Tag Archives: John Williams

Rocks In The Attic #762: Harry Manfredini – ‘Friday The 13th (O.S.T.)’ (1980)

tp0009c_SP_Gate_CoverAs well as watching all of the James Bond films in the run-up to next year’s Bond 25 , I’m also in the middle of watching the Friday The 13th films in order. I’ve seen them all before, multiple times, but it’s good to rewatch them as I’ve been listening to the great In Voorhees We Trust podcast, hosted by the very funny Matt Gourley and Paul Rust.

Friday The 13th has always been my favourite horror franchise. There’s just something more lovable about the series than the lame comedy-horror of the Nightmare On Elm Street sequels, or the dull-as-dishwater Halloween films after the brilliant third installment.

Jason Voorhees is just a lovable guy. He might be disfigured, wander around in the dark, and kill campers with a machete, but what a guy! He doesn’t limit the terror with wisecracks like Freddy Kreuger, and he’s far more animated than the passive Michael Myers. Although I don’t like the superpower qualities he adopts in the later sequels, it’s great to see Jason’s character develop through the first four films.

RITA#762aOf course, as every trivia expert knows, Jason isn’t the killer in the original Friday The 13th film. It’s his Mom. The matriarch of the Voorhees family, Pamela wears fisherman’s sweaters and looks a little like a menopausal Steven Tyler. The film opens on Camp Crystal Lake in the late 1950s, with Momma Voorhees as an unseen killer, in POV. She kills a pair of camp counselors who allowed her son Jason to drown while they had sex.

Enter plucky young hitchhiker Annie, on her way to Camp Crystal Lake. A intertitle informs us it is now the present day, AKA 1980. The camp is being re-opened for the summer, but Annie doesn’t get there. First, she meets Crazy Ralph, who warns her against going to the camp (“It’s got a death curse!”), and then she gets a lift from the POV killer who dispatches her in the woods.

Cut to camp, and we find the enterprising Steve Christy, who’s rushing to refurbish the camp before its first guests of the season arrive. He’s employed a team of young counsellors, including Bing Crosby’s son Harry, and Kevin Bacon, to fix up the place. Interspersed with these establishing scenes are shots of the killer, hiding behind trees, watching the counsellors in POV. It’s far less scary when you know it’s an old lady watching them. At this point, it’s important to note that Kevin Bacon cannot dive very well. Before he meets Mrs. Voohees, he almost kills himself with a belly-flop.

The killings start almost immediately without a chance for any character progression. Day turns into night and the counsellors get picked off one by one during a rainstorm. The murder scenes are great, aided by special-effects maestro Tom Savini, and do for campsites what Jaws did for beach-swimming five years earlier.

Harry Manfredini’s score has just enough innovation in it to sidestep any accusations that it takes a little too liberally from John Williams’ Jaws and Bernard Herrmann’s shower scene in Psycho. The repeated ‘Ki-ki-ki, Ma-ma-ma’ sound-effects, representing Jason’s pleas of ‘Kill her, Mommy’, are just brilliant and effortlessly lift the film’s sound-design above its contemporaries.

It’s a simple film; over as soon as it’s set up. And of course, the location is superb. I’m not sure if sequels were considered before its runaway success – it made $40 million in the U.S. alone, from a $500,000 budget – but the location easily allows for subsequent films, as new, unknowing victims turn up at the camp each summer.

In the episode of the In Voorhees We Trust podcast which covers this film, Matt Gourley and Paul Rust debate whether or not the title card, at the top of the film, flies into view and breaks the camera lens or the viewer’s screen – or whether it’s supposed to be a mirror breaking, as per the film title’s link to superstition. Rewatching it, I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to be the lens of the camera, although it’s a missed opportunity for the film not to reference the theme of superstition a little more:

Final Girl: Oh, Mrs. Voorhees, what a pretty black cat you’re holding.

Pamela Voorhees: Oh yes, dear, I’ve just come from my Amateur Dramatics class where we’re rehearsing the Scottish Play…or should I say…Macbeth!

Final Girl ducks out of the way, under an open ladder, as Stevie Wonder’s Superstition plays over the soundtrack.

And speaking of Mrs. Voorhees, I fully agree with Gourley and Rust that she would have been soliloquising with each character, refining her back-story down to a tight-five, before murdering them.

Pamela’s head rolls, as do the credits, and the only thing missing is a post-credit sequence with Crazy Ralph grinning at the camera, joyfully exclaiming “Called it!”

