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TIMELINES: JOHN WILLIAMS

PART SIX: A NEW CENTURY, A NEW MASTERPIECE

By Scott Bettencourt

David Arnold was expected to score THE PATRIOT, director Roland Emmerich's attempt to mix action adventure with an Oscar bait historical story about the American revolution (fittingly enough for the director of Independence Day), but composer and director had a falling out, and the job went to John Williams, his only score of 2000. Intriguingly, The Patriot's 1770s setting is the earliest time period Williams has ever scored for a feature (unless you count the Star Wars films, which are of course set "a long time ago" -- it's frustrating that we've never had the opportunity to hear a Williams-scored Renaissance swashbuckler, or a Biblical epic), and Williams's score, with violinist Mark O'Connor as his latest star soloist, is something of a companion piece to Far and Away -- both because of its historical Americana and because it caused a similarly divided reaction among film music fans. The film was entertaining enough, with typically expert cinematography from Caleb Deschanel (a filmmaker friend joked that it should have been Deschanel's face dominating the poster art instead of Mel Gibson's), but the decision to ascribe Nazi-style atrocities to the British enemy cheapened the film, and in Hollywood the film is most remembered for the scandal that emerged when the news broke that the studio had employees pretend to be enthusiastic audience members in the film's TV spots. The film earned Williams an inevitable nomination (it was also up for Cinematography and Sound), while Emmerich resumed his career with more typical material (The Day After Tomorrow) and a new composer, Harald Kloser.

While skilled but unmemorable scores such as Stepmom and The Patriot suggested that Williams might be starting to wind down a little bit creatively, the 2001 release of A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE proved that this was far from the case. Spielberg took three years off from directing after Saving Private Ryan (which won him his second Best Director Oscar), but starting with A.I. he entered the most prolific period in his career, with six films released in five years. A.I. was a project originally developed by Stanley Kubrick (he nearly filmed it in the mid-'90s before deciding to do Eyes Wide Shut instead), and Spielberg based his script on the material Kubrick had developed for the film, including conceptual art. While the film rarely feels Kubrickean (except for Jack Angel's vocal performance as the teddy bear robot), the film is still one of Spielberg's most impressively adult efforts. The opening act is one of the tightest pieces of dramatic storytelling in his entire career, and the remaining acts, though uneven, feature powerful sequences and staggering visuals, and are anchored by Haley Joel Osment's masterful performance as the robot boy David. Williams's A.I. score is arguably his greatest work of the last two decades. While the music bears the distinctive Williams sound (and his inevitable impeccable craft), he ventured into new areas, with a touch of techno and an expert infusion of minimalism into his classically melodic style. The score features an unusual variety of powerful themes -- flowing melodies for David's relationship with his "mother" and for the Blue Fairy, the wrenching "Abandonment" theme, a lovely, hesitant theme for David himself -- and even an homage to Kubrick, as Williams works in a motif from Der Rosenkavalier (which Kubrick had considered for his film's score) during the approach to "Rouge City." Unfortunately, no completely satisfying soundtrack has been released for this masterpiece. The commercially released album omits some crucial material (such as David's theme and the Rosenkavalier interpolation) while featuring two vocal versions of the mother theme (with lyrics not heard in the film). Academy Music Branch members received a two-disc For Your Consideration pressed CD, but though this set features virtually all of the music from the film, the sequencing at times seems nearly random, so the definitive A.I. soundtrack has yet to appear.

Williams's other score for 2001 was one of the most frustrating of his later career. With Chris Columbus at the helm, Williams was an inevitable choice to score the franchise-starting HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE, especially as the material was something of a cross between Star Wars and The Witches of Eastwick. Williams's multi-thematic score was as musically strong as ever, but the spotting was atypically heavy-handed for the composer, with seemingly every scene in the film's first third featuring a grand cue which made the film seem annoyingly self-congratulatory, giving ammo to the usual Williams-haters (and even some Williams-lovers).

Williams was particularly prolific in 2002 with four films in release, beginning with the second of the Star Wars prequels, ATTACK OF THE CLONES. The film, though uneven, was a big improvement over The Phantom Menace, with exciting action scenes, genuinely cool sequences (especially Obi-Wan's visit to the clone-making planet) and a terrific back-story for Boba Fett (far superior to the Anakin back-story that comprises the prequel trilogy). Williams's score was most notable for a lovely new theme for the romance between Anakin and Padme, "Across the Stars," which evoked his Jane Eyre. Unfortunately, while his Phantom Menace score had suffered somewhat from music editing, his Clones experienced more drastic tampering -- the robot assembly line sequence was a particular victim, with even Yoda's theme popping up at one point for no discernible reason. The one-disc CD release was a good selection from the score, but as always, any Williams Star Wars score cries out for a complete release.

