the day to day routine. For him life only goes downhill from his morning shower. The opening track reflects this even in the title, 'Dead Already'. Everything from the melody to the unique layers of textures give us a sense of unease and intrigue, much in the same way Herman did with Vertigo 40 years earlier.
The original plan for the music in the film was to be mostly country and western songs with Newman just filling a few gaps while he was between bigger projects. However, after some time Mendes decided he wanted lots of percussive bangs and bonks to move the score forward. This is where I think the genesis of the dream sequences come from. They're ladened with percussive bowls and strange tones which describes the chaotic and disconnected mind of Lester while he's day dreaming. The best example of this is the score 'Spartanette'.
Now I don't think I can talk about American Beauty without delving into the track, 'Any Other Name'. the same piano part is also used in 'Mental Boy'. In my opinion it might possible be the most beautiful, elegant piece of film music ever written. It's so delicately simple and refined that it feels like you have to whisper. The intimacy of the piano with the simple sustained strings supporting it helps to show the isolation of all the main characters while also showing us exactly their emotions.
This is an incredibly intimate score which I will happily listen to over and over again. I think still stands as Thomas Newmans greatest score, if not one of the greatest scores of all time. All the moods are incredibly well balanced and nothing ever feels out of place. This likely comes from Newmans' subtractive style of writing. He writes trying a variety of ideas, both melodic and textual, in front of and image, seeing what catches his ears and then subtracting away what doesn’t need to be there. I feel this is maybe the most important part of the Thomas Newman sound and what makes it sound so pure.
Power Of Denial
Any Other Name