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.
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.