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.
I hope The Hate U Give is remembered at awards time. It’s a powerful and very timely film, and Variety asked me to write two stories about its music. One was about Oscar-nominated Lion composer Dustin O’Halloran’s piano, synth and strings score, which carefully and effectively augments the songs assembled by music supervisor Season Kent. The second was about the soundtrack release via Def Jam, which features new songs by rising stars Arlissa and Bobby Sessions. Interviews with the composer, songwriters, director, music supervisor, studio and label execs made this assignment especially meaningful.
Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson, widely considered among the most interesting of the current generation of film composers, died in February at the age of 48. But the Oscar-nominated composer of The Theory of Everything, Arrival and Sicario had completed more work before his death. His final score, for Mandy — Panos Cosmatos’ wild horror-revenge thriller starring Nicolas Cage — is a dark, massive, industrial-metal sound that matches the grim, violent, sometimes insane milieu of the film. I interviewed the director, his manager Tim Husom, and his agent Kevin Korn, about this last work and about the new foundation in the late composer’s name.
I couldn’t wait to see First Man — in part because manned spaceflight was my obsession all through the 1960s and I have very vivid memories of watching Neil Armstrong set foot upon the lunar surface on July 20, 1969, and also because I was fascinated by how director Damien Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz would top their Oscar-winning work on La La Land in 2016. I spent time on the recording stage as Hurwitz conducted all of the key musical sequences and then interviewed him in his studio (complete with Moog synthesizer, theremin and vintage Echoplex machine), followed by a phone conversation with Chazelle. The results, published in Variety, are here.
This weekend John Williams, the most famous composer in Hollywood history, celebrated his 40th anniversary conducting at the Hollywood Bowl. His very first concert leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Bowl was on July 28, 1978, subbing for an ailing Arthur Fiedler, who had been scheduled to conduct a pair of “Pops at the Bowl” concerts that weekend. Since then, the much-honored dean of American film composers has returned to the Bowl on dozens of occasions, conducting not only his own music but that of other composers, most of whom were active in Hollywood at one time or another. The program included not only Williams compositions but also those of a friend and mentor, Leonard Bernstein (whose centennial is also being celebrated this year). Steven Spielberg served as host; David Newman conducted the first half. Here is my review for Variety.
The Hollywood community was stunned last week by the death of Grammy- and Emmy-winning composer Patrick Williams. Not only among the most talented composer-arrangers of his generation, “Pat” Williams was one of the nicest guys in the business, one of the all-time great big-band leaders and a strong supporter of music education — a rare combination. I was lucky to get to know him over the past 30 years and it’s been hard to say goodbye. I wrote a fact-filled obituary for Variety and a slightly different version for the AFM’s Overture, but I also wrote an appreciation of the man and his music that I think conveys a bit more of who he was and why we all loved him.
If you’ve seen the latest Tom Cruise Mission: Impossible adventure, Fallout, there are two things you can’t miss: Cruise’s amazing stunts and Lorne Balfe’s musical score. Balfe utilizes Lalo Schifrin’s classic Mission themes in practically every scene. He wrote approximately four hours of music for the film and it took an entire month to record in London, as the composer told me for this Variety story about his nine-month odyssey to create the music with director Christopher McQuarrie (and a little help from Cruise). The Variety piece also includes a wonderful three-minute video shot during the London recordings.