Writer’s Music: Thomas Newman II

91ufkP71uyL._SY355_Long, long ago, one of my mother’s favorite stories was turned into a film (again): LITTLE WOMEN. She and my father decided to do a family movie outing, where he, my uncle, and my brother would attend one film, and my mother, aunt, and I would attend another.

I was seething the entire trip. Why couldn’t I see the boy movie? HIGHLANDER III sounded loads better than some girl movie. (May the snickering commence.)

Looking back…well, I never did get to see Highlander III, so I still don’t know whether or not I came out ahead. (Yes, I’ve been told I have, many times over.) No matter what I thought of the story or the film, one element stuck with me, hard: the music.

Newman’s theme to Little Women still surprises me with its versatility. The opening sequence shines brightly through the brass and strings. Splendor, light, joy–all this comes through in “Orchard House.”

The theme depicts a strength you can’t help but associate with Jo and her sisters. They’re a source of life for the brooding and sick surrounding them.

But then they grow up, part ways. It takes a death to bring them back together.

Now Newman could have written a special sorrowful theme. He could have devised something simple for the period, with, say, a violin or a flute. Lord knows I was familiar enough with the lone violin playing “Shenandoah’s Theme” every time an important person died in Ken Burns’ documentary THE CIVIL WAR. But Newman didn’t. He used his life-light theme again, but not with an orchestra. This time, the theme comes to us on piano in “Valley of the Shadow.”

A piano still has the feel of the period. It was the beloved instrument of the character who died. The theme comes to us in chords, without fluid arpeggios or connections: the notes move together, as these sisters must now move forward together.

I cannot think of another score where the main theme moves from triumph to mourning with a mere change of instrument.

Stories, at least the good ones, do not follow the easy journeys. They take the mountain trails, pass through all those shadowed valleys. Face the monsters all around.

Within.

Only then can a light of triumph shine upon that final page.

Click here for more on Thomas Newman.

Click here for more on LITTLE WOMEN.

 

Writer’s Music: Mychael Danna IV

91ilvkdjfkl-_sl1500_One of the many reasons I write with music in the background is to help me feel outside of myself. To clarify: if there’s a feeling I’m going for in a scene, it helps to sense that feeling elsewhere than in my brain. If I hear music that reflects the feeling, I am better able to relate the feeling with language. This goes for music that lifts up as well as music that drags down.

Today, I want to focus on the “lift up” part. Mychael Danna, the unshakeable rock of my movie score library, both drags and lifts with Little Miss Sunshine. The story itself—a dysfunctional family coming together to help the young girl reach a beauty pageant—calls for such pendulum swings in mood. The genius here is that the music seems to symbolize the dysfunction: one hears some strings, but not many, drums, a squeezebox, a tuba and trumpet. Some other little percussion odds and ends, like a xylophone. These are not the instruments one hears together often, save for, hmm, a polka party? But then strings are not usually involved… ANYWAY. You have an eclectic batch of instruments with their own very unique sounds, but together, they not only create harmony, but a genuine song.

And what a song. “We’re Gonna Make It” builds as more instruments join, and while the sounds are so very different, the melodies played by each instrument are very much the same. Add to this the percussion, which builds up the rhythms with a little help from the tuba, and you’ve got a song that runs through the dirt, leaps into the air, and soars.

Help your characters see that, though odd ducks they may be, they are better as a unit than apart. Give them the hope and determination they need to rise over the conflict. Danna’s got just the wings for the flight.

Click here for more on LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE.

Click here for more on Mychael Danna.