TIMELINES: JOHN WILLIAMS
PART FOUR: SPIELBERG FINALLY GETS HIS OSCAR, WILLIAMS
ORDERS A NEW MANTLE FOR HIS FIFTH
By Scott Bettencourt
Just as in the
second column in this series, where I neglected to mention Williams'
almost-participation in Superman II, in the third
part I forgot to mention that Williams reportedly wrote two new themes
(a love theme and a theme for the villain Nuclear Man) for the last of
the Christopher Reeve Supermans, 1987's SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST
FOR PEACE, scored by Alexander Courage.
Bruce Broughton had his feature career breakthrough with his popular,
Oscar-nominated score for Lawrence Kasdan's Silverado. He went on
to score Kasdan's production of Cross My Heart, and it was expected
that he would score Kasdan's fourth feature, THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST.
Rumor has it that Kasdan disagreed with Broughton's ideas for a somber,
faux-classical approach, and John Williams was brought on board for his
only feature film of 1988. Despite its Best Picture nomination (and a Supporting
Actress Oscar for Geena Davis), the film has developed a small, devoted
following (myself included) rather than becoming thought of as a classic
of its decade, and Williams' score, relying mostly on his main theme (the
jubilant "Second Chance") is one of his more modest efforts, but managed
to beautifully reinforce the film's delicate balance of grief and hope,
and his score shares the film's cultish popularity.
1989 saw the release of three Williams-scored features -- two of them
directed by Spielberg (the first of several years in which the pair would
have two projects in release). INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE
proved to be a (temporary) finale to the series, eschewing the gloom of
Temple of Doom in a return to a more lighthearted, Raiders
feeling -- in fact, between the storyline (a race against the Nazis for
a Biblical relic), the Middle Eastern setting, the return of sidekicks
Brody and Sallah (unfortunately, this time played as slapstick bumblers),
it's a virtual remake of Raiders, with the notable addition of Sean
Connery as Indy's father. As with Temple of Doom, Williams reprises
his Raiders march and provides an impressive bounty of new themes
(along with a brief, jokey reprise of the Lost Ark theme, a la the snippet
of Yoda's theme heard in E.T.).
The end of the year saw the first of three politically themed collaborations
between Williams and controversial writer-director Oliver Stone, BORN
ON THE FOURTH OF JULY. Williams was an especially shrewd choice for
the Stone films -- not only because he's an expert composer, but his unofficial
status as "America's composer" (along with his Olympics themes, he'd composed
the new theme for the NBC News) gave the projects a genuine Americana feeling
which helped counterpoint Stone's portrayals of the anti-war movement,
the Kennedy assassination conspiracy, and the Nixon administration. This
adaptation of Ron Kovic's memoir of his service in the Vietnam War, the
paralyzing injury he suffered and his participation in the anti-war movement
was a powerful moviegoing experience, though as Pauline Kael pointed out,
the film confusingly makes it seem as if Kovic's objection to the war was
based entirely on his own injury. The film showed hints of the more fragmented,
experimental style Stone would utilize in such films as JFK and
especially Natural Born Killers, and Williams' moving score, with
its noble main theme, helped to keep it emotionally anchored. Both Last
Crusade and Born earned Best Score nominations for Williams,
with the award going to Alan Menken for The Little Mermaid (yes,
it was the start of that era).
Speilberg had wanted for years to remake the '40s fantasy romance A
Guy Named Joe (there's even a clip from it in the Spielberg-produced
Poltergeist), but the project never reached the screen until the
Christmas of 1989. ALWAYS turned out to be one of Spielberg's least
successful films, both critically and commercially (and the first Spielberg
film since Sugarland Express not to receive a single Oscar nomination).
The film had excellent visual effects and lovely cinematography, but its
attempt at adult romance failed -- the questionable casting of Richard
Dreyfuss (in his only post-Close Encounters Spielberg film) as a
daredevil pilot didn't help. For a romantic fantasy, Williams' score was
surprisingly subdued. Most composers would have provided an endlessly repeated
love theme, but Williams's approach was subtler (reportedly, an early screening
of the film moved the composer to tears) and effective.
Despite the presence of stars Robert De Niro and Jane Fonda (her last
film until Monster-in-Law), STANLEY & IRIS received little
notice upon its release in early 1990, but it's an intelligent and appealingly
modest romantic drama, featuring the best of Fonda's later performances.
