For composer-conductor David Newman, movie music runs in the family

Composer-conductor David Newman, here at the 2023 TCM Classic Film Festival, is part of a Hollywood film-music dynasty that consists of his father, two uncles, siblings and very famous cousin, Randy "You've Got a Friend in Me" Newman.

Charley Gallay/Getty Images for TCM

HOLLYWOOD — Composer-conductor David Newman proudly leans into the concept of being a nepo baby. After all, his father is Alfred Newman, a nine-time Oscar winner and a giant of the golden age of Hollywood film music. He’s also the nephew of film composers Emil Newman and Lionel Newman; the brother of director-writer Tim, composer-conductor Thomas (Oscar-nominated for “WALL-E”) and composer Maria, and cousin of Randy Newman (best known as a singer-songwriter but also a two-time Oscar winner, including one for the theme of “Toy Story 3”).

The term “nepo baby” has been bandied about in the press, often negatively, but Newman regards it as a badge of honor. As a creative force in his own right, David embraces the legacy of the Newman dynasty, which he helped to burnish at this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival, held April 13-16 at the historic TCL Chinese theater complex. He introduced and discussed “All About Eve” (1950), featuring one of his father’s Oscar-nominated and influential scores.

In a very meta twist, Newman was joined by TCM host Ben Mankiewicz, the great-nephew of Hollywood icon Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who won two Oscars for “All About Eve” (best director and screenplay). 

With more than 120 film and TV credits, including the Oscar-nominated “Anastasia” (1997), Newman is no slouch himself. He’s also in demand as a conductor, especially for live-to-picture presentations with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra, Boston Symphony Orchestra and San Francisco Symphony, among others. He will lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in three performances June 29-30 and July 1 of “Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens” (2015), featuring an Oscar-nominated score by the legendary John Williams, who also happens to be one of his mentors.

The younger Newman considers “All About Eve,” starring Bette Davis as stage queen Margo Channing whose reign is threatened by a scheming upstart (Anne Baxter), as one of his father’s most important scores. “It sets up motifs for each character,” he said. “Music is integral throughout, but especially at the end when Eve [Baxter] arrives and meets Phoebe, a younger version of herself. Past, present and future intertwine on the theme of the young usurping the old.”

Born in 1900, Alfred Newman grew up as a piano prodigy. At an early age, he made important connections in the arts and cinema fields. He knew George Gershwin and Cole Porter. Later, he ran the music department at 20th Century Fox, from 1938 to 1959, and composed the studio's iconic fanfare (which introduced every release). “Alfred and Max Steiner basically invented film music and its grammar,” David Newman said. “They came up with the concept of letting music comment on action on screen.”

“All About Eve,” which received one of Alfred Newman’s eventual 45 Oscar nominations, marked a crucial evolution in film scoring. “It was just about unheard of for a film score to do anything other than Mickey Mouse the action 100 percent,” said James Southall, in a review of the film’s soundtrack, released on CD in 1999. “But for ‘All About Eve,’ Newman wrote music that seems to be more a loose dramatic commentary on the film than a traditionally programmatic film score. This was a revelation, but would not become common practice for many years to come.” 

After stepping down from Fox, Alfred Newman continued composing, with his last score being “Airport” (1970), which helped the disaster genre to take off in the ’70s. It brought Newman his 45th Oscar nomination, but Francis Lai won the gold statuette for the chart-topping “Love Story.”

Meanwhile, in the same decade, David Newman completed degrees in conducting and violin performance at the University of Southern California, and started out as a studio violinist on soundtracks of the late ’70s. He composed his first score, “Critters” (1986), and went on to write scores for hit films such as “The War of the Roses” (1989), “Bowfinger” (1999) and “Girls Trip” (2017). His latest big project was re-orchestrating Leonard Bernstein’s original music for “Steven Spielberg’s 2021 remake of “West Side Story.”

After 45 years in the field, Newman has never regretted succumbing to the siren call of film music. “Had I been older [when starting out], going into the field would have been more daunting,” he said. “It’s such a great job. It flows, it swells. It’s an addictive kind of endeavor.”