Seeing that director Noah Baumbach enlisted Randy Newman to write the score for his Netflix film “Marriage Story,” you might think he was casting against type, if your knowledge of Newman’s movie work doesn’t extend back to a time before Pixar. If you left off with the legendary singer-songwriter’s composing work some time in the early ’80s, though, this is what you’d consider typecasting: Newman coming in to do something deeply bittersweet for serious drama, avoiding any of the trends of modern composing for something a little closer in classicism to what his uncle Alfred might’ve done in the ’50s or ’60s.
“I’ve certainly been typecast as doing animation, and I do it all right. The last two ‘Toy Story’ films had some big emotional content at the end of the picture. But it’s not like ‘Ragtime’ or ‘Avalon,’ ” he says, bringing up a couple of the scores on which he really made his name — “except they don’t make pictures like that anymore. It may have been what I was really good at.”
The “Marriage Story” score runs alongside less than a quarter of the film’s two-hour running time, but when it’s there, it couldn’t be more prominent, as Baumbach begins the film with a lengthy overture of sorts under a long voiceover/montage sequence, then turns it up between dialogue scenes. Newman knows the sound of the intermediate-sized, 40-piece “chamber orchestra” may require a little getting used to for viewers expecting some nice emo-rock, under the circumstances.
“Before starting I thought, is it important what kind of music these people would be listening to, if they ever listen to music? Is it gonna sound old-fashioned? Are people going to wait for the bass drum to come in and take off, and it never does? But I said, ‘What the f—.’ This score fit the emotional journey that these people are on. And (maybe) I could have done it with acoustic guitar and something, but I don’t think so.”
It’s prominent enough to have been an unusual flashpoint for discussion and appreciation at festivals, before the film’s theatrical debut Nov. 6 and Netflix bow exactly one month later. “I don’t care so much if people don’t notice the score and it really works,” Newman adds. “This one works, and they’re noticing it. It’s all right with me if it just helps the picture like those ‘Toy Story’ pictures and the score is not mentioned. It’s not supposed to stick out. Yet in this one, I’m sticking out all over the place.” He laughs. “I couldn’t help it.”
He and Baumbach got on well enough — Newman previously did a piano score for the director’s underrated “The Meyerowitz Stories” — that they are planning to embark on a third film together: The director is helming a documentary about Newman, possibly even embarking on that project as early as this fall. “Maybe it’ll be his follow-up.” Newman adds with a chuckle: “The world’s waiting.”
His own taste in scores remains fairly catholic. “Guys who are good at this field, they’re all old, I think,” Newman says. “I’m sure there’s young guys. The guy who did ‘Death of Stalin’ (Christopher Willis), for instance, is really good. But basically Johnny Williams is still the best guy, for almost anything. Johnny Williams is the best guy that I would hire if I had a movie. I might hire myself, depending on the movie, but I would hire him (first) — he’s still the best guy. And Alan Silvestri, I just saw, he did one of those “Avenger” pictures, and it’s a little better than they’ve ever been, musically, because he did it. And my cousin Tom is very good. Very different from me, but really good. And tremendously good under dialogue.”
Newman paints his own reasons for continuing to value scoring, more than he has his singer/songwriter side at various points in his career, as being slightly selfish. “I love the orchestra. Those days I have of working with them are the best days I have in my life,” he declares. “I’ve got to admit it: I like musicians. It’s not about power. It’s a privilege to make music with people like that, because I don’t play well enough to be the piano player for an orchestra.”