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Soundtrack review: American Beauty (Thomas Newman, 1999)

Film scores

Soundtrack review: American Beauty (Thomas Newman, 1999)


American Beauty… It’s a masterpiece and almost everyone knows it. It will remain one of the most memorable films of our age…And such a study of suburbia madness needed a special kind of attention in scoring.

Remember that scene with the floating plastic bag, from the movie? It’s a winter day, there’s that pre snowing electricity in the air and the wind just lifts a plastic bag and carries it over house tops, streets…It seems simple at first and forgettable, but the way the character sees it changes everything. You need a special kind of mood to enjoy such a scene and get its fullest meaning. If you’re not in the mood, you’ll just end up laughing at it. But in the right mood, the scene is actually poignant and beautiful, it has meaning and it shows the beauty of nature.
It’s the same with Thomas Newman’s style. His compositions can sometimes feel boring for some, meaningless for others. He writes in a minimalistic manner, with soft piano tones, moody pieces, quiet tunes. His music needs a special kind of mood to be enjoyed, just like that scene. His compositions need a special kind of context to shine. That’s exactly what happened with American Beauty. In this score, his style found the weight it needed and deserved. I cannot imagine the movie without Thomas Newman’s genius score. Every time I watch the movie again, I anticipate the cues in my mind, I’m anxious to hear them. The score is a brilliant as it’s simple. Just like life in that suburbia, underneath an apparently shallow exterior lays a wealth of feelings and dramas. American Beauty will probably remain in my top 50 scores of all times, no matter how many scores I’ll listen to. It simply hit the right spot and latched on there.
The transition between joyful and deep cues is excellent. The music captures the wild mood swings of the movie perfectly. There’s a richness of inventive wood instruments which help the funky cues, and a haunting depth to the more depressing pieces. The score is so special that I can instantly recognize a cue from in, regardless of the context. It’s as unique as it’s interesting. There’s always something that lies underneath every track…
I love the main theme. It’s a quiet cue, punctuated by constant and beautiful piano notes. It’s somewhere in the middle of the mood swings…Because when the music goes a few degrees deeper, we get magnificent pieces of music that make me think of the colorful underwater scenery of the Caribbean. “Angela undress” and “Walk home” are my favorite cues from the score. I play them and I’m instantly transported to a spring 14 years ago when me and my friends would go see American Beauty daily (we saw it some 7 or 8 times when it came out) at a theater near our university…The cues remind me of the excitement of the movie, of the beauty of scenes like their “walk home” on a beautiful road guarded by trees, of Kevin Spacey’s brilliance, and of some of the most enjoyable college days I can remember….This score is another time bookmark in my life.
The movie ends with Spacey’s monologue…He says that “there’s so much beauty in the world… Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst… And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life”. Reading these words while listening to “Any other name” makes me understand what the writer wanted to express…This is what the music of “American Beauty” makes me feel. It will remain a dear part of my soul forever…
My ratings:
Cue rating: 97 / 100
Total minutes of excellence: 37 / 37
Album excellence: 100%
Cues to listen to:
Dead Already
Power Of Denial
Lunch With The King
Mental Boy
Mr. Smarty Man
Root Beer
American Beauty
Bloodless Freak
Choking The Bishop
Weirdest Home Videos
Structure & Discipline
Angela Undress
Walk Home
Blood Red
Any Other Name
Still Dead
Mihnea Manduteanu

I have been listening to film music for 25 years and writing about it since 2014. I've written over 1000 reviews and I can't imagine myself doing anything else. I am also a member of IFMCA (International Film Music Critics Association).

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  1. NT 13th July 2017

    THanks for writing a very concise and articulate review of this masterwork or scoring. I have listened to AB most months since it’s release and it is still a very powerful and poignant body of music many years later.

    1. Mihnea Manduteanu 13th July 2017

      Thank you for reading. Yes AB still holds up beautifully even today.

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