Avalon: A 25th Anniversary Conversation with Barry Levinson and Randy Newman

Avalon is one of a handful of deeply personal films from my childhood. I remember watching it on VHS at my grandparents’ house in Del Rio, Texas. It became a kind of family tradition—every few years we’d pull it out and have a good cry. The fact that it’s a movie about family traditions, and generations, and the passage of time just makes it all the more poignant.

The somewhat downbeat heartbeat of the film is Randy Newman’s elegiac score—a masterpiece of waltzing ghosts, trumpet requiems for vanished childhoods and fallen ancestors, and the kind of soulful, melancholy solo piano writing that Newman does better than anyone else.

barry levinson 1990“Randy came up very quickly,” says director Barry Levinson (in a new interview for this essay). “I obviously worked with him on The Natural, but I thought this would be perfect for him. Because the piano was an important element in the piece. You know, we see it being brought down the street in a rainstorm and into the house, and the grandfather can play the piano. So I thought ‘piano.’ When I was writing, I was thinking of Randy.”

Levinson had just gilded his reputation with Rain Man and its four Oscars (including best picture and director). He decided to cash it in on a deeply personal project, and in early 1990 he sat down to write a new screenplay—initially titled “The Family”—that would sit beside his other “Baltimore films,” Diner and Tin Men. It was the story about a family of Jewish/Polish immigrants, and their two generations of descendants who assimilated into post-war America.

“Quite a bit” of the story was autobiographical, Levinson says. “There were five Krichinsky brothers. They came to America one at a time. Wallpaper hangers, painters… all that’s true. All living in the same area, and then the move to suburbia, and the next generation ultimately began to branch out. My father was involved in selling, which led to a store and then ultimately the idea of selling televisions. He actually had a very large store, much like what’s depicted. They did have a giant fire. Even the streetcar crash actually happened, when I was coming out of the theater late in the afternoon.”

Levinson had always considered doing a story about his family, but “never quite got to it.” Having tracked two other timelines in the Baltimore of yore, and now with the success of Rain Man, the timing seemed right. He says he had no trouble getting this quirky, highly localized film—headlined by a 60-year-old German actor unknown to American audiences (Armin Mueller-Stahl)—made at a major studio (TriStar Pictures).

“You could never get it made now,” he admits, “because it’s not a real high concept piece. But back then they were still making some movies that dealt with human beings.”

avalon levinson

Levinson recreated the 1950s Baltimore of his youth, and populated the background with his own family members. “We walked onto the warehouse set, opened the door, and felt like we were stepping back in time,” Levinson’s father, Ira, said in the film’s production notes. “All those televisions and appliances from the 1950s. It was my old store. It was uncanny.”

A motley ensemble cast, which included character actors Kevin Pollak and Joan Plowright and rising young stars Aidan Quinn and Elizabeth Perkins, was perfected with a 9-year-old Elijah Wood as young Michael (who Levinson confirms is his avatar in the film). Wood gave Michael an earthy sweetness, minus any cloying kid actor cuteness, and we witness the story through his wide eyes.

Levinson was less interested in creating an homage to his lineage than he was exploring the themes of the breakup of the extended family and the detrimental rise of television. “I was beginning to think about how my grandfather was telling me these stories, and then realizing how that was being replaced with television,” he says. “Television became the storyteller instead of the family passing on the story.”

He elaborated in the film’s production notes: “I think certain things impact on the family structure. In my lifetime, television was one, transportation and the growth of suburbia were others. I think some of these things are responsible for many of the problems we have today because the idea of a family unit goes back thousands and thousands of years and it’s really only since the late 1940s that it started to come apart. We altered something that had been strong, and we haven’t been able to replace it. The family structure acted as a support system. It instilled a sense of morality and acted as an educational force. There’s no question in my mind that the family as we’ve known it has come apart. It was a bit of mourning for this that prompted me to begin writing Avalon.”

randy newman

In 1990, Randy Newman wrote what may be his two best scores: Avalon and Awakenings. Both beautiful, both heartbreaking. His father, Irving (a family doctor), passed away in February that year, but Newman insists that nothing in his personal life (“except telephone and intrusion”) creeps into the film music he writes.

