Fabled Men and the Future
John Williams returns, but where will we be without him?
Hi there. Welcome to my newsletter, and thanks for reading. If you’re here, you’re either one of my family and friends, or you have a genuine interest in the medium of music composed for the cinema. In either case, I hope you enjoy what you read.
As many people who know me are aware, I am quite the introspective fellow, reflective to the point of parody. “Existential” is how I would describe my brain, and now I find myself extending that to the realm of film music, with the caveat that it’s all based on a theoretical ending point that is undoubtedly a lot closer than it once was. Which is that John Williams is going to retire soon.
To me, John Williams is like the sun. As someone born in the late ‘70s and thus brought up on a diet of “Star Wars” and its many imitators and bedfellows, “Johnny,” as he used to go by, has been soundtracking my life for as long as I can remember. No matter the chaos of everything, both in and out of the film world, there has always been the expectation that a Johnny Williams score will be here soon. And that it’ll at least provide a profound emotional experience, as his music always does.
Of course, Johnny has done it again. Steven Spielberg’s new picture, “The Fabelmans,” has just opened in the States, so while I haven’t seen it, I’ve listened to the soundtrack album. Again and again. It’s the kind of score that people will say isn’t Williams’ usual fare because they’ve only listened to the blockbuster-type scores that people tend to talk about. And “The Fabelmans” certainly isn’t one of those. Quite the opposite.
That isn’t to say it doesn’t have hummable themes cause it sure does. The main theme for this one is gorgeous, led by featured pianist Joanne Pearce Martin of the LA Philharmonic, and it’s so precious, so full of wonder and expectation, and presumptuousness for the future. It’s also so intimate. Williams is one of the few composers that consistently manages to infuse a sense of intimacy into his big scores, and here it’s just magnified across the whole piece. It’s also tense and ambiguous -there’s one cue, ‘Midnight Call,’ that wouldn’t be out of place in something like “JFK” or “Munich,” to compare to two of his dramatic scores.
After this, Williams’ next assignment is for the fifth “Indiana Jones” picture, which he’s currently scoring at this moment. But after that? He’s ninety years old at this point. I don’t think he’ll stop composing, as he premiered a new violin concerto last year. Perhaps he’ll prefer that kind of opportunity as opposed to the rigorous schedule that a film score usually has.
But it also introduces uncertainty. With Ennio Morricone passing in 2020, Williams is the last of the giants. His music is also something of a rarity in the mainstream Hollywood film music landscape; so many big films are given scores that sound like your average Hans Zimmer work, and it’s boring. Zimmer has produced some genuine masterpieces (“Interstellar”) and some fascinating works (“Dune”). Still, he was unable to inject any kind of excitement into James Bond with “No Time To Die,” and even his score for “Top Gun: Maverick” felt like one of his imitators, to be honest, with little trace of Harold Faltermeyer beyond his existing themes from the 1986 original.
Of course, Zimmer also has collaborators that perhaps don’t help. “No Time To Die” was composed with Steve Mazzaro, while Lorne Balfe helped out on “Top Gun: Maverick” and got the “score produced by” credit for his trouble. In truth, neither of the pair of Mazzaro and Balfe are writing particularly inspired scores, so adding them was never going to do much; instead, perhaps it was to help out Zimmer, who is probably constantly stretched thin by assignments. I’d be interested to know exactly what happened with Faltermeyer and why the producers needed to bring Zimmer on board.
The film music landscape is quite unique at the moment, much to the chagrin of some enthusiasts. You have the Hollywood mainstream, with Zimmer and co, Pixar and Marvel regular Michael Giacchino, Nicholas Britell (currently scoring the acclaimed “Star Wars: Andor”), Ludwig Göransson, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Daniel Pemberton, John Powell, and Hildur Guðnadóttir, the rare woman in the mix. Unfortunately, the amount of women and people of colour scoring in Hollywood is still dreadfully lacking, with a recent study stating that of the top one-hundred movies of 2021, only 5.7% were scored by women.
These composers are certainly a talented bunch. Giacchino, Göransson, Reznor/Ross, and Guðnadóttir have all won Academy Awards (for “Up,” “Black Panther,” “The Social Network” and “Soul,”* and “Joker” respectively), while Britell and Powell have both received nominations in the past. Then there are those who some would see as the elder folks, such as Alan Silvestri (“Back to the Future”), Terence Blanchard (“Malcolm X”), and Rachel Portman (“Chocolat”). Beyond that, there is a whole subsection of composers on the fringe, like Clint Mansell (“The Fountain”), Ben Lovett (“The Night House”), and the controversial figure of Mica Levi, who stunned the world with her unconventional score to “Under the Skin” and was nominated for an Oscar for “Jackie” in 2016. Thankfully, Marvel Studios have seemed willing to take chances on female composers, such as Pinar Toprak (“Captain Marvel”), Natalie Holt (“Loki”), and Amie Doherty (“She-Hulk”).
The landscape at this time is layered, and there are several different floors for people to find something suited to their tastes, be it the more traditional orchestral, something more experimental and often electronic, or minimalist. But I think those wishing for a new symphonic wave like the one John Williams heralded in 1977 with “Star Wars” will be disappointed. With the maestro retiring, film music will be a brave new world.
And we need to embrace that.
Speaking of Göransson, I listened to “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” earlier today, which was fantastic. One thing about Göransson is that the colour in his scores is always intense, and the texture so crisp that you feel like you can reach out and touch it. I can’t wait to hear it in the film itself.
I’ve recently been writing for Moviejawn, and I’ve done a few film music list pieces to coincide with Halloween and “The Fabelmans.” The first was a look at monster movie scores, with the usual kind of subjects like “Jurassic Park” and “Alien,” and a few less obvious choices like “The Host.” I also wrote a list of the best John Williams/Steven Spielberg collaborations. And in non-film music, I looked back at the insane Weird Al Yankovic film “UHF.”
One last thing; I just wanted to pimp out something personal: the BFI’s new Blu-ray release of Peter Greenaway’s film “The Draughtsman’s Contract.” This disc comes out tomorrow, and the booklet includes my essay on Michael Nyman’s score. You can check it out further here.
Have a better one.
Your analysis of Hans Zimmer is spot on!