An unexpected controversy arose over music in the new Shaft movie, starring Samuel L. Jackson, Richard Roundtree and Jessie T. Usher as three generations of the Shaft family. Isaac Hayes III, son of the Oscar- and Grammy-winning soul-music icon, hoped to produce the new film’s soundtrack; but that didn’t happen, and the New Line film contains newly recorded versions of the classic theme but no actual tracks by the composer (who died in 2008). I interviewed both the heir, composer Christopher Lennertz (who scored the new film) and sources close to the studio for this Variety story.
Canadian composer Lesley Barber (Manchester by the Sea) started work on the new Emma Thompson-Mindy Kaling comedy Late Night before shooting. Director Nisha Ganatra needed a theme for Thompson’s failing evening talk show! In this Variety story, Barber explains how she “pretended I was Paul Shaffer” to come up with a winning tune, and then spun that into the basis for much of the underscore.
This year there are seven music categories at the Emmys, the most for any craft discipline except for editing, which has eight. For many years there were five (original music for a series; music for a TV-movie or miniseries; music direction; song; main title theme) but in the past two years the TV Academy has added two more (music supervision; original music for documentaries). So covering this vast field has become infinitely more complicated; there were an estimated 700 entries from the 2018-19 season. My stories for Variety included an early overview (including The Orville, Succession, Leaving Neverland, The Umbrella Academy); music for drama (Yellowstone, Orville, Twilight Zone); music for movies and miniseries (Good Omens, Catch-22, The Bad Seed); music for comedies (Veep, Pen15, Russian Doll, Arrested Development); and music for documentaries (Love Gilda, RBG, Our Planet, Hostile Planet).
I loved the headline that Variety editors affixed to this story: “John Williams in Disneyland.” Well, sort of: the Imagineers who conceived and built the new Galaxy’s Edge land in the California theme park (soon to open in Florida too) convinced the legendary Star Wars composer to add one more piece to his many existing film themes for the George Lucas-created universe. This was done in great secrecy, and while Williams was unavailable for my Variety story — the first to delve into it in any detail — I did get both William Ross, the longtime Williams associate who orchestrated and conducted it, and Matt Walker, the Disney exec who commissioned it, to discuss the process and the grand symphonic music that resulted.
One of the most intriguing musical assignments of Wynton Marsalis’ career had to be scoring the music for Bolden, the dramatization of jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden’s career around the turn of the last century. No recordings of his music exists, so Marsalis essentially invented it with the help of director Dan Pritzker. He ultimately wrote 18 songs for Bolden’s ensemble, then recorded 10 more appropriate for Louis Armstrong’s 1930s band. I interviewed composer and director for this Variety story.
It seems like the whole world is gearing up for the eighth and final season of Game of Thrones, the fantasy series that returns to HBO on April 14. In anticipation of this, I interviewed Ramin Djawadi — who won his first Emmy last year for his music for the final episode of the seventh season — about his history with the show. For this Variety story, he talks briefly (without spoilers) about working on the final season, about what the journey has been like (including a world tour with live orchestras playing the music) and what his top five musical moments in the series have been. Game of Thrones, you’ll not be surprised to learn, has changed his life.
Composer Benjamin Wallfisch — recently Grammy-nominated for his contributions to the Hidden Figures and Blade Runner 2049 soundtracks — has no fewer than three major projects being released in April: feature film scores for Shazam! (a big symphonic approach for the comic-book adaptation), Hellboy (a punk-infused score for the reboot) and Hostile Planet (a six-hour nature documentary for National Geographic). London-born, thoroughly trained in the classical world but relatively new on the Hollywood scene, he talks about his life and recent career in this story for Variety. And Hans Zimmer talks about their collaborations in this second story from the same issue.
His music was an integral part of our young lives, a Christmas tradition in many households — watching Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town and so many other holiday specials: Maury Laws was the unsung musical genius behind them all. As musical director for Rankin-Bass, the animation company that produced all of those shows (not to mention The Hobbit and Wind in the Willows), Laws was responsible for arranging the songs he didn’t write (as in Rudolph) and composing many of the songs in subsequent specials. He even earned a Grammy nomination for The Hobbit. Laws gave few interviews but, in later years, seemed genuinely surprised and grateful for the attention. He died on Thursday in Wisconsin; here is my obituary for Variety.
More than three decades later, composer Danny Elfman is still putting music to the films of Tim Burton. They’ve done everything from Batman to Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas to Alice in Wonderland. And now they’ve returned again to the Disney fold with a live-action remake of the 1941 classic Dumbo. Elfman’s musical journey took surprising turns, involving excerpts from the Oscar-nominated score for the animated original and writing all the circus music for the background of Danny De Vito’s small-town carnival. Here is my story for Variety.
A trend in journalism is generally defined by three or more happenings in the same field. So when I discovered that James Newton Howard (The Hunger Games) had written a cello concerto, Danny Elfman (Alice in Wonderland) a violin concerto and George S. Clinton (the Austin Powers movies) another violin concerto, I thought “here’s a trend” and decided to write a story. In fact, I discovered at least half a dozen concert works by composers generally known for their film music are getting premieres in the next six months — and that more than a half-dozen others had debuted in the past year, with still more on the way. It’s not just John Williams, it’s Michael Giacchino and John Powell and Bruce Broughton and Jeff Beal and many others. Here is that story for Variety.