It’s that rare thing. I loved the film, and the music – and the book it was based on; well, the story. The trifecta. (Actually, I did love the book that the story was in, the whole thing, so there’s that too).
The Shawshank Redemption is so good that it’s almost a cliché now – New Zealand’s most popular movie pretty much. One of the world’s most popular films; the sort of film you catch a bit of on the telly, and you just have to sit down and watch through even though you’ve seen it already.
I am pretty sure that when I saw the film for the first time – on the big screen – I didn’t yet know it was a Stephen King story, certainly hadn’t read it. I loved the movie so much I went straight to find the novella, and I’ve since read it a couple of times. I might not have known too much about Thomas Newman at the time – a more than dependable film composer, one of the ones I’m now absolutely drawn to – but I did notice the music. It is a feature of the film, via a couple of non-score moments, or source music becoming score, such as the integration of The Marriage of Figaro – and that Ink Spots weepie-gem, If I Didn’t Care. Brilliant use in both cases, and nice to have them on the actual soundtrack album.
Around them, and Hank Williams’ forever sublime Lovesick Blues, is the rise and fall of Newman’s utterly mesmeric score. Strings. And subtle electronics. He takes you places. He guides the film through its tension, its soft moments of whimsy and near-comedy and its deep, beautiful drama.
If the film is almost a cliché now, the music most certainly is not.
I hear it anew every time.
A couple of years ago I started listening to it so closely. On YouTube I would find the whole score and listen – sometimes two or three or four times in a row.
More recently I’ve bought the CD – I never owned it at the time, even though I was collecting up a lot of movie soundtracks back then also. And it’s currently something I play most weeks. I’m listening to it now. In preparation, and then as I write this.
Just ahead of sitting down to talk up this beautiful score, I was folding the washing. I managed to get the drying rack folded up too and put away for a day or two. Always a sense of achievement. But I tell you, it never sounded better than when scored – by fluke, by coincidence – with Thomas Newman’s emotional tug at the heartstrings. He hits the right notes always, guiding you to the emotion but never raining it down on top of you. He is an absolute master. And in the mid/late 90s he was super effective on a handful of films, but maybe he was never better than Shawshank.
And this is the thing actually. The film works because Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins were arguably never better; because Frank Darabont understood how to adapt Stephen King; and because maybe King was actually nearly never better too. Certainly, his novella, as with that other ‘out of character’ story that made a wonderful film, Stand By Me, is up there. And even if it isn’t one of his greatest works, it was always one of the best to convince someone that he was more than just a horror writer. Though why I ever felt the need to do that I’ll never know…
Anyway, such music. Such joy and emotion and so perfectly compiled with the mix of score and source music.
A contender for me for the greatest music score of a late 20th Century film.
A true work of genius.