The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Randy Newman on playing Oscar night: 'The academy never goes for any of my trashy ideas'

February 17, 2011 | 11:38 am

Randy newman Randy Newman loves to poor-mouth his salability, since he's written untold hundreds of songs, but the few that have been even minor commercial hits for him were comparatively lightweight items like "Short People" and "I Love L.A." So when it comes to playing Oscar night, when he'll perform "We Belong Together," his Oscar-nominated song from "Toy Story 3," the composer says it's no surprise that the academy doesn't take any of his show-stopping ideas very seriously.

"No one thinks I have any commercial instincts," he told me during our interview about his memories of his 20 Oscar nominations. "I suggested that I should do my song with someone really inappropriate. My first idea was me and Lady Gaga. I could see us together, with her in a big way, and me in not such a big way. I think it would get some attention. But the academy never goes for any of my trashy ideas."

Now let's rejoin Newman's Oscar nomination memories, as he recalls the work he did that led to his most recent seven nominations:

"Meet the Parents" (nominated in 2001), song ("A Fool in Love"): I had a lot of fun writing that. For the Oscars, we performed a little Busby Berkeley number, with me in a tuxedo and four or five women, all dressed up like showgirls. I don't know what the audience thought, but I loved it.

"Monsters Inc." (2002), score and song ("If I Didn't Have You"): That was the one where I finally won. I never wrote a speech for any of the nominations, so this one wasn't any different -- I had nothing. I  still don't know what I said or if I thanked anybody. We'd just performed some of the nominated songs and they suddenly said I'd won and Faith Hill pushed me back on stage and someone handed me that statuette. That was when the orchestra stood up and applauded, which they're not supposed to do, so it really got to me. Growing up the way I did, in a family of composers, all I ever wanted was to be respected by the studio musicians and the orchestra. They're the people whose opinion matters. I was worried that I was going to cry, so I was going, "Please, you can't do that. You'll be like Sally Field. It'll never go away." So I blinked a lot.

"Cars" (2007), song ("Our Town"): That was me and James Taylor. That whole movie is about people who've lost their way on a journey and you miss the little towns when you're on the big freeway and I thought, "OK, maybe this is the end of the Pixar streak. Who in Europe or Asia is gonna get this?" Which just shows you how stupid I am. The toys for that movie turned out to be some of the most successful toys in animation history. John Lasseter and his people are just wired into their audience and the public taste in a way that's really deep. And certainly in a way I'm not.

"The Princess and the Frog" (2010), song, ("Almost There" and "Down in New Orleans"): There was a lot going on with that project, with me doing a lot of rewriting, but I'm just happy I did it, because I had Mac Rebennack [Dr. John] singing "Down in New Orleans." Whenever Mac is anywhere, I'll go see him play. We both have real New Orleans roots and he talks a language almost no one understands. We were once doing a session years ago with Lenny Waronker producing, and Lenny was trying to get a special sound that was hard to get. Mac finally says, "Lenny, don't you think it oughta sound a little more dipthereal?" He meant ethereal, but that's his own language. I love it. I use that one all the time now.

"Toy Story 3" (2011), song ("We Belong Together"): Lee Unkrich, the director, had the film temped with my music from other scores, not just "Toy Story" stuff, but "Parenthood" and even "Air Force One," a score I did that got thrown out. I can't say I liked it, because there really wasn't much room for me to do anything. I'm not complaining, but I think I could've helped a little more on the score if I'd had more freedom to do my thing. I did my worst live show ever when I was working on the film. I played Royce Hall, and you just use different muscles when you're writing for an orchestra than when you're doing your own songs. My fingers just wouldn't go where they were supposed to. I wish I'd been in Oklahoma City rather than my hometown. For whoever was there, I owe 'em one.

-- Patrick Goldstein 

Photo: Randy Newman inside the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in 2010. Credit: Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times