For this week’s Variety, a week after the Oscar nomination announcements, editors asked me to summarize the nominees and their relative chances for winning. It’s a particularly tough year with at least three of the songs having a good shot and possibly even four of the five nominated scores that could win the category. This was only available in the print version of the magazine, so I’ve scanned it for reproduction here (click on the image).
The composer of that unforgettable violin melody at the heart of Young Frankenstein, and so many more great scores for Mel Brooks movies, died on Thursday in New York. John Morris, twice Oscar-nominated (for co-writing the hilarious Blazing Saddles song and for his heartfelt dramatic score for The Elephant Man), had long ago retired from the business. But his themes for the movies of Brooks, Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman and others — plus a handful of major television scores including The Adams Chronicles and Scarlett — are among the most indelible of the last 50 years. His passing has brought a surprising outpouring of grief and appreciation from the Hollywood music community. Here is the obituary I wrote for Variety; we first met in the early 1990s and I last talked to him in 2006 when I was writing the program notes for a Chicago Symphony performance of Young Frankenstein and other Morris scores.
As always on Oscar-nominations-announcement day, I have written a kind of “instant analysis” of the song and score categories — who was nominated, who was not, and a bit about the background of the nominees. The lead of my story — the fact that two major pop names, Diane Warren and Jonny Greenwood — remained intact even though editors chose to highlight a “Taylor Swift snub” in the headline (something I have nothing to do with). But that’s about attracting readers to the story. The story itself is solid and filled with data about John Williams’ 51 nominations, Greenwood’s past history with the Academy, Warren’s failure to win despite eight previous nods, and whose recent wins may be a factor in whether they win again. It’s on Variety‘s website today; I will be writing new stories on the topic for print over the next two weeks.
The music editors at Variety were intrigued about the fact that the winners of both music categories (song and score) at the Golden Globes were represented by the same agents. So I was dispatched to interview Richard Kraft and Laura Engel about what they do, how and why they happened to sign those particular clients (composer Alexandre Desplat for The Shape of Water and songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul for The Greatest Showman), and what their role is during awards season. It was fun, and the Q&A was published online this week in Variety.
While I was preparing my John Williams piece for Variety, I had the good fortune to connect with actor Mark Hamill, who of course plays Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars films. He was so enthusiastic in his praise for the maestro, and waxed eloquent in his appreciation for film music generally, that I didn’t want to use simply one or two quotes in the Williams piece. Variety editors agreed, so here is the sidebar story in which Hamill talks about his history with classic film music, and Williams in particular.
It’s always a treat to interview the legendary John Williams. A few weeks ago he talked with me about scoring The Post for longtime colleague Steven Spielberg; about his eighth Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi; and about his plans for 2018, which include a theme for Solo and a new concert work celebrating the centennial of Leonard Bernstein. I also interviewed Last Jedi director Rian Johnson, actor (and fan) Mark Hamill, and fellow composers David Newman and William Ross, about the iconic composer’s place in movie and music history. The story is in this week’s issue of Variety, including a collection of Oscar trivia related to the composer. In a separate story, I explore the maestro’s first animated short subject (which itself is also Oscar-eligible this year), Dear Basketball, based on the Kobe Bryant poem.
For Variety‘s final roundup of potential award nominees in the music categories, I covered nine scores and broke them down into three categories: Suspense (Michael Abels’ Get Out, Patrick Doyle’s Murder on the Orient Express, Carter Burwell’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri); films that centered on families (Jon Brion’s Lady Bird, Randy Newman’s The Meyerowitz Stories, Marcelo Zarvos’ Wonder); and music for animation (John Powell’s Ferdinand, Mychael and Jeff Danna’s The Breadwinner, Michael Giacchino’s Coco). It certainly was a diverse and fascinating year for original music in films.
The two most likely candidates for Best Song nominations at the Oscars come from very different movies: “Remember Me,” the musical centerpiece of Disney/Pixar’s Coco, and “This Is Me,” the outcasts anthem from the P.T. Barnum biopic The Greatest Showman. They also happen to be the work of four of America’s current greatest songwriters, all previous Oscar winners: Bobby Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (Frozen), who wrote “Remember Me”; and Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (La La Land), who wrote all the songs in The Greatest Showman. I chronicle the creation of both songs in this week’s Variety: Here is the “Remember Me” backstory, and here is the one on “This Is Me.”
I interviewed composer John Williams recently and happened to ask him about the stand-alone Star Wars movie titled Solo (about the adventures of a pre-Episode IV Han Solo). He confirmed that he would be writing the theme for the film and that John Powell (who had already been announced as the film’s composer) would probably be incorporating it into his overall score for the film. Variety editors thought this scoop was too important to wait for our feature story, still several days away, so we broke the news early Saturday morning. It was repeated and linked-to so often, in so many other contexts around the world, that I’ve begun to wonder if it’s my most-read news story ever. Update: Williams recorded his Solo theme with a Los Angeles orchestra on Wednesday, Jan. 3, according to a musician’s social-media post that included photos from the Sony scoring stage.
One of my favorite end-of-year assignments involves choosing the top 20 albums of “classic film music” released during the previous 12 months. This year’s task seemed harder than ever, because several labels gave us truly remarkable discs — some of them expanded classics, some previously unreleased scores, some of them reissues of very rare LPs. I enjoyed all of these, from the music of John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith to that of Aaron Copland and Vince Guaraldi and many more. The list spilled well over the 20 slots, so I added an “honorable mention” paragraph to sneak in a few more titles.