By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
It‘s hard to tell if Newman’s okay with this -- the first time we talked, I detected in him, at points, a lingering hope that one day he‘ll be a superstar. But he understands it. “I feel like an outsider. I always have,” he told me. “I feel like an outsider in this country. Being Jewish is part of it. Philip Roth had this in a book: The next great Jewish genius after Moses was Irving Berlin. He took all the Christ and blood out of Easter and made it about fashion. He made Christmas about the weather.” He laughs, relishing the idea that Irving Berlin pulled a fast one on fundamentalist America. “He wrote about Alabama, and he was never there! Sometimes people on the outside who want in so bad look at it differently, look at it harder. I’m very interested in the country, though I don‘t necessarily feel a part of it.”
But Newman’s music took alienation to new human depths; the personas in songs like “Half a Man” and “It‘s Money That I Love” may not have been his, but the feelings were. He wound up striving for a kind of emotional equity that pop music, skewed as it has always been toward love and triumph, never cultivated; in Newman’s songs distance and disaffection and ignorance get equal time as significant, even sympathetic, characters in the theater of daily life. Newman credits part of his circumspection to growing up Jewish but atheistic, and another part to his father, Irving, a fiercely intellectual doctor who was attentive and conscientious with patients but spared them no painful truths. “I get my sense of humor from him,” says Newman, somewhat reluctantly. “I don‘t have his consistently bad temper, not to the point of being unreasonable. He treated a lot of famous people. One of them was Oral Roberts, whom he liked very much, though my father actively grumbled about religion. He made fun of it. Once Oral called him in the middle of the night and said he had terrible hemorrhoids. My dad told him, ’Why are you calling me in the middle of the night? Why don‘t you stick your other finger up your ass and heal yourself?’” He howls at the memory.
Dr. Newman was something of a departure from family tradition, which was -- surprise -- scoring films. Randy‘s uncle Alfred was pretty much the gold standard for movie music during Hollywood’s heyday; he composed for such classics as All About Eve, Wuthering Heights, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley -- even the trumpet-driven fanfare that accompanies every screen appearance of the 20th Century Fox logo and has become the shorthand a NEWMAN continuedtheme song of Hollywood itself. Alfred racked up a total of 45 Academy Award nominations and won nine of them. Another one of Randy‘s uncles, Lionel, was senior vice president of music at Fox for 45 years, in addition to conducting for and scoring films; his 1969 effort, Hello, Dolly!, nabbed an Oscar. Yet another uncle, Emile, heads music at Samuel Goldwyn, and still another, Robert, is a studio executive. A cousin, Thomas Newman, is the Grammy-winning composer who scored American Beauty, among many other films.
The point is that Randy Newman is downright royalty in two of the most influential industries in town, if not the country, and he still manages to be a schlub. Even though he’s evolved into a respected film composer in his own right, notably for DisneyPixar and films like Toy Story and the recent Pixar release Monsters Inc., he complains about the machinations of the business and worries that he might be film-composing himself right out of whatever sociopolitical relevance pop music still affords. “Film people give me adjectives, and I write something,” he says, a little wistfully. “I can‘t write shit-piss-fuck-fart-damn for Disney.” And what he does write, he believes, often never breaks an audience’s consciousness -- not even the most evocative and influential of his scores, like Avalon, The Natural and his first major assignment, Milos Forman‘s Ragtime, a film that was tailor-made for Newman’s fascination with the dark energy of Americana.
“That big pile of movie music,” he says, gesturing to carelessly stacked sheafs on top of the Steinway, “like some of it you don‘t even hear if the air conditioning is on in the movie theater. The time you have to spend doing movie music is not commensurate with the impact that it makes. Sometimes I think, ’Why am I worried so much about whether this is a B-flat or an F?‘ But I can’t help it. I can‘t help but take it personally when directors say, ’Could you do this or that on the ending?‘ It hurts my feelings and makes me angry a bit.”
Still, the musical purist -- and perhaps the fatalist -- in him enjoys the challenge of scoring, with its compressed work schedule and solitary studio confinement that can go on for weeks. “I’m really hard on it,” he says of his film music. “I mean, I‘ve written in 44 my whole life” -- he bangs out a sample bar -- “but in a movie you can’t do that. It‘s open, but you gotta hit things in a picture, in animated pictures especially.” To demonstrate, he plays fitfully, impressionistically, following some imagined action. “What you do is subordinate -- it’s meant to help the picture. I‘ll have something I like, but I’ll have to truncate it because the picture dictates it.”
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