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Best Original Score Oscar preview: Thomas Newman’s ‘Saving Mr. Banks’

'Saving Mr. Banks' soundtrack

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Throughout his thirty-year career, Thomas Newman has garnered twelve Academy Award nominations and has yet to win one. He was thought to be a shoe-in on several occasions, with films like “The Shawshank Redemption,” “The Green Mile,” “American Beauty,” “Wall*E,” and “Skyfall” to his credit, but no such luck yet.

'Saving Mr. Banks' soundtrack by Thomas Newman
Walt Disney Records

The magnificence of what Thomas Newman did with “Saving Mr. Banks” is that everything he brought to the score opposed convention. He essentially took the “Mary Poppins” character ethic and applied it to the music – meaning that whatever the listener would have expected, he did the opposite.

For example, the basic plot of the film revolves around a disagreement between two ‘older’ people, therefore, Newman imbued the story with a springy, youthful “coming-of-age” atmosphere. Further, the film occurs in two time periods – the early 1960s and turn-of-the-century Australia – and rather than express the Golden Age of Hollywood or cultural styling associated with either era, Newman employed modern orchestration and compositional strategy and treated the film as if the story was occurring in the present.

Even the jazz elements in the score bear modern sensibility. Really, the only musical evidence in “Saving Mr. Banks” that plants the film in its time period are cues featuring music by Ray Charles, Dave Brubeck, and from the “Mary Poppins” soundtrack itself.

And thirdly, knowing that not only is Walt Disney Pictures at the helm of the film, not to mention at the core of the story, Newman avoided the temptation to follow suit with over-the-top pomp and glamour (as exemplified by Disney stablemates Alan Menken, Irwin Kostal, Oliver Wallace, and the Sherman Brothers) and presented rather subdued, non-intrusive music that never leaps into the foreground. In fact, without the knowledge of what this film is, and judging strictly by the score, one would never in a million years relate it to the making of “Mary Poppins.” Even the track ‘Magic Kingdom,’ where one would assume to be full of Disney magic, remains understated.

Some may criticize Newman, saying that he missed the mark and didn’t treat such important subject matter (to the Disney Company, anyway) with its due respect. However, it is the very nature of the story that commanded Newman ignore convention. If Walt Disney was anything, he was a man who not only kept an audience guessing what he would do next, but he boldly kept moving forward regardless of what was expected of him.

And because the movie at the crux of “Saving Mr. Banks” was arguably Disney’s most important film, there was no way Newman could ever compete with the immortality of “Mary Poppins’” score, so why even bother trying…especially when elements of that score pop up throughout the film.

Ultimately, it felt as though Newman was scoring a documentary, of sorts – giving just the right amount of melody and forward-mobility without ever intruding upon the story itself. And though highly dramatized, that is precisely how the film appears.

Probably most significantly, Newman does not make a strong musical distinction between P.L. Travers’ experiences in the 1960s and her memories of the early 1900s, aside from the occasional dreamlike resonance in the latter. Thematically, he places both timelines on a level playing field, proffering them equal importance or equal irrelevance, depending on what the viewer takes from the film. Because ultimately, it’s all about tuppence, isn’t it?

BUT CAN HE WIN? Although “Saving Mr. Banks” isn’t standard Hollywood fare, the Academy may toss Newman a bone, as many felt he should have won last year for “Skyfall.” Of course, he is rumored to have a couple of future Disney projects in the pipeline, so perhaps the Academy will hold out until then. Though, why he hasn’t won yet, given such a strong track record, is beyond me.

Do you think Thomas Newman will win?

The soundtrack to “Saving Mr. Banks” is currently available at iTunes, Amazon, and Amazon Digital.