It is a rare privilege to be able to sit down with composer John Williams and discuss his latest project. I was honored that he agreed to talk about his 42-year history with the Star Wars franchise and especially the long-awaited finale, The Rise of Skywalker, which opens this week. In this piece for Variety — believed to be the composer’s only print interview for the new film — Williams talks not only about the movie but about how it all came about back in 1976. Director J.J. Abrams chimes in with some thoughtful historical perspective. The print version was truncated; the online version, which you can read here, contains considerably more information of interest to every Star Wars fan. A few weeks ago, I discussed his latest Grammy nominations, which now bring his total to 71 (including 24 wins)!
A couple of weeks ago, I was tipped off to a shocking payment plan that the Discovery Networks (a conglomerate of cable channels that includes Discovery, Animal Planet, HGTV, Food Network and others) were demanding that composers accept by year’s end: Composers (already poorly paid for their work on all these shows) would no longer be able to receive U.S. royalties for their work when broadcast, a right that all media composers have enjoyed for decades. I interviewed more than half a dozen top composers for this Variety story, all of whom were appalled at the demand and said they would not agree — in large part because they rely on their residuals to keep working. The story generated hundreds of responses on social media, and numerous top composers (including Oscar winner Michael Giacchino, who went on a Twitter tirade about it) have lined up in opposition to what Discovery Networks has proposed.
Original songs for movies is a world unto itself, as we continue to discover. This year’s awards-worthy movie songs were covered in several Variety stories spread over the past two months: discovering that Taylor Swift and Andrew Lloyd Webber had collaborated on a new song for Cats, Oct. 24; our early guesses as to who might make the final Oscar and Golden Globe lists, published Oct. 29; an overview of this year’s Disney movie songs, several likely to make those final lists, on Dec. 4; and interviewing Diane Warren, Pharrell Williams, Cynthia Erivo and Regina Spektor about their current work, Dec. 6.
Between October and December, my calendar is filled with screenings, composer interviews, live Q&As, and most importantly writing about all of this for Variety. All of this was spread across a series of stories that attempted to cover most of the major candidates for awards consideration at year’s end. The first story, Oct. 29, covered seven early contenders (Joker, Harriet, Ford v Ferrari, Motherless Brooklyn, Pain & Glory, Judy, Us). A second, Nov. 14, examined offbeat approaches (Monos, The Lighthouse, Uncut Gems). A third, Dec. 4, looked at documentary scores (The Biggest Little Farm, The Elephant Queen, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, Apollo 11). And a fourth, also Dec. 4, discussed eight more scores (1917, Little Women, The King, The Song of Names, The Aeronauts, A Hidden Life, The Good Liar, Jojo Rabbit).
Two of this year’s biggest, most moving musical scores were for larger-than-life spectacles. Avengers: Endgame became the year’s top-grossing film, and its massive symphonic score by Alan Silvestri (Forrest Gump, Back to the Future) matched the galaxy-spanning scope of the Marvel Universe finale. How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World featured some of the finest music written for an animated feature in many years, no surprise considering its composer, John Powell (Oscar-nominated for the first Dragon film), devoted months to crafting its lavish orchestral and choral score. Special sections of Variety featured both of these articles: here is the Silvestri piece and here is the Powell story.
Ludwig Goransson, the Swedish-born composer who won last year’s Oscar for his terrific music for Black Panther, resurfaces with an original score for the new Star Wars series The Mandalorian, which debuted on Disney+ on Nov. 14. Goransson invited me to his comfy, colorful studio for this Variety piece in which he discusses his fresh, unusual but effective musical approach for the series. Producer Jon Favreau chimes in with some behind-the-scenes thoughts on why Goransson was the right composer for the project.
A Los Angeles Times assignment to interview all of the principals associated with the music of Motherless Brooklyn turned out to be irresistible. Director Edward Norton’s detective drama takes place in late 1950s New York, so he enlisted jazz legend Wynton Marsalis as consultant and arranger of the Harlem club standards seen and heard on screen; Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, whose sad song “Daily Battles” plays a key role in the storytelling; and film composer Daniel Pemberton, whose experiments with saxophone riffs, lyrical themes and modern-music sensibility tied it all together in the end.
I am always delighted to hear about the unearthing of rare John Barry tracks. Intrada Records’ intrepid producer Douglass Fake discovered that Barry’s original Hollywood recordings for the score of Bryan Forbes’ film King Rat were filed away with the London re-recordings that were issued as the soundtrack album in 1965. His new remastering of that classic Mainstream LP is accompanied by all of the original music recorded for the film. I had interviewed both Forbes and Barry about this music many years ago, and it was wonderful to be able to incorporate those conversations into new notes for this CD.
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.