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Pixar’s Bittersweet Symphony

In the 27 years since the release of ‘Toy Story,’ the music behind Pixar has changed substantially—united by its power to elicit raw emotion

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Ahead of the release of Lightyear, The Ringer is hosting Pixar Week—a celebration of the toys, rats, clown fish, and more that helped define one of the greatest studios of the 21st century. At the heart of the occasion is the Best Pixar Character Bracket, a cutthroat tournament to determine the most iconic figure of them all. Check back throughout the week to vote for your favorite characters and read a selection of stories that spotlight some of Pixar’s finest moments. To infinity … and beyond!


When the creatives of Pixar drafted their proverbial constitution in 1995, they didn’t just want to pioneer technology for the first feature-length film with computer animation. They also wanted to distinguish themselves musically from other animation studios—namely Disney. “We were so spit, piss, and vinegar at the time, and young,” says Andrew Stanton, director of Finding Nemo, Wall-E, and cowriter of all four Toy Story films. “We wanted to prove you could make different movies and different tones and different styles in animation other than a giant Broadway musical fairy tale.”

It was Stanton who suggested Randy Newman for Toy Story. A self-avowed “score geek” from childhood, Stanton had the largest CD collection of anyone at Pixar and he remains the studio’s unofficial music editor. He loved Newman’s nostalgic Americana scores for Ragtime, The Natural, and especially Avalon—Barry Levinson’s semi-autobiographical film about growing up in Baltimore. That wistful, elegiac score “still is my touchstone that I go to whenever I have to write a Toy Story movie … because it’s the source,” Stanton says. An animator friend, Tony Fucile, had already planted the seed in Stanton’s head that Newman might be an excellent match for animation, and when it came time to pick a composer for their debut film, Stanton brought the idea before a creative council that included director John Lasseter, cowriters Pete Docter and Joe Ranft, and producers Bonnie Arnold and Ed Catmull.

The argument for Newman was simple. “Randy sells sincerity through insincerity,” says Stanton, “which I felt was exactly who we were.”

Powered by Newman’s one-of-a-kind voice, Toy Story launched a studio empire and established a blueprint that defined Pixar for many years. In addition to an all-star voice cast, sharp writing catered to adults and kids alike, and groundbreaking, lifelike animation, the film weighted its cartoon action with music full of human drama, pathos, and wry humor. Newman became the studio’s good luck charm, scoring its first four films and nine films in total.

In the 27 years since Toy Story’s release, the filmmakers and composers have diversified considerably, and it’s impossible to define what makes “Pixar music” different from any other film studio’s music. But with the release of Lightyear, a movie with explicit roots in Toy Story that features a score by Michael Giacchino (The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Up), it’s an interesting moment to take stock of the musical values and style Newman helped codify and that his successors have either carried on or ignored. There is no trace of Newman’s music in Lightyear—in a way that feels almost symbolic.

Newman remembered getting that very first phone call from Pixar, “because it started a terror in my stomach, you know, that it was so different from what I’d done,” he told me in 2019. “It was gonna necessitate a type of music I hadn’t written.” What Newman had written previously were some of the most achingly earnest and melancholic scores for films like Avalon and Awakenings. That sort of writing style proved increasingly useful in the Pixar universe—and feels somewhat surprising coming from a man with a bone-dry, sardonic personality.

“Randy has an unrealized second career as a stand-up comedian,” says Stanton. “He’s cut from that cloth, where they have such passion and honest desires inside for truth and justice and fairness—but they’re jaded on the outside, because they can’t also not see the truth of how hard and fucked up the world is. I think that’s just the path his brain takes, and he’s very good at it.

“What’s a nicer way to say that?” Stanton adds. “When he gets to the truth and the beauty of something, it’s earned. You’ve had to fight your way there and earn it. There’s nothing manipulative about it.”

At their best, Pixar films are just that: earned sentiment wrapped inside a hard-candy shell of intelligent comedy. It was a match made in pixelated heaven.

