Becoming a Newman
Thomas Newman is among the most highly respected and successful film composers. Though part of a Hollywood musical dynasty, he has created a unique musical voice.
- [Narrator] The film composer Thomas Newman
is part of a Hollywood musical dynasty,
but as a young man,
he wasn't sure he'd be able to live up to the family name.
- I never felt entitlement.
I guess I've just always been, I've always had grit.
I think if I've had any quality that's driven me forward,
it's just a sense of, shoulder, shoulder down
and let's keep moving forward.
- [Narrator] Thomas Newman's father Alfred,
was a nine time Academy award winning composer
who spent nearly two decades as music director
of 20th century Fox during the 1940s and '50s.
He also wrote the iconic fanfare for the studio.
The next generation of Newman's brought cousin Randy,
who's become one of America's most beloved songwriters
and film composers.
The rest of the family is littered with accomplished
classical musicians and composers and growing up,
it was a given that music would be an important
part of Thomas's life.
His mother would drive him and his two siblings
to lessons with best teachers.
Sometimes hours away,
but the Newman children didn't get much advice
from their famous father.
He would spend long hours holed up in his studio.
- My dad was, I think in the days when he was alive,
it was enough to make a living.
And, then mother would do most of the parenting
and that's just not as true now as it was then,
I always believe my dad loved us a lot.
He would get up late and work late.
He would rarely have dinner with us.
There was a Sunday dinner he'd have with us,
which was typically roast beef and mashed potatoes.
And he'd have a flagon of Heineken keg I remember,
but he was 55 when I was born.
So, so much of what my father was had already happened
by the time I was born.
And in the time I was alive and he was alive,
he was sick,
a lot of the time,
he was a terrible smoker and died of lung cancer.
- [Narrator] Newman was only 14 when his dad passed away.
And though his mother was supportive,
the young Thomas felt the loss deeply,
naturally shy and reserved.
It took a decade and two degrees from Yale for him to figure
out where he belonged in music and in life.
- Maybe by the age of 24, 25, I was kind of nowhere,
it was like, okay, now what?
Do I love music enough to stick with it?
And the answer was a kind of vague. Yes,
I really did like it,
but I think it made me think that I had to bend
as opposed to break and what was good about what I did
and what wasn't
and now, okay, I'm gonna reengage.
I just wanted to always put it above me.
I wanted to enjoy it.
- [Narrator] This was one of many values reinforced
by Newman's mentor.
Stephen Sondheim time was already a legendary
musical theater composer when they met.
Yet, he treated Newman as an equal.
- He listened to the things I had to say as if
what I had to say had some interest,
and I don't think I'd ever been really
spoken to that way before.
So he was and he was very open about process
and collaboration in a way that he was not afraid
to share vulnerability with me
as a matter of what it meant to be collaborative.
So I think I learned basic lessons in how humans interact.
- Mmh, I'm sure that that translated
to the film world from the musical theater world.
- It does your ability to be a team player,
to know how to try to make something better,
not to outsize something based upon,
an idea of oneself.
All those are I think,
really important qualities to have
cause you were in the service of some thing.
It doesn't, a movie doesn't start with me.
It kind of ends with me.
And it's, it's kind of an obligation I have to kind of carry
it out in a way that's respectful to the makers.
- [Narrator] 30 years on
those makers have included the likes of Steven Spielberg,
Ron Howard and Robert Bradford.
And he's been a GoTo collaborator for Sam Mendez
since the directors first film, 1999,
five time Academy award winning American Beauty,
the tragic comic tale
of a suburban man's chaotic midlife meltdown.
- I tend to like, I think scenes that have psychology
in them and that are subtextual in their musical nature.
That they're not redundant to image and that I can actually
bring something to a movie
that a director never would have thought of.
And that's always a joy for someone to say,
I never thought this scene had a kind of depth
that it has now with this bit of music underneath.
- [Narrator] Thomas Newman uses unusual,
sophisticated, melodic, and harmonic devices
to create uniquely evocative scores.
And he's written some of the most memorable soundtracks
in recent movie history.
The Shawshank Redemption, Road to Perdition, 1917.
Today Thomas Newman has secured his place
in his esteemed family's legacy by keeping an open mind,
listening carefully and never being afraid to scrap it all
and start again.
- Part of it is knowing that, having an idea,
isn't the end of having another idea.
I think the worst enemy for me is I wrote this
and therefore it has to be great,
that just puts me in a terrible position.
I'd rather say I wrote this and I'm gonna now,
put it away from myself and let it come at my ears
and make sure I like it.
And as opposed to liking it because I wrote it
because I spent five hours writing it dammit
and it better be good.
Giving up as an act of kind of self acceptance in a way,
these are all ways of measuring the product.
And in the end you do want that kind of measurement.
You don't wanna to be born beautiful, but somehow weak.
It needs to be beautiful,
but it has to be ultimately built to last.
- [Narrator] Most of the time,
Thomas Newman works to serve someone else's vision,
but despite being one of the most revered movie composers
alive, he still goes to the piano to make music
just for himself, like this,
a congregational song called,
"Speak So I Can Hear You"
written for his late mother, Martha.
And though this is a deeply personal piece music.
In their own way.
All of Thomas Newman's compositions
feel like they come from the very soul of the man
that in the service of evoking,
a universally heartfelt idea or emotion,
he must give not only of his prodigious musical talent,
but also truly of himself.
- [Announcer] Articulate with Jim Cotter
is made possible with generous funding
from the Neubauer Family Foundation.