The Shawshank Redemption: Limited Edition

shawshank-cover In 1994 composer Thomas Newman, at the time the youngest member to come out of the Newman film scoring family was fast establishing his name in the Hollywood film music circles and one of the scores that truly solidified his reputation in the tinsel town was The Shawshank Redemption. This prison drama, which over the years has become a well-loved classic, was based on a novella by Stephen King, adapted and directed by Frank Darabont and featuring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman in the lead roles. And in its own way the score was among those elements that left a permanent imprint on the viewers and listeners as it contains all the elements that make up Thomas Newman's indelible musical style that has become so admired and oft imitated over the years. The project was by the composer's own admission among his favourites and he apparently poured his heart and soul into this score and one could argue it can be heard loud and clear in the end result, a quintessential Thomas Newman score, which is made even more apparent by the new release of the complete score by the La-La Land Records in a lavish 2 disc set.

Newman's style of combining orchestra, synthesizers and specialty instruments, often crafting highly original moods and atmospheres through experimentation with the players, the often quirky feel of the orchestrations and creation of his own brand of unique sound design and his gift for heartfelt direct melodies all come together in the Shawshank Redemption in a winning combination. This is a thoughtful score, a quiet score, that most of the time seeks rather to enhance the various subtexts of the story with gentle suggestions rather than placing itself thoroughly in the foreground except for few choice moments but lives long in the memory of the listener thanks to the well thought out and crafted dramatic arc and musical narrative, its memorable sound and originality.

The composer has never been one for simple theme and variation approach and in The Shawshank Redemption he rather addresses emotional moods, psychological underpinnings and atmospheres than directly writes character based themes and thus his melodies of which there is a whole slew are often associated with specific scenes, linking them together with a common subtext, but never the less the listener can clearly hear various thematic ideas delineating their own paths and sometimes crossing each other throughout the score.

The original soundtrack album offered a fine selection of the musical highlights of the score, which are of course present here on the new set, this time presented in their film guise. Among them are the stark but imposing 'Shawshank Prison (Stoic Theme)', piano dominated mystical Zihuatanejo, gentle yet mournful despondency of 'Brooks Was Here', the energetic and jaunty 'And That Right Soon', the jittery 'His Judgement Cometh', the magnificent orchestral build-up of 'Shawshank Redemption' and the rousing Americana finale of 'So Was Red' and 'End Title'. But the musical bounties are not exhausted there and the new release still has some great unreleased gems to offer among its 30 additional minutes to satisfy the fans of the score and the composer. These tracks might not be hugely revelatory in form or style as they more or less fall in line with the previously released material but they do flesh out the narrative of the score in a most satisfying way and quite a few of the film versions of the cues are only now available for the first time.

Highlights among the previously unreleased pieces are the 'Main Title/Courtroom' which not only establishes the overall style of the score but introduces the mysterious and moody piano motif which later plays major role in the prison escape material (i.e. the cues 'Escape and Shawshank Redemption(Film Version)') and the short but sweet mournful "religioso" motif appearing first on the aptly named track Bible and then in 'Kid Passed/Wild Injuns'. It is so beautiful in fact that it is a shame Newman did not have a chance to explore it further in the score. The finale of the score is also considerably expanded with the cues like the atmospheric 'Longest Night and Pacific/Graveyard' with its ethereal harp writing and the full film version of 'Compass and Guns' that sports among other things a beautiful extended oboe solo, another composer trademark.

The singular soundscapes conjuring atmospheric writing where the composer melds soloist instruments, orchestra and synthesizers to create almost hypnotic feel is vintage Newman and he truly has a knack for this wonderful mood painting where the textures and small melodic fragments are employed to haunting effect. Good examples include 'Bog's Shower' and later 'Inch of His Life (Film Version)' which share elements that become in themselves thematic and the above mentioned 'Main Title/CourtRoom'. Similarly the composer links 'Hope/Gift Exchange' and 'Longest Night' that both feature mesmerizing but unsettling oboe solos over a bed of subtle unnerving string accompaniment that evoke mystery and apprehension in equal measure.

And while a lot of the score is comprised of moody and melancholy material there are some glimpses of lighthearted humour in the music as well, done in style that has become Newman’s calling card. 'Lovely Raquel' dances effortlessly with mischievous fun on plucked strings and various light percussive accents. In the same style the previously unreleased 'Letters/Taxes' reprises the jaunty ticking pizzicato led theme heard in 'Rock Hammer', which is pure Newman at his quirky best.

The second disc of the set contains a generous selection of alternates although is a bit of a mixed bag as many of the pieces are only marginally different from their film counterparts. But the composer and the producers at La-La Land Records have to be commended none the less for allowing us this fascinating glimpse into the scoring process. Here the differences come out mostly in performance rather than actual alternate material or major revisions. Some cues sport different orchestrations like the slightly different pizzicato or tremolo strings in 'His Judgement Cometh (Alternate)' or the slightly slower performance of the alternate 'End Title (Alternate)' but these changes are mostly cosmetic while the content remains largely the same. Only significant rewrite among the cues seems to be 'Pacific/Graveyard' where the ending half of the piece features the piano motif from the end of 'So Was Red', which would have tied the two cues together but in the film version found on disc 1 it got replaced by non-thematic but beautiful harp material. And to complete the experience the second disc also includes the source music from the Inkspots, Hank Williams and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart that was found on the original soundtrack album.

I would recommend this new release without hesitation even if you already own the original soundtrack album and for the fans of the composer and especially of the score this new 2 disc set is definitely a must have. The music mixed by Mike Matessino and supervised by the composer himself sounds better than ever and it is gratifying to hear the mix and film versions of the cues revealing some new details in the music, especially considering we already had such an articulate and crisp original soundtrack recording. Also worth mentioning is how well the composer builds the score from point A to B to C so that the music has a sense of build-up and momentum which makes the emotional finale of the soundtrack so effective when the orchestral fireworks begin and the score finally swells in triumphant redemption. This was apparent on the original soundtrack album from 1994 and it is even clearer with the new expanded set where almost 30 minutes of additional material flesh out the musical narrative, adding often new variations on the existing themes and in this case even introducing some new ones which were left off the original album. On top of that as a wonderful bonus, the second disc of the set adds those 30 minutes of alternate material to explore. Complementing the music are the fine liner notes by Constantine Nasr and Tim Grieving with attractive art direction by Dan Goldwasser. For a Newman fan it doesn’t get much better than this and even the more casual listeners would do well to explore one of Thomas Newman’s best scores in this expanded form. Most heartily recommended.

-Mikko Ojala

The Shawshank Redemption is out now from La-La Land Records

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