Toy Story, too, was all about nostalgia—a Randy Newman specialty. The composer spent a formative part of his childhood in New Orleans and “has a love for the [city’s] sound, and respecting your forebears and where you come from,” Stanton says. “History seems to always be some element to his music, so it makes so much sense that it worked like gangbusters on Toy Story, which is making you think about your toys, the old and the new.”

Of course, before he was ever a film composer, Newman was a singer-songwriter, adored by the likes of Harry Nilsson and Bob Dylan and known for his razor-sharp portraits of certain characters (“Rednecks,” “Short People”) and hilarious social commentary (“Political Science,”), as well as heartbreaking ballads (“Marie”). So Pixar tapped that keg, too—although partly under pressure from Disney, which had a distribution deal with Pixar before acquiring the company outright in 2006.

“I remember we were very adamant: no songs, no songs, no songs,” says Stanton. “But we didn’t have as much pull as we would after making Toy Story. They kind of met us in the middle. They said, ‘You’ve got to have songs. We need some sort of economic paste to promote the movie and capitalize it in other places.’” Chris Montan, then head of music at Disney, proposed the tactic of The Graduate and other counterculture classics: Songs would play over scenes and montages rather than characters breaking into song. “We respected those movies, we felt that was still fresh,” Stanton says, “and so we felt it was a worthy compromise. Everybody was happy, and I want to believe that sealed the deal for us going with Randy, because we knew we’d still get that tone from Randy in his songs.”

The result was that Newman literally became the voice of Pixar. For an entire generation and counting, his unique, bear-like yawn has belonged to the world of Woody and his friends, and not the cheeky skewerer of capitalism and racists. Still, Newman was able to flex his storytelling muscles, writing the all-time buddy number “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” as well as character portraits from the perspectives of Woody (“Strange Things”) and Buzz (“I Will Go Sailing No More”). Disney got its hits—you can’t spend an hour at any of their theme parks without hearing a Toy Story song—and Pixar got its mouthy songster.

In terms of actual scoring, this was still animation. The art form has long been associated with an approach that bounced and flailed alongside the cartoonish motion, explicitly hitting every thwack and tumble—a style that was innovated by Silly Symphonies and Looney Tunes composer Carl Stalling (the technique is actually called “Mickey Mousing”). That was one more thing the Pixar gang wanted to avoid. “We were so trying to prove that we weren’t just a cartoon or a babysitting tool,” says Stanton. “Even though we were huge Warner Bros., Carl Stalling fans—we weren’t anti that—we were just trying to make a feature, we were trying to make a movie, and we didn’t want to make a giant Bugs Bunny cartoon.” But again, they found it couldn’t entirely be helped. “A little of that still made it in, and is kind of forever part of the lexicon, musically, for Toy Story,” Stanton says. “Randy opened our eyes that you needed a little. It took me a long time to accept that.”

As Newman saw it, the nature of the movie dictated his Stalling approach. He intuited that when Woody fell off a shelf, the music should fall with him. “In the whole picture, I think there’s only one time it slowed down,” Newman told me in 2017, “where I think Buzz and Woody ... one of them was in a cage and the other one was there trying to get him out. I had like a 35-second oboe solo. And that was the only time when it wasn’t hustling to some degree.” Thomas Newman, Randy’s cousin who scored Finding Nemo and Wall-E, explained it to me this way: “In animation, action is changing so quickly that there’s really not a lot of suspended moments. In live action, sometimes a mood or a feeling can go on for quite a while.” Stanton and his fellow directors begrudgingly accepted that—but Stanton also took it as a challenge to slow the pictures down and create more suspended moments.

“It’s just a discipline,” Stanton says. “It’s one of those things where there are so many people that touch a shot and a scene in our pipeline before it gets out—everybody wants to contribute something, out of just sheer desire and support. And when you have that many hands touching, it’s additive. ... It just gets busier. I think we’re learning over time how to tame that and restrain that.”

