How Randy Newman’s family built a film-scoring dynasty over the course of a century

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At the 92nd Academy Awards, two cousins will square off against each other for Best Original Score: Thomas Newman for 1917 and Randy Newman for Marriage Story. They’re part of the most Oscar-nominated family in history—over 90 collectively. Randy and Thomas alone have been nominated for 37 combined.

But on Sunday, don’t expect either to spike the football if he wins.

“[Newmans] all think they’re frauds,” Randy’s cousin Maria Newman tells Fortune. “They think people will wake up the next day and say, ‘Ah, that wasn’t so good after all.’” (She recalls her father, Alfred, absentmindedly walking offstage at the 1953 ceremony without his statuette.)

“The Newmans [can] be a little acerbic,” her brother David tells Fortune. “To say the least.” (Neither Randy nor Thomas Newman were available to comment for this piece.)

Randy in L.A., circa 1970. “I Love L.A.” became the go-to song for the city’s sports teams.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

If one only thinks of Randy Newman as the ivory-tickler for Toy Story with a grudge against short people, think again. While he’s best known for kiddie fare, from 1998’s A Bug’s Life to 2017’s Cars 3, his songbook contains very adult singer-songwriter albums in which he sang from the perspectives of bigots, warmongers, and itinerant losers.

Whether poignant or pointed, the extremes of Randy’s art arguably come from the pressure cooker of Hollywood, where his larger-than-life uncles dominated movie music.

From the golden age of cinema…

Three of Randy’s uncles, who all grew up impoverished, went on to become major Hollywood film composers.

Alfred Newman scored more than 200 films, appeared on a U.S. postage stamp, and wrote the classic 20th Century Fox fanfare. (Yes, that one.) Emil Newman scored wartime dramas like 1946’s The Best Years of Our Lives before, David says, “personal stuff got in the way.” Lionel Newman scored 1956 Elvis flick Love Me Tender and later supervised the music for the original Star Wars trilogy.

Alfred Newman composing music for the film “Brigham Young,” circa 1940.
Bob Landry—The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images

Randy’s father was Irving Newman, a budding songwriter, clarinetist, and saxophonist who wrote “Who Gave You the Roses,” which Bing Crosby recorded in 1954. Still, Irving would become a doctor at his father Michael’s behest.

“Music came very easy to me,” he told journalist Timothy White. “[But] I gave up the horn and took out my microscope.”

When Randy was 18, he released his gawky debut single about a fetching football star, “Golden Gridiron Boy,” and wrote music for the sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. At the time, his idiosyncratic bent as a lyricist precluded a hit.

“I would write things and get all excited, and think, ‘Okay, this is right down the middle of the road,’” he told Variety in 2019. “And then I’d play it for somebody, and they’d say, ‘Randy, this is not the middle of the road.’”

David Newman conducts the New York Philharmonic’s performance of the score to “On the Waterfront” at Avery Fisher Hall in 2015.
Hiroyuki Ito—Getty Images

While attending UCLA, he frequently played hooky to hang out at the 20th Century Fox music department. “There was a sound at Fox, almost hysterical, beautiful, wistful, anachronistic, with the texture of strings vibrating as if it was the ’20s and ’30s,” David says. “Randy was old enough to soak it up, and he could see the art in it.”

That “wistful, anachronistic” sound informed the essence of Newman’s art. “His songs are generally third-person … nostalgic, wistful, filmic storytelling,” David says. “They’re not him. They’re stories of characters that he invents.”

“Obviously he’s doing his songwriting thing, and what a songwriter,” he continues. “But this other side of Randy is coming out of this milieu. This absolute need and drive for excellence.”

As Randy hit his songwriting stride in the 1970s, releasing classics like 1972’s Sail Away, 1974’s Good Old Boys, and 1977’s Little Criminals, David decided to take his own shot at film scoring.

“I wrote a piece, I made a demo, I slogged around for three or four years before anybody would hire me,” he says. “I eventually got hired, but it was the slowest buildup ever.”

…to the VHS and DVD eras…

In 1983, Randy released “I Love L.A.,” about racing through the city’s most visually unstimulating streets with a “big nasty redhead.” Widely heard as an earnest homage and pumped into Dodgers, Lakers, and Rams games, the song pricked up the ears of Randy’s young cousin Joey.

“That caught my attention almost more than anything else in terms of film scoring,” Joey tells Fortune. (The track ended up in movies like 1986’s Down and Out in Beverly Hills and 1996’s Escape from L.A.)

Composer Thomas Newman arrives at the Palm Springs International Film Festival awards gala in 2014. He’s received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score for his work on “1917.”
Charley Gallay—Getty Images for PSIFF)

As the VHS era ramped up, Thomas and David scored their first major gigs—the former with 1984 romantic comedy Reckless, and the latter with that year’s Tim Burton stop-motion short Frankenweenie. David got on a roll with family-friendly comedies like 1989’s Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, 1993’s The Sandlot, and 1996’s The Nutty Professor.

