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Soundtrack review: 1917 (Thomas Newman – 2019)

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Soundtrack review: 1917 (Thomas Newman – 2019)

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“1917” is a 2019 epic war film directed, co-written and produced by Sam Mendes. The film stars George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Claire Duburcq, with Colin Firth, and Benedict Cumberbatch. The film is based in part on an account told to Mendes by his paternal grandfather, Alfred Mendes. It chronicles the story of two young British soldiers during World War I in the spring of 1917 who were given a mission to deliver a message. It warns of an ambush during a skirmish soon after the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line during Operation Alberich.

The project was officially announced in June 2018, with MacKay and Chapman signing on in October and the rest of the cast the following March. Filming took place from April through June 2019 across the UK (in Scotland and England), with cinematographer Roger Deakins using long takes to have the entire film appear as one continuous shot.

As with all Sam Mendes film, Thomas Newman was brought in to write the music. I love Thomas Newman, he’s a game changer and the music style he created still has the same charm and appeal 30 years later; it’s the light romantic stuff that always makes me dream. That being said his music didn’t work for me in the two James Bond movies he worked on, scores which saw a slight departure from his usual style with the addition of electronic music. Now it’s time for an epic and I must admit it was not a word I would be associating with Thomas Newman music.

One thing that almost always amazed me at this unique Thomas Newman sound was how it could sometimes put different clothes and still be recognizable; this is obvious right from the second track of the score, “Up the down trench” in which his usual light string zither sound can work as a tension provider as well if the right kind of instruments play alongside it. It doesn’t even come close to THE ultimate tension fest, Hans Zimmer’s “Dunkirk” but this movie is more about the visuals than about the tension anyway. The more I listen to this score the more I think of it as the not so extreme and more melodic younger brother of Dunkirk. If anyone thought that one was too much for the old ticker they can listen to “1917” where the tension is more of a mist in which every now and then either a dulcimer sound acts like a lighthouse or the soft piano represents the occasional wave. I am finding myself surprisingly drawn to this score as I even find a Thomas Newman version of the Zimmer buildup in the pulsating “Gehennna” and the dramatic “The night window”. The latter is the kind of cue that brushes away my doubts about Newman being able to write epic music as if they were mere cobwebs.

The feeling of the unseen sound sneaking up on me is present throughout this score. Roger Deakins used long takes to make the movie appear like one continuous shot and Thomas Newman used long and often slow burning motifs to make this sound like one continuous cue. Sometimes I feel like the division of this score in cues is done arbitrarily and “1917” could work like a continuous mix. Proof of this? There’s even an extremely uncharacteristic (for Thomas Newman) 10 minutes long cue “Milk”. There’s ambient in it and in “A scrap of ribbon”, the late, empty autumn to Shawshank redemption’s summer and it’s one of my favorite cues from the entire album.

If usually a Thomas Newman score is quite balanced emotionally wise, “1917” sees the composer stretch his sound to both extremes, from ultra-quiet and ambient to aggressively tense. The result is an enjoyable hybrid that shows that just like Mendes and Deakins, Newman raised his personal stakes for this one. Those looking for charming Thomas Newman will have a hard time finding him here while those curious to hear how Thomas Newman would sound in Hans Zimmer mode (if there were such listeners) will have more fun with “1917”.  They will even enjoy a very, very familiar piece of Zimmer brilliance in “Sixteen hundred men”, a throwback to masterpiece from a different war.

Cue rating: 78 / 100

Highlights:

Gehenna

A Scrap of Ribbon

The Night Window

Croisilles Wood

Sixteen Hundred Men

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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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