Randy Newman performs in benefit for Aspen Film
ASPEN – Receiving his Academy Award two weeks ago, in the best original song category, Randy Newman couldn’t have been more un-Hollywood. Against the stiff, artificial, staged backdrop of the Oscar ceremony, Newman’s slightly stumbling and jittery acceptance “speech” came off as a much needed moment of spontaneity and humor. Add to that Newman’s distinctive voice, one that, at times, can get thick with Southern accent and vocabulary, and it was a splendid moment of an outsider crashing the party.The ironic part is that, in a way, no one in the Kodak Theatre that night was more of an insider than Newman. That is, it’s likely that no one was born into the Hollywood establishment as much as Newman.Three of Newman’s uncles were prominent in the business of making music for the movies. The most notable was Alfred Newman, who wrote the scores for “How The West Was Won,” “How Green Was My Valley” and “The Seven Year Itch,” and won nine Academy Awards. Another uncle, Lionel, took an Oscar for his score for “Hello, Dolly!” Two of Newman’s younger cousins are also established composers in filmdom.”And so you could call it like a Bach family,” the 67-year-old Newman said from New York.Newman was somewhat late in joining the family business. He was nearly 40 when he created the music for 1981’s “Ragtime,” his first major work in cinema. Which is not to say that he was unenthusiastic about becoming part of a nonexistent firm that could be called Newman, Newman & Newman, Et als. Growing up – in his birthplace of Los Angeles, though he earned his Southern flair by spending summers with his mother’s family in New Orleans – Newman willingly gravitated toward the movies, his uncles, and the idea of creating music for moving pictures.”My father – who wasn’t a musician, not a professional – admired his brothers so much. My father really thought that was the greatest thing to do, make music for the movies, the highest 20th century art form,” he said. “And as a direct influence? Well, if I asked them questions, they’d answer. I was aware of the whole thing. As a kid, that’s what I wanted to be.”When Newman, who attended UCLA, was ready to launch his career, the job of film scorer had been around for decades. A newer job description, however – singer-songwriter – was just emerging, and seems to have captured Newman’s fancy. After several years of writing songs for other artists, he released a 1968, piano-oriented self-titled debut that, while no commercial breakthrough, got the attention of the music world (and featured the song “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” which has since been covered by Joe Cocker, Neil Diamond, UB40 and many others). In 1970, Harry Nilsson released “Nilsson Sings Newman,” an album of Newman’s songs. That began to open the gates, as Newman became something of a cult and critic’s favorite as a recording artist – especially with the 1972 album “Sail Away” – but also a highly respected writer, whose songs were recorded by Three Dog Night, Aaron Neville, Tom Jones, Steve Earle, Sarah McLachlan and many others. In 1970, Newman even had a somewhat controversial moment as a quasi-pop star, when his song “Short People” – seen by some as inflammatory, but recognized by most as the ironic commentary on prejudice that Newman intended – became a big hit.”Short People” may have been a fluke as a commercial smash, but it neatly captured Newman’s unique sensibility as a writer. Songs like “Rednecks,” “Political Science” and “I Love L.A.” skirted a line between ironic humor and social commentary that few singers could get away with. Newman was also able to turn out heartfelt songs like “Louisiana 1927,” which, after Hurricane Katrina, became an anthem for New Orleans.But Newman’s most lasting success would come not on the radio, but on the big screen. His score for “Ragtime,” as well as the song he wrote for the film, “One More Hour,” earned Oscar nominations. Newman’s list of nominations (for “Avalon,” “Toy Story,” “A Bug’s Life,” “Pleasantville” and more) would pile up until he finally won a statue, for the song “If I Didn’t Have You,” from 2002’s “Monsters, Inc.” The current tally is 20 Oscar nominations, and two wins.Newman’s appearance, Friday at 8 p.m. at Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House, is expected to include songs and stories from all facets of his career. But as the performance is a benefit for Aspen Film, Newman might reach deeper than usual into his film career for songs and views on the intertwining of movies and music.Film scores and songs, Newman said, “can make a movie work as well as it can possibly work. It can’t make a bad movie a good movie, but it can make a pretty good movie seem like a good movie. They can make action work better, make romance work better. It can be a sly, sophisticated thing that lifts things up a little bit.”Newman hinted that he is a bit concerned about music’s place in film. “Some of the smartest young directors think that music is manipulative,” he said. “But the whole thing is manipulative.”One thing that doesn’t seem to concern Newman is the idea that he is an aging guy in a younger person’s game. It shouldn’t bother him. He is the king of writing music for animated films, having contributed songs to “Cars,” “The Princess and the Frog,” and all three “Toy Story” films. The Oscar he was awarded last month was for the song “We Belong Together,” from “Toy Story 3.”Away from the cinema, Newman is also on an upswing. His last album, 2008’s “Harps and Angels,” was a winner, and earned attention from magazines that generally focus on much younger artists. His next album, scheduled for release in May, is “The Randy Newman Songbook Vol. 2,” a collection of solo vocal-and-piano revisitations of his earlier tunes. Newman says the first volume, released in 2003, was successful enough that his record label pushed him to do a follow-up.”I wouldn’t have thought about doing this. I have to write new stuff to make myself happy,” he said of the “Songbook” albums. “But I found it interesting, going over the stuff. I was gratified that stuff I wrote at 23, 24, holds up at 63, 64. You can tell it’s the same person. They say a pop musician writes his best stuff before he’s 25. But I think my later stuff holds up well. I think I’ve even gotten a little bit better.”firstname.lastname@example.org
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