Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, who took the business by storm a couple of years ago — earning an Emmy for Chernobyl and an Oscar for Joker — was back in town recently to discuss her music for Tar and Women Talking. It was a rare opportunity for me to write a cover story for Variety, and while she ultimately missed out on Oscar nominations for both scores, she remains a fascinating personality and a talented composer. Along with the profile, I wrote a sidebar on the role of conductor John Mauceri in helping Todd Field get the musical details right for his Tar screenplay.
Music composed for television has, until recently, never been taken seriously by scholars or critics. Catchy TV themes, often for popular weekly series, were fondly remembered but not considered much more culturally significant than commercial jingles. Yet noted composers like John Williams, Henry Mancini, Jerry Goldsmith and Lalo Schifrin learned and/or honed their craft in television before going on to major success in feature films.
Oscar-winning film composers like Bernard Herrmann, Franz Waxman and Maurice Jarre wrote hours of music for television projects, and such high-profile jazz figures as Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck and Quincy Jones also contributed music to TV series. Concert-hall luminaries from Aaron Copland to Leonard Bernstein, and theater writers from Jerome Moross to Richard Rodgers, penned memorable scores for TV.
Music for Prime Time is the first serious, journalistic history of music for American television. It is the product of 35 years of research and more than 450 interviews with composers, orchestrators, producers, editors and musicians active in the field. Based on, but vastly expanded and revised from, an earlier book by the same author, this wide-ranging narrative not only tells the backstory of every great TV theme but also examines the many neglected and frequently underrated orchestral and jazz compositions for television dating back to the late 1940s.
Covering every series genre (crime, comedy, drama, westerns, action-adventure, fantasy and sci-fi), it also looks at music for animated series, news and documentary programming, TV-movies and miniseries, and how music for television has evolved in the era of cable and streaming options. It is the most comprehensive history of television scoring ever published.
“A remarkable history of music in American television from its infancy to the present day. The book connects every conceivable television genre with the composers who made these shows memorable to the viewing public. In each chapter, Burlingame creates compelling historical narratives while also spinning intimate portraits of its music makers. As informative as it is entertaining, this will be an invaluable resource for television studies for years to come.”
— Ron Rodman, author, Tuning In: American Narrative Television Music
“Part analog database, part rollicking scavenger hunt (you can find nuggets like Henry Mancini’s well-timed haircut, which led to the Peter Gunn theme and essentially Mancini’s subsequent career, or Yul Brynner’s surprising design skills), this fast-moving survey is a rich source of quick-fix facts, large-scale historical arcs, and more than a few enticing side trails for the rest of us to explore.”
— Robynn J. Stilwell, co-editor, Music and the Moving Image
Diana Friedberg’s long-in-production documentary on the pioneering film composer is finished at last, and now available on Blu-Ray (along with a television debut on TCM). Max Steiner: Maestro of Movie Music takes a long and loving look at the Oscar-winning composer of such classics as King Kong, Gone With the Wind, Casablanca, The Searchers and A Summer Place. I was pleased to be asked to contribute along with longtime friends and even more knowledgeable Steiner experts as biographer Steven C. Smith, orchestrator John W. Morgan and conductor William Stromberg.
Every year, mostly in November and December, Variety asks me to see a nonstop barrage of new movies and interview their composers. This year’s crop included Justin Hurwitz for Babylon, Marcelo Zarvos for Emancipation, Chanda Dancy for Devotion, Nicholas Britell for She Said, Ludwig Goransson for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Hildur Guonadottir for Tar, Terence Blanchard for The Woman King, Michael Abels for Nope, Benjamin Wallfisch for Thirteen Lives, and Michael Giacchino for The Batman.
This year the Recording Academy finally added a category for game music soundtracks. It’s a far more important issue in the composer community than ever before, considering the vast number of games being played and the high quality of music now being composed for them, by some of the most talented people in the industry. I discussed the upcoming Grammy competition in a Variety story here, previewed the possible nominees here, and unveiled the actual nomination slate (along with all the other Grammy nominees in the visual-media field) here.
Some of today’s most compelling scores are on television, and for science-fiction and fantasy projects. This year’s crop was especially interesting, and I explored several of them in stories for Variety: Bear McCreary talked about his grand-scale music for The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power; Amie Doherty and Ramin Djawadi discussed their scores for She-Hulk and House of the Dragon, respectively; Laura Karpman regaled us with the complexity of recording Ms. Marvel; Natalie Holt and Hesham Nazih talked with us about Marvel’s Loki and Moon Knight; the composers of Severance, Foundation and The Book of Boba Fett chimed in on their special challenges; and Nami Melumad talked about the latest Star Trek series, Strange New Worlds. Nicholas Britell talked with us twice about Andor, first in announcing his involvement, long kept under wraps; and after the series debuted, although he was still reluctant to give away any secrets.
This was a special one. We discovered that John Williams was writing a new theme for Lucasfilm’s Disney+ series Obi-Wan Kenobi and broke the story for Variety in February. Then we got to sit down for lunch with British composer Natalie Holt, who galvanized us all with her Loki music and never stopped for minute, diving into the Star Wars world with her own take on music for the Jedi Master. That interview ran as the series was just beginning in May.
Billie Eilish and Hans Zimmer take on James Bond! Those were the headlines for weeks in early 2020 as production on No Time to Die, the 25th 007 film, was winding down. A year later, Eilish and her brother, co-writer Finneas O’Connell, won the Grammy for her title song even though the film had not yet been released. When we finally saw No Time to Die in October, we discovered that Zimmer had incorporated “We Have All the Time in the World” as part of the dramatic score, and I wrote a Variety story explaining the references to John Barry’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service score (including that song). In December I had the pleasure of interviewing Billie & Finneas about their title song, and in January it was a special honor to interview the entire Bond team — producer Barbara Broccoli, director Cary Fukunaga, composer Zimmer, songwriters Billie & Finneas, and associate producer Greg Wilson — for a 40-minute Zoom conversation on music in No Time to Die. And of course Billie & Finneas won the Oscar in March.
ABC, which is owned by the Walt Disney company, re-staged The Little Mermaid in a live telecast on November 5. But how, exactly, did they conceive and execute this mostly underwater adventure with songs and music? The editors of DGA Quarterly, the magazine of the Directors Guild of America, asked me to investigate, so I called Hamish Hamilton, who directed the show (which, one hastens to add, was among the highest-rated live TV musicals of the modern era). Hamilton pointed out that “we had puppets and effects and props and projectors and music and mermaids and flying and performers in very unwieldy costumes!” The story, in DGA Quarterly‘s winter edition, can be read here.
It is a rare privilege to be able to sit down with composer John Williams and discuss his latest project. I was honored that he agreed to talk about his 42-year history with the Star Wars franchise and especially the long-awaited finale, The Rise of Skywalker, which opens this week. In this piece for Variety — believed to be the composer’s only print interview for the new film — Williams talks not only about the movie but about how it all came about back in 1976. Director J.J. Abrams chimes in with some thoughtful historical perspective. The print version was truncated; the online version, which you can read here, contains considerably more information of interest to every Star Wars fan. A few weeks ago, I discussed his latest Grammy nominations, which now bring his total to 71 (including 24 wins)!