I post this analysis, earlier featured in the JFK appreciation thread in General Discussion which I wrote ages ago but have recently dusted and polished to its current form. It is also a bit less ambitious and not to mention shorter than previous ones mostly because of the nature of the score.
The Sounds of Intrigue and Innocence Lost –
The Music of JFK- An Analysis of John Williams' score
by Mikko Ojala
Oliver Stone’s both controversial and acclaimed movie about the tragic events that took place on November 22nd 1963 in Dallas, Texas was a moderate box office success, blending both factual evidence and speculation into a potent mix to create a one of the most memorable and controversial movies of the 1990’s, dividing critics and movie buffs alike. The movie's script was penned by Stone himself with the help of Zachary Sklar and was based heavily on Jim Garrison's own autobiographical account of the JFK trial, in which he was the prosecuting counselor, called On the Trail of the Assassins. Sklar had been instrumental in releasing Garrison's work in 1988 and had worked as an editor on it and helped the author to shape and finish his manuscript, turning it from 3rd person scholarly work into obviously more marketable 1st person whodunit styled mystery. Another influential work was Jim Marrs' look at the alledged JFK conspiracy Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy and the author himself worked as a consultant on the movie project and the script. Stone's attempt with this film was not to try to solve the JFK murder or lay the issue at rest once and for all but to create a counter-myth to the Warren Commission Report, which he criticized as presenting a false and clouded picture of the events of the assassination.
In the film as the plot to assassinate the president of the United States slowly unfolds with it’s myriad subplots and as the protagonist Jim Garrison starts to investigate it ever further the viewer is captivated and held in thrall for the whole three hours running time of the film. And even after that the film requires multiple viewings to be fully understood with all of its nuances and cross references. The fast and collage utilizing editing style of the film was to become Stone’s trade mark as he used flashbacks and forwards and fast glimpses of things happening elsewhere to create a feeling of unending intrigue and many layered meaning of the film’s events. To complement a very convoluted (some would say too convoluted) plot Stone hired a star studded cast with Kevin Costner as the sympathetic everyman prosecutor Jim Garrison, Sissy Spacek as his wife, Gary Oldman as Lee Harvey Oswald and Tommy Lee Jones as the main antagonist Clay Shaw, only to name a few of the prestigious group. Numerous smaller roles were filled with screen legends like Walter Mathau, Ed Asner and Jack Lemmon who lent the film credence, prestige and excellent performances. These fine actors bring enormous amount of talent but also believability and sympathy to these characters, helping the audience to relate to them in this plot heavy film.
For this tragic piece of American history Oliver Stone chose perhaps the best possible composer, John Williams, whose music has in part come to stand for the American culture and national pride, capturing both Olympic Games and their spirit and historical jubilees of USA’s national celebrations and his scores have worked their way into the consciousness of the American public to an unprecedented extent. Stone had previously worked with the composer on Born of the Fourth of July in which Williams had used his lyrical and dramatic talent to portray the hardships and experiences of the Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic to beautiful and powerful results, capturing both the anguish and the idealism with his memorable themes and underscore for that film. After JFK the collaboration would continue with another political and historical drama, Nixon, in 1995 and add another impressive score in the composer's discography.
But this assignment was quite different compared to the 1989 movie. Williams’ task was two fold. His music would have to convey all the mystery and intrigue of the assassination plot but also illustrate a more human side of the tragedy and capture the spirit of the Kennedy era of 1960’s along with its feelings of hope and promising future. His music would also have to create a bond between the family of Garrison and the audience, making the main protagonist relatable and human, an everyman caught in the midst of a whirwind of facts and falsehoods. The major challenge was also the fact that he had to write the music even before he had seen a frame of the film. According to both Richard Dyer’s 1992 Boston Globe interview with Williams and Oliver’s Stone’s DVD commentary, Williams visited the site of Dealey Plaza and the sets and the New Orleans shoot and discussed the subject thoroughly with Stone to get the feeling of the movie and then began his compositional challenge. The end result was 6 musical sequences reflecting different aspects of the film and were to be used in the movies in various ways. In the Boston Globe interview from 1992 Dyer mentions that these 6 pieces pre-recorded for the film were "Kennedy Theme" (aka Prologue), "The Motorcade", "The Conspirators", "Garrison's Obsession", "Garrison Family Theme", and "Arlington". Additional musical material followed during the filming and post production and some of it found its way on the soundtrack album as well.
