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The Greats: Randy Newman

February 25, 2014  |  5:15pm
The Greats: Randy Newman

Whenever an older, revered icon of the film industry dies, there are plenty of testimonials and remembrances written about that person. But it’s sad that we only take the time to fully appreciate these people’s brilliance after their passing. Hence, The Greats, a biweekly column that celebrates cinema’s living legends.

Randy Newman is one of the few artists of the last 50 years to have a legitimate claim to being a major figure in both movies and music. And yet he’s painfully misunderstood and simplified in most people’s estimation. Even music critic Rob Sheffield, an avowed Newman fan, wrote in his overview of the singer-songwriter’s career in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide that Newman too often wrote “stomach-turning treacle” when he turned his attention to film composing. “[P]ick a Top 10 of the schlockiest movies you’ve ever seen,” Sheffield wrote, “and the odds are that Randy worked on at least three of them.”

A funny line, but absolute nonsense. Like all popular composers, Newman in his heyday worked at such a consistent pace that a certain sameness eventually took hold—same as John Williams, Alexandre Desplat or anyone else you’d care to name. But Newman’s film-score sameness, his supposed stomach-turning treacle, always had an edge to it. Which is why his music and movie careers are inseparable, each feeding off the other.

Born in November 1943, Newman spent his childhood in both Los Angeles and New Orleans. He came from a musical family, with several uncles composing movie scores. (The famous theme music before every 20th Century Fox film was written by Alfred Newman. Lionel Newman was a regular musical director on Marilyn Monroe films. Emil Newman was musical director on the Oscar-winning The Best Years of Our Lives.) But when Randy started out, he wanted to write pop songs. “Pretty pedestrian” is how he described his early efforts in a 2003 A.V. Club interview. “Love songs. I was really trying to… Not trying to be Carole King, but trying to be as good as she was. And trying to write follow-ups for people like Bobby Vee and Brenda Lee and the Shirelles, but never succeeding…. I got bored with writing lyrics that were ‘You love me, I love you, I don’t love you, you don’t love me.’ Around 1965, I changed.”

And so began one of the great runs in singer-songwriter history. If Newman’s 1968 self-titled debut is merely good—piano songs in search of a voice—his next three albums are stunners. 12 Songs established his technique, delivering tunes in different vernaculars (jazz, rock, juke-joint) that were so instantly accessible you might not notice the depraved and morally corrupt protagonists at their center. He followed 12 Songs with the gems Sail Away and Good Old Boys, gaining plenty of critical acclaim without moving a lot of copies. Ironically, it wasn’t until the late 1970s when he wrote a joke song about the stupidity of prejudice, “Short People,” that he finally had a hit. It didn’t play well with little people, though, who were tormented by dunderheaded listeners who didn’t realize it was satire. “I had no idea that there was any sensitivity, I mean, that anyone could believe that anyone was as crazy as that character,” Newman said in 1995. “And yet, there were people who took a genuine beating. … Of course I didn’t mean it, but it doesn’t do any good if someone is going into an office every day and gets ribbed about being short.”

It was Newman’s skill writing for strings, as opposed to his satirical chops, that made his eventual transition to Hollywood easy. The striking arrangements on Sail Away’s title track and Good Old Boys’ “Louisiana 1927”—not to mention his mastery of Dixieland jazz—paved the way to scoring Ragtime in 1981. Milos Forman’s adaptation of the E.L. Doctorow novel may not be well-remembered, but Newman’s score remains lovely, suggesting a delicate, faraway grandeur perfectly in keeping with the film’s nostalgic tone. Ragtime earned him his first two Oscar nominations—for Best Score and for Best Song (for “One More Time”)—and it started a tradition of Newman watching other people win the golden statuette. (To date, he’s been nominated 20 times. He’s won twice.)

