I consider John Barry’s Oscar-nominated score for Richard Attenborough’s 1992 biopic Chaplin to be his last great work for films. His main theme perfectly captures the tragedy-filled life of the cinema’s first genius, and the original soundtrack really didn’t fully capture the breadth of Barry’s wide-ranging, early-Hollywood score. So enter La-La Land, which restored the entire score (including all of Barry’s many interpolations of Chaplin’s own music) and which very kindly asked me to write the essay for the CD booklet. It was a wonderful opportunity to revisit this terrific score.
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.)
Diana Friedberg’s long-in-production documentary on the pioneering film composer is finished at last, and now available on Blu-Ray (along with a television debut on TCM). Max Steiner: Maestro of Movie Music takes a long and loving look at the Oscar-winning composer of such classics as King Kong, Gone With the Wind, Casablanca, The Searchers and A Summer Place. I was pleased to be asked to contribute along with longtime friends and even more knowledgeable Steiner experts as biographer Steven C. Smith, orchestrator John W. Morgan and conductor William Stromberg.
John Barry’s 1971 score for the Vanessa Redgrave-Glenda Jackson movie about 16th-century English and Scottish history has been released twice before: In its original Decca LP format, and on CD by Intrada in 2008 (with liner notes by yours truly). Thanks to the recent discovery of previously unknown tape reels in Universal’s vaults, the enterprising Quartet label has now issued an expanded edition including all of Barry’s Oscar-nominated score. It’s the third and final film of what I think of as Barry’s historical-drama trilogy (also including The Lion in Winter, 1968, and The Last Valley, 1971), all of them magnificent and worthy of revisiting.
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.
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.
The Sound of 007 is a 90-minute documentary on the history of music in the James Bond franchise. Filmmaker Mat Whitecross enlisted me early on as a consultant and on-camera commentator based largely on my book, The Music of James Bond. Over several months I probably did six or seven hours of recording with him, providing background on Monty Norman, John Barry and many of the other composers and songwriters who have contributed music to the series over the past 60 years. I pop up once in a while in the final film, which had the blessing and cooperation of the Broccoli family and Eon Productions. It debuted around the world at the same time on World James Bond Day, Oct. 5, 2022.
I was thrilled to collaborate with my UK friends Geoff Leonard and Pete Walker on this book. They wrote the definitive Barry bios, The Man With the Midas Touch and Hit and Miss: The Story of the John Barry Seven, about this tremendously important British composer. Music by John Barry takes an in-depth look at 42 of his scores; I covered 20 of them, along with writing the introduction (based on an interview I did with Michael Caine) and afterword. My contributions included many of the classics: Born Free, The Lion in Winter, Mary Queen of Scots, Somewhere in Time, Body Heat, Out of Africa, Dances With Wolves and several other favorites that are not as well remembered but equally significant in his oeuvre (Deadfall, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Frances and others). This was a true labor of love, and maybe the most fun I ever had writing a book.