A behind-the-scenes look at the making of Mary Poppins, Saving Mr. Banks has been warmly received by critics and audiences alike. Emma Thompson gives a wonderfully prickly performance as Poppins author P.L. Travers, who travels to Los Angeles to oversee Disney's big-screen adaptation of her book. It transpires Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) promised his daughters he would bring Mary Poppins to the screen, and he mounts a full-scale charm offensive – only to meet unexpected resistance in the form of the crotchety, uptight author. Travers dismisses everything from the colour red to the presence of actor Dick van Dyke, and Disney realises he must delve into Travers' difficult childhood if he is to understand her.
Buoyed by a delightful turn from Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks of course places a great deal of emphasis on the relationship between music and the moving image. Some of the movie's funniest scenes explore Travers' utter contempt for the Sherman Brothers songs that eventually were to become classics – her response to "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" is especially priceless. The presence of the songs made scoring the film an interesting challenge for veteran composer Thomas Newman, who was awarded his twelfth Oscar nomination for his beautiful and charming soundtrack.
Although director John Lee Hancock has in the past worked with Carter Burwell, the choice of Newman as composer was an inspired one, the film playing to his strengths in both rich melody and graceful understatement. The orchestral score in Saving Mr. Banks plays a very deliberate role, weaving around the Sherman Brothers works and capturing the emotional and psychological facets of the Travers character. If the recreation of classic songs like "Feed the Birds" and "Let's Go Fly a Kite" grabs most of the attention (unsurprisingly), Newman's score is no less important for acting as the heartbeat of the film.
For this reason, Newman never attempts to adapt the Shermans' songs or incorporate them into his score; both elements are separate yet the soundtrack album flows beautifully. Things begin with a piano performance from Randy Kerber of the iconic "Chim Chim-Cher-ee" with narration from Colin Farrell (and thankfully no hint of Dick Van Dyke's dodgy cockney accent!) Later on in the score, there are brief snippets of Poppins staples "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" and "Let's Go Fly a Kite" performed with gusto by actors Thompson, Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak (the latter two as Richard and Robert Sherman).
Newman's own musical hallmarks become immediately apparent in "Travers Goff" – staccato, bouncy piano accompanied by a host of featherweight chimes and percussion that eventually blossoms into a lushly beautiful string melody. It's the sort of heart-meltingly lovely music for which Newman became famous in the early 1990s, and which fans have been clamouring to hear again for some time now. Well, Saving Mr. Banks delivers this sort of material in spades.
Newman graces the score with not one but two distinct themes, both of which are prominent from the outset (an atypical move for this composer). As if the "Travers Goff" piece representing the author's childhood wasn't charming enough, the theme capturing the overall optimism of her story is simply stunning. First heard in "Uncle Albert", it's resplendent in the kind of gorgeous, long-lined strings that won Newman so many fans with the likes of Fried Green Tomatoes, Little Women and his masterpiece Angels in America. Few modern day composers are capable of writing such emotionally appealing music as Newman; it's just a shame that in recent years, he's rarely let himself off the leash to such an extent.
The composer develops both themes intelligently throughout the course of the score, and of course augments the most heartfelt moments with his usual array of quirky, jaunty orchestrations, befitting Travers' spiky nature. Tracks such as the delightful "Walking Bus", "Jollification", "A Foul Fowl" and "Impertinent Man" recall Finding Nemo with their staccato percussion rhythms, pizzicato strings and generally mischievous nature. Meanwhile the upbeat, exuberant but sadly brief "Mr Disney" beams with positivity, capturing Tom Hanks' larger-than-life performance to a tee.
There's even room for a bit of period-specific music in "Mrs P.L. Travers", complete with sax and bluesy piano. Then of course there are those irresistibly wistful and nostalgic pieces that only Newman can conjure up. Tracks like "Leisurely Stroll", "Whiskey" and "Penguins" drift along like a soft breeze, the occasional piano note interacting with the haunting woodwind arrangements. Meanwhile the anguished "To My Mother", by far the darkest track in the score, evokes the more tragic sections of The Green Mile with its desolate piano and string arrangements.
Of course the score's most memorable moments are those where Newman wears his heart on his sleeve. The main Travers theme gets beautiful arrangements in the ethereal "Celtic Soul" and on moving solo piano in "Westerly Weather". The more emotional material really comes into its own in the final set of tracks where Newman pulls out all the stops. Following the deeply poignant "Forgiveness" with its prominent harp solo, the climactic recap of Disney's material in the joyously brassy "The Magic Kingdom" is especially delightful, and it intelligently melds with the instrumentation for Travers to indicate the understanding that comes between them (although sadly in real life, no such thing happened).
However, it's the double-whammy of the tracks "Ginty My Love" and "Saving Mr. Banks End Title" that really seals the deal, Newman going all out with the orchestra in the way that he hasn't done in quite a while. The former sees Travers' childhood theme reach a cathartic, healing conclusion (its previous appearances left the theme hanging and unresolved); whilst the latter, a reprise of the glorious main theme, is sure to become one of Newman's most beloved pieces in years to come. There's a genuine air of purity and magic to the composer's orchestral writing that's unmatched in modern film music, a complete absence of schmaltz combined with genuine emotion.
Saving Mr. Banks is a score that demonstrates why Thomas Newman is so revered within the film score community. Although he is undoubtedly one of the most experimental and influential composers of his generation, as groundbreaking works like American Beauty attest, he also has a tremendous capacity for melody and old-fashioned beauty. Like a latter day Georges Delerue or John Barry, Newman is able to cut to the emotional quick of a given film in the classiest, most tasteful way possible. The score's focus on Newman's most emotionally direct mannerisms makes it one of his most accessible for many years, even more so than excellent recent efforts like The Help and Skyfall.
That said it wouldn't be a Newman score without his trademark quirky touches. Even so, the score's more unusual material is expertly woven around the harmonic sections to create a smooth and enjoyable listening experience, one that captures both Travers' prickly nature and the overall sweep of her story. Newman's music also complements the Sherman Brothers songs perfectly, letting the Mary Poppins legacy speak for itself whilst capturing the underlying emotion of the real-life events that inspired the classic film. Heartfelt and beautiful, the score deserves its Oscar nomination and further cements Newman's position as one of the greatest film composers of the modern age. The score is available both as a CD release and MP3 download on Amazon. It's available as both a standard release (reviewed here and available via these links at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk) and 2-CD deluxe edition featuring additional 1964 demos from Mary Poppins (at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk)