Quite likely the record holder for those who attend a film just to see a trailer beforehand (in this case The Phantom Menace teaser), Martin Brest's overlong remake of Death Takes a Holiday suffers under its own self-importance. This is especially frustrating because fleeting moments and individual performances (predictably Anthony Hopkins) are very moving, but are hamstrung by the leaden pacing. In the film, Brad Pitt (doing Brad Pitt) appears as Death incarnate, on Earth for a sightseeing tour with Hopkins' ailing tycoon as a guide. Of course, it doesn't take long before the Grim Reaper experiences genuine human emotion when he falls for Hopkins' daughter (Claire Forlani), all the while preparing to take the businessman into the beyond.
Meet Joe Black was the second collaboration between Brest and composer Thomas Newman (after "Scent of a Woman") and the composer was clearly inspired to step out of his comfort area by the romantic nature of the story. Of course, when Newman steps out of his comfort area, it invites a different way of thinking, seeing as he's more comfortable with unusual, intimate ensembles. In Joe Black however, the very opposite is true, Newman leaving any and all oddness behind and crafting possibly the loveliest symphonic work of his career.
How bizarre it is that a work by a major league film composer should be deemed atypical by virtue of its conventional nature, but such is the fascination the composer holds. Yet, paradoxically, Newman's voice (beautiful; bittersweet; sometimes comical) shines through from start to finish. At no point would Joe Black be mistaken for any other composer's work. The familiar chilly acoustic wash opens the album in "Yes" (Anthony Hopkins' calm tones intoning the word at the start): breathy strings, plinky piano, the vaguest trace of deathly beauty. "Everything Freesia" by contrast is a delightfully upbeat scherzo for jumpy strings, full of life and energy.
It's in "Walkaway" however that Newman's gorgeous central melody first creeps up on oboe and soft strings, one that wrenches the heart even when introduced in minimalist fashion. Here is another place where Joe Black differs from other Newman scores: very infrequently in his career has he showed such consistent loyalty to one theme, often bringing them in at the start and close, but here, the one gorgeous melody dominates throughout, getting a tear-jerking rendition (again on oboe) in "Cold Lamb Sandwich" and elsewhere. There's also a multitude of other motifs floating around in spine-tingling ethereal fashion, playing right to the heart of the film's themes of death, mortality and love. The warm acoustic guitar in "Death and Taxes" and the brilliantly jazzy woodwind in "Fifth Avenue" are especially notable.
The most prominent secondary idea though would be the love theme, getting the most graceful and romantic airing possible in "Whisper for a Thrill", the first time Newman really lets his ensemble go, although there's still a remarkable degree of restraint that makes one anticipate the climax. And what a climax it is. For a composer who is often criticised for holding too much back, Joe Black's finale "That Next Place" shows the composer's god-given gift for resoundingly beautiful, triumphant orchestral writing, the main theme rising up to overwhelming proportions on several occasions over 10 mins. It might be the greatest close to a Newman album ever, alongside that of The Shawshank Redemption and Angels in America.
The most satisfying thing about the score overall is its coherency, painting a poignant and spiritually powerful portrait of life and death through the little nuances; the lovely instrumental writing; the heartbreaking moments contrasted with that finale. Throughout there is a careful, gradual application of mood, before our attention is finally rewarded tenfold, a familiar trait of the composer but done with special grace here. It maybe the most complete, wholly satisfying score Thomas Newman has composed when considered outside the film itself. However you look at it though, it would take a heart of stone not to be moved. This album is available at the these links: Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.
The full track listing is as follows: