I. of cinematography with a beautifully understated score,

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Last updated: September 16, 2019


Introduction/Overall ConceptAmerican Beauty is a spectacular piece of cinematography with a beautifully understated score, directed by Sam Mendes and scored by none other than Thomas Newman. We’ve looked at Thomas Newman’s work before when we examined The Shawshank Redemption and Finding Nemo, but his score here is much subtler. There are 19 tracks on the American Beauty score, and Newman does his job infusing every one of them with a combination of subtlety and intrigue.  While examining the score, I found it sometimes feels like an elaborate series of sound effects more than anything else, and could almost do with a further underscore beneath it in places. It’s a score that lacks centrality and focus to it, almost like a series of notes that all function together without actually forming the whole of a melody. Of course, that isn’t exactly true, there is a melody here, but it never draws attention, you really have to look for it. However, despite this the music in American Beauty is imaginative and inventive.

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Could the film hold up without the score? Yes, I firmly believe that without Newman’s score in film, it would not have been any better or worse. But that almost feels entirely intentional when exploring the motives behind the score.  The main strength in Newman’s score is that it is reflective, and that feels like the overall concept as well, beauty doesn’t need to be highlighted to understand it, but it certainly helps. The score isn’t scored so much for the characters, the emotions they have or the situations they are in, but rather the atmosphere of each scene is what the composer reflects. Each piece serves their scenes in new and unique ways that still sound thematically like part of a whole, but feel entirely distant simultaneously.

Interestingly he helps to do this by carefully alternating between exotic instruments and traditional instruments like the piano. There is also no specific American Beauty theme to the film, which makes sense in the context of the film, the score is almost as disjointed as the characters. The piece “American Beauty” which plays over the scene with the bag seems like it should be the theme, but it just feels like a piece of the film’s score, not the titular theme. During Dead Already, the opening cue for the film, we can see the main feature of the score, the use of patterns of repetition in a minimalistic fashion. The title theme is connected to the rest with this use of pattern. These patterns are not continuous however, they are interrupted by the use of silence and they are very often re-orchestrated with a change of timbre to follow the scenes.

  Simplicity is somehow opposed to the richness and variety of timbres used throughout the whole cue. Most of the pieces for the score are designed as an almost hypnotic, almost euphoric-like atmosphere created by Newman, and while there are a few cues with hints of a traditional orchestra, American Beauty is defined by the “marimba, xylophone, tablas, bird calls, dulcimer, banjo, ukulele, detuned mandolin, phonograph, steel guitar, ewi, and, of course, Newman’s own piano performances” according to the booklet that came with the album. This use of non-traditional instruments gives the whole score a strange surreal nature, which effectively conveys the alienation that suburbia inflicts upon the film’s characters.Description of the MusicEach of the pieces through the film feels disjointed purposely, but follows a rule of a repetition of patterns each to their own.

“Mental Boy” starts with this strange out-there sound which devolves into a simple piece of piano music, with notes spaced just far enough apart so that each note is almost standing entirely on its own. This piece is patterned and disjointed, much like the rest of the film. It follows a simple pattern which makes up its base content, while at the same time providing a new and unique experience. To make a reference to the film, the piece is like its own plastic bag, dancing in the wind, infinitely simple, but captivating. It also has a certain similarity to the “American Beauty” piece which plays over the scene with the bag in the wind. At certain moments Newman’s score has the power to completely transform the tone of the film. In his pieces “Bloodless Freak” and “Lunch with the King” there is an overwhelming sense of change which strongly suggests hope, happiness, and a step away from the routine and ordinary.

The fast tempo high in these scenes and pieces is a turning point in the film during which Lester has his epiphany. This prompts him to take control of his life, no longer will he sit on the sidelines, he will go and get the beauty his so desires in his life.  The piece “Spartanette” suggests desire and lust as Lester is mesmerized by Angela and follows much of the rhythmic nature of the rest of the score.

