Yo-Yo Ma on John Williams’ Classical “Side”

Today at Tanglewood, John Williams premiered a new concert piece for harp, cello, and orchestra: Highwood’s Ghost. I was working on a story for the Washington Post pegged to the concert that, unfortunately, got pulled due to not being able to line up an interview with… well, its subject. It would have been about the concert/classical “side career” of John Williams—the nature and quality of that work compared to his film music, and whether or not he feels he’s been respected by the classical establishment.

As I was pursuing it, though, I spoke to both Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma—the latter, who played the cello part today, at length. Ma was in Chicago at the time, preparing for a concert and doing work for his initiative, Notes for Peace, an artistic response to the city’s gang violence. He generously gave me so much of his time, and some really lovely, optimistic, Mr. Rogers-inspired insights into my favorite composer. I had to make sure people could enjoy it… so, enjoy!

The great, unrecognized scores of 2017

The Oscars are always going to be frustrating for film music addicts like myself, as they are with all film lovers. Sometimes the best scores of any given year truly do win (or at least get nominated), but even when that happens—which is kind of rare—many extremely qualified scores are inevitably left out in the rain.

I’m a big fan of all five composers nominated this year—John Williams, Alexandre Desplat, Carter Burwell, Jonny Greenwood, and Hans Zimmer—even if I don’t think the respective scores find them at their highest level or that these were necessarily the best five film scores of the year. So, in the same vein as a recent video I made for the L.A. Times on some of the all-time great scores that weren’t even nominated for an Oscar, I present to you (some of) the best unrecognized film scores of 2017, with comments from each of the composers.

Kobe, John, and Glen: The Maestros Behind “Dear Basketball”

“The beauty of finding what it is that you love to do, and then finding the beauty of knowing that you will not be able to do that forever.”

A curious nominee at this year’s Academy Awards is the short film Dear Basketball. Curious because it was created by an athlete… though not just any athlete. Kobe Bryant, whose distinguished 20-year career with the L.A. Lakers included five championship rings, 18 NBA All-Star games, and the third-highest regular season scoring record of all time, has also become a mogul. After retiring in 2016, he formed his own production company, Granity Studios, and has ambitions to write and create original stories in all kinds of media.

He wrote the poem “Dear Basketball” when he announced his retirement, and after hanging up his jersey he decided to animate this letter—part loving tribute, part wistful elegy—to the sport that defined him. Still driven by a hunger for excellence, he invited the Kobe of traditional animation, Glen Keane (the Disney veteran who designed Ariel in The Little Mermaid) to animate and direct… and the Kobe of film composers, John Williams himself, to write the score.

Turns out, the baller from Philly is also a film music nerd. I asked Bryant if he had any particularly nerdy childhood memories. “You mean besides tying a towel around my neck and flying around to the Superman theme?” he laughed. “You can’t take a bath, you can’t jump in any body of water whatsoever without thinking of the Jaws theme,” he added. “That’s amazing.”

I interviewed Bryant, Williams, and Keane in the spring of 2017 for the L.A. Times. With the Academy Awards approaching, I wanted to share our full conversations about this potentially Oscar-winning little gem—and about how these three generations of men, from wildly different backgrounds, ended up discovering kindred spirits.

Mark Hamill on John Williams and his “gobsmacking” importance to Star Wars

I had the boyishly euphoric chance to interview Mark Hamill over the summer, while writing the program notes for the Star Wars live-to-picture concerts. I used a few quotes in that program, but had a whole trove of gold I wasn’t able to use. With The Last Jedi‘s release imminent, here is Luke Skywalker—the last Jedi?—on his first time hearing John Williams’ Star Wars score… and how important the composer’s music is to the series.

Speaking as honestly as I can, I always thought that John Williams, next to George, is probably the person that’s most singularly responsible for the enormous impact those films had on culture. And the way I first heard that score—I’ve told this story before, but I think it’s much more profound in its impact in me than I’ve ever seen in print… maybe because I didn’t focus on it, I made it with offhanded remark—but I never heard a score for the first time that way before, and I never will be able to again.

John Williams on The Force Awakens and the legacy of Star Wars

John Williams is so much more than Star Wars, that uber-popular outer space adventure serial he’s been scoring since 1977. But for better or worse, Star Wars is the first line in Williams’ biography and the primary reason he’s one of the only film composers in history to become a household name. In pop culture history there is Before Star Wars and there’s After Star Wars, and Williams’ big, brassy, neo-romantic music capitalized on (and arguably helped propel) the unprecedented cinematic blastoff on that sunny Wednesday in May not so long, long ago. The sheer cultural infiltration of these films meant Williams’ earworm themes were worming their way into millions upon millions of ears, and the potent combination of his unsurpassed talent as a composer and the phenomenal reach of the films turned the series’ main themes into post-Vietnam American folk tunes.