Randy Newman is surprisingly optimistic

Randy Newman (photo by Dan Busta)

Emmy winner open to scoring horror pics, musicals

There are two Randy Newmans.

There's the take-no-prisoners social commentator, whose acerbic, keenly observed songs have gleefully skewered the absurdities of modern life for roughly four decades. Steeped in irony and often laugh-out-loud hilarious, this Newman frequently sings in character and isn't shy about tackling hot-button topics like racism.

Then there's Hollywood Randy, the wildly successful film composer who writes lush, ambitious orchestral music, often for animated blockbuster juggernaut Pixar. This Randy also writes songs, but his trademark biting satire is nowhere to be found. Instead, tunes like "You've Got a Friend in Me" from the first "Toy Story" or "I Love to See You Smile" from 1989's "Parenthood" are warm, sentimental and direct in ways rarely found on his all-too-infrequent solo albums.

For his film work, Newman has received 14 Oscar nominations, finally landing a statuette in 2002 for "If I Didn't Have You" from "Monsters, Inc." In typical Newman fashion, he responded to an extended standing ovation with a classic line: "I don't want your pity."

Newman is full of surprises, as The Hollywood Reporter's Kevin Cassidy discovered.

The Hollywood Reporter: You've quietly had a very good decade: Two acclaimed albums, six Oscar noms and the 2002 win. Now you have another blockbuster with "Toy Story 3." Do you consider this something of a golden age?

Randy Newman: I think some things I'm doing better than I ever did. Singing, strangely enough, is one of them. Why, I don't know. Maybe I figured some things out a little late. But it has been a good period. It doesn't give me any faith that it will continue, necessarily. But I wrote a lot of stuff I was satisfied with to assignment, in the last 10 years. Songs from "Monk," the Pixar stuff and "Princess and the Frog," that was what it was supposed to be. I felt sort of proud, as a professional composer, that I was able to accommodate wishes.

THR: There is a tremendous amount of score in "Toy Story 3." Do you enjoy writing that much music for one film?

Newman: I've done a lot of it. I like it. There's always time constraints and things like that that make it a little less enjoyable, possibly. But it's very gratifying to work on six or seven good pictures in a row.

THR: Is it easier to write for a franchise?

Newman: It's harder because of the movement required. And they do everything (in "Toy Story 3"): There's the big Western stuff at the beginning, the spaceship, and they take you everywhere. There's the Lotso stuff, a new character who needs a different kind of sound.

THR: Do you like writing for a full orchestra?

Newman: Oh yes, the days with the orchestra are the best time I have, period. They're some of the best musicians in the world. And if I didn't work as a composer for movies, I couldn't play in the same room with them. But waving a stick, I can do it. It's not like a power trip or anything, it's just being able to make music with them.

THR: Has all the work you've done on animated movies changed you?

Newman: I don't know. There's maybe people who think I've sold out because it's so very different from -- if left to myself -- the type of stuff I write. Like on "Harps and Angels." It's radically different. On every album of my own, it's very different from "You've Got a Friend" and "We Belong Together." But it's enabled some kids to listen to me; it's more people, by multiples of a hundred, that have heard me than had it only been my own stuff.

THR: Is it weird to think you're influencing multiple generations of children?

Newman: If it were sort of a malign influence, it would worry me. But I don't think so. These pictures are not only good, they're sort of good for you, possibly.

THR: You come from a family of film composers. Was working in film something you knew you wanted to do early on?

Newman: I guess so. I think I wanted to be a baseball player there for a while, but I couldn't see well enough. It was a business I saw, that I thought was possible; I saw that my uncle Al and my uncle Lionel and Emil were doing it. It's like having a druggist in the family, or a barber. It looks like a job you can possibly get.

THR: Did you ever think of it in terms of "'I'll do this film composing to pay the bills, so I can pursue other things, like songwriting?"

Newman: Never. I think I've done a few things in my life like that -- I've played concerts just for money. It just doesn't turn out well. I don't know if it's evidence of God, or what. It hasn't been that many times, really, that I've done a "just for." I've turned down more than I've done, by far.

THR: Characters have always been a major part of your songwriting.

Newman: Yeah, always have been. It's not a thing a lot of people do, for good reason. Songwriting is more of an immediate medium: "I love you, you love me, why don't you love me, why don't I love you," etc. It's not this indirection that I do, which is an odd way to go. It's like I jumped out of the trench and waved my arm, but no one came with me.

THR: Considering your facility with character, have you ever been tempted to write your own screenplay or make your own movie?

Newman: Infrequently, but it does happen where I think that. When I'm between stuff I think, "Why don't I try a musical?" Maybe I will. It's just that I really didn't grow up in that. I grew up with rock and roll and movies. Which is sort of what I do now.

THR: Did becoming a successful film composer influence your songwriting at all?

Newman: Writing for film, when you're out of the regular three-chord, six-chord rock and roll thing, helped me harmonically. If I finish a film, it helps the songs that I write, right after the period.

THR: It has to come right afterward?

Newman: In general. But the thing is, the voice I have is kind of a blues-like voice. I can't hold a note for more than three and a half seconds. It sounds best just stumbling along in some kind of shuffle. But if I'm being careful about writing for myself, maybe I wouldn't write myself anything too fancy harmonically.

THR: Is there a type of film score you'd like to write that you've never tackled before?

Newman: Nothing in particular. Maybe horror. I did a score for "Air Force One" that was thrown out. But I was satisfied, I did a real good job on it.

THR: Why did they throw it out?

Newman: I don't know. I mean, I looked at everything I was told and tried to do it, but just all the sudden -- poof, there it was.

THR: You'd really be up for writing a horror score?