Most of Toy Story’s filmmakers were in their 20s when they made Toy Story. As they grew up, so did the films. In Toy Story 2, things slowed down enough for a long montage of Jessie the cowgirl remembering the love and loss of her “kid” set to the slow, heart-rending song “When She Loved Me” (sung by Sarah McLachlan, written by Randy Newman). By Toy Story 3, the drama had deepened so much that the climax has our beloved toy friends sliding toward their impending deaths in a garbage incinerator, holding hands and staring worriedly into each others’ plastic souls. (Seriously, try not to cry.) Newman’s score remained suspended in place and went accordingly grave.

“Lasseter once said to me, ‘You know, the characters are pretty much always adults,’” Newman recalled in the 2017 interview. “You have to take their feelings, their emotions, seriously. It’s not unimportant when somebody’s feeling bad. You notice it.”

Almost 10 years into Pixar’s run, Stanton was the first Pixar director to branch away from Newman—and he hopped only one branch over to cousin Tom. Stanton wrote Finding Nemo while mainlining Thomas Newman’s scores for The Shawshank Redemption, Meet Joe Black, and The Horse Whisperer, to the point where he felt like the composer was a character in his movie. Thomas’s sound was his muse, and it suffused the entire emotional palette of Nemo. In a word, Stanton says, Thomas’s gestalt was bittersweet. “Just like intense bittersweetness. Like, no joy is for free. That’s kind of my view of life,” he says.

By hiring Thomas, it was also a way to expand the definition and palette of what a Pixar movie could be. Whereas Randy’s scores—be it his rootin-tootin’ cowboy music for Woody or the jazzy heartbeat of Monstropolis—were exuberant, almost manic mirrors to the animated action, Thomas’s scores for Nemo and Wall-E were impressionistic tone poems. They, too, occasionally throttled into frenetic motion. ​​“The ideas were as much about how music was transitioning from moment to moment or feeling to feeling, as much as the individual feelings or moments themselves,” Thomas told me in 2016. “So it’s a lot more effort. There’s a lot more notes, and there’s a lot more things that animation has to do.” But his scores were markedly more fluid and emotionally atmospheric—which perfectly suited films about heartbreak set underwater and in outer space. Stanton and company forced themselves to slow down even more, which allowed the music to breathe. The entire first act of Wall-E was an experiment in telling a story without dialogue, and Thomas’s melancholy score provided much of the feelings and information about the postapocalyptic trash world inherited by this little robot.

Thomas views music in terms of color and shade, “and so you almost think of mood before you think of structure and story,” Stanton says. “It’s what seduces me about anything that he scores, is it feels like somehow he’s gone into the DNA of what you’re building stuff with, and found a level of understanding in it that’s so primal—that even you didn’t know you were sitting on. It’s always therapy sessions for me to sit with him and have to explain or describe something that we’re trying to go for on a scene, when we’re initially reviewing it. I end up always walking out of the session understanding why I did that scene better than I ever did before.”

The director points to a scene in Nemo when Nigel the pelican arrives to tell Nemo that his dad has been bravely looking for him across the ocean. “And the music, I realized, did all the work,” Stanton says. “I could let literally the details of everything we’ve experienced going through the story just fade away, and the music just is now carrying what it feels like for his son to hear it.” The camera pushes in on a wide-eyed, smiling Nemo and Newman’s tender main theme rises like a tide of tears.

There’s increasingly no such thing as a Pixar house style, but if there’s one thing everyone knows to expect from a Pixar film, it’s that they’ll probably cry. Whether it’s the opening montage in Up—which nonverbally chronicles the courtship, marriage, and widowing of its main character in a matter of minutes—or the noble sacrifice of an imaginary creature named Bing Bong in Inside Out, the studio has a reputation for ostensibly making inventive kids films that then go straight for the emotional jugular. It’s their secret sauce.