Hit: Overlay Of Evil / Main Title

Hidden Gem: Banjo Travelin’

Body Count: 10

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Rocks In The Attic #741: John Williams – ‘Superman: The Movie (O.S.T.)’ (1978)

RITA#741“All those things I can do, all those powers, and I couldn’t even save him.”

With this line, delivered by a grieving Clark Kent near the end of the film’s weighty first act, the writers of Superman: The Movie clearly identify the character’s central flaw: that despite his super-powers, he’s unable to save everybody.

This paradox is echoed at the end of the film (in a scenario later lifted by The Dark Knight), where Superman is forced to decide between saving Lois Lane and saving everybody else. Only by interfering with human history – and thereby breaking his father’s golden rule – can he do both.

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Superman has no weaknesses, except his allergy to that pesky kryptonite, and so his inability to protect all innocent life becomes the character’s true Achilles’ heel. Richard Donner’s Superman makes a big deal out of this; it’s a film about the humanity of the character (with a painfully obvious subtext concerning the American dream). The comic-book superhero stuff is just dressing.

RITA#741aDonner’s film is so much better than recent efforts with the character, it almost seems an insult to compare it to them. After a long break following the woeful Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, we all narrowly escaped the ‘90s Tim Burton version starring Nicolas Cage before the property seemed to fall back into safe hands. Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (2006) was all set to be a masterpiece. The storyline (co-written by Singer, himself a huge fan of Donner’s version of Superman) did away with the third and fourth films, placing it directly after the respectable Superman II.

“Interesting,” we all thought. This could be something. The director of 1995’s The Usual Suspects had shown that he could direct comic-book superheroes with 2000’s X-Men (and its 2003 sequel). It was pitched to be a continuation of the Richard Donner / Richard Lester films. The opening credits even took the swooping, swooshing style of those earlier films, set to John Williams’ score. What could go wrong?

Well, sadly, everything.

RITA#741bAside from a forgetful cast, and a lacklustre script, the storyline involving ‘SuperBoy’ – the product of a romance between Clark Kent and Lois Lane – was just unbearable. What did Singer expect to happen if the film had been more successful than it ultimately was? Was he thinking that the franchise would continue with ‘SuperBoy’, ‘SuperPrePubescent’, ‘SuperSulkyTeen’, ‘SuperSurreptitiousMasturbator’ and so on?

This storyline, more than anything in Singer’s film, killed the franchise yet again. We would have to wait another seven years for Zack Snyder’s Man Of Steel to land. Again, it looked hopeful. I’m a huge fan of Snyder’s Watchmen (2009) and so it looked like the franchise was safe in the hands of somebody who could do dark-DC well. Even better, the film was produced by Christopher Nolan who had done marvellous things with DC’s other flagship character, Batman, in the early 2000s. What could go wrong?

Again, sadly, everything.

Man Of Steel takes all the joy out of the character, and replaces it with a migraine. A bastard behind the eyes, as Withnail would put it. The only good thing about watching Man Of Steel is getting to the closing credits without slipping into a coma. The apple has fallen a long, long way from Richard Donner’s tree.

To be fair, I don’t mind 2016’s Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn Of Justice – particularly the bit where the delightful Gal Gadot turns up to the Doomsday fight as Wonder Woman – but Superman is the least interesting character in a universe that is doing its best to ape Marvel’s successes.

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The final nail in the coffin – so far – was the return of Superman in 2017’s Justice League. This sludgefest of a film might have been better without Superman appearing, but it was already terrible without him. Moral of the story: if the actor playing Superman refuses to shave his (Mission: Impossible – Fallout) moustache off to complete re-shoots, for WHATEVER REASON, leading to uncanny valley CGI problems, then HE DOESN’T DESERVE TO PLAY SUPERMAN.

Of course, half of the magic from Richard Donner’s Superman comes from John Williams’ epic score. It’s possibly my favourite of his soundtracks – which all depends on which film I saw last: Superman, Star Wars, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Jaws, or Raiders Of The Lost Ark.

There are many passages in both the main title theme, and the score overall, that almost bring a tear to my eye. The score is like a direct line to the nostalgia of my childhood; a magic button, composed by a magician himself.

Hit: Theme From Superman (Main Title)

Hidden Gem: The Fortress Of Solitude

Rocks In The Attic #731: John Williams – ‘Cavatina’ (1980)

RITA#731In 1977, one John Williams wrote and recorded the Cantina Band theme for Star Wars. In 1978, another John Williams recorded Cavatina, as the theme for The Deer Hunter.

