Randy Newman on writing songs about pigs: 'It probably hurt my chances for a hit'
When we last left off with Randy Newman, he was musing about the fact that Barry Levinson's "Avalon" was clearly about a Jewish family, but in the movie, the family was played by actors like Aidan Quinn, who were decidedly not Jewish. Those are the kind of details that don't get past Newman, who has a great eye for the odd, the unlikely or the unusual. The same goes for his memories of his work on the movies that earned him 20 Oscar nominations over the years. He's nominated this year for best song, for "We Belong Together" from "Toy Story 3," which he'll perform on the show.
Newman said he quickly realized that film was a director's medium, so he had to find a way to serve each filmmaker's vision. Or as he puts it: "It was a very different experience for me, since I had never collaborated on anything, well, except for my children." We pick up the thread in the mid-1990s, when Newman was starting to work as a composer for animated films.
"The Paper" (nominated in 1995), song ("Make Up Your Mind"): Ron Howard was a good guy to work with, and I hope that I helped that picture a little bit. It's a nice song, but I have to admit that I knew I had no chance to win.
"Toy Story" (1996), score and song ("You've Got a Friend"): I hate to make it sound easy or anything, but they told me they wanted to emphasize the friendship between Andy and the kid, so I just went, "You've got a friend." Sometimes I ask the filmmakers for adjectives. You know, very basic things that they might be too embarrassed to say, like "happy," "warmth" or "friendship." Then I go to work.
"James and the Giant Peach" (1997), score: I think what I did there was probably the most I've ever done to help a movie. The songs I wrote were really good for the characters. You know, you can't make a bad movie look good, but you can take a good movie and kick it up a notch. I mean, look at what Jerry Goldsmith did for Sharon Stone in "Basic Instinct." He really lifted that film out of B-movie territory into, well, something different.
"Pleasantville" (1999), score: It was a great idea for a movie, wasn't it? I remember there was one scene where Gary Ross, the director, wanted the music to be a much bigger deal. So I did my best to make it bigger. And when the film came out, one of the reviewers says, "Randy Newman has to get less excited when he tries to put a little drama into a scene." So I took the fall for that.
"A Bug's Life" (1999), score: If I had won for that one, it wouldn't have been a mistake. I helped that picture. But it was a hard job. Think about it -- a bug chasing a bug. For a composer, that's tough, just in terms of the amount of notes you need for the music. I mean, what John Williams did on "Hook" was even harder, in terms of technical facility, but I did my best. I remember writing a lot of non-specific songs, because let's face it, a song about a bug isn't going to travel well. You aren't gonna see that on Barbra Streisand's "Greatest Hits From the Movies." Right?
"Babe: Pig in the City" (1999), song ("That'll Do"): Boy, that movie was a troubled production. They left [director] George Miller completely alone for two years somewhere in the outback in Australia. And then, when they previewed the picture for the first time, it had these scenes where there's a lab where the bunnies have cigarettes taped to their mouths and a scene where a bullfrog is drowned and, well, the kids just ran out of there crying and stuff. There's also a scene where Mickey Rooney's walking around in his underwear, which might have raised a few eyebrows. My song is about how steadfast the pig was supposed to be and it's a good song, but at the end it still had to say "pig" in it, which probably hurt my chances for a big hit.
"Toy Story 2" (2000), song ("When She Loved Me"): We had a lot of fun doing it, though because it was a sequel, we all had to pay a lot of attention to what we'd done in the past, which was hard for me. But I like working for John Lasseter. He gave me a lot of freedom. He didn't have a lot of temp tracks that he loved, so I got to do my own thing.
-- Patrick Goldstein
Coming next: Randy Newman talks about why he'd like to do a duet at the Oscars with Lady Gaga.
Photo: Randy Newman posing for a portrait at the Academy Awards nominees luncheon in Beverly Hills. Credit: Matt Sayles/Associated Press