Saturday, April 12, 2014

Soundtrack Suggestion: American Beauty - Thomas Newman

American Beauty
by Thomas Newman

Way back in 1999, a movie called American Beauty hit the theaters.  The Sam Mendes film was written by Alan Ball (True Blood and Six Feet Under) and stars Kevin Spacey as Lester Burhman, a man who falls for his teenage daughter's best friend.  The film explored the dark secrets of middle class America and mixes comedy with artistically presented dramatic moments.

The moment I saw the film, I realized the score was so wonderful that it could be used to great effect in role-playing games.  The soundtrack has 19 songs in it, and clocks at around 35 minutes long.

Dead Already (Track 01) opens with a play on percussions, building with a single tone that slowly grows in harmony, strings and beats.  The track nicely can be used to introduce any non-combat or tense scene.    Arose (Track 02) then shifts to an almost ethereal and curious mood, with tubular chimes dancing around the scene.  The Power of Denial (Track 03) feels almost dangerous and threatening.  There's a distinct feel of "something not right" without dipping fully into full danger mode.  The occasional rattle helps give an added push on something dangerous lurking in the fringes.  Lunch with the King (Track 04) is a piece that moves forward with confidence and clear direction.  There is a slight shift at the 50 second mark, almost suggesting a moment of rest, but the piece does not relent and keeps at the steady pace of someone in motion.  Mental Boy (Track 05) takes a haunted feel, which some might even associate with how Silent Hill was approached, but then at the 40 second mark, turns introspective.  There's a sense of connection happening in the piece, slightly sad and yet slightly hopeful.


Mr. Smarty Pants (Track 06) plays like a good closing tune to a television episode.  There's a sense of resolution, if not clarity suggested in the harmonies.   Root Beer (Track 07) turns the world around, with a sense of fascination mixed with danger.  There's an undertone of seduction and risk inherent in the piece you'd find fun to use.  Be warned, however, the pace turns frenetic at the 50 second mark which can make it hard to use in some games.  American Beauty (Track 08) has the main leitmotif taking front and center with the piano nicely becoming the centerpiece to the whole track.   Powerful and moving, the piece can be used in happy, sad, or uncertain moods without needing much accompaniment.  I liked how this piece carries the scene well and being one that's 3 minutes long, you can get a lot of mileage with this even without repeating it.

Bloodless Freak (Track 09) carries the same life as Lunch with the King but has occasional shifts to almost suggest a montage of scenes.  A crafty storyteller can describe a different location with each musical shift, if he wanted to portray a visual montage that timed well with the tunes.  Choking the Bishop (Track 10) tiptoes into uncertainty and secrecy, with the use of almost ghostly percussions and the harsh entry of strings.  The track has multiple... moments of silence.. punctuated with an increasing pace and sense of urgency.  A tougher track to use in a game, but one which can be effective if you work it in advance.

Weirdest Home Videos (Track 11) has touches of synths to help support a calmer feel and mood.  The track might be good to use in scenes where some exposition is needed.  However, watch out for the mood shift at the 40 second mark which might throw you off.   After 1 minute, the track gains even more musical depth as additional instruments join in to build a growing harmony.   Structure and Discipline (Track 12) feels very heavy, even if it does not use low frequency harmonies in it.  There's a sense of seriousness inherent in the piece, and a lone horn at one point attempts to pull you deeper in.  The loneliness teased by the track grows almost foreboding at the 1 minute 30 second mark, but the incessant piano notes try to offer a glimmer of hope.

Spartanette (Track 13) is one of the signature tracks of the movie (as it brings the visuals of the woman with the roses - yes I'm still trying to leave some for the imagination- to ones mind.)  Again the track has a few silent pauses, and from each pause, the track returns more energetic and tense.  The track naturally leads to Angela Undress (Track 14) which takes back the leitmotif and gives it a more vulnerable touch.  The piano is accompanied by almost "ghostly" sounds that intermingle with what sound like crickets, only to blend away with strains of lonely strings.  A sad piece worth revisiting in a game.

Marine (Track 15) feels almost like the countdown music for a trivia game show and does engage the listener to feeling a sense of time mattering.  The clockwork pace of the song, with the added rattles, unsettles and makes one anticipate something bad is going to happen.  Walk Home (Track 16) brings in the usual harmonic yearning with an almost intrusive piano portion, almost like you have two harmonies desperately trying to merge but ending up... contrasting.  Chimes take center stage as the piece moves away from contemplative and approaches something that feels more final.  Blood Red (Track 17) is definitely a track that has the impression of a close.  The piece feels like its telling the listener the story is wrapping up, and the storyteller can capitalize on that to mood.  Any Other Name (Track 18) opens with an almost ghostly echo and brings in the leitmotif with a sad contemplative touch.  The 1 minute mark tries to offer hope, but the feeling is clear: we have reached the destination of the tale.  Somber.  Sad.  Whispering.  The track can offer hope, but mostly it hints that the best course of action is done and we are left with the repercussions.

And finally, Still Dead (Track 19) returns to the leitmotif with a nice strong presence.  The harmonies nicely wrap around the listener and bring the whole musical experience home, strings and clapping and all.

American Beauty OST track suggestions
WTF moment: Choking the Bishop (Track 10)
Introspective/calm moment: Dead Already (Track 01), Lunch with the King (Track 04),  Mr. Smarty Pants (Track 06), Bloodless Freak (Track 09), Weirdest Home Videos (Track 11) , Still Dead (Track 19)
Tense/mystery moment:  Arose (Track 02), The Power of Denial (Track 03), Root Beer (Track 07), Spartanette (Track 13), Marine (Track 15)
Combat: None
Hopeful moment: American Beauty (Track 08), Angela Undress (Track 14)
Drama/sad moment:  Mental Boy (Track 05),  Structure and Discipline (Track 12), Blood Red (Track 17), Any Other Name (Track 18)

Best Used In:  Introspective games with discussions on morality, virtues, values and perhaps even love.  Games set in the modern day will find great use to the tracks.  Medieval, Mystery and Horror games less so, but I can see these used in Science Fiction games to contrast the weirder moments.  Some might appreciate the use of the banjo and even find use of this for games set in the Serenity/Firefly universe.
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