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Pop & Hiss goes to the movies: Randy Newman explores the sounds of New Orleans for 'The Princess and the Frog'

December 8, 2009 |  5:12 pm

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Since working on 1995's "Toy Story," composer-songwriter Randy Newman has become something of a Disney veteran. He's also quick to point out that one doesn't write for an animated film looking for creative freedom.

"You're a collaborator, but you're also an employee," Newman said. "It's a director's medium."

Yet when it came to "The Princess and the Frog," Newman's vast knowledge of the American songbook and ties to his beloved New Orleans were put to use. The film is filled with the freewheeling sounds of early jazz standards and the language, Newman said, is also authentic -- right down to the lyrical references to Louis Armstrong.

For "Friends on the Other Side," which wafts between funereal brass notes and a shadowy symphony, Newman even sneaked in a not-so-obvious nod to pianist-composer Jelly Roll Morton. It's in the song's opening verse, when the evil Dr. Facilier intones, "Don't you derogate or deride."

"If you listen to Jelly Roll Morton, his New Orleans English is a beautiful, beautiful thing," Newman said. "The way he speaks is almost an art form. He's got some real four-dollar words in there. To use the word 'derogate' in a song, it's something I wondered about, but I decided it was sort of legit for New Orleans."

Newman's compositions for "The Princess and the Frog" provide a snapshot of the region's musical history, residing somewhere "just past," Newman said, the improvised feel of Dixieland jazz. But the spirit is of the culture there, referenced in the loose, slight ragtime feel of "Down in New Orleans" and the backyard bayou stomp of "Gonna Take You There."

"It was really a thing where I could write music that I liked the whole time," Newman said. "It's not always that way. I knew there'd be a gospel thing at the ending. I love that. The Cajun waltz is also a nice tradition. I'm making it sound like someone goes into a diner and orders this stuff up and I pump it out. There's truth in that, but it's not that simple."

--Todd Martens

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The above piece appears in the Dec. 9 issue of The Envelope. Click here for more awards coverage.

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