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PARENTHOOD – Randy Newman

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Parenthood was a successful and popular comedy-drama film directed by Ron Howard, based on the actual child-rearing experiences of Howard and his screenwriting partners Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, who between them had 17 children in 1989. The film starred Steve Martin and Mary Steenburgen as married couple Gil and Karen Buckman, and looks at the various trials and tribulations of their extended family, especially as the story relates to parent-child relationships, romantic problems, sibling rivalries, and the pressures that careers have on family lives. The film had an outstanding supporting ensemble cast, including Jason Robards, Rick Moranis, Tom Hulce, Martha Plimpton, 25-year-old Keanu Reeves, 15-year-old Joaquin Phoenix, and Dianne Weist, who received a Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination for her performance. It is also worth noting that, more than 20 years later, the movie was loosely adapted into a popular TV series of the same name, which ran on the NBC network for six seasons, although many of the characters and situations were different.

Parenthood came out sandwiched between Willow and Backdraft in Ron Howard’s filmography – three films that could not be more different – and is interesting because it shows just what an eclectic and diverse director he was, and is. Howard has a deft touch with both light comedy and emotional family drama, and this is clearly apparent in how he handles the abrupt changes in tone that occur throughout the film, making them seem seamless and natural. Parenthood is also interesting as it marks the first of Howard’s musical collaborations with composer Randy Newman; prior to this film, Howard alternated between composers Lee Holdridge, Thomas Newman, and James Horner, but felt that Randy was a better fit for a film which, like many of his songs, dealt with the peculiarities of American society and family life.

The soundtrack is bookended by an original song, “I Love to See You Smile,” a prototypical Newman piece with sardonic lyrics and a fun and likeable hook, which earned Newman his fourth Academy Award nomination and this third Grammy nomination (although he lost the Oscar to Alan Menken and “Under the Sea” from The Little Mermaid). The melody will be familiar to long-time film music aficionados for its similarity to “You Got a Friend in Me,” which Newman wrote for the film Toy Story six years later, although this is perhaps simply due to the fact that both songs have six-syllable titles. A fun anecdote: Randy Newman came to the UK in the late 1990s to do a series of concerts with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, for which I worked at the time. My good friend and fellow critic James Southall attended the rehearsals for the concert with me and, after he finished singing “I Love to See You Smile” Randy turned to us sitting in the audience and said, with a mischievous glint in his eye, “actually, I don’t give a shit!”

None of Newman’s score contains any melodic material from the song, which is perhaps a touch disappointing, but the charming and whimsical atmosphere Newman creates through his instrumental music is still endearing enough to be appealing. Parenthood came at a time in Newman’s career when he was very much into writing music for intimate dramas and comedies (The Natural, Avalon, Awakenings), and had not yet turned into the Pixar juggernaut he would become in the mid 1990s. As such, Parenthood allowed him to explore several aspects of his musical personality, ranging from light comedy to serious drama, and even some overblown parody which gave him the opportunity to engage in some action music and even some western pastiche.

The score is anchored by a twin set of sort-of interchangeable themes, which share similarities in orchestration – light strings, pretty woodwinds, piano – but carry different melodic ideas. The first theme is heard at the beginning of the opening cue “Introduction,” a warm and inviting piece that has heart and emotion but a touch of quirkiness in its chord progressions. The tremolo strings underneath its woodwind rendering in “Helen and Julie” gives it a little bit of mother-daughter tension, while in “Gary’s in Trouble” Newman performs it with a little more darkness in its tone, especially when he underpins it with some light keyboard rhythms and a touch of dissonance in the strings. Finally, in “Father and Son,” Newman uses subtle brass accents, a hint of an accordion, and a brief saxophone to give the theme a feeling of sepia-toned nostalgia, as well as a notion of reconciliation.

The second theme first appears in “Todd and Julie,” speaking to the strength of the relationship between Keanu Reeves and Martha Plimpton’s characters who – despite being very young and very inexperienced – prove to be surprisingly wise and good parents. This theme comes to fruition during the conclusive “Karen and Gil/Montage,” which is full of wistful charm, pretty chord progressions, and an overall sense of appealing whimsy. The solo piano rendition that closes the score underscores the final montage scene of the entire extended Buckman clan in a hospital, happily cradling children and smoking celebratory cigars, as yet another newborn member arrives to bring joy and sadness in equal measure. Both these themes have a lot in common with some of the scores I mentioned earlier, notably The Natural and Awakenings, as well as things like Pleasantville which Newman would write almost a decade later.

The light action music heard at the end of “Kevin’s Graduation” and in the second half of “Gary’s in Trouble” is expanded significantly during “Drag Race,” in which the keyboard rhythms become much more prominent, the brass section is used with more dramatic weight, and electric guitars add a level of insistent urgency. Later, in “Kevin Comes Through,” the same action-suspense motif is heard in a much brighter arrangement, and combines with the main theme in a moment of exultant victory.

However, my favorite parts of the score are actually the parody sequences, which allow Newman to engage in some much more broad and orchestrally diverse writing. “Kevin’s Graduation” is an intentionally overblown piece of gloriously triumphant Americana, full of resounding trumpet heralds, snare drum rattles, and mock-noble organs. Likewise, “Kevin’s Party (Cowboy Gil)” gave Newman an early opportunity to explore the sound of the traditional Hollywood Western, prior to him writing much more in this style in Maverick in 1994 and in the scenes for Woody in Toy Story in 1995. Newman begins with a little Mexican mariachi pastiche – guitars, violins, solo trumpets, castanets, tambourines – before going into full-blown Elmer Bernstein mode in the cue’s second half with a melody that recalls the main title song he wrote for Three Amigos in 1986. It’s silly, and is clearly meant to be taken with your tongue firmly in your cheek, but it’s great nonetheless.

In the larger context of Randy Newman’s career, Parenthood is a fairly inconsequential work, but fans of his quiet drama scores like the aforementioned The Natural, or Awakenings, or Pleasantville, will nevertheless find themselves having a positive reaction to it. Newman’s scores, much like his songs, have a way of bypassing all the peripheral noise and conveying an emotion in a direct way, and Parenthood is a good example of this tendency. These emotions may sound simple – parental love, sibling rivalry – but, as we all know, families can be messy and inconsistent and annoying and difficult to handle; the way in which Newman cuts through all the bullshit and allows the central core to remain constant is impressive. Whatever else may go on in your life, families are families, and if you have to keep it all together with an exasperated smile on your face while wearing a cowboy outfit at a kid’s birthday party, so be it.

Buy the Parenthood soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Introduction/I Love to See You Smile (written and performed by Randy Newman) (3:24)
  • Kevin’s Graduation (2:37)
  • Helen and Julie (0:56)
  • Kevin’s Party (Cowboy Gil) (3:22)
  • Gary’s in Trouble (2:50)
  • Father and Son (2:30)
  • Drag Race/Todd and Julie (2:30)
  • Kevin Comes Through (1:32)
  • Karen and Gil/Montage (4:51)
  • End Title/I Love to See You Smile (written and performed by Randy Newman) (3:39)

Running Time: 28 minutes 25 seconds

Reprise Records 26001-2 (1989)

Music composed and conducted by Randy Newman. Orchestrations by Jack Hayes. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Dan Carlin. Album produced by Randy Newman and Lenny Waronker.

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