Movie: A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004)
Director: Brad Silberling
Composer: Thomas Newman
Thomas Newman is a composer I’ve yet to decipher. I don’t want to sound like a pretentious asshole, but a lot of composers are easily decipherable. What do I mean by that? It’s pretty simple; just like any other musical artist that doesn’t specialize in film music, movie composers have their own styles. The only difference between the two is that film composers are constantly working and are hired by contracts. Try putting down a composition contract in front of any musical artist and they’ll probably ask you (kindly) to fuck off. Anyway, back to the subject at hand: Thomas Newman. This guy is so talented that I believe he is of the same likes as John Williams, Hans Zimmer, Bernard Hermann, Jerry Goldsmith, and all the other legendary movie composers. Why? Well, let’s dive into his work by analyzing his score for A Series of Unfortunate Events directed by Brad Silberling.
As usual, let’s talk about the movie first. So, what to say about it? Well, to be honest, I have mixed emotions about this film. First off, this movie is very good with its characters. The simple fact that it’s an adapted material explains why the characters are so engaging and have a deep complexity to them. What’s cool about this movie is the fact that it clothes itself into a kids movie but it has some pretty dark themes. I’d put this movie in the same category as Rango from Gore Verbinski; it seemed dull and childish at first, but the second viewing (and the ones after that) made it better and better. Anyway, as I was saying; for a book adaptation, this movie is pretty fucking solid. Look, I know it has its flaws but they’re outdone by the film’s strengths. For one, Jim Carrey is amazing as the twisted maniacal Count Olaf and can be placed in the same characters-who-can-only-be-played-by-one-actor ship as Robin Williams who played the Genie in Aladdin.
And now: Thomas Newman. Again, what to say about Thomas Newman? For starters, Newman isn’t like any other composer working in Hollywood today, his style and composition is very far from the conventional stuff we hear most of the time. It’s difficult to pin down anything Newman does apart from delivering some of the most intimate music Hollywood has had the chance to bear. However, even if his style is very hard to pin down and explain, it’s still very present and noticeable – it’s very easy to know that a movie has Thomas Newman’s score accompanying it. But why? Why is it so easy to know that within seconds?
Let’s start with the instruments, shall we? Newman is very conventional in his unconventional work – I know, I’m not making any sense. Firstly, Newman always uses a full orchestra at some point in his soundtracks, he’s very conventional in this approach. However, the unconventional part is how he uses the orchestra. He has a very exponential way of using the instruments that are disposed too him. For starters, Newman’s style is best recognizable whenever a soft song plays. If you pay close attention, Newman usually starts with some sort of ambiance noise/soft synthesizer. Shortly after he establishes the atmosphere, Newman throws in a couple of piano notes to form a very smooth melody. Ask anybody in the business, and they’ll tell you Newman is one of the best composers when it comes to the piano. From here on out, Newman builds his soundtrack around that single melody/theme, it comes back here and there but he likes to put it in different lights all along the movie.
Another way to easily identify his work is by his use of sounds. Newman likes to compose songs by playing musical sounds one after the other and then combining them to create a full piece. A couple of composers have been known to do that but Newman is probably the most popular. It makes his music very intimate and it blends it into the sound design. He achieves this by using unusual weird instruments that represent the characters and situations which eventually results in something that can’t be associated to anything but him. Basically, Newman is the kind of artist that doesn’t change his style for anything and that’s why his music is perfect for a lot of movies. For instance, the difference between James Bond’s universe and the universe we get to explore in A Series of Unfortunate Events is miles apart but he was able to adapt his work very easily. Let me show you an example…
The soundtrack in the 2012 James Bond movie called Skyfall has a lot of similarities with A Series of Unfortunate Events that came out in 2004. Both of the songs I’m about to show you are played at various moments in the movies but they represent the same feeling of action and “task completion” (if that term makes any sense).
A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004) – Puttanesca:
Skyfall (2012) – New Digs:
Of course, the songs aren’t exactly the same but they convey the same feeling by using the same technique. If that doesn’t prove to you that Newman is an accomplished composer, I don’t know what will (although maybe his theme in Nemo, American Beauty, Shawshank Redemption, Skyfall or WALL-E could easily convince you as well). I know I’m going far with this but I believe Thomas Newman is one of the great composers working today and his work will always be remembered and respected. If you want proof of that, just listen to any soundtrack that tries to copy his work and you’ll see why the majority of the industry considers him a master.
Interesting trivia: According to multiple sources, Jim Carrey improvised many lines throughout the whole shoot. For instance, the first time we meet him, his character says, “Wait, give me that last line again”. That line was not in the original script, it was Carrey staying in character. They eventually made a reverse shot of the orphans reacting to his line but it’s nice to know that Carrey used his comedic ability to add depth to his character.
I’ve selected 4 of my favorites songs for the highlights section but this soundtrack contains 29 songs so feel free to explore the rest on your own.
Song: Chez Olaf
Song: The Baudelaire Orphans
Song: One Last Look
Song: The Letter That Never Came
Thanks for reading (and listening). See you next time!