Randy Newman: Stories, Facts & Trivia About The Movie Music Man
Randy Newman circa 1970. Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
It’s a jungle out there for Randy Newman, the movie-soundtrack songwriter famous for dramas (Ragtime, 1981), comedies (Parenthood, 1989) and kids' movies (Toy Story, 1995). He's also a pop songwriter and performer who's released 11 albums of his own, known for quirky lyrics that skewer everything from big cities, to politicians, and people of a certain height (no spoilers). His rise to prominence was definitely unusual, but with a family pedigree in songwriting and a love of turning a story inside out Randy Newman has created a songbook that can’t be forgotten.
He Comes From A Family Of Major Hollywood Film Composers
There’s something in the blood of the Newman boys because music runs deep with them. The Newmans have been writing music for films since Hollywood first started pairing sound with pictures, with family patriarch Alfred Newman composing the 20th Century Fox fanfare, you know, the music that plays before literally every movie distributed by Fox. Newman’s cousins: Thomas, Maria, David and Joey, are also composers for motion pictures so its not wild that Randy got into the music film game. After growing up in Los Angeles Newman was able to take his sunbaked life and synthesize it into the ironic pop tinged melodies of films like Toy Story, Monsters Inc, and The Shawshank Redemption.
He Wrote 'I Love L.A.' Because Don Henley Told Him To
Randy Newman didn’t strike out to write the greatest song about the lackadaisical nature of living in Los Angeles, that kind of thing wasn’t even on his radar until Don Henley from The Eagles implored him to put pen to paper. Newman told Rolling Stone:
I wrote ‘I Love L.A.’ because Don Henley said to me, ’Everybody’s writing L.A. songs, people not from here. You’re from here. Why don’t you write one?’ There is an aggressive ignorance to the song – ignorant and proud of it. There’s nothing wrong with the Beach Boys and open-top cars. But the guy talks about the bum [‘Look at that bum over there, man/He’s down on his knees’] and is still shouting ‘We love it.’
Three Dog Night’s Cover Of His Song 'Mama Told Me Not To Come' Gave Him His First Big Hit
Randy Newman was writing songs throughout the ‘60s as a part of The Tikis and then on his own, and his track “Mama Told Me Not To Come” had a long gestation period before becoming the song we know and love. He first wrote the song for former Animals singer Eric Burdon in 1966 before recording his own version of the song for his 1970 album 12 Songs. The song didn’t actually hit until Three Dog Night gave the song some funk. Newman wasn’t wild about his song being covered by a normal pop group, but when the song went to #1 on the charts he changed his tune. After the song exploded Newman called the band and said, “I just want to thank you for putting my kids through college.”
He Co-wrote 'Three Amigos' With John Landis, Lorne Michaels, And Steve Martin
After spending decades writing story songs about strange people and their habits it makes sense that Randy Newman would be brought on to write a film. After Steve Martin came up with the idea for Three Amigos he asked Lorne Michaels and Randy Newman to help him write the script about three silent film stars pretending to be actual heroes, but Newman’s work didn’t stop there. He also played a singing bush in the film, which director John Landis decided to show off by showcasing Newman’s voice rather than do any fancy animation. Rather than write the score for the film (that was allocated to Elmer Bernstein) Newman wrote original songs for the film like “The Ballad of the Three Amigos," "My Little Buttercup", and "Blue Shadows.”
A Maryland Legislator Tried To Ban 'Short People' From The Radio
“Short People” may be Randy Newman’s most recognizable song and it’s also the one that got him in the most trouble. After singing an ironic pop ditty about short people not having any reason to live he came under fire for his incendiary lyrics, although he didn’t understand why. After all, wasn’t it just a song? In 1978, a delegate from the state of Maryland was so upset about the song that he tried to ban it from being played on the air. Assistant Attorney General Francis B. Burch felt that banning the song would be a violation of the First Amendment. While speaking with Rolling Stone in 2017 Newman said that he didn’t really get why everyone was upset:
I needed an ‘up’ song for that record, and that just popped out: ‘Short people got no reason…’ I was surprised by the reaction. Because it was a hit [peaking at Number Two], the song reached people who aren’t looking for irony. For them, the words mean exactly what they say. I can imagine being a short kid in junior high school. I thought about it before I let the record get out. But I thought, ‘What the hell?’ I know what I meant – the guy in that song is crazy. He was not to be believed.
He Wrote A Musical Version Of Faust
Not everything that Randy Newman has done has been a success, and in the case of his musical update of Goethe’s Faust he dealt with quite a bit of blowback. But this is Randy Newman we’re talking about, so it’s not like he let the criticism of his work get him down. While speaking about the musical, Newman said that he wanted to rip apart Goethe’s story and focus on the God and the Devil rather than Faust himself, which seems to be the biggest problem with the play according to its critics. Faust was performed a few times, first at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego in September 1995, and then at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in Sept 1996. Newman spoke to Rolling Stone about the play and why he wanted to give it a go:
I read the original, Goethe’s Faust Part One. It’s like bumping into a great mind, someone who wants to learn everything in the world. Something in me wanted to take the exaltation out. I made it about a freshman at Notre Dame who doesn’t know what he wants. I had a script and showed it to [film director] Mike Nichols. He said, ‘The kid doesn’t have any arc. Nothing happens to him.’ But I liked that. It makes for a gruesome evening of theater.
He Was Hired To Write The Score For The Harrison Ford Movie 'Air Force One' But His Music Wasn’t Patriotic Enough
Even if you’ve only heard Newman’s film score work for his animated films, it’s clear that he’s not an action-movie songwriter, so why he would be tapped to write the music for the Harrison Ford film Air Force One is kind of a mystery. Maybe the producers were going for an ironic propaganda piece before changing direction mid-stream. Once the producers heard Newman’s score they felt like his piece turned the film into more of a parody than the action extravaganza they hoped for. After removing Newman from the film the producers brought on Jerry Goldsmith to write a new score in 12 days. Newman wasn’t stressed and much of what he wrote for the film was repurposed for Toy Story 3.
He Has A Lackluster Academy Awards Record
For as beloved as Newman’s film scores and original songs are you’d think that he has his fair share of Academy Award gold but in reality his awards cabinet is fairly empty. For a while Newman had the distinction if being an artist with the most Oscar nominations without a single win, but that streak ended in 2001 when he won the Academy Award for Best Original Song for the Monsters, Inc. song "If I Didn't Have You.”
During his win Newman had fun with his track record. When he arrived at the podium he shouted “I don’t want your pity,” before telling the musicians in the orchestra to not play him off while thanking them for their work. He said, “all these musicians, many of whom have worked for me a number of times and may not again."
Overall Newman has won two Academy Awards for Best Original Song while being nominated 20 times. When he won his second award in 2011 he joked, “my percentages aren't great."
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