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TIMELINES: JOHN WILLIAMS

PART FIVE: RETIRING, OR BUSIER THAN EVER?

By Scott Bettencourt

In the mid-90s, there were rumors that Williams was considering retirement (his leadership of the Boston Pops ended in 1993), and he didn't score any new films in 1994. He was originally announced to score Mike Nichols' offbeat werewolf thriller WOLF (which would have made a nice companion piece with Williams's Dracula and The Witches of Eastwick), but Williams ultimately left the project and Ennio Morricone wrote a typically striking score.

Many directors, once they've finally won an Oscar, become drastically less prolific, taking years off between films. With Spielberg finally earning Best Director and Best Picture for Schindler's List, he took a 3 1/2 year break between Schindler and his next film, leaving Williams more time to work with other directors.

In 1985, he scored his first (and to date, only) film for director Sydney Pollack, the lavish but unsatisfying remake of SABRINA. Screenwriter William Goldman astutely observed that the only reason to remake Sabrina was if the original had starred Julia Ormond and you were able to get Audrey Hepburn for the new version; alas Pollack was stuck with the attractive and talented but less than magical Ormond, and his faithful reworking of the popular Billy Wilder comedy (in which Hepburn was torn between brothers Humphrey Bogart and William Holden) was a depressingly mechanical affair. Though Pollack regularly used Dave Grusin throughout the '70s, '80s and '90s, for Sabrina he hired Williams for his first romantic comedy score since the 1960s (Pete 'n' Tillie and Cinderella Liberty were both dramas as much as they were comedies). Williams's score featured a variety of pleasing melodies, including a charming title theme, two new love songs, and a comedic theme for Harrison Ford's protagonist, though the soundtrack album was frustratingly sequenced, featuring little of Ford's theme while containing an endless source suite of standards (one can only assume they were hoping for Sleepless in Seattle-sized soundtrack sales).

Williams's other film of the year was his third politically-themed project for Oliver Stone, and the least critically and commercially successful of the trio. NIXON was an epic-length, psychologically-oriented portrait of the controversial President, and Anthony Hopkins's Oscar-nominated performance in the title role was emotionally impressive, but Nixon's own voice, appearance and manner are so indelible that it was hard to forget you were watching Hopkins (his continued inability to master a convincing American accent didn't help). The film was an honorable failure, a worthy attempt but suffering from a lack of dramatic momentum. The brooding opening scene of the White House at night suggested we were about to see President Kane, and Williams did a first-rate job of exploring a complex character in musical terms, the kind of assignment more associated with Herrmann, North or Goldsmith. "The 1960s: The Turbulent Years" was an unexpectedly rousing cue (heard prominently in the film's advertising), and the score was a well deserved Oscar nominee, arguably the finest of the year. 1995 saw the return of the third music category in the Oscars -- now called "Original Musical or Comedy Score" -- thanks to the Academy's predilection for giving Score Oscars to song-dominated animated musicals, and for the first time since 1973, Williams managed to be nominated in all three music categories, with Sabrina up for Musical or Comedy Score as well as Song (for "Moonlight.")

Williams's only film for 1996 was a particular change-of-pace for the composer. SLEEPERS, Barry Levinson's film of Lorenzo Carcaterra's memoir of his troubled youth leading to a violent revenge, featured an especially star-laden cast led by Brad Pitt, Robert DeNiro and Dustin Hoffman, so it was only fitting that Hollywood's star composer (who had never worked with Levinson before) should take the assignment. Unfortunately, Sleepers proved to be an especially unexciting and unconvincing feature (the source book earned a lot of negative press from journalists who claimed the author's tale of woe was largely fictional), and Williams was certainly a surprising choice to score a story of urban violence -- it's hard to think of any other Williams in a similar genre. Williams' score took a low-key, psychological approach that made it something of a successor to Nixon, and though it was one of his less memorable efforts of the decade (while earning a seemingly inevitable Best Score nomination), it was refreshing to hear the composer venture into new dramatic territory.

Any fears of an imminent Williams retirement were cast aside in 1997, as he had a whopping four films in release. His first project of the year was his most unexpected, as well as his most underappreciated score of the late '90s. Writer-director John Singleton had hit a home run his first time at bat with Boyz N the Hood, earning Oscar nominations for Director and Screenplay (a staggering achievement for such a young filmmaker), but its successors, Poetic Justice and Higher Learning, earned him little respect. His fourth feature, ROSEWOOD, was a historical drama about a rape accusation leading to the massacre of a small town's black population, featuring Ving Rhames (as an somewhat incongruous action hero), Don Cheadle, and Jon Voight as the film's "Schindler," a white resident who helps save his black neighbors. Wynton Marsalis wrote the original score, and it's surprising that there was apparently no controversy when his music was rejected in favor of a new score by the conspicuously white John Williams (Marsalis later released his score on CD as Reel Time). Williams's replacement score harkened back to such '70s scores as Conrack and The Sugarland Express, and was a powerful work with an effective regional sound, refreshingly lacking the glossiness of much later Williams. The film has yet to find its deserved audience, but is undeniably Singleton's best post-Boyz film (Better than 2 Fast 2 Furious? I know, hard to imagine).