Giacchino was responsible for those two scores, and he was the third composer to enter the Pixar stable after the Newman cousins. He was originally hired to replace the legendary John Barry, who signed up to score The Incredibles but bailed because he didn’t want to retread his James Bond aesthetic. Giacchino obliged, conjuring the closest thing he could to a Barry score for the adventures of Brad Bird’s super spies—and he quickly became a favorite of Bird (Ratatouille) and Docter (Up, Inside Out) in large part because of his shapeshifting dexterity and a shared pop culture vocabulary. “He’s our age, came through the same influences,” Stanton says. “You can speak geek with him. You can literally go, ‘You know on side two of Planet of the Apes … ?” Stanton laughs. “It’s like talking to a sibling, where you can kind of go into half sentences and you’re semi-psychic.”

Over time, the studio’s composer roster slowly grew. Scottish composer Patrick Doyle scored the Scottish fairytale Brave; brothers Mychael and Jeff Danna scored the brother fantasy Onward. Each film pushed the boundaries of what defines a Pixar film, which Stanton says was the plan all along: “We consciously said—I remember this in ’99—‘Wouldn’t it be great if, when you saw the Pixar logo, all it meant was it’s going to be a certain level of quality and it was going to be worth your time ... and after that, all bets are off?’ That has always been our desire.”

I was gobsmacked when I heard in 2019 that the next Pixar movie would be scored by Trent Reznor. Soul director Docter, who aimed to make a (literally) spiritual companion to Inside Out, said he wanted something that felt “otherworldly and not familiar.” So he got the brooding king of industrial rock. If anything, it was Reznor who was filled with dread about the prospect. “Pixar is not going to wing it,” he told me in 2021, “and we wanted to make sure we could give them comfort to know: Hey, we can make music that isn’t just, you know, bowel-churning stuff to feel uncomfortable about.” And wouldn’t you know it: Reznor and his wingman Atticus Ross went on to win an Oscar. (As did Jon Batiste, whose jazz source music provided a nice balance to the Social Network Jr. score.)

The most recent Pixar film, Turning Red, featured a Chinese-electronica-poppy score by Ludwig Göransson and original boy band songs by Finneas and Billie Eilish. We’re a long way from Randy Newman and Avalon.

Ironically, Newman wrote an origin story for Buzz Lightyear back in 1995—“Out among the stars I sail, way beyond the moon / In my silver ship I sail, a dream that ended too soon,” he sings as the Space Ranger in “I Will Go Sailing No More.” The conceit of Lightyear is that this is the movie, made in 1995, that Andy saw that made him want the spaceman doll. Therefore, the movie doesn’t acknowledge the meta world of Toy Story in its score (even if there are several knowing winks and quotes in the script).

Anyway, Newman would probably have been too cynical to score the newest Pixar film—which, at best, is a cute but inessential spinoff, at worst a crass experiment in IP bottom-feeding. (David Ehrlich of IndieWire tweeted that it “has absolutely HUGE ‘this was announced during a shareholders presentation’ energy.”) After all, this is the same composer who was fired from Air Force One because his score sounded like it was mocking the film’s over-the-top patriotism. From the toy Buzz Lightyear in 1995 to “the human Buzz Lightyear that the toy is based on” in 2022, Pixar has held on to some of its core tenets and not just its most lucrative franchises—there’s almost always a moment or piece of music that sneaks up and blows the dam to your waterworks. But more and more, they seem to have lost that hard shell of insincerity that masked a sugary inside.

No one articulated the original Pixar ethos better than Randy Newman: “They’re always adults in these pictures,” he said in 2013. “The people who create them take [theirs] very seriously. As do I. So when they’re sad, I’ll be sad. I mean, it does sound puerile and stupid, but I mean... music in its basic kind of form, that’s what it can do.”

Tim Greiving is a film music journalist in Los Angeles and a regular contributor to NPR, the Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post. Find him at timgreiving.com.

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