Sunday, October 1, 2017

Composing Greatness: #20. John Williams - "The River" (1984)

Scene from The River
Welcome to Composing Greatness: a column dedicated to exploring the work of film composers. This will specifically focus on the films that earned them Oscar nominations while exploring what makes it so special. This will be broken down into a look at the overall style, interesting moments within the composition, and what made the score worth nominating in the first place. This will also include various subcategories where I will rank the themes of each film along with any time that the composer actually wins. This is a column meant to explore a side of film that doesn't get enough credit while hopefully introducing audiences to an enriched view of more prolific composers' work. This will only cover scores/songs that are compiled in an easily accessible format (so no extended scores will be considered). Join me every Sunday as I cover these talents that if you don't know by name, you recognize by sound.

Series Composer: John Williams
Entry: The River (1984)
Collaborators (If Available): N/A
Nomination: Best Music, Original Score
Did He Win: No

Other Nominees:
-A Passage to India (Maurice Jarre) *winner
-The Natural (Randy Newman)
-Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (John Williams)
-Under the Volcano (Alex North)

Additional Information

This is to help provide perspective of where each composer is in their Oscar-nominated life as it related to the current entry.

Oscar Nomination: 21
Oscar Wins: 4

Track List

1. "Track 01"
2. "Track 02"
3. "Track 03"
4. "Track 04"
5. "Track 05"
6. "Track 06"
7. "Track 07"
8. "Track 08"
9. "Track 09"
10. "Track 10"
11. "Track 11"

NOTE: Listen to the score here.

Exploring the Music
The area of the column where I will explore the music in as much detail as I see fit for each entry.

Theme Exploration:
"Track 01"

Soundtracks like The River are the type of reasons that I was excited to do this column. Everyone knows John Williams' greatest hits, and they are far from overrated. Yet it's amazing that one can discover something this inspiring in his obscure and forgotten work. By going back to a less grandiose orchestra, Williams has found a way to use melody in effective ways. There's plenty that's enjoyable in the rhythm of this. It's upbeat and rural in ways that he couldn't get away with on a Steven Spielberg movie. Here he's allowed to have fun and exploits that with one of his catchiest themes that nobody talks about. It may sound like goofy 90's TV family dramas now, but it still manages to convey an enthusiasm that is hard to miss. This is what a fun Williams score could be when allowed to explore more woodwind and acoustic instruments in the score. I really like this music and wished that more of the past 20 nominations featured something this diverse and interesting.

Interesting Standout
"Track 03"

Unlike most of the other soundtracks covered on here, there isn't too many songs that stray from a familiar tone and rhythm. They're all upbeat and joyous. They're part of a whole. Still, this particular song reflects what works extremely well about this score. It uses less classical instruments in interesting ways, creating an atmosphere that is a whole lot of fun and can transform into something more interesting and complex. It's also great to hear John Williams using guitars again, as it allows him to use melodies that bigger string arrangements can't get away with. I love how intimate it is in its energy, and it manages to convey so much to his gifts. This score may unfortunately be more redundant as a result, but the parts that worked are some of his stronger work that reflects that Spielberg wasn't his only great collaborator.

Best Moment
"Track 06"

As the score builds, the music gets more interesting in tone as it allows sections to transition from goofy and upbeat to something a bit more somber. In this case, John Williams uses a banjo to lead off a tune that pops with life. The way that he orchestrates the more rural instruments is extremely novel, given that it's just as effective as his more classical and big works. He knows how to balance softness with hard tones that pop. If nothing else, this track manages to convey just how understated Williams' talents are when he flexes his musical ear. It's a sonic landscape of whimsy and drama that manages to go through a variety of experiences within a brief track.

Did This Deserve an Oscar Nomination?:

I'll admit that it's difficult to write about this score, in part because of how vintage it is for a John Williams score. It doesn't have any ties to his bigger and louder productions that have now defined him. There's also long stretches that are a bit droll and keep this from being a runaway success. However, it's an example of what makes him a great composer. He doesn't just make big scores, but ones that are smaller and a lot more cultured. The theme of this alone is worthy of nomination, as it is perfectly catchy and finds a way to convey it through layered instruments that create an emotion. This is a bit hit and miss, but it proves that even at his lesser moments, Williams is capable of producing something amazing.

Up Next: Empire of the Sun (1987) for Best Music, Original Score

Best Theme

A ranking of all themes composed by John Williams.

1. "Flying"- E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) 
2. "The Raiders March" - Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
3. "Main Theme (Theme From 'Jaws')" - Jaws (1975)
4. "Theme From 'Superman'" - Jaws (1978) 
5. "Prologue/Tradition" - Fiddler on the Roof (1971)
6. "Main Title and Mountain Visions" - Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
7. "Track 01" - The River (1984)
8. "Main Title/The Ice Planet/Hoth" - Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
9. "Main Title" - The Towering Inferno (1974)
10. "Main Title/Rebel Blockade/Runner Medley" - Star Wars (1977)
11. "Wednesday Special (Main Theme)" - Cinderella Liberty (1973)
12. "Main Title/First Introduction/The Winton Flyer" - The Reivers (1969)
13. "Finale and End Credits"- Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
14. "River Song"- Tom Sawyer (1973)
15. "Where Did My Childhood Go?" - Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969)
16. "Theme from 'Valley of the Dolls'"/"Theme from 'Valley of the Dolls' - Reprise" - Valley of the Dolls (1967)
17. "Main Title (The Story Continues)" - Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi  (1983)
18. "Opening Titles" - The Poseidon Adventure (1972)
19. "In Search of Unicorns" - Images (1972)

Best Song

A ranking of all Oscar-nominated songs composed by John Williams.

1. "Nice to Be Around" - Cinderella Liberty (1973)
2. "If We Were in Love" - Yes, Giorgio (1983)

Best Winner

A ranking of all winners composed by John Williams.

1. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) for Best Music, Original Score
2. Jaws (1975) for Best Music, Original Dramatic Score
3. Fiddler on the Roof (1971) for Best Music, Scoring Adaptation and Original Song Score
4. Star Wars (1977) for Best Music, Original Dramatic Score

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