Three and a half years after the staggering critical success of Schindler's List, Spielberg returned to directing with, of all things, THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK, a loose adaptation of Michael Crichton's sequel novel. The film had impressive set-pieces but was one of Spielberg's least satisfying efforts; it felt like the director had decided he would only make one more Jurassic sequel so he wanted to cram everything he could in, from a Hatari-style dinosaur hunt to a climactic dinosaur-in-civilization rampage, with the result that none of these setpieces had the impact they would have in a more carefully structured film. For those of us (such as myself) who felt that Williams's original Jurassic score tried too hard to elevate the pulpy material into something "meaningful," his Lost World score was a welcome change, with a more modest approach and an appealing main theme which evoked the age of classic Hollywood adventure scoring like Steiner's Kong.

Williams's new trend towards working with star musicians continued with SEVEN YEARS IN TIBET, with Yo-Yo Ma providing the cello solos for Williams' restrained score for Jean-Jacques Annaud's epic drama about the Dalai Lama and his friendship with an Austrian mountaineer (played by Brad Pitt). The film was, strangely enough, one of two Dalai Lama dramas of the year, with Martin Scorsese's Kundun (featuring an Oscar-nominated Philip Glass score) earning better reviews but Seven Years (due to the presence of Pitt, one can only assume) made about seven times as much money in the U.S. Williams's score had a Schinder-esque somberness and evoked but didn't overemphasize the Tibetan setting. In any other year, it would have been a shoo-in for a Best Score nomination, but it was his third historical drama of the year that earned that slot.

Following the undemanding popcorn entertainment of The Lost World, Spielberg returned to Oscar bait turf with AMISTAD, a historical drama about a mutiny on a slave ship and its repercussions. It took a less sentimental approach than Spielberg's previous venture into the history of blacks in America, The Color Purple, but many critics derided it for ultimately focusing more on the white characters (such as John Quincy Adams, in a nominated performance from Anthony Hopkins) than on its slave hero, an early star performance from Djimon Hounsou. Williams's score mixed moving Americana material (unfairly derided by critics) with Africa-themed cues, including an end title vocal "Dry Your Tears, Afrika," and earned the composer his 36th Oscar nomination.

Following the 3 1/2 year gap between Schindler and Lost World, Spielberg became almost alarmingly prolific, and Amistad was followed soon after by SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. It had been a long time since Hollywood had made a World War II epic, and despite a confused script, Spielberg's superbly crafted drama, featuring stunning battle scenes and a moving lead performance by Tom Hanks, was one of the summer's biggest hits. Williams's score, a much more solemn effort than his last war epic, Midway, was sparsely spotted but still earned knee-jerk pans from mainstream critics. Though his end title theme, "Hymn for the Fallen," seemed too much an attempt to impose greater meaning on what was ultimately just a well-made Hollywood war movie, his scoring of individual scenes was typically deft, especially the lengthy, moving "Omaha Beach" cue.

Williams's other project for 1998 was, like Rosewood, a replacement score, but under even more surprising circumstances. Home Alone's Chris Columbus directed STEPMOM, a comedy-drama about the relationship between two women, with Julia Roberts as the second wife forced to cope with the prospect of raising her husband's children, as first wife Susan Sarandon faces terminal cancer. The project's progression through several writers seemed to leech all the dramatic interest out of the situation -- Roberts's character seems perfectly able to take care of the kids, while Sarandon seems to be expected to just hurry up and die so her ex can enjoy his new life -- while adding layers of creepy sexual politics (hubby Ed Harris is never expected to be take part in the child rearing -- after all, he's a man, and a lawyer). Patrick Doyle wrote the original score during a period when he was being treated (successfully) for leukemia -- he even worked on the film from his hospital room -- so his replacement on the film added an additional layer of distastefulness to what would normally already be a difficult situation. Williams's third score for Columbus (following the Home Alones) lacked the effortless mixture of joy and sadness of his Accidental Tourist and, though highly competent, failed to bring the muddled film to life. The latest star soloist was guitarist Christopher Parkening, while Williams's cue titles like "Always and Always" and "The Days Between" seemed to almost reflect the audience's impatience.

Williams's first feature of 1999 was probably the most eagerly awaited score of his nearly 50-year career. Following a 22-year gap since the first Star Wars, George Lucas decided to return to directing with THE PHANTOM MENACE, the start of the "prequel trilogy" which would tell the story of how young Annakin Skywalker became evil Darth Vader. One can easily imagine actual rioting among film music fans if anyone but John Williams had received the scoring assignment, and the composer had a particularly daunting task, working in the same style as his most popular creation (and 16 years after his last Star Wars score, Return of the Jedi) yet writing a score that takes place before his main Star Wars characters were born. The film turned out to be a box-office bonanza and yet a huge disappointment -- technically remarkable but surprisingly stodgy, with flat dialogue, unengaging characters, and the universally reviled Jar-Jar Binks (whose role in the series Lucas wisely reduced in the two sequels). Williams's score made use of the familiar themes for Luke and Yoda while adding two major new themes, an elaborate theme for the young Annakin (cleverly working in elements of Darth Vader's theme) and a rousing "Duel of the Fates." The original one-disc soundtrack release understandably omitted many cues, and was followed in 2000 by a "complete" two-disc version which did not in fact feature the complete score, but rather the score as heard in the film, complete with music edits. Film music fans were understandably frustrated, and neither of Menace's two sequels have had their original one-disc soundtracks expanded.

