Will Composer John Williams Ruin Lincoln?
I was at the movies recently and got excited at a trailer for the new movie Lincoln (to be released Nov. 16). Daniel Day Lewis, probably our greatest living actor, opened the trailer with a voice over, a grave passage from our sixteenth president. He was going to be Lincoln in the movie. Spielberg, a competent director who has done well with historical drama in the past, would be directing. I was also excited that Sally Field would be playing Lincoln’s wife, Mary. But as I listened to the crescendo of the music, my heart sank. John Williams was doing the soundtrack.
As director Terry Gilliam states, “ ‘John Williams is a great musician but, wow, enough John. It isn’t his choice, of course, it’s the directors who allow him to take over a film and tell you exactly what you should be feeling every second of every minute of the film.’ So very, very, true.”
I guess a horse in war against artillery wasn’t dramatic enough. Good thing we have John Williams to play us into the appropriate feelings.
To illustrate how out of touch John Williams is the audience for his movies, I give you this scene near the end of Schindler’s List. First, why is there even music? That’s on Spielberg. As you watch the scene, listen when the man from the factory gives Schindler an important letter, “In case you are captured.” Why does the music rise up and interfere with a very important moment in the movie? Is it because the composer doesn’t think the movie made the point well enough? Then we can barely hear when Schindler, choked up, says, “Thank you.” The soundtrack continues to interfere when Ben Kingley gives Schindler the ring; the maudlin Kadish style strings rise up to remind us 1) to have feelings and 2) that Jews are involved. And Shindler is sad. If you didn’t know from the acting, the music was there to push you into the emotions for you, as if it would be a crime if you didn't feel for Herr Schindler at the precise time Williams tells you to feel.
That is the worst piece of film scoring I have ever heard in a big budget, Oscar winning movie. The movie and acting stood for itself, and this movement in the film, if not ruined, was crippled by Williams’ overwrought soundtrack.
John Williams’ soundtracks take over movies. They don’t allow the audience space to have their own emotions. They are pompous and they don’t belong in a movie about Lincoln. The master of sound, Francis Coppola, would never have hired Williams. Can you imagine how Williams could have ruined The Godfather I and II with his grandiloquent compositions?
Williams may have been the perfect composer for the serialized Star Wars movies. Those moves are about action and a rousing symphony can add to the fun. Not so Shindler’s List. The arrogant music force feeding us our emotions in Shindler’s List nearly ruined a good directorial job and great acting in what was otherwise a momentous movie. Is John Williams on contract to Spielberg and would the director lose millions if he didn’t hire the composer? Or, does Spielberg like a master manipulator such as himself composing the music?
There is a difference between Williams’ compositions and Spielberg’s direction. Spielberg expertly terrified audiences with his screen adaptation of Jaws in the seventies, and he got the girls and boys to wonder and cry at a lost space alien’s plight on earth in E.T. However, in both Saving Private Ryan and Shindler’s List, he showed his true talent as a director by (mostly) staying out of the way and letting the actors do their job while putting the cameras at the correct places for the action. Williams shows no such growth or restraint in his musical scores.
There are plenty of other composers that would have given Lincoln the dignity and restraint a film with such a larger than life subject (and actor) deserves.
What about Hans Zimmer, composer for Inception? Note how he pulls back on the sound when the emotions are at their highest. He understands that what's on the screen is more important than his music at this moment.
Dario Marianelli steps it back during the biggest movements and lets the actors carry the scene. No uproar is needed.
Terence Blanchard let’s us react after the crescendo. He knows that music is a support to the movie and used when needed or to carry less dramatic moments. Music is less essential during emotional and dramatic scenes.
While it may be too late for Lincoln, let’s hope Williams reined in his need to force feed you emotion. If not, I may have a love hate relationship with this Lincoln.