The effect and the fit of the music in the final film is amazing when we regard how early it was written and how effortlessly it permeates the film and the viewing experience. Though the music was in quite large part written in advance, it seems likely that many scenes were still spotted by Williams and Stone since it is hard to believe the match of the image and music in the film is just sheer good luck and editing. Williams himself says this in a 2000 interview with reporter Ray Bennett: And so much of that score, I’d say a third of it, was written and recorded before he [Oliver Stone] photographed the film. I loved working that way and I think Oliver did also. Alas, we do it all too infrequently. It can be very rich in terms of the closeness of the wedding of the music and the editorial life of the film. There’s an incestuous bond that happens that way that’s tighter than even the most expert fitter of post-synch music can get.
The fact that the music was composed so early poses a problem when you begin to analyse the music from structural or architectural point of view. The use of themes and their approximate function or leitmotific meaning can be accertained only from the interviews and DVD commentary or the track titles of the soundtrack album and you can never be entirely sure if the reoccurring phrases are not just there because they fit the scene or as actual thematic links, but I have tried to separate reoccurring musical signatures from repeated underscore. Oliver Stone’s style of editing in this film requires quick changes in the music as well, but there are luckily many sequences where the score gets to shine, providing defining mood, rhythm and subtext to the scenes. But in many instances only small snippets of Williams’ musical suites were used and there is even additional music credited to a Canadian duo of composers called Tomandandy (information from film's credits and IMBD) and even Williams’ older music from Born on the Fourth of July ended up being used in the film. This renders the track-by-track analysis of the score in the movie difficult if not almost entirely unfruitful since the musical architecture is that of a music editor and not the composer himself. I try to discern here the main thematic material used in the score from Williams’ soundtrack album and based on how these themes correlate with the use of the music in the film itself.
Themes of JFK:
The Prologue Theme (Theme from JFK):
John Williams had strong notions about John F. Kennedy and the era of his administration and he apparently poured it all into the main theme, which stands as the focal point of the score stylistically and emotionally. The theme contains a long singing melodic line, which is optimistically noble and bright, signifying the mindset and hopeful era of Kennedy’s and 1960’s. This is the main reoccurring idea throughout the movie and is varied from full orchestra of the Prologue to a soft piano renditions for Garrison family, the melody of the theme lending itself to countless variations.
JFK Snare Drum Motif:
Actually a part of the JFK main theme this brisk tattoo-like motif on the snare drums often appears to symbolize the military aspect of the whole affair as well as the Kennedy family. It is used many times instead of the main theme to signify the Kennedys but also the underlying threat from the often unseen cabinet and members of the military, who do not approve of the president or his policies. Interestingly enough this musical idea also returns in the next Oliver Stone/Williams collaboration, when Williams uses this same motif in Nixon when we see Kennedy landing in the Love Field airport in Dallas on the 22 of November. It gives a hint of things to come and is a clever reminder of the earlier film creating continuity beyond the limits of one movie.
The Conspirators Theme:
Rhythmic piece with staccato percussion, synthesizer and piano that relentlessly repeats the same rhythmic patterns in the background as the strings and brass create a brilliantly simple but undeniably one of the most memorable intrigue and suspense themes of the 90’s, heavily influential to both Williams’ later similar material in scores like Jurassic Park and Nixon but also popping up in the works of other film composers ever since. Steady rhythm and the ticking metronome percussion create a feeling of continual scheming and intrigue. This theme is used in many scenes but most of all the ones involving Clay Shaw, David Ferrie, the Cubans and Lee Harvey Oswald speaking about or planning the assassination. The rhythm draws also a connection to the often breathlessly nervous character of David Ferrie as well, who also has a small percussive idea of his own in the film.
The Garrison Family Theme:
A warm but ultimately sad and yearning melody for the family life disrupted when Garrison starts to immerse obsessively to the murder investigation, but also conveys the love and warmth Jim feels for his family. It starts with solo played by cor anglais that has become along with oboe Williams’ chosen instrument to portray family and the nostalgia and safety of home in his scores. Interestingly this musical idea is heard most often in the scenes where the rift in the family is emphasized, the music depicting more the fragility of Garrison’s family than the familial support or homeliness, almost an elegy for a family lost, caught helplessly up in a web of much larger intrigues raging around them. The concert version on the soundtrack album ends to an abrupt dissonant chords as if to show the danger that the investigation poses to the whole family as it in fact did.
The Assassination Motif:
A short repeating, in Williams’ own words almost minimalistic, threatening 11-note motif for the assassination. It consists of two repeated 4-note phrases and a 3-note ending. The small idea is highly cyclical but Williams cuts it by one note in the last phrase, thus creating a suitable halt to its motoric progression. Used many times through the movie in the scenes involving the approaching and imminent assassination or conspirators talking about it. A full presentation of this idea can be heard on the soundtrack album on the track called The Motorcade, which is Williams’ reflection of the moment of assassination itself and used to a great effect in the film during several sequences depicting the events of the Dealey Plaza.
