Randy Newman has had quite a storied year. He wrote a bittersweet score for “Toy Story 4,” an epilogue about growing old and moving on that puts a bow on the animated series he’s been a part of since 1995. And, after years of being ignored by directors of live-action dramas, this year he brought his nostalgic pathos to Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story.”
“Both the pictures I did sort of tug at the heartstrings a little bit,” Newman mused.
In “Toy Story 4,” directed by Josh Cooley, the composer returned to his deep well of cowboy and spaceman themes, animated with characteristic pluck and bounciness. But as with all of the “Toy Story” films — especially the third movie, in 2010 — this chapter asked him to empathize with some very human emotions: heartbreak, loss and existential crisis.
He said he thinks it might be the best score of the whole series.
Little Bonnie’s first day of kindergarten is set to a melancholy ballad for piano and solo woodwinds that conveys her frightened sadness. When Woody says goodbye to his pals at the end of the movie, Newman delicately, then rhapsodically reprises their well-worn themes.
“From what I hear, people cry,” he said drolly. “And I guess that’s what they’re supposed to do.”
People definitely cry during “Marriage Story,” a deeply sympathetic autopsy of a doomed relationship. Baumbach had never used a traditional symphonic score, but he felt like this movie was asking for one.
“I felt that even in the script,” the director said. “I sort of thought of these characters as heroic in a way. And their love story — on one hand it’s very human, the experience of the movie sort of mirrors qualities of real life. But I also saw it in the tradition of great movie love stories too — like ‘Brief Encounter’ or these stories of ‘love that can’t be’ for whatever reason, but still love that is worthy of celebration.”
The film opens with two monologue montages: Charlie (Adam Driver) narrating what he likes best about Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), and vice versa. It’s accompanied by eight minutes of pronounced score that is, in Randy Newman fashion, infectiously melodic and emotionally earnest. It’s, essentially, an overture to the play we’re about to watch.
“Eight minutes of fear, for me,” he laughed. “It’s a lot of empty space to fill.”
That “overture” introduces several thematic ideas for Charlie and Nicole, which come back later in the film.
“It’s celebratory, it’s compassionate, it’s human,” said Baumbach. “It’s not romanticizing them, but it is loving, I think. The visuals that are accompanying it in the beginning are mostly images of domesticity, or coupledom, or individual characteristics that makes us unique. Ordinary moments. And I felt like the score could sort of celebrate it, make these ordinary moments extraordinary. Because they are, of course.”
“But,” he added, “then the movie shifts. And suddenly that same music means something else. It both reflects back on what we’ve heard, so in a sense it becomes like the audience’s memory, as well as the characters’. But it also now starts to mean something else.”
The score is a rush of cool water in a moviemaking era that rarely asks for things like lyricism, or oboe solos.
“You’re absolutely right about the oboe. It does scare people, because there’s no hiding it. It’s tough on oboe players nowadays.”
“You’re absolutely right about the oboe,” Newman said. “It does scare people, because there’s no hiding it. It’s tough on oboe players nowadays.”
The veteran composer, who has 20 Oscar nominations for elegiac and tuneful scores like “The Natural” and “Avalon” (as well as his Pixar songs), hadn’t scored a nonanimated film since George Clooney’s “Leatherheads” in 2008. Baumbach changed that in 2017. A longtime fan of Newman’s song albums, he was delighted to commission a solo piano score from the composer for his film “The Meyerowitz Stories.”
When Baumbach met Robert Redford a few years ago, he told the actor how much he loved Newman’s score for “The Natural.” Redford said: “When we turned the movie over to him, we said: ‘Well, we really went for it, so now you have to.’ ”
In that spirit, Baumbach swung for the fences with his tragicomic chamber play about divorce, which lets Newman’s penchant for sweet, songlike movie music truly sing. The score — written for a chamber-size orchestra, which included the composer’s violinist cousin, Maria Newman — tethers us to the innate humanity of both Charlie and Nicole.
“As low as they go, you know, there’s some sort of essential decency to them,” said Newman. “Maybe everything will be all right in the end.”
Newman said other directors aren’t beating down his door for this type of score again — yet. But at least one director would like more.
“Oh yeah,” said Baumbach. “If he’ll have me, I will.”