Newman was born in Los Angeles, California, the son of Mississippi-born Martha Louis (née Montgomery) and Hollywood composer Alfred Newman. He is the brother of Thomas Newman, Maria Newman and the cousin of Randy Newman, all of whom are also composers. He is also the nephew of composers Lionel Newman and Emil Newman, and first cousin, once removed, of musician Joey Newman. An accomplished violinist, and successful concert conductor, Newman was educated at the University of Southern California.
His first film work was on Tim Burton's short film Frankenweenie in 1984. In 1987, he scored Danny DeVito's Throw Momma from the Train. This was his first collaboration with DeVito, and he went on to score nearly all of his subsequent films, including The War of the Roses (1989), Other People's Money (1991), Hoffa (1992), Matilda (1996) and Death to Smoochy (2002). Newman has also scored the comedies The Flintstones (1994), The Mighty Ducks (1992), The Nutty Professor (1996), and Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989).
Like his counterpart Henry Mancini, Newman's credits during the early years of his career were mostly scoring B-movies such as The Runestone (1990) and The Kindred (1987) before he gradually transitioned to score mostly comedy films during his prime such as Bowfinger (1999), The Freshman (1990), and The Spy Next Door (2010). His score for The Spirit (2008) was a tribute to Mancini's 1950s and 60s neo-noir scores such as Touch of Evil (1958) or Experiment in Terror (1962).
He received an Academy Award nomination for the score to the animated film Anastasia (1997), following his father, who scored the 1956 live-action version. However, he lost to Anne Dudley for The Full Monty. His other scores include Critters, The Phantom, The Brave Little Toaster, Malone, Ice Age, and Serenity, among others.
In 1997, Newman began a four-year stint as the music director for the Sundance Institute, and he has conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestra on several occasions. That year, he also re-recorded the Twentieth Century Fox Fanfare, composed by his father Alfred.
In February 2007, he was elected president of The Film Music Society.
On May 21, 2009, Newman was honored with the Richard Kirk award at the annual BMI Film & Television Awards. The prestigious award is given annually to a composer who has made significant contributions to film and television music.
Since 2012, Newman is conducting the RSO Vienna orchestra at the annual film music gala concert Hollywood in Vienna which is broadcast on radio and TV.
Newman is an alumnus and Board Member of the American Youth Symphony.