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THE NATURAL – Randy Newman


Original Review by Craig Lysy

In 1982 Columbia Pictures studio executive Victor Kaufman created a joint venture, TriStar Pictures, with CBS and HBO. The goal was to pool their resources given the ever-escalating costs of making movies. For their first film they chose to celebrate America’s national pastime by adapting The Natural, a baseball biopic novel by Bernard Malamud. The film offered classic Americana and Kaufman believed it was the perfect vehicle for launching TriStar Pictures. Mark Johnson was given the reigns to produce the film, and Barry Levinson was tasked with directing. Roger Towne and Phil Dusenberry were brought in to write the screenplay, which would be loosely based on the life of Roy Hobbs, a man of incredible “natural” baseball talent. Robert Redford, whose good looks and leading man talents were ascendant, was cast for the titular role. Joining him would be Robert Duvall as Max Mercy, Glenn Close as Iris Gaines, Kim Basinger as Memo Paris, Barbara Hershey as Harriet Bird, Wilford Brimley as Pop Fischer, Darren McGavin as Gus Sands, and Robert Prosky as the Judge.

Set in 1923, Roy Hobbs is a 19-year baseball phenom blessed with incredible talent on route from the family farm for a pitching tryout with the Chicago Cubs. At a stopover, he comes across Babe Ruth (The Whammer), and accepts a challenge to strike him out. He succeeds and succumbs to the allure of Harriet Bird who lures him to her hotel room, not knowing that she has a history of murdering star athletes with silver bullets. Well she shoots him and ends his pitching career before it ever started. Sixteen years later Hobbs is signed by the New York Knights for his hitting talent. Well after riding the bench for weeks he gets his shot after the team star player dies in a freak accident. Against all odds, Hobbs leads his team to the Pennant with a home run for the ages. This heartfelt story of redemption resonated with the American public, earning $20 million more than its production costs of $28 million. The film also earned critical praise, securing four Academy Award nominations for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, and Best Original Score.

Levinson wanted an Americana sound for the film, and Randy Newman’s 1981 score for Ragtime had made an impression on him. He was brought in and tasked with infusing the film with music, which spoke to America’s beloved pastime and Hobbs heartfelt story of redemption. The early 1980s saw a surge in electronica following Vangelis’ Oscar for Chariots of Fire in 1981. As such, Newman chose to support the film with a fusion of electronica and traditional acoustic instruments. He would underpin his score with three primary themes and a fanfare; foremost is the now iconic The Natural Fanfare, which has passed unto legend as one of the finest, and most memorable sports fanfares in cinematic history. It emotes as an anthem declared by unison horns trionfante, which soar confidently over a foundation of electronic bass, adorned with shimmering metallic percussion. Frequently joined to the fanfare is the Redemption Theme whose repeating fanfare declarations rise and fall, informing us of Roy’s struggle, and speaks to us of redemption, of a man cut down in his prime who perseveres, overcoming all obstacles to become a hero. There is an almost sparkling, magical effervescence, which inspires us, and crowns Roy’s triumphs throughout the film.

Equally important to the film’s narrative is the Farm Theme, which speaks to us of Roy’s humble rural upbringing. It informs us that you can take a boy from the farm, but not the farm from the boy. Throughout the film he remains true to his roots, and upbringing, never losing himself to fame as he seeks his destiny. The theme is Coplandesque in its sensibilities, brimming with a folksy, down to earth, Americana. Its woodwind rich A Phrase has a pastoral gentility, while its B Phrase is determined and more forthright. The third theme is the Love Theme, which is kindred in its sensibilities to the Farm Theme. It speaks to Roy and Iris’ romance, and emotes with strings gentile and woodwinds tenero. It is not ardent in its expression, instead offering warmth, tenderness and genuine affection. Lastly, Newman who always had a flare for jazz, understood that he would have to infuse his 1920s and 1930s soundscape with the big band jazz and swing sensibilities of the day, and what baseball game film can be complete without the traditional song “Take Me Out To The Ball Game”.

