The much-loved Disney feature Mary Poppins celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2014. It’s hard to believe that it’s been that long since the world first learned the word supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, or were first able to hear the worst Cockney accent in cinematic history courtesy of Dick Van Dyke, but it’s true, and the legacy and popularity of the film remains as strong today as it was in 1964. The new film Saving Mr. Banks, directed by John Lee Hancock, tells two parallel stories. Firstly, it charts how the film Mary Poppins was made, with the irascible English spinster P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) traveling from her home in London to Los Angeles, where she is wooed mercilessly by no lesser figure that Walt Disney himself (Tom Hanks), in an attempt to secure the rights to her book, which she is loathe to give up. Secondly, and possibly most importantly, it explores in flashback Travers’ childhood in rural Australia, and how her relationship with her loving, caring, but hopelessly drunk and irresponsible father (Colin Farrell) help inspired her work, and her famous umbrella-wielding nanny.
The music of Mary Poppins is, of course, as important and well-loved at the film, and so obviously composer Thomas Newman had a very important part to play in the film about its creation. With the legendary songs of Richard M. Sherman and the late Robert B. Sherman looming large in the background, and featuring prominently in several scenes in the film, Newman took an important decision and intentionally avoided quoting any of their melodies in his score itself, instead concentrating on the emotional aspect of Travers’ life story, and leaving the legendary music of the Shermans to speak for itself. Ultimately, this proved to be entirely the right decision: although the two sets of music exist entirely different musical worlds, they complement each other perfectly.
The score opens with a beautiful performance of Sherman’s “Chim Chim Cher-ee” melody performed on solo piano by Randy Kerber, overdubbed with a poetic monologue by Colin Farrell in-character, which sets the tone for the film perfectly. Large parts of Newman’s score hearken back to the classic lush sound that many people fell in love with in the 1990s, which is a very welcome development indeed. The score’s recurring main theme is warm and inviting, and features those swooning, melting string washes and piano melodies that many will recall from scores like Meet Joe Black, Oscar and Lucinda, or the more beautiful parts of Angels in America and Cinderella Man. It features prominently throughout the score, first appearing towards the end of “Travers Goff”, and forms a large part of the fabric of several later cues, receiving especially notable performances in the elegant “Uncle Albert”, the sentimental “Celtic Soul”, the lovely “Westerly Weather”, and in the conclusive end credits piece “Saving Mr. Banks”, which ends the score on an endearing, lyrical note.
The idealism and romance of Travers’ childhood in Australia, and her love/hate relationship with her devoted but alcoholic father, is generally scored in this way too, like a sun-kissed fantasy from someone else’s life. Of course, Newman would not be Newman if he didn’t augment his sweeping strings with his usual palette of struck and plucked string instruments – guitars, marimbas and the like – alongside chimes, glockenspiels, and a haunting, faraway woodwind texture which has a wistful, slightly dreamy aspect that reminds me of his Americana work on scores like The Horse Whisperer. Cues such as the summery “Travers Goff”, the bouncy and idiosyncratic “Walking Bus”, the gorgeously tender “Forgiveness”, and the nostalgic “Ginty My Love” blend these styles together excellently.
Cues like “Laying Eggs” and “Whiskey” hint at some darker emotions out in the bush, combining the liveliness of the rhythms with something a little more melancholy in the phrasing and instrumental choices. This comes to a head in “To My Mother”, a standout cue which begins with a soothing, intimate, slightly deconstructed solo piano performance of the main theme, but slowly grows into something more dramatic and profound; as the cue progresses it makes excellent use of rapid-fire violin scales, harp glissandi, stark instrumental touches, and a moody, oppressive synth element, to underscore the film’s most traumatic sequence.
At the other end of the scale, the slightly comedic misadventures of PL Travers as she experiences American life and hospitality for the first time revisit that off-kilter, energetic American Beauty sound, all spiky instrumental performances and a sense of freedom and movement. “Jollification” perfectly captures Travers’ incredulity and cynicism of everything Disney is tying to flatter her with, Walt Disney himself has a cheerful brass march heard in “Mr. Disney” and in an extended, much more flamboyant version in “The Magic Kingdom”, while there are jazz pianos and muted trombones in “Mrs. P. L. Travers”, and quirky pizzicato strings in “Impertinent Man” that capture the slowly cracking veneer of English forthrightness, correctness and pomposity that Emma Thompson conveys so perfectly.
A couple of source music cues fill out the score CD, including a super rendition of the jazzy “One Mint Julep” by Ray Charles for the scene where Mrs. Travers first arrives in America, and there are also a couple of brief dialog/music tracks from the film featuring actors Jason Schwartzman and BJ Novak as Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, demoing their songs for an increasingly flabbergasted Travers in Walt Disney’s offices.
The special edition 2-CD set of the Saving Mr. Banks soundtrack contains several treasures on its second disc, especially for those who love the music heard in the original Mary Poppins film. The most notable bonus tracks are the original 1964 demos of four classic songs from the film, performed on piano and sung by Richard Sherman himself, with occasional vocal accompaniment by his brother Robert. Knowing what the finished versions eventually came to sound like, it’s fascinating hearing these rough, in-progress versions as a historical record of the creation of some of cinema’s most enduring songs. These are followed, for those who may have forgotten, by the final film versions of those very songs, featuring full and lush orchestrations by the great Irwin Kostal, and legendary vocal performances by Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke and David Tomlinson. There is something inherently magical in hearing Andrews’ cut-glass tones during “Feed the Birds”, which was Walt Disney’s own favorite song.
In many ways, this is a classic Thomas Newman score, or at least as “classic” as we’re going to get in 2013. Newman has evolved as a composer, both stylistically and compositionally, since he first impressed us all with scores such as The Shawshank Redemption, Little Woman, and many others back in the 1990s, mostly due to the success and enormous popularity of American Beauty, and this is just something that we have to accept as reality these days. Saving Mr. Banks, more than any other score of his in quite some time, dips back into that treasure trove of beauty, harmony and romance, and emerges with a score that blends the best of both worlds. I’m not sure what old Walt would have thought about Newman’s unconventional orchestrations if he had heard them back in the 1960s, but I know from first hand experience that Richard Sherman approves of them in 2013, and if that’s not a ringing endorsement I don’t know what is.