Author Archives: Jon Burlingame

Interviewing “E.T.” musicians

On Sunday, the American Youth Symphony — widely considered the finest young, pre-professional orchestra in the country — played John Williams’ complete score for E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial, live to picture at UCLA’s Royce Hall. It was only the third time ever in Los Angeles (Williams himself conducted it at the Shrine Auditorium in 2002, David Newman conducted the L.A. Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl in 2015). Prior to the concert, I conducted a fun Q&A with two musicians who actually played on the original 1982 recording sessions: David Newman, then a violinist on his way to becoming an Oscar-nominated composer and one of the world’s finest conductors of film music in the concert hall; and Ralph Grierson, a top studio pianist who performed the difficult but beautiful end-title solo. Joining us was Katie Kirkpatrick, whose mentor Dorothy Remsen played the magical harp solos in the original; who played that part for Newman at the Bowl in 2015; and who inherited Remsen’s harp, named it “Dottie” and still plays it today. Here is a rundown of the concert and the honorees dinner that followed.

Making Mexican Music for Pixar’s “Coco”

This piece, the lead Artisans story in this week’s Variety, was both complicated and a joy to write. Disney/Pixar always goes to great lengths to find the right score (and often songs) for each of its films, but on Coco they went to extremes. Coco, which opens next week, is set during Mexico’s “Day of the Dead” celebration, and is about a boy who desperately wants to be a musician — something his family is dead-set against. The filmmakers hired the ever-reliable Michael Giacchino (Ratatouille, Up) to compose the score, but added Mexican-American composer Germaine Franco to orchestrate and co-write several of the songs. And they arranged for many of Mexico’s top musicians to perform much of the background music you hear. Oh, and not incidentally, they asked Frozen songwriters Bobby Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez to pen a key song heard several times in the movie.

Film Music in Concert: More Popular than Ever

Movie music in the concert hall seems to be, as they say, “trending” — it’s more popular than ever, and in many different forms. For the lead story in this week’s Variety “Music for Screens” section, I interviewed three composers (David Newman, who recently conducted the New York Philharmonic in sold-out Star Wars shows ; Ramin Djawadi, whose Game of Thrones tour was so successful he’s planning another; and Hans Zimmer, whose European and American tours transformed the traditional “film music” show into more of a rock concert); and three producers, including Steve Linder and Jamie Richardson from Film Concerts Live! and Richard Kraft, who has produced a number of concerts of Danny Elfman and Disney films.

Awards season begins; early score contenders

For Variety‘s first Contenders issue of the year, I profiled four early scores that could be vying for “original score” honors as the 2017 awards season gets underway: Dario Marianelli’s music for Darkest Hour; Thomas Newman’s music for Victoria & Abdul; Carter Burwell’s music for Wonderstruck; and Rupert Gregson-Williams’ music for Wonder Woman. This is just the beginning, of course — there will be other stories about composers and songwriters during November and December, as the season progresses.

Lalo Schifrin 85th Birthday Concert

Renowned film and TV composer Lalo Schifrin turned 85 this year, and the occasion was commemorated Saturday night with a concert featuring many of his memorable themes — everything from Mission: Impossible and Mannix to Bullitt and Dirty Harry. It was a co-production of Musicians at Play Foundation and Varese Live, with proceeds benefiting the Music Fund of Los Angeles. The show consisted of nearly three hours of great big-band performances, beautifully rendered songs and rare video clips of the maestro at work; veteran Varese producer Robert Townson hosted. My review of the evening is here.

Wallfisch on the music of “Blade Runner,” “It”

With Blade Runner 2049 opening this weekend, and the colossal box-office success of It, I thought it was the perfect moment to talk at length with composer Benjamin Wallfisch about both scores — which, incidentally, couldn’t be farther apart in terms of style and execution. Wallfisch collaborated with Hans Zimmer on the all-electronic score for Blade Runner, and in this interview for Variety he discusses their intent to remind us of the sound of the original (composed in 1982 by Vangelis) while also making it fresh for a new story set 30 years later. Wallfisch also discusses his complex and frightening symphonic score for the Stephen King thriller It, which must rank among the finest orchestral scores of the year.

Pasek & Paul’s new songs for Hugh Jackman & Co.

It was a genuine thrill to be the first journalist allowed to hear the songs that Oscar- and Tony-winning tunesmiths Benj Pasek and Justin Paul have penned for the upcoming Hugh Jackman film The Greatest Showman (debuting at Christmas), a musical biopic of the legendary P.T. Barnum. It’s the lead music story in this week’s Variety, and includes a brief look at four of the songs, plus interviews with the songwriters, Jackman and director Michael Gracey. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Pasek & Paul are today’s hottest musical-theater writers, only a few months after winning Oscars for La La Land and Tonys for Dear Evan Hansen. Plus they are really terrific guys who have an amazing sense of musical-theater history.

Jeff Russo talks about “Star Trek: Discovery”

In his first interview about scoring the new Star Trek: Discovery series, composer Jeff Russo talks about how he came up with the theme, the use of full orchestras (now a rarity in weekly TV scoring), and about the idea of a more nuanced approach to scoring the Klingon Empire. Variety published this today, just a few days before the Sept. 24 debut of the new sci-fi series on CBS All Access. Discovery producer Alex Kurtzman also chimed in on the importance of music in his new series. Russo recently won his first Emmy for Fargo.

Big orchestras for “The Orville”

Writer-director-actor-singer Seth MacFarlane loves the orchestra — not just as backing for his albums and live musical appearances, but for his movies and TV shows too. He is a fan of classic movie scores and understands the value of real musicians helping to support the emotional needs of both drama and comedy. So for his new sci-fi series The Orville, debuting Sunday on Fox, he enlisted the services of three of the finest orchestral composers in Hollywood: Bruce Broughton, who scored the pilot and wrote the theme; Joel McNeely and John Debney, who are scoring the individual episodes. They are using orchestras of 60 to 70, which is much larger than the average TV ensemble these days. In this story for Variety, MacFarlane, Broughton and McNeely talk about the challenge and the fun involved.

John Williams, Kobe Bryant at the Bowl

Animator Glen Keane’s sketch of John Williams conducting his Dear Basketball score at the March 2017 recording session.

The annual John Williams concerts at the Hollywood Bowl are always cause for celebration, and they remain as popular as ever, generally selling out three consecutive nights on a late-summer weekend. But this year offered a surprise: Williams conducted, live-to-picture, his score for the animated short Dear Basketball, based on Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant’s farewell poem to his beloved sport, narrated in person by Bryant himself. I contributed the program notes, as I often do for this concert (co-conducted by David Newman), but this year I also had the opportunity to preview the Dear Basketball premiere (including a new interview with director-animator Glen Keane), and I wrote about the concerts afterward.