For Ron Howard's reunion with his A Beautiful Mind star, Russell Crowe, this bruising biopic of America's pugilistic dream for the Great Depression's downtrodden could so easily have been another typically lyrical, and emotionally overwrought, opportunity for James Horner to indulge himself with epic, heart-tugging strings and stirringly massive thematics. But, this time around, Howard turned to a different soundsmith altogether, and the results, whilst still full of Celtic twang and melody, are nothing short of scintillating. Horner's lush orchestral sweep would certainly have suited Howard's style - sweetly earnest and brimming with underdog yearnings for hope and glory - but the novel trick played here by Thomas Newman is simple understatement. Think back to the melancholic strains of his beautiful and haunting score for Road To Perdition, think back to the surprisingly introverted and slightly ominous musical journey he wove for Finding Nemo ... and you're on the right path. The key method he utilises throughout this score is, as always, restraint. Swells rise and fall, passions jostle and the heart is stirred, but the emotional thread is never blown out of proportion, never allowed to ruin a gentle, yet insistent rhythmic momentum with false, or crowd-pleasing, crescendo. The term melancholic seems designed solely for Newman's introverted style and many think of his scores as slightly miserable and doom-laden. Far from it, in fact. He still offers hope and happiness, but he refuses to smother it with honey, or to signpost his intentions so literally, or conventionally. He always offers a surprisingly dense and detailed composition, often full of surprising orchestrations, unusual harmonics that sound somewhat Eastern European and/or vaguely medieval, and a delightfully moving use of motif. And Cinderella Man is no exception.
Although heavily interspersed with period source cues, Newman manages to cast a heartbreaking spell with this score that works as tremendously well on album as it does alongside the movie. Often delivering clear and stark piano tinklings that border on atonality, the atmosphere of apprehension and the slow possibility of hope is more than assured. The musical texture is heavy with expectancy and the sense of struggle - not least Crowe's James Braddock, but the strife of the era and the despondency felt by all. The many source cues are actually marvellously integrated into the score, never once feeling contrived or out of place, allowing the period to come to life with a believability that lays down solid foundations for Newman's melodies. Having said that though, just try and listen to Track 2 and not be reminded of Tom And Jerry! Or Laurel And Hardy with Eddie Cantor's jazzy finale. Track 3, entitled Mae, establishes the combination of mournful piano notes to evoke the spirit of Ireland, with the meandering sadness of America's vast despair caught with hovering strings - this seems to set the tone for the album. Whilst there is a slowness to the majority of the score, I think that you'll discover a gentle rhythm that buoys it along, seeping into your subconscious with a sly and delicate ease that greets the big moments with atmospheric precision. Newman likes tranquillity, and the likes of Tracks 7 and 9 seem composed purely in order to allow the listener to ponder. Track 10, however, uses some splendid drums and a short, but pulsating drive over a sustained string and brass note to rattle out an all-too brief percussive blast. I would have liked a little more of this, actually, to even out the solitude.
Track 13 delivers a journeyman dynamic reminiscent of similar cues on Road To Perdition, full of Celtic twiddles and poundings from fiddles, whistles, flutes and the gorgeously emotive Uilleann Pipes - again, a very short piece, but insanely catchy. Track 14 is all about mood. Though it retains a softness and a tenderness that the piano eases out, the typical Newman speciality for small diversions into barely tangible menace is equally felt. Action is sparsely dealt with, perhaps only Track 19 offering a few deeply resonant seconds of percussive excitement and this is, perhaps, a little surprising, given the thumping battles that take the movie's centre-stage. An edgy quality of destiny greets the next two cues and 21, especially, gains the heroic heights that many may have expected to have been prevalent throughout, with full ensemble verve and a large-scale thematic sweep. Listen out for the clang of the ringside bell, too. A nice touch.
But, for me, we get the emotional pay-off with Track 23. Folks, this cue is absolutely tremendous, dignified with a sweeping elegy and soaring strings, heart-clenching pride and the simple rousing of heroic spirit. You've heard it all before - Horner has made a career out of it - but the lush Celtic melody, backed by grand emotion still packs a meaty punch in Newman's capable hands. He pulls out all the stops in what is the standout cue on the album ... and, perhaps the most beautiful piece of music that I've heard all year. It's only short, and has a hint of John Barry about it, but it contains enough soul and lyricism to have you reaching for a repeat, time and time again. You know that moment after a good sob when you begin to get your breath back? It's in here, folks, as the track settles down ... it's in here. This calming essence is another Newman trademark. He is the master of the long, unforced and quiet fadeout, seeing out the storm with grace, and even a touch of affection. A wonderful track.
The sweetly sad and misty-eyed lilt of the Emerald Isle courses potently throughout Newman's score in what may be considered a stereotypical approach to finding the sound of the era. Small people, hard times, big dreams. The Horner-ish earnestness, a la Legends Of The Fall, can definitely be found within the themes, but I think that Newman manages to keep the tone a lot gentler and far less obvious. His sound design is diverse, often deceptively simple, yet far more layered and intricate the more you listen to it. His musical landscape is actually rich and verdant with a decidedly mature and un-flashy approach to depicting the humility and hope of a man, his family, and a nation. A soothing delight, and an unusual style that eminently rewards the patience of the listener.
VerdictNewman's score for Cinderella Man is, by turns, noble, dark and heroic, yet it simmers with a sublime and fluttering fragility that denotes the humanity of the story it illustrates. Often heartbreaking, but always beautiful, it is remarkable how powerful his music is when you consider that there is actually only about thirty minutes of his score presented here. The source cues never grate and, in fact, probably add to whole project with their period ambience. Track 23, entitled Cinderella Man, is simply magnificent. And, it's quite refreshing to hear a cue that ticks off all the emotional boxes in a single, all-encompassing suite, and not stray over nine minute mark. I doubt James Horner could have accomplished that. Well recommended.
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