Sunday, October 15, 2017

Composing Greatness: #21. John Williams - "Empire of the Sun" (1987)

Scene from Empire of the Sun
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: Empire of the Sun (1987)
Collaborators (If Available): Boston Pops Orchestra
Nomination: Best Music, Original Score
Did He Win: No

Other Nominees:
-The Last Emperor (David Byrne, Cong Su, Ryuichi Sakamoto) *winner
-Cry Freedom (George Fenton, Jonas Gwangwa)
-The Untouchables (Ennio Morricone)
-The Witches of Eastwick (John Williams)

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: 22
Oscar Wins: 4

Track List

1. "Suo Gan"
2. "Cadillac of the Skies"
3. "Jim's New Life"
4. "Lost in the Crowd"
5. "Imaginary Air Battle"
6. "The Return to the City"
7. "Liberation: Exsultate Justi"
8. "The British Grenadiers"
9. "Toy Planes, Home and Hearth (Chopin Mazurka)"
10. "The Streets of Shanghai"
11. "The Pheasant Hunt"
12. "No Road Home/Seeing the Bomb"
13. "Exsultate Justi"

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:
"Suo Gan"

It does seem like a bit of a cheat to have this as the theme of the movie. However, it makes sense when considering the classical nature of what follows. It's vintage John Williams mixed with traces of choir and classical music. It's soaring and beautiful, capturing a harmonic perfection that is as beautiful as what follows. This isn't the only song on the soundtrack, but feels like a nice embodiment of the moods explored through the music. This is a score that is very much a somber piece with occasional glances of whimsy. It may not be the most memorable introduction to a Williams score, but it has its moments.

Interesting Standout
"Jim's New Life"

There aren't that many whimsical moments to count for on this soundtrack. However, the first cut from the serious tone is arguably the best. It has so much fun creating a sense of atmosphere and enjoyment as things hit the familiar upbeat stride of John Williams' work. This stands out as a moment that is fun and carefree amid a score that, at its happiest, seems to resort to more ominous and soaring melodies. This is more jaunty than soaring, and it captures the sense of awe that the best Williams music tends to.

Best Moment
"No Road Home/Seeing the Bomb"

There is plenty to love on this score, but there's something about the closing piece of score from John Williams that hits the hardest. It is the most dramatic moment in the entire soundtrack, and it captures a sadness that Williams has rarely been comfortable capturing through music. It's sad, but it's also at times a bit uplifting and curious. It's a sign of the artist maturing and making music for a moment that isn't upbeat or crazy. It's actually quiet and depressing. What makes it work is that Williams finds a way to capture this without resorting to familiar and saccharine melodies that could make this moment seem forced and unpleasant.

Did This Deserve an Oscar Nomination?:

In a lot of ways, it's the overlooked John Williams/Steven Spielberg collaboration. It seems fine when considering that the nominations that came before were some of the greatest music compositions of all time. While this is far from being on the level of Jaws or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, it does show a growth as an artist for Williams. Here he is allowed to reflect a quieter and more emotional score that does so without resorting to high pitched strings that manipulate emotion. This is a continuation of what style he has been developing, albeit with a deeper sense of purpose. It also seems like the perfect prototype for elements he will perfect by Schindler's List in a few nominations. For now, he's continuing to be the best by not settling into one approach to music. His quest to explore every possible manner of song is excellent and exciting. 

Up Next: The Witches of Eastwick (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. "Suo Gan" - Empire of the Sun (1987)
13. "Main Title/First Introduction/The Winton Flyer" - The Reivers (1969)
14. "Finale and End Credits"- Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
15. "River Song"- Tom Sawyer (1973)
16. "Where Did My Childhood Go?" - Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969)
17. "Theme from 'Valley of the Dolls'"/"Theme from 'Valley of the Dolls' - Reprise" - Valley of the Dolls (1967)
18. "Main Title (The Story Continues)" - Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi  (1983)
19. "Opening Titles" - The Poseidon Adventure (1972)
20. "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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