Journalism is a funny business, and it’s changed a lot since I started in 1973. I saw Phantom Thread on November 25 and immediately felt that Jonny Greenwood’s score could be a serious Oscar contender. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have gotten an interview with him the very next day. But my story was due the day after that, and there was only room for a short piece in the Variety music section that was published December 11. So I condensed a 1,400-word Q&A down to 400 words. Since then, he’s been nominated; there’s a great deal of talk about it; and he’s coming to L.A. for the Oscars on March 4. So we decided to publish the complete interview, which sheds considerable light on the music and the scoring process with director Paul Thomas Anderson.
Every year Variety asks me to analyze the music races for the Academy Awards — not really handicapping them, as that entails choosing favorites, which I don’t like to do. But examining the five nominees, quoting the composers, hinting at what’s important about each, and subtly suggesting what Academy voters might be thinking. Alexandre Desplat’s The Shape of Water is the current favorite, but I think you cannot count out Jonny Greenwood’s Phantom Thread or Carter Burwell’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Hans Zimmer’s Dunkirk and John Williams’ Star Wars: The Last Jedi are admittedly outsiders at this point… but the Oscars love to surprise us.
This was one of my most fun Variety assignments of the year: Interviewing Swedish composer Ludwig Goransson about his music for Marvel’s Black Panther. I’ve known Ludwig since his USC days, which is where he met director Ryan Coogler; this was their third film together (after Fruitvale Station and Creed) and his most ambitious score yet. He spent a month in Africa researching, listening to and recording all kinds of musicians, giving the film an authentic and evocative African sound (coupled, of course, with a massive London orchestra and choir for that “cinematic” finish). The piece is illustrated with photos of Ludwig in Senegal; director Coogler chimes in with comments about the importance of music in the film.
On January 15, I was invited to the recording session for episode 15 of Star Trek: Discovery, the season finale of the CBS series. It was all very mysterious. All we were told was that something special would happen and that we could not give anything away until after the show aired on February 11. It turned out that the Discovery would encounter the USS Enterprise in the closing minutes of the show; that composer Jeff Russo would, appropriately, invoke Alexander Courage’s original Star Trek fanfare; but even more importantly, Russo was going to conduct 74 musicians in a fresh new version of Courage’s famous Trek theme (complete with wordless soprano solo, beautifully performed by singer Ayana Haviv) that would play under the show’s end credits. Here is that story, published in Variety the next day.
It was a shock to receive word on Saturday morning that Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson had been found dead in his Berlin apartment. As Variety‘s resident film-music writer, it was my sad duty to talk with his manager and write the story as quickly as possible. Here is that obituary. I had known him since his Oscar nomination for The Theory of Everything (the photograph of us is from a post-screening Q&A we did together in early 2015; our first interview was in late 2014) and we did a fascinating interview in late 2016 for the Directors Guild magazine that also included his longtime collaborator Denis Villeneuve; that story is here. I was a great admirer of his scores for Sicario (Oscar nominated in 2015) and Arrival (unfortunately disqualified for Oscar consideration in 2016; here is the full explanation of that). It’s been a tremendous loss for the film-music community, and the days since his death have seen an outpouring of emotion.
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.
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. The New York Post picked it up the next day.
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.