And yet Newman must have tapped into a profoundly sad place when he wrote the music for Barry Levinson’s film. At the very beginning, the lead character of Sam Krichinsky narrates how happy he was when he “came to America in 1914… It was the most beautiful place you’ve ever seen in your life.” As Fourth of July fireworks explode behind him, Newman’s main theme (“1914”) juxtaposes against Sam’s smile with its slow, minor-key waltz—every phrase wincing with musical anticipation and suspension.

1914

That music was “what [the scene] looked like to me,” says Newman in a new interview. “And you’ve got a big ‘1914’ up there, which is the harbinger, for the world, of the end of the belief that things were going to be perfect. This big monstrous thing coming up—which [the film] didn’t talk about… but there it was. It looked more elegiac than it did celebration, and the sound of his voice wouldn’t have permitted to do it in a major key.”

Levinson gave Newman free rein to score the film in whatever way felt right. But the director insists that the music here isn’t sad. “I think the sound that you’re responding to… in first hearing it, it just felt so correct for the piece,” Levinson says. “I wouldn’t call it sad. If you’re telling something that was once upon a time, that sort of feels appropriate.”

“The world of that picture isn’t there anymore,” muses Newman. “And yet, it’s evolving towards this one. You know, that family is going to go on. Those are modern men, those guys. They’re not finished. And they got a lot from their grandfather, and from their father. Elegiac is better than just depressing, you know?”

The final scene in the film shows a suddenly very old Sam Krichinsky, slow and memory-rotting, being visited by a grownup Michael in a coldly clinical nursing home. “Well… he’s taking the sad story with him,” says Newman, “and taking, presumably, a bit of the feeling with him. Barry doesn’t think it’s a comedy, but he probably would resist the notion that it’s a sad picture. The little boy there, as a repository, is obviously meant to be seen as the better for it. Which is you, you know, as the viewer.”

Maybe it’s because I first saw the film as a little boy, but for me this film is permeated with pain. From the violent mugging of Michael’s father (which Michael watches through the car window), to the family meetings and Thanksgiving dinners that crumble apart over petty, or perhaps not-so-petty, grievances, to the funeral for Sam’s wife on a freezing winter day. For the latter, Newman wrote a lament for solo trumpet that—paired with Sam’s blank, cold, aging face—pierces the heart.

Funeral

 

Levinson needed music for the opening dance hall scene prior to shooting. “I said to Randy early on, ‘They’re playing these violins, and I need some little thing, just some scratch track that people can play and dance to.’ So he laid out one of those early melodies on a tape recorder, and he’s going [hums melody], and then he goes, ‘I don’t know… something like that. What do you think?’ I’m going, ‘Something like that? This is an outstanding piece of music!’ He gave me that and a couple other little pieces, and then obviously it was developed later on. But right away you could tell that he was just spectacular.”

That dance scene influenced the waltz time of Newman’s main theme. “Waltz was right for it, in any case,” he says. “He’s talking about 1914, and certainly the look of it wouldn’t have called for ragtime or dixieland or anything else that was going on at the time. And it wouldn’t have been an American type, or English waltz, like [sings] ‘after the ball is over,’ you know… which I love, but it had nothing to do with that. And it’s not particularly eastern European. I don’t know what it is.”

It’s you, I tell him.

“Yeah,” he laughs, “it sounds a little like me. I used to write that way as a little kid. I think the first thing I ever wrote… my grandmother was sick and I wrote her something, and it sounded like that. I hadn’t thought of that ever.”

For his movie about Jews, Levinson knew he didn’t want stereotypically “Jewish” music. “I didn’t want that—what do you call it—klezmer? I didn’t want that sound,” he says. “One of the difficult things when you write something that is Jewish in its makeup is there’s always this thing, like, ‘You didn’t do that, and also this’… like all Jewish families are the same, you know? I never really heard that klezmer sound. It wasn’t something that I was aware of.

“To be honest with you, my grandfather would sing a lot of songs, which I thought were Yiddish folk songs—and they turned out to be popular American songs that, when he would sing them, he would turn them into like a Yiddish folk song. He used to sing ‘Did you Ever See a Dream Walking.’ When I got a little older, I heard Bing Crosby sing it. I went, ‘Oh my God, this is like a regular, popular song.’ I wanted music that somehow would work for [the film], but I didn’t want to be beholden to that klezmer sound.”