Merely a year after A.I., Spielberg returned to the future with MINORITY REPORT, an uneven but highly enjoyable and visually dazzling expansion of Philip K. Dick's short story about a police force able to predict crimes. A more overtly commercial science-fiction film than A.I., Minority Report featured exciting action scenes and benefited from a terrific supporting cast, including Colin Farrell, Max Von Sydow, Daniel London, Tim Blake Nelson, and especially Samantha Morton as a psychic savant. Even Tom Cruise managed to suppress his Tom Cruise-iness and fit into Spielberg's impressively realized future world, though the final act was a disappointment, the story threads resolving in a prosaic fashion. Williams's score was less stylistically varied than A.I., but was a first-rate effort, balancing spectacular action cues (at times reminiscent of his beloved early Irwin Allen TV scores) with evocative melodic material.

The second Harry Potter film, HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS, went into production immediately after the release of the first film, so the sequel emerged in theaters with a promptness associated usually with slasher sequels (even Hostel Part II didn't come out that fast). Chamber of Secrets managed to improve on its predecessor in several ways, despite its unwieldy length, and though Columbus was not an inspired choice for the series, he managed to hire all the right people and remained admirably true to J.K. Rowling's immsensely popular novels. Because of his commitments to other projects (2002 was a two-Spielberg year), Williams was unavailable to write the full score for Chamber of Secrets, so he provided a large chunk of thematic material and individual cues, with William Ross adapting Williams themes from the first two films for the remainder of the score, with a reasonably seamless result (though Williams is rumored to have re-scored certain sequences himself), while the soundtrack album featured only Williams material.

Lasse Hallstrom was originally announced to direct CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, the true story of a young con artist in the 1960s, but the film ended up as a Spielberg project. An appealing mix of comedy and drama, it benefited from the director's confident filmmaking and charming performances from Leonardo DiCaprio and Christopher Walken (in a rare role as a reasonably normal human being). Surprisingly, the film was not the major Oscar contender it threatened to be, but did earn nominations for Walken and for Williams's score. I don't know if it was this score or A.I. that inaugurated the current critical cliche of each new Williams score being somehow different from (and superior to) what is expected from the composer, as if every score he'd ever written was a Star Wars clone, ignoring a remarkably varied (and simply remarkable) body of work incorporating everything from Images to The Long Goodbye to Family Plot to Rosewood. Either way, Catch Me If You Can featured one of Williams' most charming scores, with a jazzy '60s flavor and the effortlessness of Mancini at his finest.

With such a busy 2002, Williams understandably took 2003 off, and returned to scoring the following year with a project that allowed him to revisit familiar material with a fresh ear. For HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN, Chris Columbus turned over the director's chair to Alfonso Cuaron, and though one might have expected Cuaron to use his Little Princess/Great Expectations composer Patrick Doyle, he was contractually obligated to use Williams. Regardless, it proved to be an excellent match, earning Williams his second Oscar nomination for the series. Cuaron's Potter film was shorter than its predecessors yet emotionally richer, helped greatly by his marvelous gift for visual storytelling. Williams eschewed the grand, Christmas pageant sound of his Sorcerer's Stone score for a more modest approach with a lightly baroque flavor, while providing a change-of-pace sound for setpieces like "The Knight Bus." It is fitting that Williams should match the best Harry Potter film (far superior to the mysteriously overrated Goblet of Fire) with the best Harry Potter score; it was his last in the series for the time being, with Doyle scoring Goblet of Fire for Mike Newell and feature newcomer Nicholas Hooper scoring Order of the Phoenix for his regular director David Yates. With two more Potters yet to be filmed, it's possible Williams may return for the final episode, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows (due in 2010 maybe?) to close out the series.

Spielberg had a rare critical and commercial failure with that summer's THE TERMINAL, with Tom Hanks as an Eastern European immigrant stranded in an NY airport terminal. The off-beat comedy-drama featured outstanding performances from Hanks and Stanley Tucci (in a thankless role as Hanks's antagonist) and remarkable production design from Alex McDowall, but the unsatisfying script made it seem like Spielberg, attracted by a reunion with Hanks and the technical challenges of creating a convincing airport terminal from scratch, hadn't really thought the project through, and the end result, though a pleasant time-killer, was disappointing considering all the great talents involved. Williams's light-hearted score was a pleasant harkening back to his early years as a comedy composer, and though it lacked the effortless perfection of his Catch Me If You Can, it was one of the film's most charming elements.

In 2005, Williams had yet another four-score year, with no co-scoring projects a la Chamber of Secrets. REVENGE OF THE SITH was the final entry in the Star Wars prequel trilogy and got the best reviews of the new series. While it was the most consistent of the trio, it lacked the highs of Attack of the Clones, and the trilogy's single biggest problem -- the story hinges on the tragic romance between Anakin and Padme, which is the weakest dramatic element of all six films -- is especially damaging here. Williams's score, which still suffered somewhat from the music editing which damaged his Clones, featured one major new theme, "Battle of the Heroes" (a companion piece to his "Duel of the Fates") while did a typically skillful job of tying together the themes from the original trilogy with his prequel material.

