With both “The Post” and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” in the running this Oscar season, composer John Williams, who already has 50 Academy nominations, more than any other living person, could earn a 51st or even 52nd nom.
Both films stem from working relationships that date back to the 1970s, both of them studded with awards recognition and success. “The Post” is Williams’ 28th film for Steven Spielberg, a partnership that began with the director’s “The Sugarland Express” in 1974. “The Last Jedi” is the composer’s eighth “Star Wars” movie, having launched the original George Lucas space franchise in 1977.
Acknowledgement of one or both scores would be especially sweet considering that Williams, who will be 86 next month, is marking his 60th year composing for TV and films. His earliest screen credits were in 1958, for TV’s “Playhouse 90” and a low-budget drive-in movie titled “Daddy-O.”
And while both “The Post” and “Last Jedi” mark a return to familiar working circumstances, the contrast between the two scores couldn’t be more striking. “The Post” is a real-life newspaper story that plays like a thriller, and Williams’ music reflects this in its urgency for the race to print, and dignified Americana for its final scenes reminding us of the importance of a free press.
“I’ve never done anything quite like it,” Williams tells Variety. “There are three or four montages — the press-rolling montage, the extended review of the former presidents, waiting for Justice Black’s decision — with various degrees of intensity, speed and the like. And a couple of gentle scenes for the character of Kay Graham, treated musically a little more traditionally, perhaps.”
Williams met Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham many years ago at the Kennedy Center after his cello concerto with soloist Yo-Yo Ma. “She was gracious and very sweet to both of us,” Williams recalls.
Spielberg says that “The Post” was a rare instance in which he went to the recording sessions “having not heard a note” in advance. He was in the middle of post-production on his next film “Ready Player One” when Williams needed to write and record. He praised the score’s “tremendous restraint, then coming right out and being strong musically when it needed to be.”
The solo piano passages are brief but significant, Williams suggests: “The simple respect and maybe even nostalgia for integrity and tradition, wrapped together… quietly reflecting about a very powerful thing, the effective search for truth.”
As for “The Last Jedi,” director Rian Johnson says “of all the cool amazing stuff that I was lucky enough to get to do, the experience with John was the highlight of the highlights.”
“We had a very general conversation” a year ago, Johnson says. His music editor then created a temp score of previous “Star Wars” music and provided that to the composer “as a guide for what we were thinking.”
Williams’ references many of the earlier “Star Wars” themes, from those for the Force and Leia to the more recent themes for Rey and Snoke, interweaving them all into a tapestry that spans the entire film.
“When we see Rey, we want to hear Rey’s theme,” Williams says. “And when the Force is referred to or felt, we want to hear the Force theme, and so on. We hope that these references make sense to the fans and make the aural connections that we want them to have.”
The classic themes are augmented by new ones for Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) and Luke’s island hideaway Ahch-To, plus “music for some of the battle scenes and a lot of interstitial connecting material.”
Johnson thought that Williams had the most fun with the casino scene that featured lighthearted alien casino music. “There were guys pulling out plastic trumpets and dog-chew toys to be used as plungers,” Johnson says. “John was like a little kid that day.” One of those pieces was, Williams quips, “a sort of Artie Shaw imitation put through all the wrong wringers.”
All of this required an orchestra of 101, the 64-voice Los Angeles Master Chorale, and 11 days of recording from December 2016 to June 2017. The L.A. musicians recorded 184 minutes of music, some of which was discarded before the final cut of 2 hours, 35 minutes was reached. (By comparison, “The Post” required a smaller orchestra of 76 and was recorded over three days in late October and early November.)
Johnson was so delighted with the results that, Williams says, he would eventually like to release a version of the film “without the dialogue and effects, just the music played in the foreground. All of the accompanimental music will be brought forward — every gesture, the music traveling along with the moods and textures, references to characters and so on.”
As for his future with “Star Wars” movies, Williams confirms that he told director J.J. Abrams that he will do Episode IX next year. “I would very much like to complete that,” he says.
