I know, I know: Howard the Duck was pretty much laughed off theater screens when it premiered in the summer of 1986. Over time, many of us have mellowed in our view of the film, which has a weird charm and a wonderful performance by Lea Thompson (fresh off her Back to the Future success). But what you may not know is that composer John Barry (who had just won his fourth Academy Award for Out of Africa) wrote a spectacular score, much of which was dropped during post-production. The Intrada label has just released a 3-disc set containing more than 100 minutes of John Barry’s original music — variously noirish, romantic and action-filled — plus the songs by Thomas Dolby and the replacement score by Sylvester Levay. I wrote a lengthy essay for the colorful booklet, and director Willard Huyck was kind enough to grant me an interview talking about the music.
There’s no other way to say it: Being present when John Williams conducted, and Anne-Sophie Mutter played, “Night Journeys” from Williams’ score for Dracula, on the Sony scoring stage in April 2019, was one of the most thrilling musical experiences of my life. It was a privilege to be present for two days of the recording, and then to write the notes for this remarkable collection of Williams film themes, freshly arranged for one of the world’s great violin soloists. There are 12 in all, but some of my favorites are “Rey’s Theme,” “Hedwig’s Theme,” “Across the Stars” and “Nice to Be Around” (the latter, from Cinderella Liberty which, like Dracula, was suggested by Mutter’s late husband, and Williams’ longtime friend, Andre Previn). Here is a fun behind-the-scenes video that gives a sense of what it was like to be there (try to spot me!). Later, there will also be an expanded edition with more tracks and a DVD that I helped to edit for my friends at Deutsche Grammophon.
Every year at this time, Variety asks me to view all of the Emmy nominees in the music categories, interview as many as possible, and write a bit about their accomplishment. It’s gotten more complicated as the years have gone by, as there are now seven categories (music composition for a series, for a miniseries or movie, and for a documentary; songwriting; music direction; main title theme; and music supervision). The chart now covers two pages of the August Music for Screens issue, and is rarely reproduced online. Click on the individual pages (and then zoom in for a closer look at each).
The casting of the new Doctor Who — Jodie Whitaker, who is wonderful as the first female doctor in the 55-year history of the BBC sci-fi serial — demanded a new musical approach, too. Producers recruited Segun Akinola, who holds a slightly different distinction: he’s the first person of color to score Doctor Who. I had a fascinating conversation with him about the joys and challenges of adding his unique voice to the long-running franchise; it appeared in Emmy magazine earlier this year and is now online here.
This year Disney and Pixar have been on a roll, revisiting classics and asking their original composers to return with new music, or refreshed versions of their award-winning music from the past. Music is so critical to our appreciation of these fantastic worlds, and in each case Variety asked me to interview the Oscar-winning musical architects. First, Alan Menken talked about revisiting the songs and score of Aladdin for the live-action remake, and Benj Pasek and Justin Paul discussed writing new lyrics for it. Then Randy Newman discussed returning to the world of Woody & Buzz for the wildly popular Toy Story 4. And finally Hans Zimmer talked at length about returning to the African setting of The Lion King, now redone in an incredibly realistic computer-imagery version, and how diversity in music-making fueled his decisions.
I couldn’t let the 100th anniversary of the birth of Earle Hagen — one of the most important and most successful composers in TV history — pass without a look back at his massive impact on the medium. For this Variety story, I revisited the interviews I did when the Andy Griffith Show and Dick Van Dyke Show composer was posthumously inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 2011. Van Dyke, Marlo Thomas from That Girl, and Stacy Keach from Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, all talked about Hagen’s role in setting the time, place and mood of each show. Hagen’s own words; those of fellow Emmy-winning composers Mike Post and protege Bruce Babcock; and YouTube clips of his classic themes, including I Spy and The Mod Squad, are also included.
I knew him as the composer of the themes for The Patty Duke Show and The Trials of O’Brien back in the 1960s — and as the creator of the “Come Alive!” Pepsi Generation jingle sung so memorably by Joanie Sommers in that same era. But Sid Ramin, who died July 1 at the age of 100, was much more than that: He won the Oscar, and a Grammy, for adapting Leonard Bernstein’s music for the West Side Story movie (which he and Irwin Kostal had originally orchestrated for the Broadway show in 1957). He was a triple threat composer, arranger and conductor, and one of the nicest men in music. I wrote this obituary for Variety.
One of the most interesting movie-music assignments of the year fell to composer Daniel Pemberton (Steve Jobs, The Man From U.N.C.L.E.), who was recruited by director Danny Boyle to supervise all of the music, on-screen and off, in the romantic comedy Yesterday. There are 25 Beatles songs, heard in part or in their entirety, many of them sung by actor Himesh Patel (who, amusingly, plays a budding singer-songwriter who, in a twist of fate, seems to be the only person in the world who remembers the Beatles and turns his memory of their songs into a smashing new career). Pemberton explains how he went about it in this Variety story.
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.