The Sound of Cinema: American Beauty

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Sam Mendes’ American Beauty is a true piece of classic American cinema, although surprisingly it took a British director to expose an all too common existence in American suburbia.

Starring Kevin Spacey, American Beauty received huge critical acclaim and was nominated for eight Oscars, winning five of them. However, one of the nominees who did not win was Thomas Newman for best original score. Newman has a distinctive sound which can be recognised in other pieces of his work, such as his music for The Shawshank Redemption and Revolutionary Road. However what makes Newman’s American Beauty score stand out particularly is the ability it has to evoke meaning, and to progress the film’s plot.

American Beauty depicts the story of Lester Burnham who faces a midlife crisis whilst suffering through a monotonous existence. Newman’s opening piece ‘Dead Already’ creates a sense of the entire film within a few moments, with the somewhat eccentric piece capturing the reality of the cyclical and tedious nature of life in suburbia. The opening aerial shots of the aligned streets marked out by rows of houses and trees reveals a repetitive and structured lifestyle in the lives of the characters who are each searching for meaning in their own empty lives. This hollowness is set in the five note motif together with its percussion and string melody. This recurring score piece evokes more sense about the lives of the characters in the beginning moments than the narration does.

The main strength in Newman’s score is that it is reflective. It does not act as background music to fill in an empty silence, but instead creates an atmosphere and a sense of the attitudes and feelings of the characters. At certain moments, Newman’s score has the power to completely transform the tone of the film. He carefully alternates between exotic instruments such as the Appalachian dulcimer and bass tin whistle, and traditional instruments like the piano. In his pieces ‘Lunch with the King’ and ‘Bloodless Freak’ there is an overwhelming sense of change which strongly suggests hope, happiness, and breaking free from routine. The fast tempo high note score signifies a turning point in the film whereby Lester Burnham undergoes an epiphany, prompting him to take control of his life.

Newman’s various tracks in the film successfully portray the complicated emotional journey the characters are going through. ‘Spartanette’ is a progressive piece which suggests desire and lust as Lester is mesmerised by his daughter’s cheerleader best friend Angela (Mena Suvari). In the same way ‘Structure and Discipline’ suggests the emotional difficulty of Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) who suffers from the harsh authority of his ex-colonel father (Chris Cooper). Perhaps the most moving piece in the film is ‘Any Other Name’, a piece which encourages reflection on the events of the whole movie. The soft piano score corresponds flawlessly with Lester’s closing monologue, as he delivers the most poignant line in the movie after being shot, reflecting on the beauty he has witnessed in the world by profoundly stating: “I can’t help feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life…”.

Newman’s American Beauty  score will live on forever in cinematic history for its beauty, enchantment, and insight into the story which the film tells.

American Beauty (1999), directed by Sam Mendes, is distributed on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK by DreamWorks Home Entertainment. Its original motion picture soundtrack, composed by Thomas Newman, is also available now. 

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Former Film Editor for The Edge, second year history student, Irish dancer and film enthusiast. My biggest inspiration is by Bear Grylls. Yes Bear Grylls. Originally from West London.

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