The Deer Hunter’s Christopher Walken originally auditioned for the part of Star Wars’ Han Solo, before it went to Harrison Ford. Both films are about a bunch of plucky rebels fighting against an imperial oppressor. I can’t think of any more similarities, but I would like to see a cut of Star Wars with Cavatina playing in the Cantina sequence. Or even better, a cut of The Deer Hunter, with the Cantina Band theme playing over the deer-hunting scenes.

As much as I love the haunting brilliance of Cavatina, the stand-out track on this collection is a cover of the Beatles’ Because. Anybody who thinks that the Beatles didn’t progress throughout their career should listen to this. The fact that the melody of this song dripped out of the head of a 28-year old is just incredible.

Hit: Cavatina (Theme From The Deer Hunter)

Hidden Gem: Because

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Rocks In The Attic #728: John Williams – ‘Home Alone (O.S.T.)’ (1990)

RITA#728I’ve just re-watched Home Alone. It’s probably the twentieth time I’ve seen it, but it felt like the right time to finally show it to my three daughters, aged seven, five and three. The three-year old was a little scared, but the other two enjoyed it as much as I hoped they would.

It’s funny how much of an evergreen hit the film has become. Upon its release it was a throwaway comedy, albeit a very successful one, but in the last decade or so it seems to have become as synonymous with festive TV scheduling as The Great Escape was in my youth.

What’s not to like? The McAllister family are as ignorant and self-absorbed as you’d want late ‘80s yuppy suburbanites to be portrayed, Macauley Culkin’s acting is just on the right side of precociousness, and Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern’s wet bandit burglars are laughably moronic. But it’s the two white knights of the film that give it its heart: John Candy’s polka-playing airport saviour to Catherine O’Hara, and Roberts Blossom as the ominous neighbour Old Man Marley.

The film’s other secret weapon is its soundtrack and score by John Williams. Rehashing the childhood wonder / childhood danger motif that Williams has used many times, first with Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, but later with Jurassic Park and his Harry Potter scores, Home Alone stands alongside his seminal work from the ‘70s and ‘80s.

This expanded soundtrack release, from Mondo Records, includes the festive pop songs from the film. These are another highlight of the film, as they’re not the obvious, popular versions of the Christmas classics (and presumably selected for cost reasons): the Drifters’ version of White Christmas, Mel Tormé’s Have Yourself A Merry Christmas, and Please Come Home For Christmas by Southside Johnny Lyon.

Hit: Home Alone Main Title (‘Somewhere In My Memory’)

Hidden Gem: O Holy Night

Rocks In The Attic #709: John Williams – ‘Jurassic Park (O.S.T.)’ (1993)

RITA#709What does William’s score to 1993’s Jurassic Park have to do with Dies Irae, a latin hymn from the thirteenth century?

After watching the latest disappointing Jurassic Park sequel, it’s refreshing to wash my brain out with the score to Spielberg’s original film. At this point in his career, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Williams would be washed-up. Surely the composer of Jaws, Superman, the Star Wars trilogy, Close Encounters, the Indiana Jones trilogy – and many, many more – would have nothing left. Somebody that prolific can’t keep on being prolific, can they?

The answer seems to be a resounding Yes. Not only does Jurassic Park contain two distinctly memorable main themes – Theme From Jurassic Park and Journey To The Island – but the rest of the score is just as strong as his ‘70s and ‘80s output. But what’s all this about Gregorian Chant?

The answer is in a descending motif in the ancient hymn. For centuries, this doom-laden melody has been used as short-hand for evil or foreboding – Dies Irae itself translates to Day Of Wrath. A host of great composers have used the motif in their works – Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Holst, Liszt, Mahler and Rachmaninoff, to name but a few – but it’s its use in modern film soundtracks that interests me the most.

The tune is easiest to spot in the first few notes of The Shining’s opening Main Title, played by Wendy Carlos on the Moog Synthesiser. Here, the melody isn’t even disguised, it’s as clear as the day in which it’s used to soundtrack, as the Torrances drive up the mountain approaching the Overlook Hotel.

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Williams uses it to great effect in Jurassic Park, throughout the cues entitled Incident At Isla Nublar (from 3:32), and High Wire Stunts (from 0:00). But this isn’t the first time he’s referenced it. It can be found a couple of times in his iconic score to 1977’s Star Wars. Here it plays as the accompaniment immediately before Luke’s Force Theme rises up in The Burning Homestead (from 1:28), and is echoed in the doom-laden brass line (from 1:43) as Luke’s fate realigns.

