‘Hook,’ ‘JFK’ are Latest Hits with the John Williams Touch (1992)

By Richard Dyer, Globe Staff
The Boston Globe, page A5, January 19th, 1992
Ten of the 12 top-grossing films in the history of the medium have scores by John Williams, and so do two of the most successful current films, “Hook” and “JFK.”
“Hook” boasts a sweeping, romantic score that adds up to a whopping two hours of music — an opera’s worth. There is soaring, flying music for the journey to Neverland that recalls “E. T.,” and a lot of charming pictorial detail. The giant flowers of Neverland recognize the Wall Street Peter Pan long before the Lost Boys do and they nuzzle up to him; as they do, the French horn nuzzles up, too. Throughout the film, romanticism is undercut and complicated by the twisting Prokofievian irony of the music that accompanies Captain Hook himself — music that is at once swaggering and comic as it traces its silvery, sinister arc.
The score to “JFK” is shorter and sparer. Its most effective moments are nostalgic — the tattoo of drums, the trumpet’s lament for the slain president (played plangently by the Boston Pops’ principal trumpeter, Timothy Morrison), and the sweeping, strength-of-the-people melody that is heard in the piano when Kevin Costner comforts Sissy Spacek after the assasination of Robert Kennedy and that wells up again in the strings during the final credits.
When Williams was in town to conduct the Christmas Pops, he sat down to lunch to talk about the two new films, and before long he dropped a bombshell, announcing his decision to retire from the Pops at the close of the 1993 season. One of the reasons, he said, was his heavy workload — because of his commitments to the Pops and to these two film scores, he had not taken a day off for more than six months. “This pace is making me crazy,” said Williams, who is approaching his 60th birthday. “At 60, you are not exactly creaking with age, but you have to be realistic about how much energy you have, and where you want to put it.” So Williams is leaving the Pops and will also attempt to cut back on his film work, in order to spend more time with his family and write some long-deferred music for the concert hall.
“Hook” is actually Williams’ second major score related to the Peter Pan story. A few years ago, he wrote the songs for a film musical of Sir James M. Barrie’s play; Steven Spielberg was hoping to persuade Michael Jackson to take the title role, but when Jackson declined, the project died. “Hook,” too, was originally planned as a musical, with songs, but those plans changed as the film evolved and Spielberg cast it mostly with nonsingers. “Robin Williams can sing,” Williams said, “and Dustin Hoffman was game, but it wasn’t really a singing cast. So now we have a two-hour score for full orchestra, pounding away.”
Only one of Williams’ songs, for Peter Pan’s daughter, survives in a short sequence of the final film, though the themes from the discarded songs permeate the score. “One plan we have now is to make a CD storybook album of the film, using some of the songs. It would be nice if we could bring some of that music back to life.”
Both “Hook” and “JFK” were composed in unusual ways. “I saw ‘Hook’ piecemeal,” Williams recalls, “in assemblies of two or three reels at a time. What this meant was that I wrote 20 to 30 minutes’ worth of music every three or four weeks, and that I wrote the beginning long before I ever saw the ending. At least I got the reels mostly in sequence.”
Of course, Williams had copies of the shooting script all along, but he didn’t find them all that helpful, because the script kept changing. “Each version came on a different color of paper, and it wasn’t long before I had a whole rainbow of scripts!”
For “JFK,” Williams worked in a way that was almost unique in his experience. He wrote six musical sequences, which were recorded in full before he had seen the entire film. “After the Pops season last summer, I went down to New Orleans where Oliver Stone, the director, was still shooting the movie, and I saw about an hour’s worth of cut material and some of the dailies. I thought his handling of Lee Harvey Oswald was particularly strong, and I understood some of the atmosphere of the film — the sordid elements, the underside of New Orleans.”
After Williams had scored and recorded his sequences, Stone cut the film to the music, or to the parts of the music he decided to use. This is the way the classic collaboration of Eisenstein and Prokofiev worked on “Alexander Nevsky,” but only once before has Williams had a similar opportunity, when Spielberg recut the end of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” in order to synchonize with the logic of the music. “In ‘JFK,’ the music is cut up, in a documentary fashion; a musical sequence that may have lasted seven minutes on the recording lasts a minute or two in the film. On the CD, however, the score is presented in full, as pieces of music,” Williams points out.
The musical sequences Williams wrote include a Kennedy Theme, a Conspirator’s Piece, a Motorcade Sequence, Garrison’s Obsession and an Arlington Sequence. Into the lyrical Kennedy theme Williams implanted an Irish lilt. Williams describes the motorcade music as “repetitious.” “It spins out in a minimalistic way — my hope was that Oliver Stone could be led into the pace of the sequence by the rhythms of the music. It is strongly kinetic music, music of interlocking rhythmic disciplines.” For another sequence, Williams used Scottish drum patterns, drawing on his memory of the Black Watch at the Kennedy funeral. “And then I had big Japanese bass drums thundering along and exploding to accentuate the cuts.” The meditative ”Arlington” sequence is scored mostly for strings, but there is also a long soliloquy for solo horn.
Like most Americans who lived through that terrible time, Williams can remember the moment he learned of the assassination of the president. “I woke up late in the morning when someone came into my room to tell me that President Kennedy had been shot. I switched on the television to follow the reporting. It was my first recollection as an adult of weeping; I was in my 30s, and I hadn’t cried in decades. This is a very resonant subject for people of my generation, and that’s why I welcomed the opportunity to participate in this film.”
Williams interrupted his Christmas Pops schedule to fly to New York to meet with Ron Howard and see some footage for his next project, which will reunite him with the star of “Born on the Fourth of July,” Tom Cruise. “It’s tentatively called ‘The Irish Story,’ and it’s a lyrical piece, an immigrant story about a young man who comes to Boston in the 19th century and winds up making the rush for land claims in Oklahoma. I’m looking forward to the chance to write some Boston music!”