Ninety-year-old John Williams, who has hinted that his music for Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans and the forthcoming Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny will be his last for films, still can’t seem to slow down. In December, he recorded a new three-and-a-half minute piece for ESPN’s coverage of the College Football Playoff National Championship, airing Monday. I broke the story for Variety on Thursday and it quickly became one of my most-read pieces of recent months.
Once in a while my editors at Variety will commission an essay on a topic of current interest. They asked for two in December, and I found both fascinating: A long piece looking at the progress, or lack thereof, that women composers have been making in film and TV music; and a second, somewhat lighter in tone, about the current popularity of television themes — mostly on the streaming services — and how they seem to be more memorable lately.
The rest of the music world may have gone digital, but the record labels that cater to movie-music fans continue to produce first-rate soundtrack albums (actual physical product!) that focus on classic scores or previously unreleased ones. And many contain detailed liner notes that go into greater depth about the music than has ever been written elsewhere.
Hats off to this year’s best, alphabetically:
Amistad (La-La Land Records). For the 25th anniversary of Steven Spielberg’s historical drama about a 19th-century slave-ship uprising, John Williams’ evocative, Oscar-nominated score – filled with vocal chants and African percussion, culminating in the Mende-language “Dry Your Tears, Afrika” – here expands to two full discs.
Black Patch / The Man (Intrada Records). Two Jerry Goldsmith scores that have disappeared have been meticulously reconstructed and nicely re-recorded (by conductor William Stomberg and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra): Goldsmith’s first feature, a 1957 western starring George Montgomery, and his 1972 TV-movie with James Earl Jones as the first Black American president.
The Bourne Identity (Varese Sarabande). John Powell, among the most respected of today’s film composers, has assembled a new edition of his 2002 score for the Doug Liman spy thriller that launched Matt Damon as hero of a new action franchise; featuring strings, electronics and solo bassoon, it marked a fresh approach for the genre.
Conan the Destroyer (Intrada). Basil Poledouris’ Conan the Barbarian stands as a sword-and-sorcery masterpiece, which makes this 1984 sequel of automatic interest, as the composer adapted and developed the original themes for a new story.
Frenzy (Quartet Records). Ron Goodwin’s music for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1972 suspense film gets its first release, but this album contains a “wow” bonus: Henry Mancini’s only rejected score, heard by Hitchcock and then dumped for reasons that remain unclear. Their different approaches make for fascinating listening.
The Godfather (La-La Land). Fifty years after its 1972 release, Nino Rota’s Sicilian-flavored classic gets a remastering that includes more than 20 minutes of music that was recorded but went unused in the final cut and is heard here for the first time; the rest has never sounded better.
Goldsmith at 20th, Volume V (La-La Land)*.This enterprising label’s fifth compilation of Jerry Goldsmith’s work at 20th Century-Fox consists entirely of his rarely heard music for Fox TV series and movies, 1968-75, including such “lost” series as Anna and the King and fine TV-movies including A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and A Girl Named Sooner.
Hollow Man (Intrada). Jerry Goldsmith’s last film for Paul Verhoeven, a modern-day “Invisible Man” story starring Kevin Bacon in 2000, sported an energetic, wall-to-wall score that probably should have been Oscar-nominated. This 2-CD set gives us the full score for the first time.
The Iron Giant (Varese Sarabande). One of the late Michael Kamen’s most beloved scores, for Brad Bird’s animated modern classic (1999) about a boy and his giant robot during the Sputnik era, certainly merited this expanded album.
It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown / A Charlie Brown Christmas (Craft Recordings). During the pandemic, the family of Peanuts producer Lee Mendelson discovered many reels of Vince Guaraldi’s original music that had been hidden away in vaults for over 50 years, enabling them to issue fabulous new soundtracks for these perennial TV favorites.
L.A. Confidential (Varese Sarabande). One of Jerry Goldsmith’s last great scores was this Oscar-nominated piece for Curtis Hanson’s noirish crime thriller set in 1950s Los Angeles. Combining period touches with contemporary writing, Goldsmith created a kind of musical sequel to his undisputed masterpiece Chinatown.
Lifeforce (Intrada). One of Henry Mancini’s most powerful yet unheralded works was his dramatic score for Tobe Hooper’s practically forgotten 1985 tale of space vampires. His main-title theme still ranks as among his most thrilling compositions; this 2-CD presents and preserves the entire score.
The Magnificent Seven Collection (Quartet). Elmer Bernstein’s music for the 1960 western classic was rearranged and augmented for three sequels – Return of the Seven, Guns of the Magnificent Seven, The Magnificent Seven Ride – all of them collected for this 4-disc set (that even includes a Marlboro Country album recorded by the cigarette manufacturer that used Bernstein’s theme in its commercials).
Mary, Queen of Scots (Quartet)*. John Barry’s Oscar-nominated score for this 1971 film about 16th-century English history has been out before, but only in the 26-minute, original LP format; this expansion includes Barry’s complete 50-minute score with choral interludes and gorgeous orchestral passages.
Red Sonja (Quartet). Ennio Morricone’s lavish symphonic accompaniment is a good deal better than this 1985 fantasy epic (starring Brigitte Nielsen and Arnold Schwarzenegger in a Conan-like role) probably deserved; the choral material, as always with Morricone, is worth the price of admission.