David Ferrie Motif:
It is a bit unclear if this really is a motif or composed by Williams but Ferrie receives his own short percussive musical idea that is featured in a couple of scenes. It is basically a slowly quickening rhythm on percussion and sounds very Latin American, again drawing further subtextual connections to the Cubans. This motif is used to a great effect in the captivating scene where Garrison interviews Ferrie in a room in the Fountainbleu hotel as he gets more and more agitated as he rants about the assassination and the US intelligence community and his involvement in the plots, the pace of the music quickening with his breathless tirade.
The name of the piece refers to the military graveyard in Washington, where John F. Kennedy is buried. In this piece Williams has created a self contained string elegy in the memory of the dead president and also to mourn the disaster of the assassination of JFK and the many victims of the following events, the piece having a tragic feel of lost innocence. The theme starts with a elegiac French horn solo that suddenly takes a dark turn from which the whole string section flows into a mournful and solemn meditation on a new melody. This piece is used in the film as Garrison finds out the full implications of the assassination and all the events that afterwards are linked to it (indirectly the Vietnam War, Lee Harvey Oswald’s fate and the cover-up of evidence and facts by the intelligence community) and also as part of the pre-trial montage. It is a presentation of sorrow and lament for the whole tragedy, an elegy for the nation. This is also the piece that is featured in its entirety in the end credits, a somber musical message for the departing viewers.
Track-by-track analysis of the score on the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack:
Most of the cues found on the album are concert versions of the main musical ideas, thematic suites Williams composed for the film for Oliver Stone to use editorially as he saw fit and thus they reflect the themes in their original form so I won’t describe them in detail a second time. In the analysis I will focus on the score tracks only and do not concern myself with the source music featured heavily in the film and also on the OST album. The track numbers correspond to the soundtrack album sans the source music.
The movie opens with a montage of Eisenhower’s farewell adress to the nation and Martin Sheen narrating the events of the Kennedy era and so Williams has a chance to start off with a formal and heraldic musical introduction. The piece begins with a short, precise and repeated snare drum line, a motif for the Kennedys, and then the main theme emerges on a solo trumpet, played here with grace and lyricism by Tim Morrison, a member of the Boston Symphony orchesta and the principal trumpetist of Boston Pops, who already lent his talent to the first Williams/Stone collaboration Born on the Fourth of July. The theme sings of a better future full of nobility, pride and glory, the tone of the lead instrument bright and warm. The lone trumpet is joined gradually by whole orchestra, brass playing heraldic and glowing under the soaring strings. At 2:03 a new thematic element is introduced, a light, lilting, innocent motif on the flutes backed by other woodwinds which again melts into the main theme around 2:32 as it finally comes to a serene close with solo trumpet, harp, assorted chimes and flutes. In the movie version of this cue the Conspirators Theme edited into it as the prologue montage refers to Castro and Cuban situation of the 1960’s.
2. The Motorcade:
A musical counterpart for the assassination scene, this cue is tense, menacing and not to mention a brilliant piece of orchestral writing. Here Williams uses the 11-note assassination motif as the building block for the whole orchestral tour-de-force, kinetic and ominous. It begins with clarinets playing the assassination motif which is carried shortly to the rest of the woodwinds over tense strings and rumbling grand piano until suddenly the brass make a statement of the motif, the music growing ever stronger as it progresses around the orchestra as the president’s motorcade closes on the Dealey Plaza. Fast paced piano solo punctuates the brief respite from the growing orchestral forces but again restating the assassination motif in fragments just before the cue builds into a furious, almost cacophonous climax with snare playing the JFK motif, brass playing the main theme, strings sawing away dissonant chords, woodwinds again taking up the assassination motif and Williams even adding a bagpipe into the musical confusion, perhaps as a subtle homage to JFK’s Irish heritage.
As the car brakes the assassination motif swirls maniacally out of control and suddenly the killing shots ring out punctuated by brass and percussive orchestral hits as Garrison shows the last shot on the Zapruder film, Kennedy getting shot in the head, over and over again: Back and to the left, back and to the left. From here on the music rumbles and churns on menacingly before fading into uncomfortable silence on the last notes of the still repeated assassination motif.
3.The Drummer’s Salute: A traditional military snare drum tattoo performed by the Royal Scots Dragoon Guard but Williams cleverly introduces the Main theme on deep brass underneath percussion’s rapt stance. This piece is used as part of the opening montage showing the streets of Dallas just before the assassination, a subtle yet somehow unsettling harbinger of things to come, the tone and mood of the main theme subdued and gloomy.
