CD Review: Leatherheads

Composer: Randy Newman
Label: Varese Sarabande
Suggested Retail Price: $16.98
Grade: B+

If you could call Randy Newman the Norman Rockwell of film composers, then you could trace his lush Americana sound to his roots in New Orleans. As the source of all things jazz, New Orleans’ brassy, honky-tonk attitude would also turn Newman into one of our country’s great satiric songwriter/singers with the likes of “Short People” and “I Love LA.” While that’s a whole other set of albums, Newman’s new score for Leatherheads returns him to his lifeblood like no soundtrack before it. We’re not talking the majestic, scoreboard-shattering strings of The Natural here, but rather the hangdog strains of a bunch of beautiful losers; screwball players on their way out as the “pros” take over what will become The National Football League. It’s doubtful Robert Redford would make it to the ten-yard line if he suited up for this kind of musical rough and tumble.

Set in 1925, the marching band jazz that comprises much of Leatherheads makes it a nice kissing cousin to Marvin Hamlisch’s Scott Joplin stylings for The Sting. Indeed, both films are about heroes who gleefully cheat as a means to an end, and where The Sting used “The Entertainer,” Leatherheads nicely glides along on such standards as “Hold That Tiger” and “The Man I Love” (sexily performed on album and screen by Ledisi). If other scores have gone for the roaring 1920’s vibe, few really capture it with the raw, comedic energy like the Orleans-blooded Newman. And he unleashes one fun ragtime tribute after the other, capturing the classic vibe with the gusto of a bandleader in a soused speakeasy. And it’s no coincidence that Newman cameos as a pianist who smashes a bottle over a drunk brawler’s head (one character is even called “Max Steiner” as evidence of Leatherheads’ composer in-jokes).

Sure the past may have sucked. And football may have been a lot more fun when its players cheated. But if Randy Newman has a God-given talent, it’s the ability to musically paint the past with beautiful rose-colored glasses, evoking a real melodic innocence that makes us wish we were born a century ago. It’s the kind of spiritually lush “aw shucks” sound that’s colored his other period scores like Avalon, Pleasantville, Seabiscuit and even a western like Maverick. Lovers of Newman’s more orchestral soundtracks might miss his pure, populist sound, which the brass section mostly kicks back to the end zone in favor of a screwball jazz approach. But there’s no mistaking the nostalgic energy at hand, as Newman more than captures George Clooney’s desire to redo a 30’s screwball comedy (an aim the director/star succeeds at marvelously, by the way). And while there are some playful violin stylings and symphonically meaningful sports camaraderie, Newman’s more delicate fans will definitely find their goal in his winning love theme. By reducing the character’s satiric, yet heartfelt attraction to a few piano notes, Newman uses the Pleasantville and Avalon playbook to kick his theme straight through the emotional goalpost. Like the best composers, he continues to say more with a great, simply played melody that many others can sock out through 100 violins, or brass instruments for that matter.

Given that it’s a comedy, Leatherheads might not be the kind of powerhouse sports score like The Natural, or make it to Newman’s big-league soundtracks. So call this soundtrack “lightweight” if you will. But perhaps a better kind of word to describe Leatherheads’ score is one that the characters of so many period comedies threw around. That piece of slang was “Moxie.” And in this brassy, ballsy romp, Randy Newman sets off the play with no more desire than to have a good time. And in that aim, Leatherheads is another touchdown for the composer, whose winning, jazz-fueled run here takes him all the way to the band halls of New Orleans.

Score a play with Randy Newman here .