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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.
FROM: "Zoragoth"
Re: Curmudgeonly E.T. reaction

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 (Gandhi? Please)..."

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.

FROM: "John Porath"
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 than ever.


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

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