John Ostrander: Music To Write Comics By

I love movie and television soundtracks. I’ll often use a given soundtrack while I work, letting it fuel my writing. I can’t listen to music with lyrics in them; that interferes with my process. I’ll get themes, characters, even scenes or whole plots from the music. Soundtrack music is in service of the story that the film is trying to tell; it’s a part of the narrative, heightening the emotion that’s being invoked.

I have my own particular favorites. The composers usually have a large body of work but certain key works resonate within me – Jerry Goldsmith’s Chinatown and Patton, James Horner with Field of Dreams, Shaun Davey’s Waking Ned Devine, Elmer Bernstein’s To Kill A Mockingbird (has there ever been a more beautiful and evocative theme?) and, of course, The Magnificent Seven.

I’ve also been very fond of Alan Silvestri’s score to Forrest Gump but that one is hard for me to listen to anymore. It was also one of the favorites of my late wife, Kim Yale. We had it playing in the background on the morning that she died; in fact – as the last notes of the last track played, Kim gave out her last breath. The music will always be with me but I can’t physically listen to it very much.

What I find amazing is how many great composers in movies and television have the last name of Newman. It’s a fascinating family; the musical DNA runs strong through these people. Alfred Newman (1901-1970) was the scion of the family and has won more Oscars for soundtracks than any other composer. He worked on The Grapes of Wrath, Ball of Fire (I love this film!), Twelve O’Clock High, The Grapes of Wrath and How The West Was Won among many, many others.

He composed the theme for 20th Century Fox which is still in use today. You’ve heard it at the start of every Star Wars movie (although, alas, you won’t hear it in any future episodes since the franchise is now owned by Disney). He was the general music director at Fox for decades starting in 1940 and when he left, he was replaced by his younger brother, Lionel Newman.

In his younger days, Lionel was the accompanist for Mae West on the vaudeville circuit (which must have been an interesting job). He composed the music for the John Wayne film, North to Alaska (one of my fave Wayne films as I was growing up) as well as a passel of TV shows like The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. He was also the music director for TV shows such as The Time Tunnel, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Lost in Space, and Batman.

Alfred Newman sired other soundtrack composers, notably David Newman and Thomas Newman. You may know David from his work on the Disney animated version of Tarzan. He was also the composer on Serenity, the feature film follow-up to the TV series Firefly, a particular favorite in our house. It’s a really lovely piece of work. He also did the music for Galaxy Quest, that wonderful homage/send-up to Star Trek.

Thomas Newman is a prolific and talented composer and one of my absolute faves of the modern breed. His work is stunning, be it on the James Bond film Skyfall or Pixar movies such as Wall-E and Finding Nemo. He scored the films based on two Steven King works, The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption. He did the theme for the TV series, Six Feet Under, one of my favorite TV themes of all time. It’s quirky use of percussion sets the tone for the series itself.

One of the most played soundtrack CDs in my collection is the music Thomas Newman wrote for Road to Perdition. As he often does, Newman makes great use of minor chords, suggesting melancholy and loss. I have a strong streak of melancholy myself, always have, and it just responds to this music. Heart breaking and breath taking.

Last, and certainly not least, we have Alfred’s nephew, the astounding Randy Newman. Randy is a pop singer and composer par excellence; you must know his songs like “Short People,” “It’s Lonely At the Top,” and “I Love L.A.” among so many others. One of my fave pop writers/composers of all time.

Given his pedigree, it must have been inevitable that he would also take up soundtrack composing. You must have heard his work on The Natural, all the Toy Story movies, Seabiscuit and Monsters Inc (for which he finally won an Oscar after 15 nominations). If memory serves, his first words of his acceptance speech as he gazed out at the audience was, “Don’t you pity me.” He is a man of great wit, a dry humor, exquisite musical sensibilities, and a great sense of narrative. As you may guess, I am a fan.

There are some composers whose soundtrack albums I would buy without even seeing the movies. The Newman clan rank high on that list. They have, as an aggregate, just too much damn talent. It’s unfair to others, I know, but they make me happy.