Newman had dabbled with film scoring in the early ’70s, but after Ragtime he pursued it more aggressively. The ’80s still saw him put out albums—and on 1983’s Trouble in Paradise, he hit upon another ironic, iconic anthem in “I Love L.A.”—but his most lasting artistic contribution that decade is probably his score for The Natural. Like Ragtime, it’s a wistful movie about the past, and Newman’s score is unambiguous in its beauty. If his albums were filled with jagged edges, populated by racists and drunks and losers, his film music was startlingly sincere and moving. “I Love L.A.” mocked Angelenos’ preoccupation with themselves; the excellent theme to The Natural celebrated baseball’s willful self-mythologizing, its ability to make normally unsentimental men weepy. Thirty years later, that theme remains the Also sprach Zarathustra of sports-themed music: instantly memorable and evocative; used at every occasion to suggest the slow-motion majesty of athletic competition; overplayed and yet indomitably stirring.

The divide between Newman’s music and movie sides continued to widen from there. His work on Parenthood and Avalon was, respectively, sweet and gorgeous. He responded to Toy Story’s big goofy heart with “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” a touching song about friendship that, if it were on Good Old Boys, you’d swear it was a put-on—a veiled reference to drug addiction, perhaps, or codependent relationships. But, no, these were just pretty, somewhat forgettable little baubles. And, in a twist that the singer-songwriter has probably enjoyed, he’s become richer and his songs more heard because of his film composing, particularly his Pixar work. “Thanks to the Disney movies, probably more people have heard you than ever before, but maybe fewer people have heard of you,” a Pitchfork interviewer suggested to Newman in 2008 when he put out one of his barbed records, Harps and Angels. “I think that’s probably true,” Newman conceded, later adding, “[Harps and Angels will] never touch Toy Story or A Bug’s Life, where I’m essentially anonymous. That’s in every home with a little kid, and it’ll be there for years.”

Because of the straightforward sentiment of his recent music scores—Meet the Parents, Seabiscuit, Leatherheads—it’s tempting to dismiss Newman as a sellout, a guy who started out sharp but ended up taking the big paycheck and got soft. But the piercing emotion of his film music has always been there in his singer-songwriter guise: “Same Girl” from Trouble in Paradise breaks your heart until it becomes clear that the love lyrics are concealing a relationship hampered by drug abuse and poverty. That’s why the seeming mawkishness of, say, Toy Story 2’s “When She Loved Me” has never drifted into pure sap. Knowing Newman’s canon—knowing how unlucky his narrators normally are—makes his kid-movie proclamations surprisingly grownup. The cowgirl doll Jessie isn’t just singing “When She Loved Me”—she’s expressing a very human fear of abandonment that’s backed up by decades of Newman’s previous scarred protagonists. Pain, anger and sweetness have always been part of Newman’s albums, and watching them be translated into film music comes with a knowing recognition of all the simmering discontent and regret buried beneath the pretty surface.

Those albums don’t come as often as they used to. 1999’s Bad Love was a career highlight, 2008’s Harps and Angels a little less so, although both seemed rejuvenated by their creator’s liberated spirit—remember, when you’re writing movie scores, you’re working for a boss—and by the years of orchestral arrangements and precise delivery of emotional payloads that movie-writing requires.

“Writers have always liked my stuff, pretty much,” he told Pitchfork about his recording career. “That’s what I wanted—I think my goal wasn’t to get rich and famous, necessarily, though I cared about that. I always thought, ‘Oh, this could be a hit,’ or ‘that will sell records.’ But the first thing I wanted was that people who knew a lot about music, or had taste-making qualities, they would like my stuff. Writers, people like that. And I kind of got it, and realized, I want more!”

He’s won two Oscars, and like a lot of Oscar winners he earned them for the wrong projects, but what can you do? He’s won Grammys and Emmys. In 2013, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. If he’s not careful, he’s going to end up becoming that popular success he always seemed destined not to be. There are Newman fans who love the albums and pretend that the film scores never happened. But the unlikely acclaim and Academy love he’s received are one great dark joke—the sort Randy Newman made all the time on his ’70s albums. In a sense, he’s always written in the voice of characters. With his film work, he’s just happened to write for characters you might actually like being around.

Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.

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