Williams' other project for summer 2005 was another megabudget science-fiction production, with Spielberg tackling a remake of H.G. Wells's WAR OF THE WORLDS. The film made an admirable attempt to be faithful to Wells's novel but in a contemporary setting, and Spielberg's setpieces were some of his most impressive ever, especially the first emergence of the Martian tripods from a New Jersey street. This early sequence was so strong that, even though the later scenes were effective on their own, the film seemed to peak early. Williams took an atypical approach to the score, using his full orchestral resources to amplify the suspense and horror while avoiding the use of a dominating main theme to unify the score. The lack of a central melody made the score seem almost like a string of stand-alone cues, though it does work well in context. The CD featured all the major material, though annoyingly it included Morgan Freeman's narration over the evocative opening and closing cues (Guys, if we wanted the narration we'd buy the DVD), and unfortunately the For Your Consideration discs featured the narration as well.

Williams had two more films released for the 2005 Oscar season, both of which earned him Oscar nominations as well more rave reviews of the "Hey, this doesn't sound like that Star Wars John Williams we always think we're hearing" kind. Steven Spielberg originally planned to direct the film version of Arthur Golden's best-seller MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA, and his continued involvement in the production is almost certainly the reason Williams was retained as the film's composer, even after the director's chair was filled by Rob Marshall, fresh off his Chicago success. His film of Geisha was beautifully mounted, earning Oscars for Cinematography, Costume Design and Art Direction, and overall was an entertainingly old-fashioned Hollywood entertainment, hampered mostly by the not especially compelling romance at its center. Williams's score, reuniting him with soloist Yo-Yo Ma, was one of the most gorgeous works of his late career, effectively mixing Eastern and Western musical elements and dominated by a luscious main theme that may be Williams's most memorable theme of the last two decades. With five Oscars under his belt, he didn't really need a sixth one, but for such a splendid score to lose to Gustavo Santaolalla's minor Brokeback Mountain was a predictable disappointment.

Williams's final score for 2005 (and his last score to date) was for one of Spielberg's most fascinating (if not entirely successful) works. MUNICH was an ambitious, fictionalized portrait of Israel's attempt to seek revenge against those it held responsible for the killing of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Spielberg's film was a mixture of historical drama with '70s-style international thriller and for the most part it worked, though as with too many of his "serious" films, he was unable to find a suitable ending, and the strange mish-mash of sex and death in Munich's climax nearly negated all that was effective and memorable in the two-and-a-half hours that preceded it. Williams's score mixed percussive suspense material in the JFK vein with a moving main theme which managed to give the film enough emotion without overpowering it.

There was no new Williams score in 2006, and so far no new one is planned for 2007. 2008 sees the release of the long-awaited (nearly 20 years) fourth Indiana Jones film, teaming Harrison Ford with young star de jour Shia LaBoeuf as well as a supporting cast so strong you hardly need Harrison Ford -- Cate Blanchett, John Hurt, Ray Winstone and Jim Broadbent. The gap between Indy films (and scores) will have proved to be even longer than the gap between Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace, and Williams's score will likely be the film music event of 2008.


FROM: "Kirk Henderson"
With regards to the remake of "Sabrina" and Williams' score, I actually find the "endless source suite of standards" an enjoyable listen, and the score itself one of Williams best of those that harken back to the days of "How to Steal a Million." Williams wouldn't outdo "Sabrina" until "Catch Me if You Can" in '02. As for the way the "Sabrina" remake itself gets trashed compared to the original Audrey Hepburn version, well, Julia Ormond is no Audrey, but I really think the remake, while not quite as good as the original, does a fine job of updating the story. And the Billy Wilder original had problems of its own, namely more chemistry between Hepburn and Holden than Hepburn and Bogart, a problem the remake doesn't have. Ormond and Harrison Ford worked well together, and the casting of Greg Kinnear as the younger brother was brilliant. I think Ford and Kinnear are funnier, more believable, and more likable than Bogart and Holden, respectively. And Williams' score really adds an appealing retro quality to the film. The big shame of all this is that other than the Main Theme, which was included in the classic Charles Gerhardt series recording Casablanca: Music from the Films of Humphrey Bogart, the wonderful 1954 "Sabrina" score by Frederick Hollander, is unavailable.


FROM: "Ross Amico"

John Archibald (letters, 6/27/07) might be interested to know there is actually a recording of Debussy's "The Fall of the House of Usher" (or the completed portions therefrom). The conductor is Georges Pretre, who leads the Monte Carlo Philharmonic for EMI, part of an all-Poe-themed program, which has already been through several CD incarnations.

As far as I know, though, there has been no such reconstruction of Wagner's Buddha sketches!


NEXT TIME: Just kidding! This series is finally over (unless someone has some demos from Williams's score for Indy IV).


Parts One, Two, Three, Four and Five of this series can be accessed on the website.
 

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