The film title and opening credits roll unscored. We see Roy waiting for a train to arrive, and the boarding it for his trip to tryout with the Chicago Cubs. As he gazes, lost in thought, we flash back to “Prologue 1915-1923” where we see him as a young boy racing through wheat fields to catch a baseball. This cue offers the score’s highlight cue, a masterpiece of conception where Newman demonstrates his enormous talent by capturing the film’s emotional core. After the Natural Fanfare opening, we are graced at 0:19 with a splendid presentation of the Farm Theme, that is fully rendered with both it A and B Phrases. The transfer of the melodic line from flute delicato, to trumpet and then sumptuous strings is effortless and offers the score’s finest exposition of the theme, which supports scenes of the farm, and Roy’s father’s training of his pitching skills. At 1:39 the music becomes bittersweet as Roy’s father collapses and dies from a heart attack while chopping wood. At 2:07 a contemplative Roy looks out through his bedroom window as lightning flashes illuminate baseball pennants hung on his wall. A shimmering, yet foreboding Natural Theme crescendos informing us of Roy’s destiny, and crests as a lightning bolt strike splits the tree under which his father died. We transition to the next day atop the Farm Theme as Roy’s commemorates his father by fashioning a bat from the fallen tree, burning a lightning bolt on to the barrel, and naming it, “Wonderboy”. At 2:55, a bold statement of the Natural Fanfare resounds as we bear witness to his handiwork. We conclude with a beautiful romantic rendering of the Farm Theme, as Roy proposes to Iris and prepares to depart, in search of his destiny, promising to send for her when he is settled. Newman perfectly sets the tone of the film, in the finest marriage of film and music in his canon.

In “The Whammer Strikes Out” we see Roy, after being taunted, accepting a challenge to strike out Whammer, the greatest hitter in baseball. After two consecutive strikes, the music enters to support the crucial third throw. The Natural Fanfare carries the windup, deliver and strikeout, exploding atop trumpets brillante into a Coplandesque celebratory exposition full of joy as Roy is mobbed as the Whammer stands in disbelief. This piece is quintessential Americana, which would have made Aaron Copland proud. Upon arriving in Chicago, Roy succumbs to the temptress of Harriet Bird who lures him to her hotel room, not knowing that she has a history of murdering star athletes with silver bullets. Well she shoots him and ends his pitching career before it ever started. The film resumes sixteen years later and we see Hobbs has been signed by the New York Knights for his hitting talent. “The Old Farm” was excised from the film. It supports Roy’s hiring by the New York Knights and reporting to the team. This woodwind rich piece renders variations of the Farm Theme, which ends with uncertainty, as the coach is hostile to accepting a middle-aged rookie. “The Majors – The Mind Is A Strange Thing” showcases some funky bass playing, offering vintage big band swing, which supports a montage of the team repeatedly losing by excruciatingly wide margins.

Pop finally allows Roy to take batting practice and is stunned as he hits one ball after another into the stands. In “Knock The Cover Off The Ball” Roy is sent in to pitch hit and he relishes that the moment he has been waiting for has finally arrived. As he walks to home plate, dark portentous horns sound over shimmering ethereal textures. The Natural Fanfare is nascent, but slowly begins to coalesce, gaining in strength and intensity as Roy takes a first strike. As the second pitch is delivered he swings and rips the ball from its cover, landing a triple, which brings in two runs and wins the game. The Natural Fanfare resounds with heroic glory to carry the moment, and ushers in the Redemption Theme as Roy savors what he has done. We close on a mysterioso as the umpire looks incredulously at the remnants of the ball. “Winning” offers classic big band Swing, which Newman uses to support a montage of the Knights on a winning streak. As Roy carries the team to first place, he becomes aware of a deal between Pop and the Judge, which stipulates that if the team wins the pennant the Judge gives up his stake in the franchise, while if they lose, Pop gives up his share. Later in an office meeting with the Judge he refuses a $5,000 bribe to throw the remaining games, angering the owner.

In “Memo,” Roy’s attraction to Memo elicits him to ask her to dance with him, which Newman supports with sultry sax playing as they dance together. Roy is attracted to her beauty and she finds him charming, yet mysterious. Later as they spend time together on a moonlit beach they embrace and kiss. Unbeknownst to him, she is playing him for gambler Gus Sands, who hopes to profit by betting against him. The trip to “Wrigley Field” reveals Roy in a terrible hitting slump, clearly distracted by Memo. The game is tied with men on base and he has two strikes against him when he happens to spot Iris in the stands. He gains inspiration from her atop the Farm Theme, and proceeds to launch a home run of such power that it strikes and shatters the glass game clock high above center field. Newman supports the moment with a celebratory rendering of the Natural Fanfare by horns trionfante and Redemption Theme. At 0:56 we transition on woodwinds gentile to the Love Theme as Roy searches the stands for Iris in vain, blinded by camera flashes. At 1:28 the shimmering rendering Farm Theme returns as he reads a letter from Iris asking him to join her at a Soda shop. In “Iris and Roy”; Newman renders his tender Love Theme to support the intimacy of their re-acquaintance. It is clear from their eyes that they are still in love. The theme never blossoms, as Roy has yet to reveal to her why he never sent for her.