4.Theme from JFK: A piano arrangement of the piece shows also the more delicate side of the theme compared to the idealistically orchestral, stately and brassy Americana of the Prologue. In the film this version represents most often the love of Garrison towards his family and the more personal sadness of the Kennedy's fate. The concert version ends with mounting crashing dissonance as if to imply the horrific end of JFK.
6. Garrison’s Obsession: driving, fast and cyclical 10- note piano figure imparts a powerful sense of pursuit, danger and confusion. Brass section and strings join the fray and the piece grows progressive louder and full of sense of mounting menace, augmented by tubular bells and exclamatory brass. This piece is used many times in the movie though the most memorable occasions are when Oswald is arrested in the movie theatre and when Garrison is attacked at the airport (new scene on the Director’s Cut DVD).
8. The Conspirators: The original and unedited version of the Conspirators Theme. The theme is most often featured in the scenes featuring Ferries, Oswald, Shaw and the Cubans planning the assassination but also during scenes involving these plans in some way indirectly, the piece ticking away oppressively and obsessively underneath the dialogue.
9. The Death of David Ferrie: Used in the scene involving Ferrie’s death but also elsewhere to imply sinister forces and unexplained happenings in the movie. Again this cue is edited into many other scenes. It creates an eerie, foreboding feel through the use of ghostly synthesized choir, low brass and strings along with different synthesized effects in the background. Atmospheric and ethereal it creates just the right unsettling mood for the scenes it underscores throughout the film from Garrison's investigations to Oswald's past to the ominous meaning of the death of David Ferrie.
11. Garrison Family Theme: A concert arrangement of the Family Theme featuring cor anglais as a solo instrument. In the movie there appears another version of this theme on solo piano as well. It is the least used of the themes perhaps not to over sentimentalize the mood of the film but where it is used the warmth of the melody is always counterbalanced by a certain melancholy, a comment on the strained familial relationship of the Garrisons.
14. The Witnesses : Another moody and tense underscore cue that is full of dark orchestral rumbles and threatening synthesizer effects that ebb and flow without discernible themes to augment the somber and dark feel of many scenes. Here Williams comes closest to sound design in his writing, the musical landscape created largely to unsettle and disturb, a perfect subtle unnerving accompaniment to Stone's images.
16. Arlington: This concert arrangement features a noble and wonderfully serene French horn solo and the string elegy which is one of the most beatiful and at the same time heart wrenching pieces Williams has ever created. Full of sorrow and dignity but also pathos and anguish it is the highlight of the album.
The music begins with a mournful rendition of the Main Theme on solo horn, played by the ever brilliant James Thatcher, the most frequent horn soloist on Williams’ soundtracks, the ruminating and serene nobility of the musical idea suddenly taking a turn into foreboding and darkness and the string section begins a new tragic and elegiac theme, a lament for the slain president. This new elegy soon gains darker undercurrents as low register string figures encounter the high strings, that in the end reach a chilling almost violently slashing climax. The primary string theme then returns calmer and sorrowful again as if the just heard expression of musical rage had taken its toll and as if the struggle against the injustice of the assassination and events surrounding it had drained the orchestra and with its last resigned notes the piece slowly slides, note by note, into a calm silence.
17.Finale: The track starts with a darker reading of the JFK theme on trumpet, similar to the horn rendition of heard in Arlington, but leaps from there to a radiant performance of the main theme with more powerful orchestration than before as if to say in its triumphant tones that even though the case against Shaw was lost Garrison had done something historic and honorable in his attempt to solve the assassination plot of JFK against all the forces lined against him. Williams’ does create a strong sense of accomplishment and finality, some would say that he does it here falsely since the film ends in a defeat, but the composer is emphasizing the ideals and principles, not Garrison or his case specifically, but the effort to uncover truth, in itself a noble endeavour. Here he is not glorifying the man, he is composing music of how things should be. The rather more sombre answer to the whole JFK story comes in the end credits where the above mentioned Arlington offers a more ruminating and reflective but ultimately mourful take on the whole affair.
18. Theme from JFK (Reprise): In typical Williams fashion, the composer reprises the piano rendition of the main theme to close the album with a sense of things coming a full circle but in doing so also ends the entire experience in the sudden disturbing rising and resonating thunderous rumble from the orchestra, almost like a grim question mark. This could be seen as highly fitting as the whole JFK assassination was left unsolved as well, the music reminding us much as Stone's film to study the past.
© Mikko Ojala