Thomas Newman was one of the most original voices to emerge in film music in the 90s (although he'd been working since long before). Mixing the sound of a lush, pastoral, orchestra alongside an eclectic mix of world instruments, it's a sound he has made indisputably his own. The composer has made it apparent in several interviews that he prefers smaller, more experimental projects to those where he can let rip with a giant orchestra; hence why "American Beauty", with its iconic, plinky-plonky rhythms encapsulating the ennui of the middle class family, is often seen as the Newman sound at its purest. It was however a style that continued to alienate fans in scores like "In the Bedroom" and "White Oleander". When would he return to the melodic riches of "The Shawshank Redemption" and "Little Women"?
2003 provided the answer with his lauded score for Mike Nichols' epic TV miniseries "Angels in America", starring Al Pacino, Emma Thompson and Meryl Streep. Tackling the subject of AIDS in Reagan-era America, the mega budgeted series, an adaptation of Tony Kushner's play, is fertile ground for a composer as talented and imaginative as Newman. He responded with what is possibly his masterpiece: the score combines both facets of Newman's personality in one package, the quirky eventually giving over to the mystical and taking the listener soaring to the heavens. It's the composer at both his most personal and accessible. With that in mind, the score's first half plays around extensively with odd instrumentation and ambient sound design, while introducing the gorgeous orchestral themes for which the composer is also renowned.
It's a typically complex score, with several themes and motifs competing for attention. The vocal opener, "Threshold of Revelation" ushers in the main title theme, a beautiful wind/choral combination that brims with spirituality and grace. "Ellis Island" introduces another major component, with particular emphasis going on harp and oboe before the brief "Ozone" provides the first statement of the most spine-tingling, heavenly theme. All of these are to be reprised later on in the album's latter half. However, as mentioned, the main intentions of the early stretches are to convey a sense of mystique through Newman's odd ensemble. "The Ramble" and "Spotty Monster" are lively, vaguely Arabian jaunts while the eerie "Quartet" plays around with electronic design. "Bayeux Tapestry" is a see-sawing string piece while "Mauve Antarctica" emerges from the acoustic wash to delightfully play around with various plucked/chiming effects. "Her Fabulous Incipience" is another of the principal themes, a thunderous mix of electric guitar and growling brass, quite unlike anything the composer has come up with before, best described as a mix of Elliot Goldenthal and Christopher Young.
All of sudden the score explodes in joy courtesy of the marvellous choral pastiche "The Infinite Descent" – this should indicate where the second half of the album is going! "Broom of Truth" is a wonderful piece, a deeply moving string elegy underpinned by a soft choir (it also reintroduces the fragmentary opening theme). However, while it's true that this where most of the melodic highs emerge, it also contains the scariest moments, with the terrifying "Incipience" theme taken to grand, shuddering heights in "Submit!" and "Black Angel", the latter making one wonder what a Newman horror score would sound like. "Plasma Orgasmata" restores the collective calm with a soaring, yearning orchestral theme concluded on a soaring, yearning choir; truly this is music to make goose bumps emerge. "The Mormons" passes the title theme onto a lovely, earthy fiddle solo while "More Life" preps us for the fast approaching conclusion by reinstating the divine "Ozone" theme but not quite finishing it. "Garden of the Soul" tantalisingly takes out the "Plasma Orgasmata" theme (what a multitude this is!) to even greater heights. "Heaven" is one of the most spine-tingling moments, an almost entirely choral piece carrying an ethereal melody that threatens to be blown away on the breath of the orchestra.
But of course the conclusion is where Newman wrenches the heart and evokes the tears the most, a magnificent triptych of inspired, life-affirming, beautiful music, from "Bethesda Fountain", orchestral, to the orchestral/choral mix of "The Great Work Begins" and the breathlessly gorgeous soprano in the conclusive "Tropopause" (the best use of any such device, arguably, since Ennio Morricone's heyday). Here is where the main "Ozone" and "Ellis Island" themes get their most glorious, charged workout; it's hard to imagine film music (or indeed, music of any kind) more heaven-sent. Angels in America is the best example of the utterly unique talent of Thomas Newman. That word "unique" is perhaps the most apposite when referring to the composer: lots have attempted to copy his sound but none have succeeded. It is entirely his, to be put through its paces in such magnificent scores as we have here. He is one of the most dynamic, exciting film composers around today, and they don't get more dynamic than Angels in America.