And it’s not just John Williams sliding it into his scores, the musical equivalent of directors inserting the Wilhelm Scream into their sound mix. Other famous composers have “borrowed” the melody too. In 2001’s The Fellowship Of The Ring, Howard Shore uses it as the bassline thoughout the cue entitled Weathertop (from 0:18), as the Ringwraiths attack the Hobbits. Jerry Goldsmith utilises it in his 1982 score for Poltergeist, Hans Zimmer uses it briefly in 1994’s The Lion King, and Bernard Herrmann used it back in 1963 for Jason And The Argonauts. Unsurprisingly the tune also makes for good horror music fodder.

RITA#709aEven back in 1927, Gottfried Huppertz inserted the motif into his Dance Of Death cue for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (from 1:17) – confirming that the appropriation of Dies Irae in cinema is as old as cinema itself.

Interestingly, John Williams does something sneaky with Dies Irae in Jurassic Park. Usually the sequence of the first four notes in the motif is enough to suggest doom and despair, but Williams takes just the first three notes and does something unexpected with them. They serve as the starting point for the Jurassic Park’s main theme – as positive and upbeat a film theme as could be, even when played on a Melodica.

Hit: Theme From Jurassic Park

Hidden Gem: Dennis Steals The Embryo

Rocks In The Attic #687: John Williams – ‘1941 (O.S.T.)’ (1979)

RITA#687You can sometimes find out more about a person’s failures as you can from their successes. Wunderkind director Steven Spielberg has had far more hits than misses, but the few occasions where he has missed the mark are very interesting.

His first failure came with 1941, his attempt at screwball comedy and a universally agreed thirty-five million dollar waste of time and effort. It’s difficult to put a finger on why it’s such a bad film – because there’s nothing redeemable about it. A weak link might be easy to spot, but when everything is egregiously bad, from the script to the performances to the music, it makes for a drastically awful film. Of course, all of this is amplified because it follows Spielberg’s huge mainstream successes, first with Jaws in 1975, and followed with Close Encounters Of The Third Kind in 1977. If it hadn’t been bundled with such anticipation, and if they hadn’t spent the GDP of a small South American country on it, it might have stood a chance.

Looking back, it seems that Spielberg might be as ashamed of his portrayal of the Japanese in this film, as he is of the film’s critical and commercial failure. It’s widely been surmised that one of Spielberg’s motives for making Schindler’s List (1993) was in reparation for the way in which he had portrayed the Nazis as comedic fodder in Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981) and Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade (1989). In 1941, we see the start of that light-hearted characterisation, with the invading Japanese armed forces played for laughs opposite Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi.

The musical score for 1941, composed by Spielberg alumni John Williams, is just as forgettable as the rest of the film, which is strange considering how the pairing usually produces gold. Spielberg, ever the amiable collaborator, has repeatedly stated in interviews that The March From 1941 is his favourite of Williams’ marches. This is extremely strange when you realise that the main title themes of Williams’ Superman: The Movie and Indiana Jones scores are both marches, and really there’s nothing better in all of cinema.

I recently saw the excellent HBO documentary Spielberg (2017) – a two and a half hour journey through the life and career of the director. Unsurprisingly, the film focuses on his successes and merely brushes over his failures. Of the latter, 1941 gets the most airtime for being his first disappointment, but later failures are mainly ignored.

RITA#687aHis first failure to me, long before I racked up the courage to watch 1941, was Always, an overly-sentimental (even for Spielberg’s standards) romantic drama from 1989 starring Richard Dreyfuss, Holly Hunter and John Goodman. I saw this film at the cinema with my parents, at the Odeon West End in Leicester Square during our annual family trip to London. Coming straight after Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom and Empire Of The Sun – both of which I’d also seen at the cinema (I didn’t get to see The Color Purple until much later due to its adult nature), it really came as a shock. Everything I had seen by Spielberg up to that point had been a classic. What the hell was this schlocky mess?

Unsurprisingly, Susan Lacy’s Spielberg documentary doesn’t even mention Always. It also quickly skips over Hook – a later disappointment from 1991, which Spielberg has all but since disowned – and completely ignores The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), the sequel he said he would never make, and 2004’s The Terminal. In fact, The Terminal is such a bad film, that it’s a wonder he didn’t try to take his name off it.

The one interesting exclusion from the documentary is 2011’s The Adventures Of Tintin. While this may not have been the runaway commercial success it should have been, it’s still a great family film and a much stronger piece of work than 2016’s The BFG, itself a box-office disappointment yet referenced many times in Lacy’s film.

