At 91, composer John Williams is still so busy that it’s hard to pin him down for an interview. But I was able to do that on Thursday morning and on Friday Variety posted the story. He talks about reuniting with director Steven Spielberg for The Fabelmans, loosely based on the filmmaker’s childhood; about eight months of off-and-on work on Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, which is due out in June; and about new classical commissions (including one for pianist Emanuel Ax and another for cellist Yo-Yo Ma) and his surprising conducting schedule for 2023, which will see him jetting to Chicago, New York, Tokyo and elsewhere.
The American Cinematheque sponsored a two-hour live Q&A with Steven Spielberg and John Williams, talking about their 50-year collaboration, on Jan. 12 at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills. It was a once-in-a-lifetime event and I was honored to be the moderator. I was also effectively the co-producer, as I chose all 12 clips (from Jaws and E.T. to Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List) and prepared all of the questions — everything from how they met to their work process and their thoughts about the use of music in cinema. It was hugely successful (the cast of The Fabelmans even attended) and a thrill for me to be on stage with this extraordinary duo. Two excellent summaries of the evening: Chris Willman’s, for Variety; and Scott Feinberg’s, for The Hollywood Reporter. And an eight-minute video condensation of highlights.
Ninety-year-old John Williams, who has hinted that his music for Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans and the forthcoming Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny will be his last for films, still can’t seem to slow down. In December, he recorded a new three-and-a-half minute piece for ESPN’s coverage of the College Football Playoff National Championship, airing Monday. I broke the story for Variety on Thursday and it quickly became one of my most-read pieces of recent months.
A few years ago, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ music branch — the approximately 400 composers, songwriters and music editors who decide the Oscar nomination slate for songs and scores — returned to an old practice: the “shortlist,” a way of winnowing down the vast number entered (this year, 147 scores and 82 songs) to a manageable few. I follow this process closely and chronicle it for Variety. Here is an early prediction of the score lineup, looking at 22 possibilities; here is my exclusive on the score and song disqualifications; here’s a full list of the songs that were eligible; and here is a quick analysis of the shortlists themselves, announced on Dec. 21. (I had earlier investigated the idea that the Doja Cat song in Elvis might be disqualified — and it was.)
On October 13, the Warner Bros. recording stage was the site for a remarkable event: Henry Mancini’s family (notably daughters Monica and Felice, plus Monica’s producer husband Gregg Field) arranged for a new recording of Mancini’s classic TV theme Peter Gunn. Invited to play were John Williams (who played piano on the 1958 original), Herbie Hancock (also on keyboards), Arturo Sandoval (trumpet) and Quincy Jones (longtime friend of the Mancinis) as conductor. The recording will later be heard, and seen, in a documentary aimed at the Mancini Centennial in 2024. I was thrilled to attend and wrote it about it for Variety.
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.
When record labels come calling and offer you a John Williams title, you don’t say no. Especially when it’s a score from decades ago that you loved then and love now. The Eiger Sanction, a Clint Eastwood movie from 1975, was classically styled and yet also jazzy, the perfect combination (of course! it’s Williams!) for this spy thriller. I would have been happy with the original MCA album but producer Michael Matessino was able to expand it to include all of the original film score as well as the soundtrack LP, which made it so much fun to listen and write. I’m going to go listen to this right now!
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)!
There’s no other way to say it: Being present when John Williams conducted, and Anne-Sophie Mutter played, “Night Journeys” from Williams’ score for Dracula, on the Sony scoring stage in April 2019, was one of the most thrilling musical experiences of my life. It was a privilege to be present for two days of the recording, and then to write the notes for this remarkable collection of Williams film themes, freshly arranged for one of the world’s great violin soloists. There are 12 in all, but some of my favorites are “Rey’s Theme,” “Hedwig’s Theme,” “Across the Stars” and “Nice to Be Around” (the latter, from Cinderella Liberty which, like Dracula, was suggested by Mutter’s late husband, and Williams’ longtime friend, Andre Previn). Here is a fun behind-the-scenes video that gives a sense of what it was like to be there (try to spot me!). Later, there will also be an expanded edition with more tracks and a DVD that I helped to edit for my friends at Deutsche Grammophon.
I loved the headline that Variety editors affixed to this story: “John Williams in Disneyland.” Well, sort of: the Imagineers who conceived and built the new Galaxy’s Edge land in the California theme park (soon to open in Florida too) convinced the legendary Star Wars composer to add one more piece to his many existing film themes for the George Lucas-created universe. This was done in great secrecy, and while Williams was unavailable for my Variety story — the first to delve into it in any detail — I did get both William Ross, the longtime Williams associate who orchestrated and conducted it, and Matt Walker, the Disney exec who commissioned it, to discuss the process and the grand symphonic music that resulted.