Composer: Thomas Newman
Label: Walt Disney
Suggested Retail Price: $12.97
Even when he was starting out with funky comedy scores for the likes of REVENGE OF THE NERDS, JUMPIN’ JACK FLASH and REAL GENIUS, Thomas Newman more than showed he would become of the most consistently innovative and interesting composers to bridge two centuries of scoring, a rep made respectable with Oscar noms for his powerful orchestral work on LITTLE WOMEN, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION and ROAD TO PERDITION. Now with his fantastically futuristic score for WALL-E, Thomas Newman brings his work full circle, tapping the best of his sample-centric work and symphonically melodic talent, all while showing a bright path to the possibilities of film scoring’s future.
That’s heavy-duty stuff for what’s essentially a cartoon about a cute robot. But then we’re talking Pixar here, the Rolls Royce of the cgi craze. Newman made his first plunge there for director Andrew Stanton with his wondrous score for FINDING NEMO, music that managed to convey the beauty and danger of the deep, all while hitting the action of the lightning-fast comedy. But where other toon composers have used orchestral effects to hit the action, Newman’s done the same trick with bizarre samples, screwed-up instruments and rock rhythms, turning cartoon scoring into an Avant-garde wonderland.
Now Newman’s musical Mr. Wizard approach reaches glorious new heights with WALL-E, a film and score that reaffirm Pixar’s ability to keep topping itself in every department. A film that will delight kids as well as provide endless nerd-gasms for sci-fi geeks, WALL-E’s soundtrack begins unexpectedly with Michael Crawford’s rendition of “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” from HELLO DOLLY- a song which soon dissolves into Newman’s lush orchestral theme that recalls nothing less than THE TWILIGHT ZONE’s opening titles. And with nary a word of human dialogue spoken for the film’s first half, Newman’s music is absolutely essential in the film’s unfolding, Chaplin-esque romance between a wonky trash droid and a hard-to-get female probe Eve.
Newman’s music is full of whimsy and wonder during the two-droid first half, playing a pokey flute with percussion for Wall-E’s endless trash compactions. He even gets away with his spin on vocal Muzak during a particularly hilarious getting-to-know-you montage. Yet there’s also a real sense of longing and loneliness to his string work, the sense that this is Wall-E’s last chance for love. At its best, Newman’s poetry reaches the kind of beautiful eeriness of Bernard Herrmann’s work on FARENHEIT 451, even if that film’s a far darker version of future shock than WALL-E’s.
But WALL-E is far from trashed-Earth bound. And when “he” ventures into space with Eve to find what’s become of humanity, the orchestra roars with a majesty that would put Richard Strauss to shame. And as Wall-E drifts through space, the theme sounds with the kind of unmistakably, lush romance that’s Newman’s forte on such movies as THE GREEN MILE, LITTLE CHILDREN and MEET JOE BLACK, all topped off with a brass and string announcement of a space liner that would do The Enterprise proud.
Suddenly thrust into a new universe populated with wonky robots and flying couch potato humans, Newman comes up with a myriad of space age rock-jazz melodies that are some of his coolest, funkiest stuff since the likes of COOKIE, DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN and THE MAN WITH ONE RED SHOE, bypassing the kind of calypso funk that AMERICAN BEAUTY locked Newman into. Electronic flutes become the voices of the insane asylum droids and robot beeps do a jam session. It’s the kind of experimental effects that convey an unhinged, malfunctioning future with the same kind of effectiveness that Newman conveyed the underwater world of FINDING NEMO, and perhaps maybe even more brilliantly at that- a Debussy vibe for a brave new droid world. And it’s likely that WALL-E will net Newman another Pixar Oscar nomination for it.
The key to Pixar’s amazing success (we won’t talk about CARS) is its ability to merge humor with a real emotional resonance. And what’s at stake in WALL-E is no less than humanity’s ability to lift itself off the couch. And when the stakes reach cosmic proportions for the film’s climax, Newman unleashes a terrifically exciting synthesis of orchestra and strings, electronics dancing on big, meaningful string phrases that play like something between military action and “Peter and the Wolf” by way of B.T. There’s even an all-is-temporarily-lost darkness that would be right at home in THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION before our rusty droid savior does his thing with a gloriously triumphant orchestra.
Though thankfully score-driven, special mention should be made of WALL-E’s graceful, witty and meaningful use of songs, from Louis Armstrong’s “La Vie En Rose” working its magic on Wall-E and Eve to Peter Gabriel’s beautiful “Down To Earth,” which brings humans back to their roots with the kind of lyrical, primal poetry that’s the musician’s stock in Third World music trade. And by having more Jerry Herman magic with “It Only Takes a Moment,” WALL-E will probably be responsible for a surge in HELLO DOLLY video rentals, if not soundtrack sales.
The term “sense of wonder” is often bandied about, but WALL-E positively sings with it as a film and score. Its characters mostly might be robots, but leave it to Newman and the animators for making us see, and hear their skin and hearts. For fans of the composer, it’s a great return to the old-school funk that put him on the map. And for Pixar admirers, it’s a master class on how music can creatively convey volumes of feelings when most of the words are bleeps and blips. Machines rarely have soul, and groove like they do in WALL-E.