Newman: Yeah, just to make sounds, take a look at 21st century music a little. I've done enough with animation. And in animation there's a wide variety of stuff that's been called for with the pictures I've done, more so than in (live-action) features, probably. I wouldn't mind one where Meryl Streep looks up in the sky for 45 seconds and just wails away. That wouldn't be bad.

THR: You've said that when it comes to songwriting, you are a bit of a "subtractor," but in your film work you usually go very big.

Newman: You go big if it's called for. You don't if it isn't. If the screen is all filled up with activity, I kind of believe you've got to do the same thing to help. You see movies -- I just saw one the other day, an Academy Award-winner, I think -- and people were grappling and they're fighting and running all over the place. But the music was making them look kind of clumsy. Like they were loafing around. I guess no one noticed, so what difference does it make? But it hurt it for me.

THR: A lot of action music that you hear these days is so nondescript you wonder why it's even there.

Newman: That's the way it is. Even when you hear it over the effects, it's just kind of lying there. Whereas, (Jerry) Goldsmith wouldn't do that. Or Johnny Williams either. It was fashionable, at least a little while ago, to sort of knock Johnny Williams-type of scores. He's about as good as there ever was, all in all.

THR: Which other film composers do you admire?

Newman: Certainly my uncle Alfred. Jerry Goldsmith. Henry Mancini is a very good film composer.

THR: What kind of music do you listen to at the moment? Do you stay up on popular music?

Newman: I don't keep up much. I listen to classical stuff, mostly.

THR: Do you have an iPod?

Newman: Yeah.

THR: Do you like it? Do you like all this new technology?

Newman: I don't know. It wears me out, putting my finger down and having it fail. But I think it happens to everybody. It's like opening a packet of Oreos, where I'm using my teeth and can't open it. I just think, "Why me?"

THR: When you first started recording in the late '60s, that was really the era of the singer-songwriter, but you were still kind of an outsider. You didn't fit neatly into that world.

Newman: I knew everybody, but I didn't fit into that. I don't know what I fit into. And I listened to what Van Dyke (Parks) and I and Ry Cooder were doing then and it was like we'd never heard the Rolling Stones. I remember thinking that I wanted to see if you could move things along without a drum. It's so stupid. But it was like a rule I had then.

THR: Do you think your outsider status helped you?

Newman: Maybe in lasting so long. The thing is, I've always wanted to be an insider. It wasn't like I was trying to be odd. I guess getting these sort of assignments now -- like the "Monk" song or "You Got a Friend" and "I Love to See You Smile" -- it's a chance for me to pretend I'm a regular American.

THR: You said that you get less gifts as a songwriter as you get older -- and this was about 30 years ago. Do you still feel that way?

Newman: Yes. But I think a lot of my songs have been sort of immediate, where I see to the end of it almost right at the beginning.

THR: So a song comes fully formed?

Newman: Well, most assignment songs sometimes come very quickly if I have the right information to plug in. If they ask me to write an Albanian dance tune for 1936, I like to think I can do it. And I'm proud of it. I embrace being a professional.

THR: Is your writing process still the same, where you sit down to write with no preconceived ideas?

Newman: I sit down with nothing. I'm trying to write more stuff now, but I'm not really back working on it yet. It really wore me out this (last few years). It was "Princess and the Frog" for a year and a half and another half a year on "Toy Story." By the end of it, I was using the same stuff in both movies. I just saw "Toy Story" again, for some reason, the other day and I heard something that I know was in "Princess and the Frog." Someone will find it now.

THR: Not too many composers would admit to that.

Newman: Well, I'm trying to be upbeat and optimistic.

THR: When you write music for a movie, there's a very specific audience in mind. When write a song for an album, do you have anyone in mind?

Newman: I'm writing to please more people than I've ever reached. Sometimes I know a song is so odd that it would only appeal to a few people. But I'm always trying to do something that people would like. That also may be an indictment that could be brought against me. I'm not writing just for myself, but it has to get by me.

THR: You recently received an Emmy nom for the song "When I'm Gone" from "Monk." Do you watch a lot of TV?

Randy Newman: Yeah. Once I've finished work, that's what I've been doing. I've been having a lot of difficulty getting up out of the chair and doing something else. When I get out of the chair I hear creaking -- and it's me!

THR: The song "In Defense of Our Country" on your last album received a lot of attention for its scathing look at the previous administration. Have things improved since you wrote it?

Newman: That that was an aberrant administration. That was the worst we've done. It was written when I knew it would be ephemeral. I wouldn't be doing it 20 years from now, necessarily.

THR: Race relations is also a very consistent theme in your songwriting. Do you see any improvement in that area?

Newman: Maybe an improvement in morale in the black community because it's been a rough road. I don't care what kind of affirmative action they do, it's hard for little kids growing up, seeing what many kids see. You have to be good to get through the second grade in a school where everyone's yelling and there's 40 kids. Separate and equal didn't work. And it's still separate.

THR: There is a line in the song "Losing You" from your last album that goes, "I guess all my dreams have come true." Do you feel that way?

Newman: I wished I dreamed bigger. I dreamed about the orchestra, which I saw as a little boy at 5 years old. I saw these legendary players like Felix Slatkin and Eleanor Slatkin and I thought, "Jeez, that'd be great if they thought I was a good musician." That's the dream I had and it came true. I never really thought I would be on-stage or anything like that, it never entered my mind.

THR: But that line can also be read to mean having one's dreams come true isn't necessarily a good thing.

Newman: I'm happy that they did, I'm just not happy overall.

THR: But it sounds like you're in something of an optimistic state at the moment.

Newman: They (Newman's agents) are telling me to be optimistic. (Laughs.) But I am generally in an optimistic state. What the hell, it's such a waste of time to be a pessimist.
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