There may be a Universal Rule of Thomas Newman. Post-"Shawshank Redemption", anyway. As the composer for "Cinderella Man", director Ron Howard's film about Depression-era boxer Jim Braddock, one almost instinctively knows that his music will either sound good, or sound like a frustrating rehash of a score he wrote that was good.
This is not a rehash.
We hear familiar cultural modes in the themes and uplifting passages,Americana and Irish folk in particular. Given the subject, that is expected. We also hear T. Newman's distinctive signature in the eclectic instrumentation, this time encompassing nine soloists on about 20 different instruments (a sampling: bowed guitarron, ewi, flute, uillean pipes, Irish fiddle, resonating metals, and hurdy-gurdy). Given the composer, that is also expected. What gives the soundtrack vitality, and a freshness of its own, is smart craftsmanship and slick production.
Straight away, the album pulls the listener into the ring with crowd noise, which crossfades into a beautiful and understated introductory piece featuring Newman on piano, which in turn fades into a swinging period recording ('Shim-Me-Sha-Wobble' by Miff Mole & Molers). The soundtrack continues for some time like this, the tracks short and fragmented as they often are on Newman's albums, but artfully arranged into an almost fluid soundscape, punctuated with a few tracks from the past. The score is heavy on strings, light piano, and atmospheric effects, offering an internal consistency that smoothes the transitions and gives the first appearance of powerhouse underscore--Track 10, the percussive 'Corn Griffen'--added impact. Themes and motifs exist here, but they do not leap out at the listener. They don't have to. Newman builds up a sense of anticipation, so that by the time we reach Track 21, 'Big Right', and the horns sound a promising fanfare, we feel especially grateful that the promise pays off in Track 23, the title cue.
Also represented on the album are Bud Freeman & His Windy City Five ('Tillie's Downtown Now'), Roanes Pennsylvanians ('We've Got to Put That Sun Back in the Sky'), Eddie Cantor ('Cheer Up! Smile! Nertz!'), and actor Paul Giamatti whistles 'Londonderry Air'. Their presence among the underscore is neither detrimental nor necessary overall, but the placement of Cantor creates an abrupt farewell that is stylistically out of place and emotionally undeserved. There is a serious misstep or two.
I must caution that the musical journey requires patience. But it is worth it. With "Cinderella Man", Thomas Newman is in excellent form.