Randy Newman's Still Got a Friend in Oscar

Composer, songwriter and 20-time nominee explains why the Oscar shows stink, and how Pixar saved him from being a hack

This year's Oscar music categories are full of nominees who've had wildly varied careers, among them Trent Reznor's journey from Nine Inch Nails to "The Social Network," A. R. Rahman's trip from Bollywood to Hollywood. But few have carried on simultaneous (and schizophrenic) careers quite the way Randy Newman has: the multiple Oscar nominee writes orchestral film scores and mainstream pop songs for movies, while at the same time continuing his solo career crafting dark, wickedly satiric songs and classic albums like "Sail Away" and "Good Old Boys."

Randy NewmanThe first time I spoke to Newman, I was working at Rolling Stone and he'd just written his first film score, for Milos Forman's "Ragtime." (It'd get him his first Oscar nomination, too.) Almost 30 years later he's in the running for the 20th time for the song "We Belong Together" from "Toy Story 3." Newman himself is as blunt, honest and funny as ever – but a warning: his deadpan humor doesn't always come across in print. When in doubt, it's best to assume that he's kidding, more or less.

(Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

With 20 nominations but only one win, do you try to avoid getting caught up in the race?
I never fail to enjoy getting nominated. Beyond that I've pretty much given up on it, although this year I'm kind of getting sucked into it. Usually, you pretty much know that something else is going to win. This time, I guess I could win. I don't know. They might want to give the picture something more than just Best Animated Feature, and wanting to honor Pixar might somehow bestow it on me. (laughs) It wouldn’t be a mistake.

What was your assignment with the song?
To write a song that indicated that they had decided that their lives – the toys' lives and the lives of everyone in the picture – were meant to be connected to each other. That they belonged together. I don’t know whether they said the title specifically, but that's very much the message I got. So that's what I did.

I wrote it as a duet, and I figured they'd get, you know, John Mayer and Katy Perry to do it. Make it a young people duet of some kind. But they didn’t want to do that. They wanted the same voice they had in the other "Toy Story" movies, they wanted some consistency. (laughs) It was like I was being more of a hack than they were. So they saved me from my own instincts.

Did the song come easily?
Relatively. If I have the information, it often comes fairly quickly. But it was a little complicated doing the record itself. It's an odd kind of rock thing that's hard to play, and I had to get stuntman pianists for part of it. And when they told me it was just supposed to be me, I had to monkey around a bit with it.

But that's the nature of the job, being a professional musician. If they want you to write an Albanian foxtrot in 7/4, you do it. And it's fine with me. I never felt any sort of that kind of selling out feeling that people ascribe to writing on assignment.

There is a perception that the songs you write for your own records are the real Randy Newman …
The scores to these pictures are real, too. They usually sound like me to me. With the songs, I get myself into the lyrics when I can, and when it's appropriate. There's a couple of jokes in this song that wouldn’t be there, maybe. But it's Disney. I'm not gonna write "Rednecks" and "Harps and Angels" and vulgar blues numbers. That's what I gravitate towards in my writing, but I don’t mind writing "You’ve Got a Friend in Me." I mean, if I did "You’ve Got a Friend in Me" on one of my own records, it'd be like I was a used car salesman.

Toy Story 3Was it your decision not to submit the "Toy Story" score to the Academy?
It was. It’s a sequel, so I'm not sure if it's eligible. Maybe I should have submitted it. But also, there are things that don’t sound like me sometimes, and there were some cues that are part me, but I had to hand them off because of the lack of time. People don’t seem to mind that, but I didn’t feel right about it.

The people at Pixar are great people, they really are, and the director [Lee Unkrich] is a lovely guy.  But his was a case where he temped the movie with my music from every picture I'd ever done. There was stuff from "Avalon" in there, stuff from "Ragtime," even the "Air Force One" score that was thrown out. And when it came time to write it, sometimes there wasn't much of a kick to it, because he really wanted it to sound just like his temp did. But you know, it's hard to argue with the success. And when the music has to come through, it comes through all right.

When you won your Oscar for your song from "Monsters Inc." in 2002, you mentioned how Pixar had made four good movies in a row, and how rare that was …
Unbelievable. What is it now, 10?

Eleven.
It's the greatest studio there's ever been, by a mile. I think "Toy Story 3" is the best picture of the year. It's not going to win, but it could. It wouldn't be a mistake if they gave it to it.

And the Pixar movies I've done the best pictures I've ever worked on, certainly, and some of the best music I ever wrote for movies. I don’t know about doing any more of them, though. It's a hell of a lot more difficult than most regular pictures are.

In what way?
Well, I think that what Carl Stalling did for those Warner Bros. animated pictures really worked. Somehow, when these animated characters move, you've got to move with them. At first we talked about scoring the first "Toy Story" like a regular movie, but you can't do it. If Woody falls out of a drawer, you gotta go with him most of the time. If Tom Hanks falls down in a comedy, you don’t have to. It's more notes, and for me it takes longer to write it.

How do you feel about the Oscar song process, where the voters look at clips and score the songs and you need a certain score to be eligible?
It's an odd thing. If no cinematographer did a great job that year, they don’t have only four nominations. The Academy has always had some kind of negative feeling about the song category. They did a medley one time, they got rid of the songs another time … and it's not like they’ve got three hours of good jokes instead. Somehow they get very strict about the songs.

Randy NewmanBut, you know, it’s like a big vaudeville show, and it's really memorable to be a part of the thing. It's a big deal for about a minute and a half, Finnish fashion correspondents yelling, "What are you wearing?" And I've been on the show so much, it's like I'm a regular. (pause) Maybe that's one reason the shows stink. (Photo: AMPAS)

When you did win the Oscar on your 16th nomination, I got the feeling that you were not only surprised to win, but surprised by how affected you were when you got up onstage.
I was surprised, yeah. I was up there, and the orchestra stood up. It meant a lot to me when they did that. Too much. I mean, since i was five years old I'd grown up around the orchestra, and the fact that they did that really touched me. And you know, Jennifer Lopez was up there. I tell you, you get caught up in it. You see the people with the reputation for being the hippest people in the world, and they go all sappy up there.

What are you working on now?
I'm trying to write songs for myself, basically. Trying to get started. And you know how beginnings are — they’re difficult.

Any film projects in the works?
People are talking about doing "Tootsie" as a musical, and I'm interested in that. But I think that for me, it got to be too much. I was down on myself by the time I finished "Toy Story." I was doing "Princess and the Frog" for like a year, and then doing both at the same time for a while, "Princess and the Frog" and "Toy Story."

(laughs) Too many notes. But it turned out.