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
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
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
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!)
FROM: "Jonathan Erman"
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
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
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.
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.
of this series can be accessed on the website.