Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Amistad: At Last, Melody

And here we are, finally arriving at John Williams. For most people, if they know the name of one film composer, it's Mr. Williams. He's justly famous for the many, many indelible scores he's contributed to the genre, and for his general influence on popular culture.

In fact, his music is probably even more ubiquitous than you suspect. Beyond Jaws and Star Wars and Indiana Jones, he's contributed music to several Olympic games, as I've mentioned before and will again, and composed a new chamber piece for the inauguration of President Obama. He even wrote the theme music for NBC Nightly News that's been in use since 1985! It's called "The Mission" (not to be confused with Ennio Morricone's score to the 1986 film The Mission, or even a wonderful episode of Spielberg's unjustly forgotten TV series Amazing Stories called "The Mission."). Yeah, he can even make a TV news broadcast sound like an epic adventure.

I probably own more film music by Williams than by anyone else, though I haven't subjected that claim to serious scrutiny in several years. There was a time in the mid-90s when I just worshipped John Williams and figured he could do no wrong, so I bought a lot of his stuff. The only reason one of his scores hasn't appeared sooner in this blog is that I don't happen to own the scores to A.I. Artificial Intelligence (great music, but much of it is just too heartbreaking for repeat listening) or Always (remember this one? I didn't think so). Once, when I was a freshman in college (circa 1997), I even expressed to my friend Melanie that I thought he was the greatest composer of the 20th century. Melanie was already an accomplished violinist at age 18, starting a music major at Indiana University, and has likely forgotten more about music than I will ever know. She disagreed with me about as graciously as I imagine anyone could, given such a patently ignorant assertion to shoot down.

My musical palate is somewhat more sophisticated now, and I can place Mr. Williams in a much more realistic context of the whole universe of composers of both film and concert music. Nonetheless, Amistad came along roughly in the prime time of my musical idolatry (in fact, it was the very year I made that assertion) so I picked up this soundtrack.

Over the course of their collaboration, John Williams and Steven Spielberg have aged together like fine wines, and it's fascinating to track their progress as individuals and partners through those years. At any rate, some years of that collaboration created better vintages than others, and 1997 was an odd one.

The '90s were when Spielberg started deliberately making Very Important Films, but still kept one foot solidly in the blockbuster genre. In no year was this better demonstrated than in 1993, when the crushing, beautiful Schindler's List came hot on the heels of the jaw-dropping beasties of Jurassic Park. Between those two films' scores you get every kind of Williams you could hope for, from the gee-whiz grandeur and scary action of JP to the restrained and haunting solo violin of Schindler. Williams' score for Schindler's List won the Oscar, and if Jurassic Park had come along any other year but that, it probably would have been nominated as well. 1997 was a strange mirror image of that year, when Spielberg repeated with the duo of The Lost World and Amistad. Another summer blockbuster/Very Important Film one-two punch, with somewhat less success on both counts.

It is perhaps telling that both of these 1997 scores are currently out of print (or at least not currently in stock at amazon.com), while Schindler and Jurassic Park are readily available, and even though Amistad received (another) Oscar nomination for Best Original Score. For my own part, I haven't even tried to sit through all of the ill-conceived Lost World yet, and Amistad is pretty good, but not among Spielberg's best films, nor one that demands much repeat viewing.

So, what about the actual music, Brian? Well, like the film, it's a curious balancing act. Spielberg's film is really more about America than it is about the revolt and subsequent trial of the West African people on the titular slave ship, and their leader, Cinque. The story deliberately ties together figures that date from the nation's birth, i.e. John Quincy Adams, and those that would pave the road to the Civil War, like John C. Calhoun. Spielberg tries with varying success to frame the story in its larger American context, while delving into the horrors of the slave trade in Cinque's flashbacks. Likewise, Williams' score flips between exploring African themes and textures and reaching for a Copland-esque "American" sound with dignified horns and sonorous, but restrained strings.

The music actually does a much better job than the editing of the film in tying the whole enterprise together, since Williams has the freedom to interweave his musical themes and vary orchestration to bring together the foreign worlds of Cinque and America. There are extremes here, going from the dark, threatening chants of the brutal "Middle Passage" to the sober nobility of "Adams' Summation," and the "Liberation of Lomboko" cue feels as tacked-on in some ways as the unnecessary sequence in the film that it accompanies. Still, it's fair to say that Williams' music forms a kind of grout between the story components of the film.

I've read several reviews of both the film and the score to Amistad that are less than charitable in their judgment of Spielberg and Williams' tone here. More than a few of the Amistad reviews you can read at Rotten Tomatoes seem to feel that this score is over-the-top and emotionally manipulative. That's sometimes a fair criticism of Williams' work, but I just don't hear that in this score, besides perhaps the triumphant tone of the above-mentioned "Liberation of Lomboko" track -- in which Spielberg thought it fitting to include shots of a British naval vessel destroying a slavers' fortress, which is more or less totally unrelated to the main plot of the story. (Spielberg had an unfortunate habit for a while of tacking on totally unnecessary feel-good sequences to the end of every film.)

No, what I mainly recognize and appreciate about this score is Williams' traditionally grounded use of melody and rich symphonic sounds. After nearly a decade of film scores that drone and grate mostly in brooding minor keys, or provide little but rhythm and texture, hearing a John Williams score - of which there are fewer and fewer these days; he's pushing 80 after all - is a refreshing return to a symphonic tradition that actually makes for an enjoyable experience as music, apart from the film.

He may not be the greatest composer of the 20th century, but there's a good case to be made that Williams is indeed the greatest film composer of all time. We'll have plenty more chances to explore that, though.

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