Category Archives: Film Music

Busy Benjamin Wallfisch

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.

Rankin-Bass composer Maury Laws, dead at 95

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.

Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes

I was amused to see my name atop the list of authors of this new book about the Marvel Universe of comic-book heroes (there are 20 of us, including the late Stan Lee) — it was, of course, an alphabetical listing on Amazon. But I was delighted to be asked to write an essay about music in the Marvel movies, which provided an opportunity to talk with such celebrated composers as Alan Silvestri (Captain America, The Avengers), Patrick Doyle (Thor), Brian Tyler (Iron Man 2 and 3), Michael Giacchino (Doctor Strange), Christophe Beck (Ant-Man) and, just prior to his Oscar win, Ludwig Goransson (Black Panther). And as a longtime Marvel fan dating back to the mid-1960s, it was a thrill to join the ranks of Roy Thomas, Danny Fingeroth, Joe Quesada and other contributors to this colorful volume.

Danny Elfman Scores “Dumbo”

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.

Concert music by film composers

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.

Celebrating John Williams

Make no mistake, it is always an honor to be asked to write about composer John Williams. I never take it for granted. So it was a distinct pleasure to be asked to write the program notes for the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s January 2019 concerts celebrating the famed film composer (and even greater fun to attend, as conductor Gustavo Dudamel, an unabashed Williams fan, conducted the entire program at Disney Hall). Deutsche Grammophon, which recorded all four nights, then asked me for an essay commemorating Williams’ long history with the Philharmonic for a two-CD set. Along the way I got to mention all of the repertoire played so brilliantly (a greatest-hits selection that ranged from Close Encounters and E.T. to Harry Potter and Jurassic Park).

Hooten Plays Williams

It is always a joy to write about the music of John Williams, of course, but I rarely get the chance to discuss his concert music. This was a happy exception. Thomas Hooten, the immensely talented principal trumpet for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, asked the maestro to conduct an L.A. orchestra in his 1996 trumpet concerto (and, to fill out the album, his 1989 theme for Born on the Fourth of July, which also features a magnificent trumpet solo). Private donations and crowd-funding made it all possible, and when it was finished Hooten asked me for an essay about the work for the booklet. I was delighted to participate in this real labor of love.

Pinar Toprak’s music for “Captain Marvel”

Wow, two great Variety assignments in a row! First, writing about the year’s first stunning score, John Powell’s How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World. And now, the chance to preview Pinar Toprak’s memorable music for Captain Marvel, which opens Friday. It’s a landmark moment not only because Toprak is the first woman to score a Marvel film, but its likely box-office success will shine new light on the unfortunate statistics about gender bias in film scoring. And the film’s huge opening weekend instantly made her the most successful female composer, box-office-wise, in American movie history. I used that statistic as a jumping-off point for a discussion of what this may mean for other women in film music.

John Powell’s “How to Train Your Dragon” music

John Powell’s music for How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is the first genuinely great score of 2019. I found it a stunning, unexpectedly emotional experience, and so asked for time with both Powell and director Dean DeBlois to explore their process and learn about the creation of the music. This, of course, is the finale of the Dragon trilogy; Powell was Oscar-nominated for the first film in 2010 and then penned an equally fine score for the second film in 2014. As you will see in this Variety story, the third film demanded a 98-piece orchestra and 60-voice choir.

Final Oscar stories for the 2018 awards

The 91st Academy Awards are in the books at last. It was a joy to report on composer Ludwig Goransson’s victory in the original-score category, more than a year after I first called attention to his African-infused music for Black Panther in the pages of Variety. In the days leading up to the awards, we also broke the news about Alexandre Desplat’s inability to attend (recuperating from throat surgery) and about Bette Midler performing Marc Shaiman’s moving song “The Place Where Lost Things Go” from Mary Poppins Returns. My story about Sunday’s Oscarcast also discusses the L.A. Philharmonic’s performance of a touching John Williams piece from Superman (an Oscar nominee 40 years ago!) for the “In Memoriam” segment.