Is Randy Newman sufficiently appreciated? I don’t think so. And neither does Jon Ronson, a British fellow whose exploits were previously known to me only through “This American Life.” The BBC sent him off to film a really wonderful 30-minute documentary on Mr. Newman. It’s a very personal and idiosyncratic profile of the songwriter, told from the perspective of an obsessive and nerdy fan. The best part, by far, is Mr. Ronson’s off-hand suggestion to Mr. Newman that “someone he knows” thinks a particular song is really about child molestation (which, given that it’s Newman, isn’t far fetched — just oddly wrong in this case). Even if you’re only passingly interested in Randy Newman, check out this very worthwhile Channel 4 documentary. Afterwards, if all goes according to plan, you will have more than a passing interest.
I find explorations of unpopularity and it’s peculiar dynamics to be vastly more interesting than explorations of popularity, which is why its such a shame that the media sphere is so taken with the identification of incipient trends and whatnot. In fairness to the insufficiency of Newman’s own public appreciation, which is the true subject of the Jon Ronson video, there is something about the production on many of his albums that makes them hard to love. It’s not just his sentiment, which is also unlovable to the max. (And, incidentally, the unpopularity of Newman’s “artistic” work is what makes the tremendous popularity of his treacly Pixar film-soundtrack work so fascinating.)
Beyond “Sail Away” and parts of his earliest records, there’s not a wealth of really endearing album material. There is a cure to this album problem. Stripped down in live performance — or on “Nilsson Sings Newman” — his songs are clearly revealed to be well crafted and brilliant. His somewhat uncomfortable physical presence behind the piano also casts a sharp spell. The polished production on many of the studio recordings somehow doesn’t serve the material as well as Newman alone.
To rectify this disparity, here’s a slew of live Randy Newman gems that I’ve hand plucked from the far reaches of YouTube. Seriously, I reviewed some 30 pages of Randy Newman results to find these. And they’re great. His concept, as should become instantly clear, is to create the most articulate songs in the voices of the most despicable people,
- Sail Away
- Political Science
- I Want You to Hurt Like I Do (starts at 5:50)
- Short People
- My Life Is Good
- Christmas in Capetown
- Real Emotional Girl (with super 80s Linda Ronstadt). I had never heard this one before.
- Red Necks