Sunday, November 12, 2017

Composing Greatness: #24. John Williams - "Born on the Fourth of July" (1989)

Scene from Born on the Fourth of July
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: Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
Collaborators (If Available): N/A
Nomination: Best Music, Original Score
Did He Win: No

Other Nominees:
-The Little Mermaid  (Alan Menken) *winner
-The Fabulous Baker Boys (Dave Grusin)
-Field of Dreams (James Horner)
-Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (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: 25
Oscar Wins: 4

Track List

1. "Theme from Born on the Fourth of July"
2. "Prologue"
3. "War Games"
4. "The Early Days; Massapequa"
5. "High School"
6. "The Shooting of Wilson"
7. "Patrolling the Fields"
8. "Cua Viet River, Vietnam"
9. "Back in the Neighborhood"
10. "The Parade/Timmy"
11. "The Syracuse Rally"
12. "Villa Dulce"
13. "Unfinished Letters"
14. "Homecoming"
15. "Miami Confrontation"
16. "The Democratic Convention, NYC"
17. "Born on the Fourth of July"

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:
"Theme From Born on the Fourth of July"

Speaking as John Williams has borrowed soaring anthem melodies from other great composers for films like Star Wars, it only makes sense that his version would feel a bit familiar. This wouldn't be out of place in Patton, or a James Horner score. Still, it is a somber melody that has an underlying patriotism to it as the emotions form around it. This may easily be one of his best works outside of Steven Spielberg collaborations. Everything that follows builds perfectly onto this melody, creating an ennui and psychological understanding that only the best composers can really achieve. Here, it starts both as something hopeful and a bit depressing. It's the melancholic middle that gives the score a personality all its own, and it's tough to not be charmed by its magic. This is Williams relying on everything he's done before while hinting at what elements he'll bring to his later scores. It's all so beautiful.

Interesting Standout
"The Shooting of Wilson"

While this soundtrack is largely rooted in a more somber tone, John Williams knows how to accentuate a moment of terror. Once again he borrows from Bernard Herrmann with loud, aggressive strings and an ethereal quality that feels like an improved version of his Images days. It's dark and immersive, creating a sense of panic that compliments the melody while also tearing it apart. It confronts the listener and throws them into a moment that is traumatic so well. Even if there's other tracks that stray from the main motif, this one does it in a way that few can achieve correctly. It packs a punch and makes you want to run for cover.

Best Moment
"Cua Viet River, Vietnam"

The melody alone is enough to warrant this among John Williams' best. However, he outdoes himself in this score by showing how the music builds. Instead of just using recurring motifs, he manages to use it while layering the music with haunting melodies of war, optimism of a "happy" life ahead, and the echoing voices of the past. This is one of the better examples of how he builds each recurring element to make a harmonic motif into something more powerful. It captures the psychology of the character through music, and it comes through in inspired ways. This ties everything together in a way that no real Williams score has done before. He has had recurring motifs, but this is one of the few where it has felt like more than just reuse of something the listener is familiar with.

Did This Deserve an Oscar Nomination?:

While the 80's era of John Williams started off strong with E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark, the last few weeks have felt like secondary work from one of cinema's greatest composers. It's in part why this soundtrack is so refreshing. It sounds like he's trying again. He also sounds like he's reinventing what we loved about him by layering his emotional cues in clever ways that create a sonic impression of what the characters are feeling. This feels chaotic, somber, happy, scared, and all of the emotions that the movie captures. There's even harmonic similarities to later scores, such as Jurassic Park. If anything, this is another culmination score of what Williams has been doing throughout his career. He was no longer just a blockbuster filmmaker who could make catchy themes. He could make works of mature art that captured deeper and richer emotions than anyone could expect. 

Up Next: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) 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. "Theme From Born on the Fourth of July" - Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
8. "The Dances of Witches" - The Witches of Eastwick (1987)
9. "Track 01" - The River (1984)
10. "Main Title/The Ice Planet/Hoth" - Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
11. "Main Title" - The Towering Inferno (1974)
12. "Main Title/Rebel Blockade/Runner Medley" - Star Wars (1977)
13. "Wednesday Special (Main Theme)" - Cinderella Liberty (1973)
14. "Suo Gan" - Empire of the Sun (1987)
15. "Main Title/First Introduction/The Winton Flyer" - The Reivers (1969)
16. "Finale and End Credits"- Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
17. "River Song"- Tom Sawyer (1973)
18. "Where Did My Childhood Go?" - Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969)
19. "Theme from 'Valley of the Dolls'"/"Theme from 'Valley of the Dolls' - Reprise" - Valley of the Dolls (1967)
20. "Main Title (The Story Continues)" - Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi  (1983)
21. "Opening Titles" - The Poseidon Adventure (1972)
22. "Main Theme" - The Accidental Tourist (1988)
23. "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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