The Newman Conquests
Fox Stage 1, a cavernous, 7,500-square-foot soundstage built in 1928, has long been the spot where big-name talents recorded movie music. Horne, Merman, Presley and Temple laid down tracks there, not to mention some of the best orchestral musicians in the land.
But last January, when 400 musicians, composers and sound technicians gathered on the stage’s hard maple floor, they came to honor a name that to them was even bigger: Newman.
The newly renovated room on the 20th Century Fox lot was getting a new title, the Newman Sound Stage, and the lack of specificity about which Newman was significant. With all the accomplished musicians, conductors and film composers in the family--Alfred, David, Emil, Lionel, Maria, Randy and Thomas--it would be difficult to choose just one.
“The Newman family is now a dynasty,” John Williams, the composer and five-time Academy Award-winner, told those who had come to dedicate the fabled room. “You have the Bachs of Leipzig and the Strausses of Vienna. And now you’ve got the Newmans of Hollywood.”
Among them, the members of this musical clan have been nominated for 70 Oscars, with Alfred, the family patriarch, racking up an incredible 45 nominations by himself. David Newman, one of Alfred’s sons, is nominated this year for the orchestral score to Fox’s animated remake of “Anastasia” (just as his father was in 1956, for the score to the original film starring Ingrid Bergman). Should David win, he would bring the total number of Newman-held Oscars to 11.
More impressive even than the family’s accolades is its breadth of work. From “All About Eve” (1950) and “Hello, Dolly!” (1969) to “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994) and “Toy Story” (1995), Newmans have made music for all kinds of movies. They’ve scored live-action and animation, dramas and comedies, Westerns, religious films and even a few horror flicks.
According to Jon Burlingame, who is writing a book about the family titled “The Newmans of Hollywood,” the older generation--brothers Alfred, Lionel and Emil--played a significant part in creating and defining the art of film composing beginning in the early 1930s.
Today, as many bemoan a decline in the quality of film music and as collections of pop songs often take the place of orchestral scores, the younger Newmans--particularly Alfred’s sons David and Thomas and their cousin, Randy--are seen as stalwart defenders of the struggling art form.
The numerous Newmans are so varied in their accomplishments--Alfred’s daughter Maria, for example, is a classical composer with no Hollywood ties--that Burlingame had to hang a huge family tree on his wall to keep track of them all.
“Like the Hustons and the DeMilles,” he said, “they’re one of Hollywood’s first families.”
A DYNASTY BEGINS
In 1900, a son was born to Michael and Luba Newman, a New Haven, Conn., fruit peddler and his wife. The baby, Alfred, was the first of what would be 10 children. He would grow up to be a Hollywood legend.
Alfred’s musical talent showed itself early--he gave his first piano recital at the age of 8, and by 18 he was working on Broadway as a conductor. During the 1920s, he worked with such popular songwriters as George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers and was touted in the press as the youngest musical director in the history of Broadway.
The debut of sound in the movies, with “The Jazz Singer” in 1927, made musicals all the rage, and Alfred caught Hollywood’s attention. Irving Berlin brought him west in 1930 to be musical director on the United Artists film “Reaching for the Moon.” Alfred planned to stay three months. He never left.
Alfred met Samuel Goldwyn, the independent producer who released his films through United Artists, soon after he arrived and served as UA’s musical director for eight years. But it was at Fox, where Darryl F. Zanuck made him music director in 1940, that Alfred made his most lasting mark.
During nearly two decades there, Alfred oversaw, composed or conducted the music for more than 200 films. He wrote the horn fanfare still heard over the Fox studio’s screen logo (which has recently been rerecorded in a session conducted by his son, David). He adapted and wrote dozens of scores and helped launch the careers of several other film composers, including David Raksin, whom he hired to write the haunting score to the 1944 film “Laura.”
“In the history of movie music, there were three important pioneers who shaped how music was written and played,” Burlingame said, noting that two of them--Max Steiner (“Gone With the Wind”) and Erich Wolfgang Korngold (“The Adventures of Robin Hood”)--were from Europe. The lone American was Alfred Newman, and according to Burlingame he remains Hollywood’s greatest conductor ever.
Exacting and tireless, Alfred could be a terror on the podium. Where other conductors might rehearse for 15 minutes, he made a habit of taking all afternoon. But musicians loved him for taking their work seriously. If a movie director meddled, for example, Alfred would banish him from the sound stage (he even threw Charlie Chaplin out of a recording session).
“Alfred was the authority. He was a totalitarian. But that’s how every aspect of the music was top-notch,” said Jerry Goldsmith, the composer, who says the eldest Newman got him his first film job, on the 1962 film “Lonely Are the Brave” with Kirk Douglas.
