Composer Randy Newman is at the podium on 20th Century-Fox’s Newman Scoring Stage, named for his famous uncles Alfred, Lionel and Emil, all of whom conducted there for decades beginning in the 1930s.
“Put an accent on bar 15, 16 and 17,” he tells his 102 musicians, “as overly dramatic as possible. And look like this when you play it,” he adds, making a scowling face that causes the orchestra to burst into laughter. They proceed to play a lengthy cue from a climactic moment in Disney-Pixar’s “Toy Story 4,”
Newman, wearing headphones, baton in his right hand, conducts with small gestures, conferring before and after each take with his orchestrator, Don Davis. Davis, also a respected composer (the “Matrix” movies), praises Newman as “the best melody writer in the business, bar none.”
A Randy Newman scoring date is coveted by studio musicians for three reasons: First, in addition to his fame as one of America’s greatest songwriters, he is renowned as one of Hollywood’s finest orchestral writers; second, he is a loyal supporter of the L.A. musicians, always insisting on recording locally; and third, he’s always hilarious, telling stories about his legendary family and generally keeping the mood light.
In the case of “Toy Story 4,” Newman’s music provides the emotional underpinning for a new story of Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) who is reunited with Bo Peep (Annie Potts) on a cross-country trip that is complicated by troubled new toy Forky (Tony Hale) and the creepy Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), whose agenda doesn’t bode well for Woody.
In fact, at the late March session attended by Variety, observers (including the filmmakers themselves) were visibly moved as Newman conducted cue 6M6, “Parting Gifts,” his touching music for the film’s finale. As director Josh Cooley told the composer, “It’s perfect.”
Ten of Newman’s 20 Academy Award nominations are for animated Disney or Pixar films, and both of his Oscar wins are for Pixar songs (“If I Didn’t Have You” from “Monsters Inc.” and “We Belong Together” from “Toy Story 3”).
“This one was easier in a way,” Newman told Variety a few weeks later. “It’s hard keeping the emotional level sustained for as long as this one required. But in some ways it was easier, because I could use bits and pieces of music that I had from before,” referring to the first three “Toy Story” installments dating back to 1995.
Cooley confirms the importance of Newman’s music to the project: “There were three people that I wanted to make sure were feeling the story: Tom [Hanks], Tim [Allen] and Randy. It took a while to get this story right, but once we were feeling right about it, we went to Randy’s house and pitched him. It was so important for me to have his approval.”
Newman spent eight months on the film, recording an estimated hour and a quarter of music for “Toy Story 4,” a third at a time (earlier sessions were held in September and January). He also wrote two new songs: “I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away,” which he sings for Forky, a spork who believes he belongs in the trash, and “The Ballad of the Lonesome Cowboy,” which country artist Chris Stapleton sings over the closing titles.
“Lonesome Cowboy” — about Woody making the transition from Andy to new owner Bonnie — was originally intended as the opening song, Newman reveals, but changing versions of the earliest scenes resulted in a reprise of the classic “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” instead.
Newman created new themes for the new toys, but more significantly, his patented style of Americana writing returns to the fore with a rousing cowboy-hero sequence for Woody and later touches of ragtime and vaudeville when Bonnie’s family (and all her toys) hit the road in their RV, all reminiscent of such past Newman triumphs as “Ragtime” and “The Natural.” (He briefly adds an amusing French touch, via accordion, for French-Canadian stunt driver Duke Caboom.)
He loves how the L.A. orchestra performs his music. “It’s hard getting there, the writing and sometimes working with directors,” he admits. “But once I get there [to the orchestra dates] it’s the best time I have. It’s just a thrill to hear. These musicians are the best in the world.”
Newman has also scored an untitled film by Noah Baumbach (for whom Newman also scored “The Meyerowitz Stories”) that Netflix will unveil later this year. As for his future with Pixar — having now scored nine of their 21 features — he says simply, “I don’t know.”
Says director Cooley, “Randy’s music is the voice of ‘Toy Story.’ It is as important as any of the main characters that we’ve come to love over the years. We couldn’t do it without him.”