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Review by Brad Green:
Evil was anything but banal in early-1930s Chicago. It wore dapper fedoras and overcoats with firearms tucked inside. It came highly organised, and with clear purpose. It flourished in an era of prohibition and economic despair; and it emerged from Irish-American and Italian-American ďfamiliesĒ that feuded with each other while screwing over society around them. Families with their own peculiar codes of ethics; whereby ruthlessness became a virtue and loyalties were often forged thicker than blood kinship Ė but perhaps not always.†

It is little wonder that such a milieu is inviting for filmmakers. And in this instance, the filmmakers are fascinating too. Director Sam Mendes, legendary cinematographer Conrad Hall and composer Thomas Newman team again after their startling achievement with American Beauty. Admittedly, the most important contributor to that filmís success, screenwriter Alan Ball isnít here, but the movie poster alone tells us that this is a very different kind of film. American Beautyís great triumph was in its structure: an interweaving of satire, whodunit and something more spiritual. Those two dimly lit, rain-soaked figures of the Road To Perdition poster immediately tell us that this film is all about style. The atmosphere will be thick with nostalgia, the characters will reveal in stages their sad stories, and all the portentous scenes will be dark and stormy. Of course the poignant strings will always be playing too.

Newman knew what was required and heís delivered. And more than just the strings. In the composerís inimitable manner, the conventional and experimental blend effortlessly on this soundtrack. It opens with a cue featuring uilleann pipes, the fashionable technique for evoking Irish roots ever since Titanic, but rarely deployed with the exquisite lyricism we hear here. Over the next few tracks the mood is tightened with minimalist underscoring before sentiment and melody return with the sweetest vengeance. Road To Chicago introduces the bright, resonant piano that stars for the remainder of the score. Over the merest susurration of percussion, it engages in a melodic dance with string lines; alluring lines that serve sometimes as a sleek surface on which the keyboard chords twinkle, and at others carry the lead with their own silken phrases. It is lush emotive scoring, with long stretches of development; thus achieving that rare quality of accessibility that is not dependant on repetition.

At three points, the score is punctuated by period tunes. Each of these exuberant jazz numbers adds to the authenticity of the mood, accenting time and place, and rather than interrupting the score, emphasises its nostalgic value.

Of course the string and piano journey is given an occasional detour down one of Newmanís wickedly exotic instrumental roads. Most notably in the extraordinary Meet Maguire. Against a strong pizzicato ostinato, muted trumpets and what sounds like bizarrely tuned mandolins head off in crazy but utterly compelling directions. Somehow Newman merges it all into something cohesive yet obviously unsettling. Itís quite clear from the music alone that this Maguire isnít someone youíd rush to become acquainted with. In contrast to this cue are the rippling snares and jaunty string patterns of Dirty Money, adding an ironic kink to the accumulating tension.†

Finally, there is the quietly plaintive piano piece Perdition; composed by John M. Williams and performed on screen by Tom Hanks and Paul Newman. They do quite adequately; although it hardly sounds challenging for two hands let alone four.†

Newman achieved something extraordinary with Amercian Beauty. In three beats of marimbas he created a truly unique motif that was perfect for the film and will always be instantly associated with it. On the other hand, the nature of the music required for the film in its entirety did not fill out into a wholly satisfying, stand-alone soundtrack.†

Despite its generous sprinkling of eclecticism there isnít anything in this score to match such distinctiveness. But that sort of thing only comes along every so often. In a way, American Beauty might have been a more important score; but this richly developed soundtrack is the one Iíd prefer on my stereo.

Published November 14, 2002

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TITLE: Road to Perdition

SCORE: Thomas Newman
ADDITIONAL MUSIC: Benjamin and John Spikes; Coleman Hawkins; Billy Higgins and W. Benton Overstreet; John M. Williams
FEATURED ARTISTS: The Charleston Chasers; Fletcher Henderson & His Orchestra; Chicago Rhythm Kings; Tom Hanks; Paul Newman

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