“He was my mentor,” said Goldsmith, who has scored more than 100 films since, including last year’s “L.A. Confidential,” for which he is nominated for an Oscar. “He didn’t have to like you. If you had talent, he respected you.”
While many early film composers wrote music that meticulously followed a movie’s action, Alfred developed a style that underscored mood more than the specifics of a given scene. Sometimes, he created leitmotifs for particular characters. Partly for that reason, his scores sounded like more than mere musical accompaniment. They were performances.
“He believed, as I still do, that gathering this moment was something that an audience eventually would feel in the theater,” said Williams, who first met Alfred in 1956, when he joined the conductor’s orchestra as a pianist on “South Pacific.” “Everybody always played better with Alfred at the podium.”
Meanwhile, most of Alfred’s younger brothers had followed him into show business on the West Coast. Marc was an agent for composers. Robert, a one-time press agent and producer on Broadway, became an executive at several studios, including Republic, Goldwyn and Paramount. Irving was a doctor, but he, too, had ties to show biz: He was personal physician to many Hollywood personalities, and he loved to write songs--according to his son, Randy, Bing Crosby even recorded one.
Emil, meanwhile, became a first-rate conductor, serving as musical director on difficult, syncopated projects like the musicals featuring figure skater Sonja Henie. The score he wrote for one of them, 1941’s “Sun Valley Serenade,” earned him an Academy Award nomination. Family members remember Emil as a true eccentric who tended to sleep during the day and once, when conducting at Lincoln Center, wore purple socks with his tuxedo.
“Once, Emil was [supposed to be] conducting a picture at Fox, but he wasn’t there,” recalled Randy. “The orchestra is sitting there waiting. So they sent a guy out to Emil’s house in Malibu who finds him, in his bathrobe, smoking a cigarette and sitting on his chimney. His house had burned down.”
Emil had lost all his clothing in the blaze, so he came to the sound stage and conducted the score in his robe.
The Newman brothers “all had massive, Greek, tragic flaws, whether alcohol or women or gambling,” Randy said fondly. “Emil had all of them.”
LIONEL CARRIES ON
More than any other sibling, it was Lionel, Alfred’s youngest brother, who would carry on the Newman movie-scoring legacy. At the age of 15, Lionel--an accomplished pianist--had gone off on his own to tour with Mae West.
But once he got to Hollywood, in the early 1930s, Lionel nearly always worked with Alfred. He received his first Oscar nomination in 1938, for example, for a song that Alfred had commissioned him to write: “The Cowboy and the Lady,” the title track for a Gary Cooper/Merle Oberon picture that Alfred was scoring.
In 1942, Alfred hired Lionel as a rehearsal pianist at Fox. For the next half a dozen years, Lionel earned his stripes as a songwriter. His biggest song, “Again,” which he wrote for the 1948 movie “Roadhouse,” was on “Hit Parade” for months. But he also was developing as a conductor, and by the early 1950s, he was known as a major talent.
Marilyn Monroe always insisted on Lionel conducting her musical numbers--he worked with her on several Fox pictures, including the 1953 film “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” He was also musical director on Elvis Presley’s first movie, Fox’s “Love Me Tender” (1956).
When Alfred left Fox in late 1959 to work freelance (writing scores like “How the West Was Won” and “The Greatest Story Ever Told”), Lionel stepped into his shoes as music director, though his official title was director of television music. Lionel oversaw the scoring of all Fox TV shows, writing several classic themes, from “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” to “Daniel Boone.”
And, like his brother, Lionel gave other people a chance. A decade before Williams wrote his Oscar-winning score for “Star Wars,” Lionel hired him to compose the theme to TV’s “Lost in Space.” (Williams is nominated again this year, for his “Amistad” score.)
Lionel was a jokester known for turning an off-color phrase. When he won his Oscar for adapted musical score for 1969’s “Hello, Dolly!,” for example, he scandalized Hollywood by delivering a profane acceptance speech. After thanking Zanuck, Lionel expressed his gratitude to the movie’s writer and producer, Ernest Lehman, “for being so [damned] beautifully difficult. . . . I don’t know what the hell I’m saying, but thank you very much.”
But Lionel’s bawdy reputation didn’t hurt his career any. He conducted many of the great Fox scores of the 1960s and 70s, including Alex North’s “Cleopatra” and Goldsmith’s “The Sand Pebbles.” After Alfred’s death in 1970, Lionel was formally named general music director at Fox. He retired briefly in the 1980s, but MGM/UA lured him back to work as a senior vice president in 1988. He held that post until his death in 1989.