“A Father Makes A Difference” reveals Iris and Roy taking a walk together after a game. He opens up to her of the circumstances, which changed his life, and dashed his dreams. The Love Theme carries their progress and supports his sad tale. With the truth revealed, Roy is unburdened and achieves a catharsis, but later he is stunned when she reveals to him in her apartment that she has a son. She does not disclose who is the father, yet alludes to Roy that her son’s father lives in New York, and that he is of the age where a father makes a difference. He departs before their son comes home from school. “Penthouse Party” reveals Roy meeting Memo and Gus. Soft and swaying dance music establishes the ambiance, which darkens full of menace at 0:37 as he nearly passes out and is rushed to hospital. It turns out the silver bullet was never removed and had been poisoning his stomach. Doctors advise him not to play, as well as Memo who pleads with him to go away with her, but he is determined and will not give up on dream. That night the Judge attempts blackmail with photos of Roy lying shot in a hotel room with Harriet Bird’s dead body. Such a revelation would ruin his reputation and he departs leaving an envelope holding $10,000. The next day Roy returns the envelope, defies the Judge and Gus, and spurns Memo, declaring he will play to win.

The score and film culminate in “The Final Game,” which Newman does not score until the sixth inning where the Farm Theme supports Roy receiving a note from Iris telling him that their son is in the stands. We now experience album-film discontinuity. The album cue shifts to a shimmering effervescence that launches at 0:36 a rendition of the song “Take Me Out To The Ball Game”. This song and sequence is not found in this film scene. We come to the pivotal ninth inning. They are one out from losing 2-0 with men on first and third base. Roy has one strike against him and a new lefty pitcher is brought in to face him. He gets a second strike and then Roy shatters Wonderball on a foul ball. The Farm Theme rendered as a mysterioso supports as he asks Bobby Savoy the ball boy to bring him a special bat. Bobby grabs a bat labeled Savoy Special, the bat Roy made for him. The Farm Theme Fanfare ushers in a low register ostinato with high register counter phrases, which sows tension. As the pitcher winds up and throws, twinkling piano carries the moment until Roy strikes the pitch at 2:27 and propels it into the lighting tower, a stunning home run that wins the game. The Natural Fanfare resounds to crown the moment and the Redemption Theme carries Roy’s triumphant run around the bases as he and his teammates celebrate in showers of sparks falling from the exploding light towers. At 4:09 we change scenes atop shimmering metallic effervescence, which returns us to Roy’s farm where he throws a baseball to his son, as his dad had done with him. A final reprise of the Natural Fanfare supports the tender moment as Iris looks on. We flow seamlessly into the “The End Title” supported by a suite of the scores primary themes, which join in wondrous interplay for a very warm and satisfying conclusion. “The Natural” is not associated with the film, but rather a concert piece created by Newman. The suite of the score’s primary themes is rendered with electronica with a very transparent Vangelis sensibility.

I would like to thank Warner Brothers and Lenny Waronker for their presentation of Randy Newman’s masterpiece score to The Natural. My soundtrack CD offers quality sound and an enjoyable listening experience. Newman joins the ranks of masters with this film score, which features an iconic sports anthem that has passed into legend. Its unison trumpet declarations are instantly recognizable to the public and represent one of the best of this genre. Newman understood the pathos of a man whose dreams are dashed, who perseveres, and finds the strength and belief to redeem himself. Throughout the film the Natural Fanfare crowned his triumphs, while the Redemption Theme affirmed his indomitable fortitude. But what gives this film heart and grounds it, is the Coplandesque Farm Theme, vintage Americana for this aspiring farm boy who left the farm, yet retained the farm in himself, ever true to his kin and origins. This film score is a gem from the early Bronze Age, and one of the finest in Randy Newman’s canon. I highly recommend you add this score to your collection.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a Youtube link to the score’s masterpiece cue, Prologue 1915-1923: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K2NOaWLcPkI

Buy the Natural soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Prologue (5:23)
  • The Whammer Strikes Out (1:59)
  • The Old Farm, 1939 (1:10)
  • The Majors: The Mind Is A Strange Thing (2:17)
  • Knock The Cover Off The Ball (2:21)
  • Memo (2:07)
  • The Natural (3:38)
  • Wrigley Field (2:18)
  • Iris and Roy (1:01)
  • Winning (1:05)
  • A Father Makes A Difference (1:54)
  • Penthouse Panty (1:14)
  • The Final Game (4:39)
  • End Title (3:24)

Running Time: 34 minutes 30 seconds

Warner Bros. 925116-2 (1984)

Music composed and conducted by Randy Newman. Orchestrations by Jack Hayes. Recorded and mixed by Lyle Burbridge. Edited by Joe Tuley. Album produced by Randy Newman and Lenny Waronker.

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