I was a good amount into a post celebrating the 1994 film Little Women when I discovered I was basically writing Alissa Wilkinson’s appreciation of the film at Vox from last year. It’s one of many movies I watched a lot with my sisters as a kid, in rotation with other female-focused ’90s films like Ever After, Never Been Kissed, Return to Me and You’ve Got Mail. (Also the Ace Ventura duology.)
In my mind it was a Christmas movie, but after my latest rewatch I realized it’s not. Its Christmas and winter scenes might be the best ones, but they are only part of the story that follows the passing seasons and growth of a Civil War-era New England family.
This time around I understood more historical context than I could have as a kid, context that grounds the story in its particular time. Jo mentioning the March family’s adherence to Transcendentalism, for instance, and the gravity of Beth contracting scarlet fever in a time of epidemics and poor medicine, which forces uninoculated Amy to be sent away. And despite living in what looks like a nice, big house, the March family is struggling through trying times. Writes Wilkinson:
The Civil War is still taking place when the story begins, Mr. March is away with the military, and money and rations are tight. Meg is embarrassed about her clothing, Amy doesn’t have the faddish pickled limes that her peers trade and eat at school, and things are actually quite difficult.
Navigating these challenges while cohering as a family is what makes the film a delight, and much more than just a Christmas movie. A big part of this is its soundtrack by Thomas Newman, who also scored The Shawshank Redemption in the same year and got Oscar nominations for both films. (The Lion King beat them and Forrest Gump.) The score even sounds like Christmas, writes Wilkinson, with Newman’s
strings, bells, oboes, and some joyful melodic patterns. There’s a hum of happiness to Newman’s soundtrack that reminds me of the season, a buoyancy that portends a new year, new surprises, new life.
In addition to capturing a nostalgic Christmas feeling, the score is exactly what it needs to be moment to moment, throughout the seasons and circumstances. Lush and triumphant at a climactic encounter, tender and dramatic when Jo sells her hair to pay for Marmie’s train ticket to visit their ailing father. (Sidenote: Susan Sarandon was nominated for Best Actress for The Client that year, along with Winona Ryder for Little Women, but she could have earned a nod for that scene alone:)
In one sense: Duh, a good soundtrack should appropriately underscore moments and moods. A great soundtrack like this one, however, makes its film better.