Randy Newman is sitting on his patio in Pacific Palisades, musing about the family profession, when suddenly he spots what appear to be several vultures lighting upon a nearby tree.
“I’m not dead yet!” the 54-year-old songwriter and composer yells at the large black birds. He turns back to face a visitor. “Look at those vultures up there! They know we’re talking about movie music.”
Randy, whose irreverent pop music (from “Short People” to “Rednecks”) has earned him a large and loyal following, has a complicated relationship with film scoring.
On the one hand, he considers it a serious art form--the one his father, Irving, valued best of all (“I’d be writing songs, he wouldn’t think that much of it. It was: ‘When are you going to do another movie?’ ” Randy recalls). On the other hand, he wishes composers--himself included--were allowed to be a little more artistic.
“Movie music is worse than it was 30 years ago,” he says flatly. “The quality is declining because there’s less time, you’re left alone less to do the job that they’re paying you all the money to do. And the directors now have the technology to put in ‘temp’ music [before a score is written]. It militates against originality.”
He tries to restrain himself: “All directors aren’t ogres. Far from it.” But a beat later, the man who made his name writing ironic lyrics can’t resist adding: “I wouldn’t have one over to my house.”
In fact, it was a director--Norman Lear--who first convinced Randy to try his hand at film music, for the 1971 film “Cold Turkey.” At first, he says, taking up his ancestors’ craft was intimidating.
“There’s a burden, in terms of them looking over your shoulder. I sat at lunch enough times with Lionel and other composers, trashing other people. Judgmental? Completely! These guys were good and then there was everybody else,” he said. “They were a hard bunch, and you know they’re out there--that they’re listening.”
But he’d caught the bug, and several more memorable scores followed, from “Ragtime” (1981) to “The Natural” (1984), from “Avalon” (1990) to “Toy Story” (1995). He’s been nominated nine times for Oscars, most recently in 1996, for his music to Disney’s animated “James and the Giant Peach.”
Randy has been vocal about his dissatisfaction with some scores. He says “Maverick” was his worst scoring experience because the producers insisted that he make the music more hokey. “It felt bad to do that,” he said, wincing at the idea of forcing talented musicians to play “funny.”
Then last year, director Wolfgang Petersen threw out a score Randy had written for “Air Force One,” hiring Goldsmith, who had more experience with big action-adventure films. Randy can laugh about it now--he says his 4-year-old daughter, Alice, has taken to yelling “Daddy has a boss: Wolfgame!” whenever she wants to get his goat. But he fears that Petersen’s fondness for the temporary music track may have made him less open to new ideas.
For all the frustrations, however, it’s plain to see that Randy loves film scoring. Now at work on a new album, tentatively titled “Bad Love,” he is also scoring two more films, director Gary Ross’ “Pleasantville” and “A Bug’s Life,” from the folks who made “Toy Story.”
“Those days, when I’m recording [a score], are the best times that I’ve had in my life, without a doubt,” he said. “You do get a chance, which Schubert didn’t have, to hear your music played by some of the best musicians in the world. I don’t even regret ‘Air Force One,’ because I had five days with the orchestra doing music, and it sounded good to me.”
For a moment, Randy Newman is reverent: “There’s nothing like the sound of a great orchestra.”
THE ‘ORCHESTRA JUNKIE’
Another day, another Newman, another ode to orchestras. It seems to run in the family.
“An orchestra is a big, beautiful, flexible toy. You can make it sound so wacky and weird or you can make it sound completely simple. Just to hear an orchestra tune is beautiful,” said David, the 44-year-old composer, conductor and self-described “orchestra junkie.”
Like his cousin Randy, the chance to work with an orchestra is largely what draws David to scoring films. David learned to love orchestras from the inside out--playing violin as a child with the Santa Monica Symphony, studying performance and conducting at USC, then working as a studio musician and freelance conductor.
“Composing to me always seemed so daunting,” said David, who was 15 when his father Alfred died. “But after college, I started listening to hours of [my father’s] stuff. It was so beautiful: the music, the playing, the ability to get it in a movie. It planted a seed in me that eventually came to fruition.”
It wasn’t easy at first. After he’d decided to give scoring a try, it took David three years to get work on his first low-budget films like “Critters” and “Vendetta.”
Quickly, though, he moved up to major studio pictures, collaborating with director Danny DeVito on “Throw Momma From the Train” (1987). He has scored all of DeVito’s films since, as well as a varied slate of other movies, from “The Flintstones” and “The Nutty Professor” to “Heathers” and “Boys on the Side.”
This year, David got his first Oscar nomination, for “Anastasia,” and he describes the scoring of that film as a “lovely” experience.