Scarface (La-La Land). Giorgio Moroder’s legendary score for Brian De Palma’s 1983 cocaine classic starring Al Pacino has long been desired by collectors (the original LP was mostly songs). This 2-CD set fulfills every wish; it’s more than two and a half hours of vintage Moroder from his Cat People–Flashdance period.
Scream 1-4 (Varese Sarabande). If you liked Wes Craven’s Scream movies, you’ll love this 6-CD box set of Marco Beltrami’s creepy, sophisticated scores that helped reinvigorate the horror genre back in the 1990s.
Seconds (Quartet). This classically styled Jerry Goldsmith score for John Frankenheimer’s unsettling 1966 sci-fi film undergoes a major sonic upgrade for the new release, including more music than the previous issue.
Tomorrow Never Dies (La-La Land). David Arnold’s first of five James Bond movie scores is arguably his best, inspired by John Barry’s 007 style but updated with a contemporary flair. This lavish presentation contains nearly two and a half hours of music for the 1997 Pierce Brosnan adventure.
Willow (Intrada). James Horner’s popular, grand-scale symphonic music for Ron Howard’s 1988 fantasy feature arrives in expanded form, just in time for the new Disney+ series also starring Warwick Davis.
* Full disclosure: I wrote the liner notes for these two albums.
A few years ago, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ music branch — the approximately 400 composers, songwriters and music editors who decide the Oscar nomination slate for songs and scores — returned to an old practice: the “shortlist,” a way of winnowing down the vast number entered (this year, 147 scores and 82 songs) to a manageable few. I follow this process closely and chronicle it for Variety. Here is an early prediction of the score lineup, looking at 22 possibilities; here is my exclusive on the score and song disqualifications; here’s a full list of the songs that were eligible; and here is a quick analysis of the shortlists themselves, announced on Dec. 21. (I had earlier investigated the idea that the Doja Cat song in Elvis might be disqualified — and it was.)
Every year, mostly in November and December, Variety asks me to see a nonstop barrage of new movies and interview their composers. This year’s crop included Justin Hurwitz for Babylon, Marcelo Zarvos for Emancipation, Chanda Dancy for Devotion, Nicholas Britell for She Said, Ludwig Goransson for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Hildur Guonadottir for Tar, Terence Blanchard for The Woman King, Michael Abels for Nope, Benjamin Wallfisch for Thirteen Lives, and Michael Giacchino for The Batman.
This year the Recording Academy finally added a category for game music soundtracks. It’s a far more important issue in the composer community than ever before, considering the vast number of games being played and the high quality of music now being composed for them, by some of the most talented people in the industry. I discussed the upcoming Grammy competition in a Variety story here, previewed the possible nominees here, and unveiled the actual nomination slate (along with all the other Grammy nominees in the visual-media field) here.
I don’t often get to write about one of my favorite jazz artists: Vince Guaraldi, once famed for his Grammy-winning “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” but now best known for his scores for more than a dozen animated Peanuts specials of the late 1960s and early 1970s. His Charlie Brown Christmas album is said to be one of the best-selling jazz albums in history, and to our great surprise, the original 1965 recording sessions were recently unearthed. Craft Recordings, which owns the old Fantasy record label, has issued an expanded Charlie Brown Christmas album with extra tracks in a number of formats. My piece for Variety includes new interviews with Guaraldi biographer Derrick Bang and Jason Mendelson, the son of longtime Peanuts TV producer Lee Mendelson.
Werewolf by Night, which debuted on Disney+ in October, was among the best-reviewed Marvel projects in ages. It really was fun, and the surprise to many was the identity of the director: Michael Giacchino, Oscar- (Up), Emmy- (Lost) and Grammy-winning (Ratatouille) composer. He talked about the experience with me (he scored it, too!) for this story. Giacchino was later named Variety’s composer of the year — considering his massive recent success with the music for Spider-Man: No Way Home, The Batman, Jurassic World: Dominion and Lightyear — and the publication featured him in a conversation with his friend J.J. Abrams, which I recounted in this story.
One of the great thrills of this year was being asked to pen the notes for The Sound of 007 In Concert program, an all-star event held Oct. 4 at London’s Royal Albert Hall. David Arnold, composer of five James Bond film scores including Tomorrow Never Dies and Casino Royale, produced the evening (which later became a TV special on Prime Video). My “History of 007 Music” essay appeared over four pages in the middle of this lavish, 44-page brochure. This, I suspect, was an outgrowth of my participation in the Sound of 007 documentary, which aired that same week.
Some of today’s most compelling scores are on television, and for science-fiction and fantasy projects. This year’s crop was especially interesting, and I explored several of them in stories for Variety: Bear McCreary talked about his grand-scale music for The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power; Amie Doherty and Ramin Djawadi discussed their scores for She-Hulk and House of the Dragon, respectively; Laura Karpman regaled us with the complexity of recording Ms. Marvel; Natalie Holt and Hesham Nazih talked with us about Marvel’s Loki and Moon Knight; the composers of Severance, Foundation and The Book of Boba Fett chimed in on their special challenges; and Nami Melumad talked about the latest Star Trek series, Strange New Worlds. Nicholas Britell talked with us twice about Andor, first in announcing his involvement, long kept under wraps; and after the series debuted, although he was still reluctant to give away any secrets.