Musical Accompaniment vs. Musical Enhancement


In 2017, John Williams and Steven Spielberg collaborated on their 28th feature film together, The Post. The film recounts the story of the great cover-up that spanned four U.S. Presidents which pushed the first female newspaper publisher (Kathleen Graham) and the chief editor of the Washington Post (Ben Bradlee) to publish classifed top-secret files (known as the “Pentagon Papers”) that documented the involvement of the government in the Vietnam War, with an unprecedented battle between the press and the government that ensued later.

The Post is carried by the great performances of the two lead protagonists (Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks), joined by a great group of supporting roles. It’s a story that, much like two recent entries in his filmography (Lincoln and Bridge of Spies) , shows Spielberg’s strong belief in spoken and written words as pillars of democracy and justice. However, Spielberg knows probably better than any other living director how to move the camera to make the story more vivid and exciting for the audience, getting us involved at every beat of the film.

John Williams’ music for The Post is mostly a discrete, somber musical accompaniment. The score is written for traditional symphony orchestra, but Williams keeps things very tight and controlled, almost scaled-down for most of the duration. The lexicon is kind of minimalistic, with brief motivic cells appearing and repeating to give a sense of pulse and propulsion, but always remaining in the background, to let the story and dialogue breath their own life into the film. There are also interesting textures for synthesizers and electronic sounds, more than usual for a Williams’ score. A more traditional approach is used instead for the scenes pertaining Kay Graham’s personal side with her family, accompanied by Williams with some of his characteristic intimate melodic figurations for solo piano and strings. The overall approach was dictated to avoid unnecessary clashes with the fine performances of the actors, as the composer himself recounts here:

However, Spielberg and Williams always find at least one scene in every film they do where the music becomes prominent and suddenly marches into the foreground. It’s usually a scene without dialogue, with sound effects dialed down, where the music takes center stage and gives a satisfying payoff to the audience. There are numerous examples in their filmography, but it’s interesting to note that it also happened in films where the music score was purposefully written with with a more unobtrusive, noble character like in Saving Private Ryan, Munich or Lincoln. In The Post, such a scene arrives toward the end of the film: it’s the sequence when, after Kay Graham finally gives her authorization to publish the article, the order to roll the presses is given by Ben Bradlee. It’s a very fine piece of cinematic achievement (thanks also to the work of Spielberg’s long-time film editor Michael Kahn) enhanced perfectly by Williams’ masterful scoring:

It’s particulary interesting to watch and listen how Williams keeps track of sync points (i.e. the moments where the music “hits” the action), a technique he mastered with complete and great flair over the course of his career. Here, we don’t see or hear the so-called “Mickey-Mousing”, but Williams enhances perfectly what we’re seeing and hearing in a very deft and tasteful manner, doing three different things at the same time: 1) enhancing storytelling and visual cues; 2) creating a sonic tapestry together with the rest of the sound elements; 3) writing a musical set-piece with a strong identity and perfectly autonomous.

The sound of the presses is enhanced by a motor-like rhythmic figure for violas and cellos; the orchestral texture starts to get bigger as the scene goes along and we feel the reaching of the goal; the harmonic language is simple, but with some juicy modulations that keeps the audience engaged, finally arriving at the big payoff moment with a major-mode, almost heroic statement for brass when we see the close-up of the published article. The scene then continues and the music keeps us on our toes, as we realize the events are still unfolding. Williams weaves in and out of the dialogue with his typical flair, knowing when it’s time to enhance and when it’s the moment of accompanying.

This is probably a very old-school way of scoring films (much like the scene we see is a a very old-school example of making a newspaper, ironically), but it’s done with such sincere and heartfelt conviction that it becomes absolutely exciting. It’s the moment where director and composer “seal the deal” with their audience, so to speak. It’s also a typical trait of the Spielberg/Williams collaboration, an artistic relationship that shows the profound trust in the simple tools of cinematic storytelling they both still have even today and continue to use with fine skills to make compelling film-making.

John Williams still exemplifies what is the main role of the film composer, knowing very well the difference between musical accompaniment vs. musical enhancement. This is another great legacy he’s leaving us, especially to composers who writes for film and for filmmakers who are interested in getting the best result from the musical score. I’ll explore it further in future posts.