It was the third film Williams scored for director Martin Ritt, and proved
to be Ritt's final feature. Though the director generally tended toward
sparse scores, Stanley & Iris has a significant amount of music,
and Williams' lovely score was in the Accidental Tourist vein, delicate
and moving without overwhelming the "ordinary" characters.
Director Alan J. Pakula assembled an impressive package for his film
version of Scott Turow's best-selling novel PRESUMED INNOCENT, starring
Harrison Ford, and the low-key legal thriller was a surprising project
for Williams to sign on to. The final film, inexplicably snubbed at Oscar
time, was an excellent adaptation of Turow's engrossing novel (though it
lacked some of the book's resonant details), with an Oscar-worthy performance
by Bonnie Bedelia as Ford's wife, and a supporting cast including Brian
Dennehy, Raul Julia, a pre-West Wing John Spencer, and a 10-year-old
Jesse Bradford as Ford's son. Williams' score was probably the most subdued
effort of his post-Jaws career, with a restrained main theme (slightly
reminiscent of the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood") and an atypical use of synthesizers.
Bruce Broughton was originally announced to score HOME ALONE,
with Chris Columbus directing producer John Hughes's script, but a scheduling
conflict with The Rescuers Down Under led to his departure. As with
The Accidental Tourist, John Williams stepped in to fill his slot,
and the slight but well-mounted kids' comedy proved to be the blockbuster
of the year. Williams' Nutcracker-inspired score was one of its
most palatable elements, and earned the composer nominations (his 27th
and 28th) for its score and song, "Somewhere in My Memory," beginning a
multi-picture relationship with director Columbus.
1991 saw the release of two widely different Williams projects featuring
all-star casts. In the '80s, Spielberg had developed a never-made musical
film version of Peter Pan, with songs by Williams and Leslie Bricusse.
In '91, Spielberg directed HOOK, a revisionist sequel to Pan,
and a notable Hollywood agency package from the era, combining a high-concept
premise, the top director of our time, and A-list stars: Robin Williams
as the adult Pan, Dustin Hoffman as Captain Hook, and Julia Roberts as
Tinkerbell. It was a predictably lavish but ultimately unsatisfying project.
Despite its moments of visual grandeur, Spielberg's heart didn't seem to
be in it, and the scenes with the Lost Boys were particularly dispiriting.
Williams reportedly used some themes from the unmade Pan musical,
and though his score wasn't completely successful (the faux-Grusin music
for the early suburbia scene was an unusual but not especially effective
choice), his typically multi-thematic approach contained much worthy material,
especially the evocative "You Are the Pan" theme.
Williams reunited with Oliver Stone for the director's acclaimed, controversial
JFK, which presented a complicated (if not historically validated)
view of the Kennedy assassination. Because of the nature of Stone's editing
process and the schedule of the Hook scoring, Williams reportedly
took an atypical approach to the scoring process, providing pre-recorded
cues rather than scoring directly to picture. Williams' moving main theme
effectively evoked the tragedy of Kennedy's death, while his rhythmic,
percussive "The Conspirators" was one of the freshest and most exciting
pieces of his later career, proving to be widely imitated.
Williams earned his 29th and 30th Oscar nominations in 1992, for JFK's
score and Hook's song "When You're Alone," but his two scores released
in 1992 went entirely un-nominated, the first time since 1979 where Williams's
feature output for a year went entirely unacknowledged by the Academy.
FAR AND AWAY was his only film (to date) for director Ron Howard,
a lavish period romance (filmed in 70mm, no less) about Irish immigration
to the United States. Williams's score, featuring the seemingly inevitable
participation of Irish-music specialists The Chieftans, is a quasi-controversial
effort as far as Williams devotees are concerned -- some consider it an
unheralded classic, while others (myself included) find it effective and
professional but ultimately surprisingly unmemorable.
His other project for 1992 was in some ways one of the more inexplicable
of his later career. For commercial reasons, it was sensible of Williams
to score the inevitable HOME ALONE 2: LOST IN NEW YORK, but Williams'
later career never seemed to be guided by strictly commercial considerations,
and Williams's score, while contributing a pair of new Christmas songs
to the Home Alone musical canon, was one of the least necessary
scores of his entire career (though not as unnecessary as the film, a virtual
remake of the original film featuring John Hughes' patented disturbing
mix of extreme sentimentality and grotesque slapstick violence).