Newman says he did want the music to sound vaguely “old world,” but Levinson “never mentioned ‘Jewish.’” “He didn’t have a Jewish actor in the movie,” Newman says. “I don’t know if he was proud of that or not, but I think he mentioned it. But it was certainly Russian, Polish, eastern European… that’s what it looked like to me. So that’s what I did.”

Weekend Musicians

In addition to his “1914” theme, Newman wrote several other nostalgic melodies for the score. One is a sunnier, rolling piano piece called “Moving Day,” which underscores Michael’s family’s departure for the suburbs.

Moving Day

Another is a wistful, bittersweet tune for solo trumpet (and elsewhere clarinet), heard in the tracks “Circus” and “The Fire.”

Circus

As a menagerie of elephants and clowns parade down the street, past crowds of families thronging outside their row houses, Levinson suddenly drops all sound and tracks his camera alongside Michael—running, ecstatic—forming a memory that is already starting to echo with decay.

“It’s just movement, and a bit of exaltation,” explains Newman. “I think there was something male about it every time, wasn’t there? It’s a man’s picture, essentially.”

“There often isn’t anything consciously cerebral” about the way he writes themes, Newman says. “It’s entirely predicated on what I’m seeing up on screen, and how many times something like that’s going to happen. And what music can do is emotional things, you know. It can make a love scene more moving, it can make something that’s exciting more exciting… and conversely, it can hurt them both by doing nothing and sitting there.

“It’s funny—they think that that’s contrived. But it’s no more contrived by how they edit it, or where the camera is, or anything else. It’s accepted as part of the whole thing. There’s the old thing my uncle [Alfred Newman] is supposed to have said when he was doing Lifeboat for Hitchcock. Hitchcock said, ‘You’re in the middle of the ocean, Alfred, and the music’s playing… where does the orchestra come from?’ And Al’s supposed to have said, ‘The same place the camera came from.’ There’s some sort of animus against music telling people how to feel. You don’t tell them how to feel, but you’re back there helping picture to do what it wants to do. It’s just an emotional color.”

avalon group

When it came out on October 19th, 1990, Avalon didn’t exactly light up the box office (though it definitely wasn’t a flop). “Not enough people saw it,” says Newman. “I do concerts with the orchestra sometimes, and I play it, and I’ll say that ‘no gentile has yet seen it.’ And they laugh… but there’s some truth to it.”

Levinson recalls certain people criticizing the film for not being “Jewish enough.” “You’re trying to make a movie that deals with the things that you know, as opposed to trying to design it as if it’s supposed to appeal to every group of—in this particular case—Jews who may see the film,” he says. “You have an obligation to tell the story as best you can, with as much credibility and honesty, but you cannot be tied to every whim that each person may bring to it.

“Having said that, I think I tried to make it as accurate as I could, in terms of the behavior of the characters and how they function with one another. That, I think, is very much like my grandmother, very much like my grandfather, parents, etc., and the way they talked, acted, and behaved.”

Randy Newman laughs: “I remember a comedian said, ‘You know, if he thinks anyone else would act that way at a Thanksgiving dinner—if he thinks that’s any family—that’s wishful thinking.’”

Randy Newman today

Newman may not have let his personal experience and feelings creep into the score, but the music is undeniably personal. He even performed all the solo piano pieces himself. “I think it’s got a lot of good music in it,” he admits. “I may have learned how to score pictures better as time went on. But maybe not… hard to say. It’s got good music in it like some of the best scores do, I think. It had the opportunity to have it.”

“It’s one of my favorite movies,” says Levinson. “I’ve always connected to it, from the time I started writing it. It’s always been very important to me, without question. I think Randy just has a great sense of what the music can be, and he just understood the piece. There wasn’t a lot of tweaking to figure it out… he just got it.”

It’s a shame so few films since have had “the opportunity” for Newman’s gift of melancholic, melodic, haunting composition. In Levinson’s mind, that’s because “they’re not making those kinds of movies. They just don’t make them. That’s the time we’re in.”

“No, they just don’t,” agrees Newman. “They don’t spend the money on them. It’s really too bad.”

Thanks to Barry Levinson and Randy Newman (and their teams) for making this essay happen.