Williams was originally announced to score Chris Columbus' megabudget project for 1999, the sci-fi comedy drama BICENTENNIAL MAN, with Robin Williams as a robot fighting for his rights as a sentient being, but the film ended up being scored by James Horner (and was a rare commercial failure for the director). Instead, Williams scored his only (to date) film for director Alan Parker, the underrated adaptation of Frank McCourt's best-selling memoir ANGELA'S ASHES. Williams's restrained score, at times reminiscent of Presumed Innocent, refreshingly avoided all the cliches of Irish-themed scores (especially prevalent in the wake of Titanic's mega-success), and was a particularly moving work, climaxing in the powerful "Back to America." Unfortunately, the U.S. CD release of Williams's score featured narration in a distressing number of tracks -- more narration than was even heard in the movie. Fortunately, the overseas release of the score (as well as the For Your Consideration disc) featured only music.


FROM: "Thor Haga"
I've been following Scott's Williams "timeline", and although there's nothing new for a hardcore Williams fan like myself, it's kinda nice to see other people "recite" his story. However, I'm unsure what the purpose of these installments are? They're far too superficial to work as buyer´s guides (which FSM already did a few years ago) and they rarely provide any other info than a mere chronology (then he did that, then he did that etc.). So....other than "letting us know what Scott Bettencourt knows about John Williams did in his career", what was the aim of this
"timeline"?

I've also noticed that Part Four is far more detailed than previous installments, i.e. whereas the first two were limited to broad time frames and one or two sentences about certain selected films, now he goes through everything year-by-year, devoting paragraphs to entire films. But I guess that's inevitable when you approach your own time.

Scott knows how to write, no doubt about that. I just wish his talents were used on other things that "pocket career overviews" and endless lists.


The principal aim of the timeline is to fill column space until my multi-part Basil Poledouris series (which will be similar to the Williams timeline except told predominantly in Poledouris' own words) is ready. And thank you for saying I know how to write, which I guess means you haven't seen Action Jackson.

FROM: "John Archibald"

I was intrigued by your passing mention of the proposed PETER PAN musical, with songs by Williams and Leslie Bricusse. I seem to recall that was around the time when Michael Jackson kept being rumored to be the casting for Peter Pan. (Well, I'm sure glad THAT was never produced!)
 
However, this does make me wonder what the songs were like. If they're anything like Mr. Jackson's contemporary hits, like "Thriller," they're probably execrable. I am also reminded of Williams' score to the London stage musical, "Thomas and the King," based on the Henry II/Becket relationship. I had the LP of that score for years, then later the CD, and all I can assume from the songs is that Mr. Williams should steer clear of writing any more, as all of them are mostly unmemorable.
 
Still, the idea that a recording of the PETER PAN songs is floating around somewhere still intrigues me. Just as that, what was it?, three-lp set of the proposed songs for GOOD-BYE MR.CHIPS, is still presumably floating around somewhere.
 
These items are probably more interesting to fantasize about than to finally listen to. Yet still I fantasize about them. Projects that never came about, like the musical of HUCKLEBERRY FINN, begun not only by Lerner & Lane, but also by a separate series of songs by no less than Kurt Weill. Or, I consider operas never written, such as what various composers were working on when they died: Wagner on a life of the Buddha (Wouldn't THAT have been something!), or Verdi opera of "King Lear" (!), or Debussy's "The Fall of the House of Usher.... (At his wake, his widow actually handed out pages of what he had written for it, to guests, to keep as souvenirs, thus disseminating even the completed sections of this to oblivion. Go figure.)
 
So it goes.
 
P.S.: I'm not at all surprised Williams wept at an early screening of "Always." What survivor wouldn't grasp at the chance to verify his lost love exists, somewhere... Barring the metaphysical, which can be so subjective, once someone dies in this world of ours, they don't come back. No wonder Williams was moved so.
FROM: "Jonathan Erman"
SPACECAMP shouldn't be judged by its lack of success at the box office; it's a good film, and Williams wrote one of his very best scores for it. A shocking statement, perhaps, but I stand by it. As for the "mystery" of his involvement, the text piece he wrote for the soundtrack album answers that: "In the creation of "SPACECAMP," Director Harry Winer and Executive Producer Leonard Goldberg have given us a marvelous movie! The film succeeds as pure entertainment while simultaneously succeeding on several other levels." He goes on for several paragraphs, ending with, "I feel honored to have been asked to compose this score, and I feel particularly proud of my association with "SPACECAMP" and its creators."

If the film meant that much to Williams, fans should at least see it and decide for themselves.


NEXT TIME: A new century, a new masterpiece, seven more Oscar nominations, a new cliche in Williams criticism, and this series finally ends. Probably.


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

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