Monday, March 27, 2006

Key Personnel: John Williams

OK, this is an admittedly perverse inaugural choice for a series about the undersung. Williams, Mr 45 Oscar nominations and counting, is not exactly wasting away in his need for mainstream validation, in a field where as ripely innovative a talent as Alexandre Desplat (Birth, The Beat That My Heart Skipped, Syriana) has yet to score his first nod. But I’m starting as I mean to go on, in another sense, because I want to make the point that Williams is both over- and under-rated, to fend off the perpetual backlash, and give him his due. The Academy might lap up his stodgiest work on the stodgiest movies (The Patriot, Amistad, you know the drill) with a maddening lack of discrimination, but Williams-bashers — and there are plenty out there — are all too often guilty of the same misjudgement: quick to lump his scores together when they least deserve to be, and too slow, I think, to appreciate his quicksilver versatility and experimental verve on the right project.

Williams has been both helped and harmed by his career-long association with Spielberg. Harmed, because (a) he’s the go-to man for a samey, funereal low-brass worthiness à la James Horner when Spielberg’s tackling his Big Subjects (Saving Private Ryan, Munich) and (b) his inexhaustible melodic fanfare on the fun stuff (Jurassic Park, say) can get a little… exhausting. But he’s been helped along the way by Spielberg’s own peculiarly neurotic attempts at genre-hopping, since it’s when the director’s been somehow least in control of his own movies — as a couple of the choices below attest — that Williams has often jumped up and most radically surprised us.

Five of the best:

1. AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001). Bubbling up with a genuinely weird fusion of techno-creepy, ambient and plangent sound, Williams’s score guides the movie through long passages of crawly ambiguity, and then pushes us into florid but equally untrustworthy realms of persecution and moist-eyed fantasy. Even when the film seems to break free of Spielberg’s grasp entirely, plumbing terrain more compellingly unresolved than anything he’s consciously alighted upon in his career, the score — perhaps its composer’s most virtuosic ever, in showcasing his underappreciated magpie fluency in all manner of seemingly batshit-incompatible idioms — comes along exhilaratingly for the ride.

2. Jaws (1975). Instantly reinventing what film music could achieve as a motor for suspense, synchronising itself ingeniously with Verna Fields's editing rhythms, and giving sharks a soundtrack for ever, this borrowed its throbbing semitonal attack from Stravinsky and probably gets more concert-play these days than The Rite of Spring.

3. The Empire Strikes Back (1980). A score that stands in the same relationship to Star Wars as its movie: more bristling, more fervent, tinged with doom, dread, loneliness, the prospect of the abyss. And the classic “Imperial March”, first heard here, is a black-booted fascist stomp like no other.

4. Catch Me If You Can (2002). The film’s hardly essential. But, if few knew Williams could revive the spirit of Henry Mancini so jauntily, even fewer could have expected this score’s curiously sinister, pensive undertow, its sad and petering hesitancy. It’s light jazz with daddy issues.

5. Nixon (1995). The third and best of Williams’ three collaborations to date with Oliver Stone, this uses ruminative nostalgia to hoist Nixon on to his own wobbly tragic platform, getting misty-eyed about his childhood, surveying where he could have gone, mourning his own epic failures. It digs open a necessary soft centre for the film’s self-aggrandising, self-analysing subject.

And one of the worst:

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

Williams as self-plagiarist for hire, barely reorchestrating the first film’s sticky bouquet of themes and adding limp and dreary little doodles for the new characters. Someone gave him a shot in the arm for The Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), which had a fresh feel of Hallowe’en gamesmanship and a thoroughly amusing, tick-tock urgency. As opposed to this, which made the titular chamber about as mysterious and enticing an aural environment as a smelly old gents.


JavierAG said...

I agree that he is often underrated. I for one thought the "Munich" score this year was absolutely brilliant (though I see you disagree), whereas "Memoirs of a Geisha" was just terrible.


my heart just died a little

Nick Davis said...

I'm with you every step of the way on this, though I might like Williams' JFK score about as much as his Nixon one. And, though Chamber of Secrets was clearly an embarrassment, the template of Sorcerer's Stone was already nothing to get excited about.

Really, a terrific read!

Nick Davis said...

I absolutely agree with you about nearly all of the above, particularly the strange way in which Williams is overrated and underrated. I admit that I still grumble almost by reflex when I see his name in the credits, but some of his scores, even besides the iconic ones, really are ingenious, particularly the A.I. music. And I thought the Catch Me If You Can score was the best reason to see the movie.

Only points of difference: I might like the JFK music even more than the Nixon score, and though Chamber of Secrets was a boring xerox in every way, it's maybe worth mentioning that the Sorcerer's Stone template was already no great shakes—and in many ways, just as much a xerox of other Williams creations. (He does seem remarkably director attuned, raising his game along with Spielberg in A.I., and along with the rest of the HP franchise for Azkaban.

tim r said...

Yes, I was trying to hint at this with "sticky bouquet of themes", but it seemed even stickier and less imaginative the second time round. Like the movie!

To be honest it's years since I've seen JFK, which is partly why Nixon made the list; I think the latter is a very similar score to Born on the Fourth of July (which I like melodically, though it's corny as hell) but the way the later movie accommodates it allows for a more ironic/subjective reading. It's hard to know how much credit to give Williams for this, admittedly -- his scores are so often an irony-free zone -- but I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt.

One thing I didn't mention is how bitty his scores are: I can find myself liking passages of them quite a lot, while rejecting the sentimental overlay as gross and inflated. Parts of the Schindler's List score are glorious, for instance; other parts (the aristocratic Itzhak Perlman solos especially) really don't suit the material at all.


i tried to post this awhile back but it didn't work. my original post:

i died a little when I read this.

but now having fully processed. i do hear you. i just wish with the 100s of 1000s of personnel who deserve far more attention than they will ever be paid (dot) (dot) (dot)

tim r said...

Don't worry, they'll get their due. Er, some of them...