The process of choosing “best song” and “best score” for this year’s Academy Awards will be a little more complicated for voters. Revised Oscar rules mandate that the music branch choose 15 pre-nominees in each category, requiring them to see and evaluate all of the eligible works an entire month earlier than usual. This may alter the results and eliminate late-December releases from the race. I discuss this in an analysis story for this week’s Variety. Also this week: individual looks at 13 potential score nominees, including Mary Queen of Scots, A Quiet Place, Green Book, On the Basis of Sex, Widows, Red Sparrow and Fantastic Beasts 2, BlacKkKlansman, Stan & Ollie, Boy Erased, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, If Beale Street Could Talk and Vice.
As many of you know, one of my special interests over the years has been the music of composer John Barry. He scored just four Westerns during his career. I first met him while interviewing him about one of those, his eventual Oscar winner Dances With Wolves, for Premiere magazine. But in the early 1980s he scored another one, The Legend of the Lone Ranger, and it was a pleasure to write the liner notes for this first-ever CD release of the 1982 LP. Country legend Merle Haggard sings the ballad, “The Man in the Mask,” and lyricist Dean Pitchford contributed some eye-opening reminiscences in a new interview for my essay.
It’s always a pleasure to write program notes for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It’s one of the nation’s leading orchestras, and these extraordinary musicians perform in one of the world’s great music spaces, the Walt Disney Concert Hall. This past weekend the Phil (along with the Los Angeles Master Chorale) performed excerpts from the classical pieces chosen by director Stanley Kubrick for five of his films — 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut — and, in a first for these films, they played the music live to picture. Jessica Cottis conducted.
In addition to writing the program notes (you can click on the image at right to read them), it was great fun to write the script for host Malcolm McDowell — who augmented my music and film commentary with some truly hilarious anecdotes about working with the legendary director. It was especially exciting to experience the opening of 2001, with its now iconic Richard Strauss Also Sprach Zarathustra, along with Gyorgi Ligeti’s eerie Requiem for scenes of the monolith on the Moon; and my favorite themes from Barry Lyndon, adapted from the original Handel and Schubert by Leonard Rosenman (who won an Oscar for his work, the only time a Kubrick music score was so acknowledged).
Make no mistake, Mary Poppins Returns — the long-awaited sequel to one of the most beloved Disney films of all time — will be among this year’s biggest Christmas movies. I was lucky enough to see it several weeks ago in anticipation of writing at length about the songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, and the score by Shaiman. Variety published it this week, and it includes not only the thoughts of Shaiman and Wittman but also comments from director Rob Marshall and star Emily Blunt. My longer, more general story about the film that incorporates even more of my interviews — including co-star Lin-Manuel Miranda, was posted a few days later, and that is here.
Composer Lalo Schifrin on Sunday night received an honorary Academy Award “in recognition of his unique musical style, compositional integrity and influential contributions to the art of film scoring.” Actor-director Clint Eastwood, for whom Schifrin composed eight scores (including Dirty Harry and Joe Kidd), presented Schifrin with his Oscar during an entertaining and funny 20-minute segment at the Motion Picture Academy’s 10th annual Governors Awards at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood.
Actress Kathy Bates (whose 2004 film The Bridge of San Luis Rey features a Schifrin score) opened the segment, noting that “when the score is in the hands of an artistic master like Lalo Schifrin, a good film can become great and a great film can be transformed into an all-time classic. “His work cannot be easily labeled,” she added. “Is what he creates jazz? Is it classical, contemporary, popular? The answer is yes, it is all of those things. He helped define the music of the ’60s, from The Cincinnati Kid to Bullitt to Cool Hand Luke. And without the cool Mission: Impossible theme, I’m betting Tom Cruise fails in his mission the first time — which means no next five sequels,” she quipped to audience laughter. “[Lalo] is a true Renaissance man: a performer at the piano, a painter with notes, a conductor and composer who has scored some of the most memorable films of the past half-century.”
Bates introduced a six-and-a-half minute film that followed his career from his native Argentina to studies in Paris, joining Dizzy Gillespie in New York, and finally movies in Hollywood (including six Oscar nominations between 1967 and 1983). Academy governors Michael Giacchino and Laura Karpman were interviewed about Schifrin’s impact over the years, and composer Terence Blanchard said “he’s more of an explorer than anything; music happens to be the language he uses.”
