What’s The Score?: Oscars Week Special – Saving Mr Banks

I want to write about this whole film, but I’m going to reluctantly stick to the short version of WTS that I’ve done for the other nominated soundtracks. Needless to say, I really loved this film.

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This score was composed by Thomas Newman, who is, in my opinion, one of the greatest mainstream film composers ever. You’ll recognise his distinctive sound from films like The Shawshank Redemption, Finding Nemo, Meet Joe Black (mediocre film, astonishingly beautiful score) and more recently Skyfall. I want to do that annoying thing where someone doesn’t shut up about something because they love it so much and want to force you to love it too, but I won’t need to do that – you just need to listen to his music and you’ll understand.

On the score for Saving Mr Banks, there are 31 cues, but this includes some of the diegetic musical moments, i.e. the parts where the music is made on screen, like the parts where the Sherman brothers are composing and presenting the songs for ‘Mary Poppins’. This is a score made up of different parts because of the film’s two storylines – P.L. Travers in Hollywood, and the constant flashbacks to her childhood.  Newman’s distinctive compositional style usually consists of varied strings and warm piano chords, but he also has some great moments  in this score where he plays around with more era-specific styles. I’ll just include this video purely because it’s such a lovely scene:

The film opens with a very simple piano arrangement of ‘Chim-Chim-Chiree’ with Pamela’s father reciting the lyrics over the top. It’s very effective – a little mysterious, playful, but quite sad. As this wasn’t really composed by Newman, I won’t count this in WTS. The first original moment comes moments later, as we see into her past, her childhood with her father, and the cue is ‘Travers Goff’.

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Starting with slow, sighing strings as we lead to the flashback, the music conveys a kind of longing, and as the scene moves to show us her childhood, a lively piano motif takes over.  It is fast and repetitive, simple and playful, and accompanies a scene that shows the loving relationship between Pamela and her father. Something I always notice in Newman’s scores is how he builds chords in the string parts to create enormous depth, and this score is no different. Listen to the cellos swooping in underneath while the pianos continue on.

‘Walking Bus’ is the next track, when the family are uprooted again. Pamela’s father makes it seem fun by referring to them as a ‘walking bus’ as they travel to the train station, and the excitement of travelling is enhanced by the music. The trademark rhythmic, percussive sound comes through here with a bouncing piano line and strings that jab without being too sharp, they’re like hits that punctuate the music at syncopated moments – it keeps the music moving without being too cartoony. As Pamela looks out and watches the tracks from the back of the train, the mood changes to more reflective and thoughtful – you get a real sense that despite the playful mood that came just before this, there is something sad underneath, suggested by the dissonant little moments in (what sounds like) the celesta as the piece becomes quieter towards the end.

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Moving forward (because otherwise I’ll do the whole film), the cue ‘Whiskey’ takes place during the scene where Pamela’s bedridden father practically rejects her poem, and as she wants to make him happy, she decides to fetch him the whiskey that he ‘needs’. It starts with sad chords in the strings that give way to an urgent but restrained piano motif that repeats under a quiet violin melody. It bridges the transition from flashback to the present, where Pamela goes outside the studio and sits on the grass to build a mini bandstand out of twigs and leaves.  The music builds with little woodwind flourishes and additional piano notes, the layers giving the music more texture without it becoming too loud or overbearing.

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The last cue I’ll look at is ‘To My Mother’, and it comes at a dramatic moment in the film where Pamela’s mother discovers that she gave her father the whiskey, and tells her to look after her sisters. It’s an unnerving scene, in which her mother walks into the lake seemingly in the middle of a breakdown, and Pamela is forced to run in and rescue her before she goes under, telling her “It’s time to go home”. Newman briefly uses a technique in this piece that he used in Finding Nemo, during ‘Swim Down’ – he uses two open fifth chords, a tone apart, and goes between them. There’s a depth and space to them that signifies water, kind of like the way the Jaws theme does (as well as signifying approaching danger, which this one sort of does in a way). There’s another repetitive piano motif which is set against a similar motion in the harps, while strings eventually join in to add more urgency and drama. As the climactic moment of the scene approaches, the music speeds up with rushing strings and rapid piano notes, spiraling up in pitch with rumbling bass notes underneath. They abruptly end, and after a moment give way to more sympathetic, quiet strings which fade out into the next scene.

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Argghhhh I want to write about the whole film but I won’t, it’ll take too long. Maybe one day I will revisit this score, but for now I’ll just say this – to me, it’s a tie between Gravity and Saving Mr Banks. I’d love it if this film won, purely because I feel like Newman never turns in a bad score, and his work on this film is wonderful, definitely deserving of his first win.

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