There are films that a certain composer was born to score and I think it would be fair to list Ragtime and Randy Newman as one of them. The setting and period of the film - turn of the century America - is almost exactly the sound that Newman created on his most famous song albums. This was only his second feature film score, those songs would have been the best guide director Milos Forman had to go on, but tracks like Birmingham and Marie from Good Old Boys almost certainly would have suggested Newman as the perfect person to score the film.
While getting an even stronger feel for the period, Newman listened to much Scott Joplin, perhaps the most famous composer of ragtime music who ever lived (especially after his music was used in The Sting), although Newman admits that Joplin's music wouldn't really have been right for Ragtime the movie. However, several of the most memorable tracks do feature a distinct ragtime flavour, most notably the insanely catchy Clef Club No 2. However, the film is considerably more dramatic than requiring of only jaunty ragtime and Newman here - as he has done since many times - proves that he's one of the most adept dramatic composers working in film today.
The main theme, One More Hour is introduced on solo violin for the Main Title, before being taken up by the full orchestra. It doesn't show up often, although its song incarnation midway through is truly gorgeous and sung with great sensitivity by Jennifer Warnes. It earned Newman his first best song Oscar nomination, while the score gave him his first best score nod. It would have been a worthy winner, but (like so many other great scores that year) lost out to Chariots of Fire. Newman gets his own singing slot in the witty Change Your Way, which was meant to be the opening titles, but was ultimately not included in the final film.
The CD release of Ragtime has been a long time coming and frankly it's about time. Newman's brief, but pithy opening liner note suggests that he agrees, he even says he thinks it's a good score of his. Not something the exceptionally self critical composer usually admits. Many Newman fans would put this up for his best score, although with so many to choose from, I'd have a hard time picking out just one, but it's certainly up there with Awakenings and Avalon as high water marks of a remarkable film scoring career. The liner notes offer useful insight about the film, along with comments from Newman himself about various aspects of the composition process. Sound quality is excellent, highlighting the subtle detail of Newman's expert orchestrations. For Newman fans, absolutely essential. No, scrap that. For any film music fan an essential purchase.