How Randy Newman re-invented himself with 'Ragtime'

by Lynne Warfel
March 11, 2014

Listen Flicks in Five: 'Ragtime'
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Notable pop musician and film composer Randy Newman. (Courtesy the artist)
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Film composer Randy Newman didn't have Hollywood success handed to him on a silver platter.

Even though his family was well-established in Hollywood -- his Uncle Alfred Newman was a notable film composer -- Randy Newman suffered through a trough of go-nowhere movies. Films like Dick Van Dyke's satirical anti-smoking vehicle Cold Turkey proved so unmentionable, that the scores Newman provided didn't generate any buzz.

Satire, though, was Newman's strength for the next few years. Songs like his pointed, silly "Short People" for his 1977 album Little Criminals helped him become a blip on the pop music radar.

In 1980, Robert Altman was set to film Ragtime, an adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's 1975 novel of historical fiction. Altman knew of Newman's versatility and wit and recruited him for the score.

Though Altman was ousted from the production, Randy Newman still made the final cut. New director Milos Forman kept Newman on for the score, which nabbed Newman an Oscar nomination for both best score and best song, which put him on Hollywood's radar.

Ragtime, theatrical trailer, 1981