Eastwood ignored the teleprompter, instead asking Schifrin to come up because “I want to ask you a couple of questions.” Music director Rickey Minor struck up the composer’s famous Mission: Impossible theme while the honoree made his way to the podium. What followed was an impromptu conversation that contained some of the evening’s funniest moments, as well as a heartfelt outpouring of affection by the hundreds in the star-studded audience.
“We’re both jazz nuts,” Eastwood noted, pointing out that young Schifrin had to pirate jazz LPs into his Buenos Aires home. “Jazz was considered immoral,” Schifrin said. “Well, it is, kinda,” Eastwood responded to audience laughter. “Jazz is the American classical music,” Schifrin said to massive applause. When Eastwood apparently ran out of questions, Schifrin quipped, “It’s very nice talking to you,” to more audience laughter.
“Composing for movies has been a lifetime of joy and creativity,” Schifrin said on a more serious note. “Receiving this honorary Oscar is the culmination of a dream. It is a mission accomplished,” he said to even more cheers and applause.
Fellow honoree Frank Marshall (who, with his wife Kathleen Kennedy, received the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award) stopped by Schifrin’s table before the awards ceremony began, as did director Steven Spielberg. Also receiving honorary Oscars Sunday night were actress Cicely Tyson and publicist Marvin Levy. The final moments of Schifrin’s acceptance speech are here. My appreciation of Schifrin’s music, published last week in Variety, is here.
Lalo Schifrin, the Argentine-born composer of Mission: Impossible, Mannix and more than 100 film scores (including Cool Hand Luke, Dirty Harry and The Amityville Horror), will receive an honorary Academy Award on Sunday at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ annual Governors Awards. Schifrin, who has been nominated six times but never won, helped usher in a new era of film scoring in the 1960s and ’70s with his seamless mixture of jazz and classical influences. To preview the event, I wrote this appreciation of the composer for Variety (which features a rare photo of him performing with the L.A. Philharmonic in 1971).
We learned of the death of Francis Lai on Wednesday afternoon. The Oscar-winning French composer of Love Story and, a few years earlier, A Man and a Woman, was 86. I was especially saddened by the news because the composer had only recently, and very kindly, granted an interview for my next book and that work is still incomplete. I loved his music, especially his scores from the 1960s and ’70s, for their melodic invention and his penchant for classically-styled themes (especially “Concerto for a Love’s Ending” from 1969’s Love Is a Funny Thing and “Adagio for Organ, Choir and Orchestra” from 1968’s La louve solitaire); for TV, his themes for 1970’s Berlin Affair and 1974’s The Sex Symbol are favorites. I wrote this obituary for Variety and, the next day, talked to the Washington Post for their in-depth piece on the composer.
This week, Variety published its first “Contenders” section designed to inform award voters (and watchers) about worthy work in 2018 releases. It may be a record for the earliest one yet (it’s still only October!); there’ll be another at the end of November. We started with three really interesting stories: Michel Legrand scoring Orson Welles’ final film, The Other Side of the Wind; British classical composer Thomas Ades doing his first film, Colette; and perennial favorite Alexandre Desplat, who has three scores in contention (most likely to gain attention: Isle of Dogs). Also in this issue: a preview of my composer panel at the inaugural Variety Music for Screens Summit, which was Tuesday, Oct. 30 in Hollywood.
I get to do a lot of fun things in my job, but the best part is always getting to listen to the music I love, performed live by top musicians in beautiful settings. On Oct. 13, the New West Symphony performed an evening of music by the great Henry Mancini, with guest vocalists Monica Mancini (the composer’s daughter) and Joshua Henry at the Soraya in Northridge, Calif. I was asked to pen the program notes for the concert, which included such classics as “Moon River,” “Days of Wine and Roses,” The Pink Panther and such TV themes as Peter Gunn and The Thorn Birds.
A neighbor of mine, an avid filmgoer, was surprised to learn that the current Bradley Cooper-Lady Gaga movie A Star Is Born is a remake of an earlier film (in fact, this is the third official take on the story). Variety asked me to look at the music of the prior films: the 1937 original with its Max Steiner score; the 1954 edition starring Judy Garland, with its Oscar-nominated song “The Man That Got Away”; and the 1976 version with Barbra Streisand and its Oscar-winning love theme “Evergreen.” I talked to historian Leonard Maltin, Garland expert John Fricke and songwriter Paul Williams for this fun assignment, which was even deemed one of a handful of Star Is Born-related pieces most “worth reading” by The New York Times.