'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Randy Newman ('Marriage Story' & 'Toy Story 4')

The Oscar-winning singer-songwriter and film composer reflects on his half-century career, nine films with Pixar and his hopes for his legacy.
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Randy Newman

"I want to be remembered as one of the best film scorers," Randy Newman says as we sit down at his home studio, beside the piano on which he creates much of his work. 

"It's going to be hard to give me that because so many of [the films are] animated, which [many] don't take seriously, but which is harder to do than anything, almost. And [also], one of the best of the singer-songwriters," he adds, in the most recent episode of The Hollywood Reporter's 'Awards Chatter' podcast. "To be in the highest rank there would be good. That'd make me happy — down in hell, or wherever I'm gonna go!"

Newman will almost certainly get his wish. A scion of Hollywood's most famous musical family (his uncles Alfred, Lionel and Emil were legendary film composers, and his cousin Thomas has accumulated 14 Oscar nominations for film scores of his own), he has won two Oscars (out of 20 noms), three Emmys (out of three noms) and four Grammys (out of 16 noms), leaving him just a Tony away from achieving EGOT status. Newman was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2002 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013. And, at 75, he is having one of the biggest years of his career.

Indeed, in 2019 Newman worked on his ninth film for Pixar, Toy Story 4, composing its score and the song "I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away"; was featured on "5 Year Plan," a track on Chance the Rapper's debut studio album The Big Day, which bowed at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart; had his song "Same Girl" played on an episode of HBO's buzzy show Euphoria; and composed his first dramatic film score in almost two decades, for Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story.

"Oh, man, I should have done more, but they weren't around," Newman vents. "The offers that I had were for cartoons."

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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below.

Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Barbra Streisand, George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Gal Gadot, Warren Beatty, Angelina Jolie, Snoop Dogg, Jessica Chastain, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Margot Robbie, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, Jimmy Kimmel, Natalie Portman, Chadwick Boseman, Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Gervais, Judi Dench, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Amy Schumer, Justin Timberlake, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Rachel Brosnahan, Jimmy Fallon, Kris Jenner, Michael Moore, Emilia Clarke, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Helen Mirren, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Spike Lee, Lady Gaga, J.J. Abrams, Emma Stone, Ryan Murphy, Julia Roberts, Jerry Seinfeld, Dolly Parton, Will Smith, Taraji P. Henson, Sacha Baron Cohen, Carol Burnett and Norman Lear.

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Newman was born in Los Angeles to a doctor and housewife. He was introduced to music via piano lessons at age 7, grew up observing his uncles at work on studio lots and pursued a B.A. in music at UCLA before dropping out and going to work as a songwriter-for-hire. Emerging at the dawn of the singer-songwriter era, Newman was, unlike many of his contemporaries, a reluctant vocalist, and someone who preferred to write and perform songs as characters rather than as himself — dark people, more often than not. "They're more interesting to me than heroes," he explains. "I kind of don't believe in heroes."

Newman's output, starting with his first studio album in 1968, has been monumental. As early as 1971, the Los Angeles Times called him "one of the most important singer-songwriters of this generation," and by 1972 The New York Times said that he was "carving out an area of expression for the popular song that hasn’t been rivaled for lyric sophistication and musical complexity since the salad days of Cole Porter," adding, "He bridges pop, rock and Hollywood film scores, with a grasp of Americana that embraces Stephen Foster, Aaron Copland and Little Richard with equal affection."

Newman's repertoire of songs grew to include undisputed masterpieces like "Sail Away" and "Louisiana 1927," catchy tunes like "Short People" (which reached No. 2 on the Billboard singles chart) and "I Love L.A." and controversy-stirring numbers like "Rednecks." By 1998, The New York Times declared, "Subversive young artists hoping to break new ground had better just give up because … Randy Newman has inevitably been there first." In the years since, Variety asserted that he "belongs with Dylan, Springsteen and Simon on the Mount Rushmore of the greatest American rock-era singer-songwriters," while The Guardian cut right to the chase: "He is the best songwriter in the world."

By that point, Newman had reluctantly begun venturing into the family business, writing music for the movies — scores and, on occasion, songs, too. His notable film scores over the past 40 years include include 1981's Ragtime, 1984's The Natural, 1990's Awakenings and Avalon, 1998's Pleasantville, 2000's Meet the Parents, 2003's Seabiscuit and, most famously, nine different Pixar releases — 1995's Toy Story, 1998's A Bug’s Life, 1999's Toy Story 2, 2001's Monsters, Inc., 2006's Cars, 2010's Toy Story 3, 2013's Monsters University, 2017's Cars 3 and now Toy Story 4. (Interestingly, both of his Oscars have come for songs — "If I Didn't Have You" from Monsters, Inc. and "We Belong Together" from Toy Story 3 — and his best-known song these days is "You've Got a Friend in Me" from Toy Story.)

As for his eclectic 2019? Newman says he liked the diversity of the two film score assignments, Toy Story 4 for Pixar ("They said they were glad they had me on it because of the emotional content — that's what they think I do really well. Maybe there's some truth in that") and for Baumbach, with whom he previously teamed on The Meyerowitz Stories (New & Selected) in 2017, Marriage Story, which opens with a formidable eight minutes of uninterrupted music over its "Things I like about..." sequence.

He also emphasizes that his collaboration with Chance the Rapper isn't as out-there as it might initially seem. Rappers often assume dark personas in their music, just like he does, so he has long gravitated towards their work. As far back as 1988 Newman said, "Right now, rap is my favorite pop style, because it's like playing tennis without a net." Thirty-one years later, he tells me, "It's closer to me than regular pop has been by a mile."