Even in a career full of remarkably successful individual years, 1993
was a true milestone for both Williams and Spielberg, as their two collaborations
proved to be among their most notable. JURASSIC PARK was Spielberg's
first feature since the disappointment of Hook, and Michael Crichton's
high concept novel was ideal source material for the director to explore
his commercial instincts in his first "scary" film since Jaws. While
the "people" scenes could not compare to Jaws's unforgettable character
interplay (despite a classy cast including Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff
Goldblum, Samuel L. Jackson and Richard Attenborough), Spielberg's dinosaur
setpieces were superbly realized, aided by revolutionary computer generated
effects from ILM. Williams' score featured one of the catchiest of his
later themes, and though its "Nature finds a way" grandeur seemed imposed
on the material rather than emerging naturally, his action/thriller cues
were as effective as ever, and the distinctive "Dennis Steals the Embryo"
was a welcome successor to JFK's "The Conspirators."
The holiday season saw the release of Spielberg's second film of the
year, the long-in-development SCHINDLER'S LIST. It is still the
most acclaimed of all of Speilberg's "Oscar bait" movies -- as a three-hour
black-and-white docudrama about the Holocaust, it's almost critically unimpeachable
-- and despite an off-key ending, it was an impressive stylistic and dramatic
achievement for the director (as well as his first R-rated film), and earned
impressive grosses for a film with such grueling subject matter. Williams's
sparse score is best remembered for its emotional yet restrained main theme,
though I prefer the wry intelligence of such cues as "Schindler's Workforce."
Schindler also began a trend of Williams using big-name musicians
in its score, with Itzhak Perlman providing the film's pivotal violin solos.
Unsurprisingly, Williams won his fifth Oscar for the film (which so far
is his only Best Picture winner), which won Spielberg his long-awaited
first Best Director Oscar, and his score was widely praised by his peers,
including none other than Jerry Goldsmith, who said it was a project he
himself would have loved to score.
FROM: "Dr Wynn"
It's sad to see people encouraging your writer, Scott Bettencourt,
to write the "definitive" book on John Williams when he offers musical
comparisons such as the following "gem":
"Though Williams' 'Raiders March' was a little on the goofy
side (with a distracting resemblance to Yale's 'Boola Boola' march)"
If this guy had anything resembling a lick of musical intuition
and knowledge, he would know that the "Raiders March" more closely resembles
Richard Strauss' "Don Juan" than anything else. In fact, Williams himself
has said on a couple of occasions that Strauss' work was an influence for
his famous Indiana Jones theme.
Also, Indy's theme was written to mirror the character, tone, and
reality of the original "Raiders"; lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek, spirited,
rousing. The theme wasn't "goofy"...it captured the essence of the film
and its hero.
'Nuff said. Tell that Bettencourt guy not to quit his day job.
And, when you're ready to let a guy with real musical knowledge write for
you...drop me a line.
Re: Curmudgeonly E.T. reaction
FROM: "John Porath"
Re: E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL You write: "It's hard to find
a false note in Spielberg's intimate, moving fantasy, and it's harder to
imagine the film working so beautifully without Williams's subtle, beautifully
calibrated score. Though the film was robbed of the Best Picture Oscar
I must allow first that I am far from being a Spielberg fan, finding
him one of the overrated directors in history. But with E.T. he actually
had me, all the way up until the horrible ending with its unexplained deus
ex machina resurrection and ludicrous cornball Christ symbolism. Talk about
false notes! I'm always puzzled when critics hails E.T. as a great and
Oscar-worthy film, but at least I'm not entirely alone. At the time of
its release, an equally curmudgeonly CINEFANTASTIQUE critic awarded it
only 2 and half stars for much the same reasons.
Small note regarding something in this most excellent series
or articles, about Superman II. Scott notes that "Considering how famously
easygoing both Lester and Williams are, this scenario is less than plausible"
regarding JW's not getting along with Lester. While it does seem likely
that the Salkinds didn't want to pay JW's fee, this is not the first time
Lester did not get along with a composer. George Martin -- legendary producer
of the Beatles -- notes in his book 'All You Need is Ears' that he and
Lester did not get along well at all during the production of A Hard Day's
Night. So much so, that Lester did not ask Martin (the obvious choice)
to work on the next Beatles feature, Help!, but brought on his buddy Ken
Thorne to do the job. While not necessarily the case here, it would be
an obvious precedent.
NEXT TIME: A year off, more famous soloists, more
dinosaurs and wars, and the top composer in Hollywood becomes more prolific
of this series can be accessed on the website.