“They were very receptive to my ideas. I really felt part of the team, which is very rare. I definitely think the music is better [for it],” he said.
Communicating with a film director can sometimes be a challenge, he said. “Everybody has horror stories about things directors have done. One who says, ‘I really like that. Why don’t you play it backwards?’ Or, ‘It doesn’t go up enough or down enough.’ ”
But, he added, “when somebody’s good, like DeVito, and they ask you to do something, and you start thinking about it and realize, ‘That’s probably a really good idea. How am I going to solve that right now?’ You learn to think on your feet. It can be very interesting.”
Meanwhile, David was the first composer signed up for Filmharmonic, a Los Angeles Philharmonic program that commissions film composers to write original music to be performed alongside new short films.
“I’m very interested in the combination of classical music with moving images--film or, maybe in the future, holograms,” he said. As he thought about the future, he found himself summoning the past.
“My father was a huge influence on me in all aspects of music and in the whole idea that you could get everyone together to do something extraordinarily beautiful. The collaborative and the performance and the music all rolled into one,” he said. “My father respected good musicianship. He was honest about it. Those are good traits.”
Thomas Newman is on his way out the door of Paramount’s Sound Stage M, when the phone rings. Robert Redford wants to chat.
“When I don’t hear from you, I think the worst,” the composer teasingly tells the director/movie star, who is calling with suggestions about music for his latest film, “The Horse Whisperer.” The process of “getting Bob’s opinion,” as Thomas calls it, takes about 20 minutes. Afterward, the boyish 42-year-old reveals his secret: He loves noise.
“I have an interest in mundane experimentation,” says Thomas, whose scores often incorporate unexpected sounds, like Aboriginal chants and the chirping of cicadas. “I take the approach of the listener, in a way. What draws my ear? And why? What if you struck a bell? What if you bowed a bowl? I love hurdy-gurdies and baritone ukuleles. Anything that makes noise.”
Since scoring his first film, 1984’s “Reckless,” Thomas has earned a reputation for making music that is both subtle and innovative. And he is versatile, moving easily from drama (“Fried Green Tomatoes” in 1991) to comedy (“Scent of a Woman” in 1992).
In 1994, Thomas was nominated twice for Academy Awards, for his scores “Little Women” and “The Shawshank Redemption.” The next year, he was nominated again for “Unstrung Heroes,” Diane Keaton’s eccentric comedy.
Now, he is up to his neck in “The Horse Whisperer,” Redford’s adaptation of the bestseller about a man who can calm troubled horses. Thomas says the project, filmed under the big Montana sky, has been a challenge.
“It’s an exquisitely shot movie, and a lot of it is about the land. So the music has to represent a certain sumptuousness. But beyond that, the story is a very intimate one about a mother and a daughter,” he said. “The size of the environment almost contradicts the intimacy of the relationship--in an interesting way. So the issue is how big do you play and how small? When the movie is big, if you play small is that OK? And when there’s filmic scope does there want to be musical scope?”
Thomas was 14 when his father died, and he did not initially set out to emulate him. At first, he says, he was more interested in musical theater than in film composition. He got a music degree from Yale, worked on Broadway with Stephen Sondheim and tried, he says, to figure out what he had to offer.
“I knew the minute I tried to pick up a pencil and do it like [my father], I was just going to be third rate at it,” he said. “I had no concept of how to apply my training until I said, ‘What is it that I like?’ ”
What Thomas likes, he discovered, is to fiddle around.
“I free associate,” he said, explaining how he uses studio sessions with a few other musicians to flesh out his ideas. “I’ll come in with some small ideas and try to enhance them. It’s like piecing a puzzle together. It’s daunting at first because there are so many pieces, but then you find an end piece and a corner piece and slowly you gain understanding.”
The logistics of the job can sometimes interfere with its creative demands, he admitted.
“Unfortunately, post-production tends to be a creatively conservative time. If the movie is working, let’s not let the music make it work less. If it’s not working, the music better save it,” he said. “In the end, a film composer is a lame duck collaborator. You bring everything to the table but you don’t get equal say.”
Nevertheless, Thomas can’t wait to get back to it. Redford’s suggestions are buzzing in his head.
“My wife and I were in Hawaii once and we heard the Cazimero Brothers doing this song, ‘The Moon of Manakoora,’ which my dad had written. The version they did was so exquisite.. . . That was my dad. A lot of people think that he was a tough guy, but there was a great tenderness to some of his writing,” said Thomas, who now does much of his composing in the same workshop his father did, in a cluttered room in the family’s Pacific Palisades home.
“A shoemaker’s son becomes a shoemaker,” he said simply. “It’s an odd thing, but it probably happens to a lot of us: We end up where our fathers began.”