Even if he had only written the theme for Gettysburg, Randy Edelman would have earned a permanent place in the pantheon of film and television scorers. But that stirring piece of Americana — penned in 1993 for the Civil War epic, since gone on to numerous incarnations including perennial performances at July 4th celebrations around the country — is just one part of this composer’s story.
Edelman has been kicking around the music business since 1970 — first as an arranger, then a singer/songwriter, eventually becoming a popular recording artist, playing to tens of thousands of fans in the U.S. and England.
But it was as a composer for movies and TV in the ’80s and ’90s that he finally found his niche and his greatest success to date. On May 14, he joined the distinguished roster of the composers who have won BMI’s top honor for film composers, the Richard Kirk Award for Outstanding Career Achievement.
Director Rob Cohen (Dragonheart, XXX ) describes him as the classic Central Casting notion of a contemporary musician — “crazy, hyperkinetic” — but on a recent visit to his Beverly Hills home, Edelman was clearly humbled by the honor.
“It means a lot to me,” he says. “To have been on this journey and gotten to this place, to feel that something you’ve done is appreciated, is wonderful. It’s a good feeling to think that people have noticed.”
In fact, millions of people have noticed. Whether it’s the soaring strings of Dragonheart (1996), the tender piano of Come See the Paradise (1990), the evocative sounds of The Last of the Mohicans (1992), the warmth of While You Were Sleeping (1995) or the colorful Shanghai Noon (2000), Randy Edelman’s music has made its mark on moviegoers. And TV watchers too, considering the popularity of his catchy MacGyver theme (1985) and the enduring “Adventures of Brisco County Jr.” (1993), the theme for a short-lived Fox series that found new life as a sports anthem on NBC.
Edelman is at a loss to explain why his music resonates with so many listeners. “I’d like to think that, musically, I’m adaptable to different styles, and that I can deliver emotionally to the picture and the director something that enhances their vision,” he says.
The people with whom he works, however, are effusive in their praise of Edelman’s abilities. One word crosses everyone’s lips: melody. “Randy is in the great tradition of melody writers,” says Cohen, his collaborator on five films, beginning with Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993). “Randy’s music goes right into the soul.”
“He’s one of the great songmeisters of this era,” adds director-producer Ivan Reitman, who has used Edelman on several comedies, including Ghostbusters II (1989), Kindergarten Cop (1990) and Six Days, Seven Nights (1998). “His symphonic scores are chockablock full of wonderful melodies that inform the emotionality of the scenes, and sweep you away in a kind of sweetness and joy that works well for comedies.”
Ronald Maxwell, the director of Gettysburg and this year’s Gods and Generals , says: “Randy is a great melodist. What makes him special is that the melody seems to be derived from the character and the moment. He is able to capture the deep emotion of these characters and what they’re going through.”
Perhaps that’s because Edelman has been through a lot himself. Born in Paterson, N.J., he began playing piano at the age of 5 and continued piano studies through high school and at the Cincinnati Music Conservatory. There, his classical-music studies were augmented by outside work as an arranger for James Brown’s King Records.
After college, he was signed by CBS’s April/Blackwood Music as a songwriter and soon embarked on a career as a singer, opening for The Carpenters and Frank Zappa in the early ‘70s. He got his feet wet in film scoring with the original Kennedy assassination-conspiracy film Executive Action (1973) and a handful of TV movies.
But success as a solo act, especially in England, whisked him away from Hollywood. Barry Manilow turned Edelman’s “Weekend in New England” into a top-10 hit stateside, and the songwriter became a fixture on such U.K. shows as “Top of the Pops,” even weighing in with talk-show host David Frost on the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan as president. His last solo album as an artist was 1985’s Switch of the Seasons .
Actor-turned-producer Henry Winkler invited Edelman to score the medical drama Ryan’s Four (1983), and while that gig was short-lived, Winkler’s subsequent adventure series MacGyver was not. That, inevitably, led to offers for movies. The composer met Reitman on the comedy Feds (1988), and the result was music for the director’s Twins (1988) and Kindergarten Cop .
Some of Edelman’s biggest hits have been matters of good timing or unexpected opportunity. Roger Birnbaum, a former record-company executive who was a production boss at 20th Century-Fox, recommended Edelman as a composer for director Alan Parker’s wartime drama Come See the Paradise . Although the film was not a commercial success, Edelman’s poignant theme became one of the most widely heard tunes in years thanks to its consistent use in coming-attraction trailers.
His work on Last of the Mohicans resulted in Golden Globe and British Academy Award nominations, and the soundtrack album — which he himself assembled when it appeared that no soundtrack would be issued — went platinum in no time. And his fresh, inventive scores for comedies such as The Mask (1994) have made those films even funnier.
Edelman’s reputation as television’s premier sports-theme writer is actually the result of producers’ repeated use of his many anthem-style pieces from various movie and obscure-TV scores. He won a 1996 Emmy for his musical contributions to Summer Olympics telecasts.
Producer Birnbaum contrasts Edelman’s music for such diverse movies as My Cousin Vinny, Shanghai Noon and Angels in the Outfield, noting: “Randy’s versatility doesn’t pigeonhole him into being one kind of composer for one kind of movie. He has the ability to write for all kinds of stories, whether they’re dramatic or comedic.” Adds Winkler: “Somehow, he is able to translate life into music. It is filled with emotion, with inspiring sounds that go right up your spine.”
Edelman — now at work on Nia Vardalos’ new musical comedy Connie and Carla and the DreamWorks holiday film Surviving Christmas starring Ben Affleck and James Gandolfini — continues to branch out in new directions. He recently wrote a concert piece, Transcontinental: A Mad Dash Across the U.S.A. , for conductor Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra.
What’s the best thing about his career? “The most fun is in the writing,” the composer confesses. “Being in a room by yourself and coming up with something that you think works. The kick is that that you get immediate feedback. You write it, you execute the recording, and you get to hear it back. And it’s going to be in a movie that’s already in the wind.”