When Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” opens on Friday, John Williams will join an exclusive club: that handful of composers who have successfully tackled one of the most difficult genres to score: the newspaper movie.
“The Post” is Williams’ 28th film for the director and could, when the Oscar nominations are announced a month from now, become his 51st. He already has five Academy Awards and is the most-nominated living person.
In general, composers say, newspaper movies are tough assignments. First, they tend to be verbose and expository; and second, they are often as objective as the journalists they depict, and manipulative music may seem out of place. Yet, over the years, some have produced compelling music to complement powerful dialogue.
Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” (1941) was the first film score to composed by the legendary Bernard Herrmann, who had spent much of the previous decade working with Welles in radio. Here, the Boston Pops (with Williams conducting) performs “The Inquirer,” a boisterous 19th-century-style can-can for newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane and the war between his Inquirer newspaper and the rival Chronicle:
Herrmann was Oscar-nominated for the “Kane” score but actually won for another RKO movie the same year: “All That Money Can Buy,” also known as “The Devil and Daniel Webster.”
For “Sweet Smell of Success” (1957), about a powerful newspaper columnist (Burt Lancaster) and a press agent (Tony Curtis) who curries favor with him, composer Elmer Bernstein wrote a jazzy theme that suggested the seedy side of midtown Manhattan.
“I was struck by the kind of raw, nasty quality of the film,” Bernstein said years later. “The score really starts with a kind of anger, a screaming energetic nastiness.” Bernstein’s music reflected the bitter, cynical tone of the film as well as the high-pitched energy of New York’s theater district in the 1950s.
The most evocative title in this genre is undoubtedly “The Front Page,” which originated as a 1928 play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur and was turned into a movie in 1931, then remade in 1940 as “His Girl Friday.” But the best of the “Front Page” scores is the one that famed big-band arranger Billy May wrote for Billy Wilder’s 1974 remake with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.
Borrowing from the stylistic success of “The Sting,” whose Scott Joplin rags won the adaptation-score Oscar the previous year, May wrote “The Front Page Rag” as a lively accompaniment to a main-title montage of typesetting and newsprint in late 1920s Chicago. May’s single reached no. 20 on the adult contemporary charts in early 1975.
Another film from decades past focused on the Washington Post: “All the President’s Men” (1976), about Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s Watergate expose that ended up toppling a president. It won four Oscars, but not for its music, which was disqualified as being too short a score. There is less than 12 minutes of music in the film.
Composer David Shire remembers: “It was particularly difficult because when I first saw it, I said to [director Alan J.] Pakula, ‘I’d love to be part of this but I can’t think of how I could help it. Where are we going to put a score that won’t take away its edge?'”
Pakula’s idea, Shire says, was that “at the heart of it is two guys whose hearts are beating faster and faster.” The score is minimal and low-key, like the journalists themselves, constantly moving forward as the reporters push and prod their way to the truth. Says Shire: “It was harder to write that score than a lot of the big, bombastic ones.” (He later won his Oscar for the song from 1979’s “Norma Rae.”)
Ron Howard’s “The Paper” (1994) focused on a day in the life of a New York tabloid editor (Michael Keaton), his reporter wife (Marisa Tomei), his boss (Robert Duvall) and a fellow editor (Glenn Close). This was the second of two movies that composer-songwriter Randy Newman did for Howard (“Parenthood” was five years earlier) and he earned Best Song Oscar nominations for both.
Newman’s score makes great use of percussion to emphasize the never-ending deadlines in the news business. And his irreverent end-title song “Make Up Your Mind” – the sixth of his 20 Oscar nominations for either song or score (he later won two for Pixar films) – is classic Newman in style and tone:
The only newspaper movie to win a Best Picture Oscar, “Spotlight” (2015) was based on the true story of the Boston Globe team that exposed the child sex-abuse scandal in Boston’s Catholic diocee. Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams portrayed dogged reporters, Michael Keaton and Liev Schreiber their hard-nosed editors.
Howard Shore’s score was alternately propulsive, thoughtful, melancholy and questioning, mirroring the moods of the film. The piano is its primary voice. “The movie is about truthfulness,” Shore told Variety at the time, “and the piano has a certain gracefulness and honesty about it. Its essence is this black-and-white world. I thought it related to the black-and-white journalistic aspects of the paper.”