by David A. Koran
Unfortunately for me, I can't exactly say I grew up listening to Randy Newman in the crib, but due to some fatherly influence, I did get to experience what came to be the Newman legacy. I had my taste wetted with many rock and folk groups of the 1960's and 70's, including, unbeknownst to me, a group called Three Dog Night, who's biggest hit happened to be a Newman penned song. So, in fact, I was introduced to him as a songwriter, and not a singer and composer, a real difference from what you would have nowadays. My next future experience with Mr. Newman happened to be with one of his most controversial songs, and most famous, "Short People" while listening to a Dr. Demento compilation (Yes.. I had one, we all had one, admit it folks). It was a very unique song that at least piqued my interest to find another song done by him, another Demento staple, "Political Science". This was about the time I listened to the "Toms" (Lehrer and Paxton) for the first time and fell in love with socio-political satire. But alas, that was not the end of my discovery of Randy Newman the songwriter-musician.
About that same time, a little film starring one of my favorite actor-directors, Robert Redford, called The Natural (1984) came to theaters. To be honest, this was the first real film score I distinctly remembering having a cross between orchestra and electronic music (I wasn't introduced to Jerry Goldsmith until later). This was a real first for me to hear a pop artist composing orchestral music...especially for films. So I went down to my local library and got the LP (back when they still sold LPs and they called record stores, record stores). I fell in love with it, but found that it would be several years before I'd hear another composition like that, and during that time Randy returned to writing 'pop music', most notably Trouble In Paradise (1983), which contained the Southern California anthem of "I Love L.A.". As if that wouldn't put him in the hearts and minds of producers and directors, Randy Newman made his return, partially, to film by accompanying the great Elmer Bernstein with songs for the comedy The Three Amigos (1987). Two years later Newman hit it big, yet again with his work for the comedy Parenthood (1989) where he did double duty song and score writing, very similar to his first work on Ragtime (1981). This solidified his place writing music for films, and was shortly followed by Oscar Nominated Avalon (1990) and for score, The Paper (1994) for song, Awakenings (1991), Maverick (1994).
Shortly after receiving this nomination, he was approached by Disney for an upcoming ground-breaking animation project from Pixar, his most famous work in the 1990's, Toy Story (1995). This would be his transformation into becoming one of the best comedy score writers in Hollywood. Unfortunately, this would come back to haunt him, pigeonholing him into an apparent genre stereotype. Two other animation films came and went, James And The Giant Peach (1996) for Disney and Cats Don't Dance (1996) for Turner Entertainment, both without much notice, but garnering a Oscar nomination for his work on James but loosing to Rachel Portman's Emma. Luckily, later that year Randy got to break out of his mold and funk with writing for the 'semi satirical' Michael (1996), unfortunately, some of his best work went without a score release on CD, even with a catchy "Heaven Is My Home" title tune. Two years went by before the public would even hear Randy again, including an aborted effort to score Wolfgang Petersen's Air Force One (1997) before being replaced at the last minute by Jerry Goldsmith and Joel McNeely. The score itself would have been a new side to Randy, scoring his first dramatic-action film, however, after listening to the score, it had some residual themes heard in his work for Toy Story, and wouldn't exactly work for the film the public later saw on screen.
Well, rather than leave an arena he was comfortable in, Randy was slated to write for Pixar's second release, A Bugs Life (1998) while doing double duty on the live action Pleasantville (1998). Both pieces are fine tuned efforts in writing comedic-action and romantic-comedy respectively. A Bugs Life should be one of the top competitors for the Oscars this year, handily battling another Disney release Mulan, scored by Jerry Goldsmith, for top honors. Newman is able write comedy, and more specifically animated comedy without the typical "mickey-mousing" that occurs in most modern animated films. Listening to A Bugs Life, I'm reminded of the work of Carl Stalling and Scott Bradley in the old Warner Brothers, Hanna-Barberra, and Tex Avery cartoons. A passion in writing for imaginary characters that brings a new depth to the story and characters that makes the action jump right from the screen. For A Bugs Life, as it was in Toy Story, and will be for Toy Story 2 (1999), Randy writes the vocals as well with the same amazing ability seen in his scores and 'pop music'. It's a unique voice that Randy utilizes to sing, strained almost to the point of breaking, but maintaining an honesty both vocally and lyrically that shows he really takes pride in his work. As in his solo 'pop career', Randy can write his songs perfectly 'in character' without actually changing his own personality, which is evident when listening to the cavalcade of songs on his retrospective box set released this past year.
The box set traces Newman's career from his first forays into the music world all the way through his evolution to composer. Most of his work is significantly orchestrated, whether it be with a small band or group (or even himself and a keyboard) all the way to a full orchestra with chorus. I believe this made it easier for Randy to enter the world of composing for film even if his uncle and two cousins weren't already involved in the occupation. The box set is one of the best I've seen I quite some time, and the best when it comes to providing a complete retrospective of the evolution and entire works of a musician. The set contains 4 CDs, two encompassing the 'pop' career, one CD for oddities and outtakes, and a fourth CD containing film score excerpts, some never before released on CD (Cold Turkey and Ragtime). The only thing that didn't make it into the set was Randy's early song and other musical contributions to films and shows such as "Peyton Place" and Our Man Flint), but those are ever so slightly a small blip in the career radar scope. Another noticeable set of omissions are other fan favorites such as "Dayton, Ohio, 1903" and "Old Man" from Sail Away, but that could be attributed only to space on an enormous box set.
The most recent release of Randy's work is contained in the film Pleasantville, a story about two teens catapulted into a 1950's "Father Knows Best / Leave It To Beaver"-like television show altering it's composition and dimensionality. The score embodies the emotion of the characters through their highs and lows, as well as musically 'coloring' the actions and events throughout the film becoming deeper and more passionate as the town itself comes alive. The score even has a few take away pieces that will show up in movie trailers for years to come like James Newton Howard's Dave and Waterworld and Hans Zimmer's Backdraft and Rain Man, a true testament to the strength an universal appeal of the score. I personally believe that more 'live-action' films should be placed on Mr. Newman's plate to keep him in practice and to expand his thematic and multi-genre repertoire, he's definitely on the right track. I would hope that he would take another stab at another film like Air Force One or even a sci-fi film, possibly along the lines of an Aliens or a Star Wars.
In the future I see Randy Newman keeping us entertained both with words and music well into the next century with his everlasting wit and biting humor. Probably we'll see more animation scores if he sticks with Pixar, which at this time is the best business and career furthering moves seen since Alan Menken's inked a deal with Disney in the mid 1980's that produced The Little Mermaid and Beauty And The Beast. I would also hope to see Randy return to writing regular 'pop music' and expanding his horizons as he did by penning the musical/opera "Faust" in 1995. Plans are in the works for Randy's debut album on Dreamworks Records to appear in the first half of this year with his close friend, since childhood, and longtime producer, Lenny Waronker.