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CARS 3 – Randy Newman

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The creative relationship between Pixar Animation and Randy Newman goes back more than twenty years, all the way back to 1995 and their first foray into feature films with the original Toy Story. Their collaboration has since continued through titles like A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc., Cars, Toy Story 3, and Monsters University, each of which has been enriched with Newman’s tuneful songs and warm scores. Cars 3 marks the eighth Newman Pixar score (him having been dropped in favor of Michael Giacchino on Cars 2); the film, which is directed by Brian Fee, follows the continuing adventures of the anthropomorphic race car Lightning McQueen, who this time round finds himself locking horns – fenders? – with an upstart racer named Jackson Storm, who embraces all kinds of new racing technology and threatens to replace McQueen at the top of the grid.

Of all the films Disney and Pixar made together, the one I least expected to become a franchise was Cars. The original film was, in my opinion, by far the weakest Pixar original when it first came out in 2006, and was only displaced at the bottom of the pile when Cars 2 came out in 2011. Despite this, for some reason, the films (and their associated merchandise) remain inexplicably popular, proving once again that the lure of fast cars cannot be overstated as it relates to pre-teen little boys.

Although both Michael Giacchino and Randy’s cousin Thomas Newman have contributed significantly to the sound of the studio too, for me it is always Randy’s music with which it is mostly strongly associated, probably because he was the first. It occurred to me as I was prepping this review that there is probably a whole generation of people out there who only know about Randy Newman as a result of his associations with Pixar, whereas for people of my generation he was both a wonderful, acerbic songwriter and social commentator (“Mama Told Me Not To Come,” “Sail Away,” “I Love LA,” “Short People,” “Political Science”) and a composer of earnest, sensitive comedy and drama scores for films like The Natural, Parenthood, Avalon, Awakenings, and The Paper. Wherever you found it, Newman’s music always had both an intellectual quality (in terms of the sometimes unusual orchestrations) and an emotional one, but where Newman’s scores differ from his songs is in intent: the songs are often slightly subversive, sarcastic, with an unreliable narrator undermining the lyrics, whereas his scores are completely, unashamedly sincere.

Cars 3, for all it’s faults as an actual movie, is very straightforward, emotionally rewarding and musically literate, with a rich vein of tender Americana running through it. The score is written for a full orchestra, often encompassing 110 pieces, and which sometimes also included a rock percussion section and guitars. It embraces a range of styles that moves effortlessly from rousing sports movie pomp and pizzazz, to moments of wistful melancholy, as well as some charming down-home comedy featuring the redneck pickup truck Mater. Thematic writing is not the score’s strong point, but there does appear to be a 9-note recurring theme for Lightning which goes through various permutations as the score progresses – brooding in “Biggest Brand in Racing,” optimistic in “If This Track Could Talk” – and reaches its zenith during the furious action finale.

The action music actually dominates much of the early part of the score. “Storm’s Winning Streak” is full of dramatic string surges with an undercurrent of dark, heraldic brass, which continues into the even more dramatic and occasionally quite aggressive “When All Your Friends Are Gone/Crash.” Later, pieces like the tempestuous “McQueen’s Wild Ride” and the elaborate “Fireball Beach” continue the style. However, unlike the vast majority of modern action scoring, Newman’s music is always tuneful, fully orchestral, and is filled with the little instrumental flourishes and runs that has typified his action writing for years. Anyone who was fortunate enough to hear his rejected score for Air Force One will find the fingerprints of that score all over this one.

Few people can write with a sense of longing the way Randy Newman can – you only need to listen to the orchestrations of his love songs, or scores like Awakenings or Pleasantville for evidence of that – and Cars 3 features plenty of that side of his musical personality. Cues like “Doc’s Painful Demise,” the second half of “Biggest Brand in Racing,” and the tender “Letters About You” feature some especially lovely string writing, with cascading harmonies that shimmer across the entire section. Elsewhere, the gorgeous “A Career on a Wall/Electronic Suit” makes use of an acoustic guitar which is just beautiful.

Meanwhile, cues like “Mater on the Horn” and “Sistine Chapel on Wheels” overflow with Aaron Copland-style Americana, with softly inviting horn melodies and rattling tambourines to give it a slight Latin flourish. “Biggest Brand in Racing” has a lazy, playful attitude and some excellent woodwind writing that has a classic Hollywood sound; the second half of “Fireball Beach” has the air of a Hawaiian luau; “If This Track Could Talk” briefly plays the blues.

