Randy Newman is conducting his music for “Cars 3” on the Sony scoring stage in Culver City. He asks the strings and woodwinds for a slight change: “Bars eight and nine, drop it down to an A-flat. Closer to Mendelssohn,” he urges, pausing just a bit before adding, “Steve Mendelssohn.”
At once, 107 professional musicians burst into laughter.
Later on, when the orchestra plays a little too loudly, he cautions, “It’s nothing more than a mezzo forte. But I can understand your excitement.” More guffaws from the musicians, many of whom have played on Newman scores dating back to the 1980s, such as “Ragtime” and “The Natural.” When the recording session for the hour-long score for the latest Pixar film, which opens June 16, is finished, the orchestra applauds for two full minutes.
“Cars 3” is Newman’s eighth film for Pixar. He’s won best original song Oscars for two of them (“Monsters, Inc.” and “Toy Story 3”) and been nominated for song, score or both for four others (“Toy Story,” “A Bug’s Life,” “Toy Story 2” and the first “Cars” in 2006).
Newman’s music is considered such a critical component of the animated movies that John Lasseter, who hired the composer for the original “Toy Story” and is now chief creative officer of both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation, continues to take an active interest in Newman’s work on projects even when he’s not directing the films himself.
Lasseter showed up halfway through the last recording session, which Variety attended. He nodded his head to the music, pumped his fist in the air at triumphant moments and, greeting Newman warmly when he came into the booth for a playback, told him: “It’s got a great emotional arc. It’s exactly what we’re looking for.”
In an interview a few weeks later, Newman was equally effusive. “It’s a privilege to be able to write for an orchestra like this,” he says. “Sometimes I wish I could get a big romantic drama with Jessica Chastain looking into the distance for 20 or 30 seconds. But I get cars going around the track.”
Recalling his early experiences with Pixar, Newman says the filmmakers worried that computer animation might be cold and that an orchestral score might “warm it up” with the necessary emotional content. “That never was the case,” Newman says. “What they did didn’t turn out cold in the slightest, with or without music. But a big orchestra is often fitting for what’s going on [in the films].”
Newman’s orchestra for “Cars 3” is among his largest ever. “To make any mark in a picture where cars are racing 50% of the time,” he points out, “you have to make some noise.”
Propelling the action is only one aspect of the assignment. Setting the tone and underlining the story’s emotions are equally important. Says director Brian Fee: “Randy can do Americana like no one else. But he has this magic ability to be incredibly emotional. He can play comedy, and then two beats later have you reaching for a tissue. You have an epic experience because of what Randy writes.”
Although Newman reprises a racing-victory theme from the original “Cars” in the final reel of the new film, the vast majority of his music is new and classically styled. “It’s a fairly mature premise,” notes the composer, “about someone getting older and worried. It’s a little less broad.” In the story, Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson), no longer the world-champion racecar he once was, is trying to make a comeback.
Newman, who’s been nominated for an Oscar 20 times, the first two for “Ragtime,” spent a year, on and off, writing the “Cars 3” score, recording it in three chunks over a period of several months. “Randy can start thinking about things, but he can’t put notes to a page if we’re not done cutting a scene,” Fee explains.
The composer’s solo-piano score for “The Meyerowitz Stories” just debuted at Cannes, but Newman is leaving film behind for the next few months. His first album of original songs in nine years, “Dark Matter,” will be released by Nonesuch Aug. 4. Its lead song, a send-up of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has already been released (along with a hilarious video directed by his cousin, Tim Newman). The singer-songwriter expects most of the remainder of 2017 to involve touring in support of the album.
Still, “Toy Story 4” is due in June 2019. Asked if he’s planning to return to the world of Woody and Buzz, Newman says simply, “I think I will.”