Thomas Newman to Receive 2010 Hollywood Reporter Maestro Award
Thomas Newman grew up surrounded by music, and if the front room of his Pacific Palisades studio is any indication, he still likes it that way. Rare, antique instruments are everywhere: An English cittern sits on a table, a French monochord -- a kind of violin-guitar hybrid -- stands upright next to a piano, on which rests a German stroviol, which looks like a cross between a saxophone and a violin.
Admitting to being a collector, he talks enthusiastically about finding the instruments in a London antique shop. The excursion was part of an ongoing search for "unexpected sounds."
The exotic, experimental quality of the instruments contrasts with the man himself -- if you didn't know him, you'd think he was just another Los Angeles soccer dad in jeans and a sweatshirt. He is completely angst free, without any Hollywood pretensions whatsoever, and disarmingly nice.
But he is anything but ordinary.
In this decade alone he's been nominated for six Oscars, amassing 10 nominations altogether. He has yet to take home the award, though it doesn't seem to matter much, and why should it? A perfectionist and a work horse, Newman has produced some of the most memorable film music of the past 20 years, from 1994's "The Shawshank Redemption" to 1999's "American Beauty" and the 2008 animated blockbuster "WALL-E."
In doing so he's somehow managed to live up to the
daunting standard set by his own father, the late Alfred Newman, a towering figure who won nine Oscars -- he was nominated astaggering 40 times -- in a career that helped define the lush Hollywood sound of classics like 1939's "Wuthering Heights" and 1951's "All About Eve," among many others.
Emerging from such an imposing shadow couldn't have been easy, but today Tom is casting a shadow of his own, working at a rarefied level few composers will ever reach. It is for these reasons that Thomas Newman is being honored with the 2010 Hollywood Reporter Maestro Award.
It may be hard to believe, but as a young man Newman had no interest in film music at all. Tagging along with his father to the recording studio or sound stage, young Tom was like any kid dragged to dad's office for the day.
"I do remember going down to watch my dad conduct," he says. "But when you're a kid, it's just 15 fascinating minutes followed by an hour or two of saying, 'Can we get out of here?' "
The last child born to Alfred and his third wife, Martha, Tom recalls an ordinary childhood where his father acted as "governor" to a huge extended family, many accomplished musicians in their own right, including his older brother David, also a successful composer.
From a distance, life as Alfred Newman's son appeared perfectly normal. He remembers family get-togethers where he and his musically gifted cousin preferred playing basketball over instruments. Of course, the cousin in this case is Randy Newman, the brilliantly acerbic songwriter who became a household name in the 1970s before embarking on his own successful career as a film composer.
While he was studying music during this period, Tom's assessment of his ability is less than generous: "I took piano and violin lessons, but I did not necessarily excel."
Randy remembers things differently.
"His father was a great pianist, but Tom was probably the best pianist that the family produced," he says, adding that he could have benefited from his younger cousin's work ethic. "I mean, who wants to practice?"
But as Randy went on to fame and fortune as a songwriter, Tom entered adulthood with only a vague idea of what he wanted to do with his life. He knew it would somehow involve music, but following in his father's footsteps wasn't a certainty by any means.
"There was never a question about pursuing music, but the idea of doing film music was pretty frightening," he says. "I wasn't ambitiously pursuing a career in film composition. I just didn't think I could do it."
But by the time he graduated from Yale with a master's degree in music, he was ready to --if not quite dive in -- at least test the waters of composition.
"I had ideas," he says of his early 20s. "A lot were good, but in many ways I had no idea or experience about how to carry them out."