The orchestrations – courtesy of Don Davis, no less – are as full and florid as they always are, but some may find the frequent changes of style somewhat lacking in direction and clarity; Newman’s animation scores have always had a slightly Carl Stalling-esque quality, following the action closely and jumping from style to style within the same cue, and this score is very much the same. Both “Electronic Suit” and the subsequent “Drip Pan,” for example, veer from light Western scoring to classical waltz pastiches and back again, within seconds, and this is just one example of many. It’s true that Newman’s music lacks the through-composed sophistication that someone like John Powell brings to his animated scoring, but what Newman loses in contemporary complexity he makes up for with heart, energy, and enthusiasm.

The big race finale, which begins with “Smokey Starts Training/A Blaze of Glory” and continues through the conclusive “The Fabulous Lightning McQueen,” is a showcase for all the score’s main musical ideas, but is predominantly action based. The theme for Lightning McQueen is heard prominently throughout these final cues, often in an action setting, and several moments stand out for their exciting scope. “Starting Dead Last” features some tremendous brass flurries – listen at 0:54! – and “Flashback & Pit Stop” has a furious energy and sense of determination and purpose that is quite palpable. The entire sequence is underpinned with a bed of churning string writing and tapped snare drums which add an appropriately propulsive, high octane quality of speed and movement, and it all builds up to a tremendous conclusion in “Victory Lane,” which swells with celebratory horns and fanfare statements of Lightning McQueen’s theme.

Alongside the score soundtrack, Cars 3 also has an accompanying song album, the centerpiece of which is “Run That Race,” an original song written and performed by nine-time Grammy winner Dan Auerbach. The soundtrack also features “Ride,” an original end-credit song performed by ZZ Ward featuring musician Gary Clark Jr., a cover of Tom Petty’s “Kings Highway” by 23-year-old British singer-songwriter James Bay, a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 hit “Glory Days” by Andra Day (who voices Sweet Tea in the film), a new version of The Beatles’ classic 1965 song “Drive My Car” by Jorge Blanco, and a cover of Aretha Franklin’s “Freeway of Love” by actress Lea DeLaria, who provides the voice of Miss Fritter, a school bus-turned-demolition-derby-queen in the movie. Speaking of the demolition derby, that sequence also features two tracks of original score written by country superstar Brad Paisley – “Truckaroo” and “Thunder Hollow Breakdown” – to underscore the chaos, both of which are featured on the song CD.

While it is unlikely to ever be considered a top-tier Pixar score – those accolades still remain with Giacchino’s quartet of The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Up, and Inside Out – Cars 3 nevertheless has much more impressive musical content than one might have anticipated. The sense of fun and joy that Randy Newman brings to the project is infectious, the scope of the orchestral arrangements is impressive, and the action music is especially noteworthy; in fact, it comes close to rivaling his career best in that regard. Best of all, it’s just so refreshing to hear such bold, unashamed, emotionally direct orchestral scoring coming out of a major film studio in 2017. I know he’s 73 now, but listening to this makes me wish that Randy Newman was writing more than one score every three years.

Buy the Cars 3 soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Storm’s Winning Streak (1:21)
  • When All Your Friends Are Gone/Crash (3:44)
  • Doc’s Painful Demise (1:25)
  • Mater on the Horn (0:28)
  • Sistine Chapel on Wheels (1:05)
  • Temple of Rust-Eze (1:25)
  • A Career on a Wall/Electronic Suit (3:20)
  • Drip Pan (1:11)
  • McQueen’s Wild Ride (2:05)
  • Biggest Brand in Racing (3:10)
  • Fireball Beach (2:15)
  • Pull Over, Now!/Cruz’s Racing Dreams (1:59)
  • 1.2% (1:21)
  • If This Track Could Talk (2:32)
  • Letters About You (2:02)
  • Smokey Starts Training/A Blaze of Glory (5:56)
  • Starting Dead Last (1:41)
  • Flashback & Pit Stop (3:32)
  • Through the Pack (3:41)
  • Victory Lane (3:50)
  • The Fabulous Lightning McQueen (2:08)

Running Time: 50 minutes 21 seconds

Walt Disney Records (2017)

Music composed and conducted by Randy Newman. Orchestrations by Don Davis and Jonathan Sacks. Recorded and mixed by Frank Wolf. Edited by Andrew Vernon. Album produced by Randy Newman.

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