Hit: The March From 1941

Hidden Gem: The Invasion

Rocks In The Attic #646: John Williams – ‘Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom’ (1984)

RITA#646The other night, after a hard week at work, I sat down to watch Kingsman: The Golden Circle with my wife. I wasn’t expecting much – I hadn’t heard good things – but I wasn’t prepared for how stunningly average it was. Would I say it is a bad film? No, not really. It was technically well made, by a more than competent director (Matthew Vaughn), but it was instantly forgettable.

When I grew up through the 1980s, there seemed to be fantastic genre films coming out all the time, dotted with the occasional howler (Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, Jaws IV: The Revenge – possibly anything with “IV” in the title, although Rocky IV was a banger). These days, the howlers are relatively easy to avoid. Production of big marquee films tends to be spread across multiple studios sharing the risk of a multi-million dollar budget, and as a result they don’t seem to let a franchise die at the hands of a bad script or a deluded director.

Hollywood’s destructive habit in the last decade is movie-making by numbers; a manifesto of mediocrity. The sheer amount of unremarkable genre films it has produced is testament to the absence of risk that directors and producers are willing to take in order to make something that stands out.

I remember reading an interview with Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige back in 2009, where he outlined his plans for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). His strategy of an overloaded release schedule – 4 or 5 films a year – seemed too good to be true. That’ll never happen, I thought. But it now feels like there’s a new Marvel film out every other month.

The other unbelievable aspect of his strategy was talk of bringing Captain America, Iron Man, Thor and the Hulk together for an Avengers movie. That will definitely never happen, I thought. The Hulk and Iron Man had been revitalised in film by Marvel already, and I just couldn’t see Robert Downey Jr. and Ed Norton sharing a film together with whatever big names they had lined up to play Captain America and Thor. In a way I was right, as they eventually replaced Norton with a different (cheaper?) actor in Mark Ruffalo, but Feige’s vision ultimately proved true. Ensemble genre films are a dime a dozen these days, and it’s rare for a superhero film to be limited to only one or two key roles. This week saw the release of the trailer for the third (?) Avengers film, introducing the Guardians Of The Galaxy into the earth-bound world of the Avengers. Around and around it goes. Pop will eat itself.

But when Feige sits down in his old age – in his superhero-sized mansion – and tells his privileged grandchildren about his life’s work, how will he feel? For the – by my count – seventeen (!) MCU films that have seen the light of day since 2008, I can really only put my finger on one or two that I would hold up as being great films. Iron Man (2008) and The Avengers (2012) stand head and shoulders above the rest, and while there have been great moments among the others, in general they’re all junk; popcorn escapism for the masses.

The rot set in early on, with 2010’s Iron Man 2. How could they get the sequel so wrong, when they got the first Iron Man so right? I spoke to a fan of the series upon its release, and he couldn’t see any difference between the two. That’s the problem with casual film viewers. They just want what they expect, and they’ll happily visit the cinema every time for that hit of familiarity – Coca-cola in their veins, popcorn in their arteries, and the anticipation of safe storytelling that’s not going to push any boundaries and make them feel uncomfortable. Narrative left-turns in cinema these days are met with whispered conversations in the dark as couples explain to each other what is happening on screen.

Marvel’s now-misguided strategy to steady the ship was to deliver a third iteration in the Iron Man series (2013) which was so incredibly poor, that they should have developed a new category at the Academy Awards to recognise it. ‘And the ‘Best Mediocre Picture’ Oscar goes to…’

If Marvel’s attempts at serious filmmaking are to be laughed at, I’m not sure what we’re supposed to think of their rivals’ efforts at DC. Christopher Nolan reinvigorated the modern superhero film with Batman Begins in 2005, and so you’d think his successors might have learnt a thing or two from him. But as soon as he stepped away from the director’s chair, the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) kicked off with one of the dullest superhero films ever committed to celluloid (Man Of Steel, 2013).

Where Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie (1978) was a glorious piece of wondrous entertainment, setting a high bar that wasn’t really challenged until Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), Zack Snyder’s Man Of Steel is a turgid mess. I seem to remember a fight sequence at the end that lasted around three hours. I didn’t care about any of the characters, and I secretly hoped that mankind would have been wiped off the screen just so that it would have put me out of my misery.

I might have watched Donner’s Superman and Richard Lester’s Superman II close to a hundred times each. I wouldn’t watch Man Of Steel again if my life depended on it.

Which brings me to Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom. Now, Steven Spielberg knew how to make a good genre film back in the ‘80s. Easily the weakest of the original trilogy – although not according to my old buddy Quentin Tarantino, who sees it as the strongest of the three – it’s still an infinitely more enjoyable film than the unremarkable dross dealt out to us by Hollywood in the twenty-first century.

Hit: Anything Goes

Hidden Gem: Finale And End Credits