“You get sort of pigeonholed, which is fine,” David says. “Once a film makes a lot of money, they want to keep repeating it—keeping the same team and the same people.

“Almost as if it’s, you know, good luck,” he says, rapping the glass dining table in his home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

In 2003, Joey collaborated with Randy on the score for Seabiscuit, later doing the same for 2006’s Cars. “When I got out of school, a lot of my friends were like, ‘I’m sure you’re going to get a job working for your family,’” he says. “That’s not really how our family works. I had to prove myself.”

David and Randy conducted together at the 2014 Hollywood in Vienna concert, which featured a medley of “We Belong Together” from Toy Story 3, “The Time of Your Life” from A Bug’s Life, and “If I Didn’t Have You” from Monsters, Inc.

“Randy loves to conduct,” David says. “It’s one of his favorite things when he’s scoring a movie.”

Randy, after winning the Oscar for Best Original Song for “We Belong Together” from “Toy Story 3,” at the 83rd Academy Awards in 2011. “My percentages aren’t great. I’ve been nominated 20 times; this is my second time,” he said. “I want to be good television so badly.”
MARK RALSTON—AFP via Getty Images

…and into 2020

Today, Randy lives in the Pacific Palisades in Los Angeles, where his parents first settled in 1943. Between film gigs, he releases a new solo album every decade or so, his latest being 2017’s Dark Matter. The Academy Awards are just around the corner, but attending events of this sort can be a bit laborious for the 76 year old.

“Randy and I will sometimes go to a concert at Disney Hall, but it’s just a big ordeal to set it up,” David says with a sigh.

“I think the [Oscars] ceremony is hot and boring,” Randy told The New York Times in 2002. “But I go because I’m honored that I was nominated by the music guild.”

Nine years later, he was awarded Best Original Song for “We Belong Together” and took his speech as an opportunity to castigate himself. “My percentages aren’t great. I’ve been nominated 20 times; this is my second time,” he said. “I want to be good television so badly.”

Randy may be skeptical of pomp and circumstance, but when it’s time to score a movie, he throws himself into it entirely. “When I’m doing a picture and have to write, that’s more important to me than my wife and children,” he told the Times. “Of course, if one were sick or hurt or needed me, I’d go.”

Randy with “Toy Story” characters Buzz Lightyear and Woody at his star presentation ceremony for the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2010.
MARK RALSTON—AFP via Getty Images

Today, several of the Newmans are busy with their own films and shows: Joey is promoting the 2020 Disney+ series Diary of a Future President, and David scored the Netflix show Green Eggs and Ham, while also being on board for Steven Spielberg’s reboot of West Side Story, due in December. Maria, a violinist and composer active in concert music and scoring century-old silent films, played on Randy’s Marriage Story score.

Maria Newman, a composer and musician, is the daughter of Hollywood composer Alfred Newman, and a cousin of Randy’s. She is pictured at the grand piano in her Malibu living room in 2015.
Annie Wells—Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

That said, “No Newmans spend much time with each other,” David says. “I’m not running over to Randy’s house unannounced and knocking on the door. Geographically, L.A. doesn’t work like that anyway, but even if it did, it’s not the way our family operates.”

The Newmans’ comfortable lives as Hollywood royalty are a far cry from the previous generation of 10 Newmans, who lived in a one-bedroom house in a “Russian-Jewish ghetto” in New Haven, David says.

But on Hollywood’s biggest night, one or both cousins could take home an Oscar—Randy is also nominated for Best Original Song for his Toy Story 4 tune “I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away,” which he will perform at the ceremony.

When it’s time to score a movie, Randy—pictured here in 1995—throws himself into it entirely. “When I’m doing a picture and have to write, that’s more important to me than my wife and children,” he says. “Of course, if one were sick or hurt or needed me, I’d go.”
Steve Starr—Corbis via Getty Images

“We’ve had experiences that some people might not have had the ability to have,” David says. But despite this monumental Oscars night, these are Newmans we’re talking about, and it’s fair to say there will be little cousinly lavishing of praise backstage.

“We are an incredibly intense family,” Maria says. “We don’t sit around hugging.”

“There’s not a lot of ‘Hey, you did a great job, congratulations,’” David says.

But even if they’re disinclined to pat themselves on the back, one thing is clear: Movie music has been heavily influenced by the Newmans and continues to be to this day.

Correction, February 6, 2020: An earlier version of this story misstated that Thomas Newman will do the score for West Side Story. It has been changed to indicate that David Newman will do the score.

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