Randy Newman is known to the non-cinematically-obsessed public as the sourpuss composer and gravelly-voiced singer of the tart novelty hit "Short People," but here is the work for which he should have won his well-deserved Oscar (instead of for the trifle he composed for 2001's "Monsters, Inc.").
With "The Natural," which he not only composed but conducted, Newman manages the pretty neat trick of stepping into the enormous shoes left by Aaron Copland. Newman takes the perfectly American pasttime of baseball and melds it perfectly with the American penchant for youth, sunshine, nostalgia, and happy endings--all without a single instance of treacle or falsity. He sounds Coplandian here without sounding slavish. He soars on wings of his own making and utterly enriches the film "The Natural" with his music.
"Prologue 1915 - 1923" opens the soundtrack and deftly sketches the career Robert Redford's Roy Hobbs character had in the minors and then briefly in the majors, limning the energetic youth of the new baseball player followed by the slower, more minor-key weariness Hobbs experiences as he seems to lose his touch. With "Knock the Cover Off the Ball," Newman somehow captures a sparkly, sunstruck afternoon out in the middle of a baseball field, the fierce concentration needed to do the deed demanded in the title, and the gathering speed of the ball itself. In "Winning," the big band, swinging tune says it all. You need brass balls to survive this ball game, son, and the music handily underscores that rule without the aid of a single lyric.
Had Randy Newman never written another film score beyond 1984's "The Natural," he could easily and justly have rested on these fine laurels. We are lucky that he didn't.