In addition, Williams is writing the theme for “Solo,” the next standalone “Star Wars” slated for release May 25. John Powell, who is scoring the film, will incorporate Williams’ theme into his music.
Williams’ major work for 2018 will not be for film. It’s a fantasia for cello, harp and orchestra that will be premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra Aug. 19 in Tanglewood, Mass., as part of the Leonard Bernstein Centennial.
He is calling it “Highwood’s Ghost” and is writing it for cellist Yo-Yo Ma and harpist Jessica Zhou. Highwood Manor House is a building on the Tanglewood campus that already houses a bust of Bernstein that Williams himself commissioned and was unveiled in 2014. “Lenny always insisted that Highwood was haunted,” Williams says. “We had many parties with him in that gorgeous old house.”
The composer, already the winner of five Oscars and 23 Grammys, is revered in the Hollywood music community. “He is the most influential film composer that has ever lived,” says David Newman, who often shares the podium with Williams at the Hollywood Bowl and who recently conducted the New York Philharmonic in a series of sold-out, live-to-picture “Star Wars” concerts.
“He bridged the Old Hollywood and the New Hollywood,” Newman notes, working with such seasoned masters as William Wyler and Alfred Hitchcock before linking up with Spielberg, Lucas, Oliver Stone and others of the next generation. “And he has done more than anyone to elevate the awareness of the art form of film music.”
Adds William Ross, who conducted parts of both “Force Awakens” and “Last Jedi” (and who adapted Williams’ music for “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” second in the Potter franchise): “John is a transcendent talent. There’s no one like him. His music comes from such a profound place; the notes have this meaning that overwhelms us. He doesn’t just write some music. He considers a film’s emotional and intellectual landscape, and the music that comes out changes the entire picture.”
Mark Hamill, who attended one of the recording sessions for “The Last Jedi,” remembers his initial reaction to hearing the original “Star Wars” music: “Tears were streaming down my face,” he says. “I was so overwhelmed, so moved, so delighted. He elevated our modest little movie into an epic. We owe him so much. Aside from George Lucas, nobody deserves more credit for the success of those films than John Williams.”
Williams says he has no plans to retire. “I don’t think you can retire from writing,” he says. “I feel very lucky, and the work that I do doesn’t depend on much. If your vision’s still good, and your hands — I have no arthritis in my hands and I play the piano very easily — I don’t think there’s any reason to deprive oneself of the fun of working. Music is so rewarding.”
Asked how it feels to have done this job for 60 years, the composer responds with a laugh: “It feels like a good start.”
Quick Oscar facts about John Williams
Williams is the second most-nominated person in Oscar history behind Walt Disney (Disney had 59, Williams has 50 to date) and is the most-nominated living individual.
Williams’ first Oscar nomination was for one of the most reviled movies of the 1960s: Adapting the songs of his friend Andre Previn into an orchestral score for “Valley of the Dolls” (1967), based on Jacqueline Susann’s tawdry best-seller.
His first Oscar was not for original music, but rather for adapting the Broadway hit “Fiddler on the Roof” into an orchestral score for Norman Jewison’s 1971 film version.
Forty-seven of his 107 films have been nominated for either song, score or adaptation score. That’s an unprecedented 44% of the total.
It’s been 24 years since Williams last won (for “Schindler’s List”). He has been nominated 19 more times since then.
Sixteen of Williams’ 50 nominations are for Steven Spielberg films (and three won: “Jaws,” “E.T.” and “Schindler’s List”).
Four of the seven “Star Wars” films were nominated for their Williams scores (and the original won in 1977). None of the prequels was nominated. Two of his three “Harry Potter” films were nominated, as were three of the four “Indiana Jones” scores.
Five of Williams’ nominations are for original songs and one, “Somewhere in My Memory” from “Home Alone,” has gone on to become a standard.
Williams has been music director of the Academy Awards three times: in 1973, 1976 and 2002.