• Ben Erickson


Tolkien is a biographical drama focused on the early life and achievements of J.R.R. Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult – pronounced [ 'tol kin ] ), for whom the film is titled, and his partner Edith Bratt (Lily Collins). Led by director Dome Karukoski, Tolkien is, fundamentally, the story of a man with a deep love of linguistics, whose works are nothing less than a study in etymological evolution, tirelessly edited and redrafted as the languages our author invented continued to develop. Moreover, it seems only logical the director chosen for the job is Finnish, given Tolkien studied the Finnish language with great enthusiasm, even deriving the ancient language of the Elves (Quenya) from its phonology and drawing narrative parallels between his own Children of Húrin and the 19th c. Finnish epic The Kalevala. Hired to score the feature was Thomas Newman, a well decorated and highly respected composer among Hollywood acolytes, though it is curious the production team did not search for an English composer to score this very English story. Nevertheless, Newman's work is apropos to the task as he maintains an aptitude for scoring period dramas, such as the recent Netflix release The Highwaymen. In fact, it would not be an overstatement even to call him the master of the period drama score, enriching the poetry of beautiful films with his signature mood setting style and spanning credits that include The Shawshank Redemption, Meet Joe Black, The Green Mile, American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, and Cinderella Man. His heritage is equally impressive as a member of one of the greatest dynasties in Hollywood; son to the celebrated Alfred Newman, brother to David and Maria Newman – both esteemed film composers today, nephew to legends Emil and Lionel Newman, and cousin to Randy Newman. Combined the family has contributed to the music of nearly 1000 films, with head-of-the-family Alfred Newman being responsible for the 20th Century Fox fanfare, originally written for and rejected by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and which, as it so happens, opens the film. With the announcement of the Amazon Lord of the Rings series it seems we are entering into a Third Age of music for Middle-earth, what with Leonard Rosenman having scored the 1978 animated film and Howard Shore the millennial trilogy. The wonderful thing about Tolkien, and what makes it such a well suited film for Newman's skill set, is that he is not scoring a high fantasy story, but rather the man behind it. His style appeals to those intricate threads of fate that might lead someone such as Tolkien to write that giant of classical fiction in the first place. A significant part of Newman's style of composition is his use of unusual instrumentation, contributing to his unique musical personality which he once described as "an interest in mundane experimentation". The instrumentation used for Tolkien includes piano, the psaltery (an Ancient Greek instrument of the zither family), Indian Bansuri flutes (picked up from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), the hurdy-gurdy, harps, and chimes, among the more run of the mill orchestrations. Other instruments to which he is accustomed include the hammered dulcimer and mandolin, using their quirky timbres to produce sometimes chaotic if not upbeat textures. If you are familiar with the composer's work the score for Tolkien might sound as you expect, using these familiar ingredients beside understated themes to create an inventive spirit about the music. Ethereal vocals play up the fantasy, with the choir performing assumedly in one of the various dialects Tolkien invented or studied, and often accompanied by sustained, swelling strings that form wan meditations on the character's penchant for world-building. A more startling use of the choir can be heard during Tolkien's time at the front, using whispered voices in crescendo to mock the death that lies about him ("Army of the Dead" and "Black Rider"). Certain cue titles draw on some of the linguistic elements of Tolkien's studies and inventions, which will no doubt please those of us who admire film music and Tolkien alike. These cues include the Icelandic "Vinátta (Friendship)", the Dutch "Eik (Oak)", the Norse "Helheimr (End Crawl)", and "Lúthien Tinúviel" of the tale of Beren and Lúthien. There is a dazzling lilt to the score like a spinning fabric, as if a sudden breeze has entered the room. Unfortunately, wholesome and comforting as the music might be, it all sits well within Newman's comfort zone. The anticipation fans once experienced leading up to the release of a new Thomas Newman score is losing its lustre, and the atmospherically driven score for Tolkien on the whole does not have a particularly strong identity. Not only is it airy and forgettable, but it fails to impact the audience in a meaningful way by avoiding the emotional gravitas of the character's situations with the stolid and tempered optimism of what was to come. Neither the themes of death and loss that have been prevalent in Tolkien's texts from the first, nor the British mentality of The Great War (Keep Calm and Carry On), entered the score in a substantial way. The film itself was quite enjoyable, recounting Tolkien's experiences as a member of "The TCBS" (Tea Club & Barrovian Society) and the companions he made in those years, and much of his time spent in World War I where he would lose two of those same childhood mates. It also made countless visual metaphors and allusions to his later published works, such as the green English pastures that would inspire The Shire, Edith's dancing in the woods that call to Beren's coming across Lúthien, or the war-strewn fever visions of the trenches, though this in itself is ironic given Tolkien was famously against allegory. However, I would have liked to see something of his later years with the formation of The Inklings, his Oxford discussion group of two decades that boasted C.S. Lewis and a number of other influential writers besides, but this will have to wait for another film. It was likewise a surprise to me that the film did not end with the birth of Tolkien's third son, Christopher, named for one of the TCBS members and born only six years after the end of WWI. Especially as Christopher Tolkien dedicated the better half of his life to editing and publishing his father's works. Nevertheless, I consider the film a great success, and though Newman's score did not contribute to this success as much as could have been hoped, it provided a welcome and curious air to Tolkien's trying and resourceful history.