“Spartanette” is most interesting however in the use of tempo, timbre, and its choice of instruments which have an almost sliding nature. The tempo and timbre reflect Lester’s character disjointed but frantic, while the use of sliding instruments un-roots us in reality and provides a thematic switch to his mindscape.  In my opinion the most moving piece in the film is “Any Other Name”, which encourages viewers to reflect on the events of the whole movie. The softness of the piano score is synced flawlessly through its use of perfect tempo with Lester’s closing monologue, as he delivers the most important line in the movie after being shot stating, “I can’t help feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life…”. A far cry from his attitude through the rest of the movie, the film closes with this reflective piece that allows viewers the opportunity to understand beauty themselves.Interaction between the film and the scoreThe spotting is heavy throughout the film, with most of the movie I noticed being full of the score. There were usually only small windows where the score was not present, and overall the score takes up roughly fifty minutes of the entire movie, a relatively high amount when compared to the unscored scenes which take up forty-three minutes of the film.

The scenes in which there is source music the source music is present to reflect the characters, Lester listens to rock music with high tempo when he changes his demeanor or no longer feels controlled. I found this interesting that the score was designed to represent the atmosphere, while the source music reflected emotion.Thomas Newman’s use of leitmotifs in this film are more oriented toward texture and pitch than melody. They are quite definable however once you’ve listened to the score and defined an ear for Newman’s work. Most notable is the marimba leitmotif which features prominently throughout, this is a symbolic use and does not tie in with a certain melody or character.

The marimba appears throughout the film, in Lester’s opening monologue about his suburban life, in Carolyn’s attempts to close a real estate deal, in Lester’s sexually charged dream sequences, while Lester is jogging with Jim and Jim, when Carolyn and Buddy begin their affair, while Jane and Ricky watch a procession of grievers for a funeral head down their street, and again, we hear the marimba as Ricky captures a number of bizarrely “beautiful” moments on his camcorder as well. The leitmotiv is not directly associated with any one of the film’s characters. Instead the leitmotiv is heard again and again over scenes in which we see what constitutes a meaningful and beautiful life for each character, it is a defining feature that unites all of the film’s characters. Much in line with the message of the film, the marimba is reflective of each person’s drive towards beauty. This leitmotif doesn’t stay stagnant through the film though, it evolves with the characters.

Ricky and Jane are perhaps the first to receive the new leitmotif when they both view the footage of the plastic bag tossed about by the wind. The marimba falls away and we end up with a piano and string leitmotif which replaces it. This culminates at the end when Lester’s marimba leitmotif falls away as he has the object of his desire finally before him, it is slowly replaced by the piano and string leitmotif.

As he recounts his final moments after he is shot, and thinks of his life, he understands the beauty of all things, the “mundane nature of beauty”. The new leitmotif shows the understanding a character has reached.Comparison and contrast to case studiesThroughout the semester as we looked at other case studies and explored the scores of films, many of them were looked at whether they were parallel or contrast to the action on the scene. I immediately found that most of American Beauty blurred this line, it walked the duality between parallel and contrast and gave viewers a strange alternating walk through the characters’ lives.

The entire film felt designed to feel real, it was designed to make you wonder about the issues the characters faced, and possibly even question your own motives in life. Films such as Finding Nemo, Psycho, The Shawshank Redemption, American History X, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Godfather are all stories, and while we may find small pieces of life in them, they aren’t necessarily anything we can relate to. But in this society, who isn’t unsure of themselves? Who doesn’t question happiness now and again? American Beauty reflects the questioning of life.The first thing that I noticed when comparing the films viewed and their leitmotifs as related to American Beauty was the sheer difference in concept. Many of the leitmotifs we saw previously were odes to certain characters, with small variations to denote arcs, they didn’t blur the lines and represent and idea. American Beauty however does this throughout with the use of the marimba.

While these films did have similar evolution arcs such as American History X, in which the leitmotif evolved with the change of a viewpoint, attitude, or simply through natural evolution of the character, American Beauty was far more abstract. The closest I think any other movie comes to this style of leitmotif would be The Godfather which has a leitmotif that represents the “home country” of Sicily, it is an idea and an ideal to strive for.

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