Remembering John Singleton and the score of “Rosewood”

John Singleton (1968-2019)

A recollection of John Williams’ score for the 1997 film by the late director

African-American director John Singleton died yesterday (April 29, 2019) after the consequences of a major heart attack that happened two weeks ago. He was 51.

Singleton made history in 1992, when he became the first African-American to be nominated as best director, namely for the film Boyz n the hood (1991), a poweful story set in Los Angeles about the situation of youths in communities and gangs divided by drugs and violence.

In 1997, Singleton directed Rosewood, a drama based on the real-life story of the massacre of black people that happened in Levy County, Florida, in 1923. It’s a very dark and powerful story of violence and suffering about a largely forgotten event of recent American history, depicted with stark realism and directed with strong flair by Singleton. Starring Ving Rhames as Mann (the main protagonist), the story deviates from original events by making Mann the leader of a revolt against the white oppressors. In his original intentions, Singleton wanted Rosewood to be a cinematic experience akin to Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, a movie he turned on to as inspiration when preparing his own film. In 2016, the director recounted his experience working on the film:

For this film, Singleton fulfilled a personal dream and got to work with one of his favorite film composers: John Williams. The story behind the scenes that led to the choice of the composer is very interesting. In fact, Singleton originally assigned scoring duties to jazz composer/trumpeteer Wynton Marsalis. The director wanted a musical approach as faithful as possible to the stylings of 1920s black music such as jazz and blues, tinged with folk elements of the rural countryside that acts as a backdrop on the film. The distinguished jazz veteran went on to compose an original score diligently following the director’s requests, oriented much more to source-like character rather than being a traditional dramatic accompaniment. As sometimes happens on the creative journey of the making of a film, Marsalis’s music didn’t fulfill all the dramatic needs of the film, especially concerning the protagonist’s heroic role. As film music critic/historian Jeff Bond recounts in the liner notes of the soundtrack album expanded release (available on La-La Land Records), “Singleton found himself returning to one of his original inspirations, Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, in searching for a new composer for the film. He had always been an admirer of John Williams and had been impressed by the composer’s ability to bring Spielberg’s harrowing vision of the Holocaust to life. But could Williams capute the feeling of a black community circa 1923?”. After meeting with Williams and showing him the film, the director expressed his concerns about his ability to conjure the right musical sensibility the film needed. The composer answered that he knew what to do, recounting his experience as arranger and conductor for legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.

ROSEWOOD, Ving Rhames, Elise Neal, 1997, (c)Warner Bros.
Ving Rhames as Mann in Rosewood (© Warner Bros., 1997)

Williams agreed to compose the score and followed Singleton’s directions of infusing his work with “American folk music, black and white, […] to get in the texture of the time period”. Despite being mostly known for his rich, sparkling symphonic scores for fantasy and adventure films, the composer picked on his wistful, deep American musical personality and wrote a beautiful, inspired work tinged with blues-y Americana, spirituals and intense dramatic writing. Williams always had a particular sensibility toward folk/blues-tinged music (both black and white), as evidenced in the several film scores from the late 1960s and early 1970s such as The Reivers, The Cowboys, Conrack, The Missouri Breaks and The Sugarland Express. He also wrote a lovely score combining folk/rustic elements with a more traditional symphonic approach for Mark Rydell’s The River (1984), for which he even received an Academy Award nomination. For Singleton’s Rosewood, the composer took a similar approach, but expanded the breadth of musical scope to a larger extent. The score is indeed rich with folk and blues elements, often performed by guitar and harmonica, both of which get very extended solos (performed with incredible grace by guitarist Dean Parks and harmonica legend Tommy Morgan). The folk elements are counterbalanced by a richly expressive orchestral texture, dominated by strings and horns. Williams’ main theme, which moves and dances like a rural deep Southern melody enriched by thick, jazz-like harmony, is a wonderful summation of this approach:

The film also offered Williams the opportunity to write authentic spirituals, which the composer used in a Greek chorus-like manner to further enhance both the suffering and the hope of the black people pictured in the film. This is probably one of the most interesting aspects that gives this score its very unique character:

The composer also used a gospel voice (performed by singer Shirley Caesar) for some of the film’s most dramatic sequences, using it in stark contrast with the harrowing events pictured on screen. Caesar’s voice acts like a scream of anger and pain, pitted against an imposing orchestral backdrop:

As always when composing a film score for a film based on real events, Williams supports and enhances the drama without resorting to clichée or easy solution. Quite the contrary, the composer treats music as a fundamental partner of the narrative to express even deeper concepts and feelings. As Jeff Bond wrote in his excellent liner notes, “Williams used orchestration to differentiate character, and even to emphasize the economic friction between the essentially middle-class citizens of Rosewood and the dirt-poor, blue-collar people of Sumner (the town in which the black people live—ed.), painting Rosewood with wistful and elegant Americana, while Sumner and its people receive a rough-edged, hard-scrabble folk sound, with brash harmonica performances, jew’s harp and edgy guitar predominating.”

As the master dramatist he is, Williams supports the drama by giving the film a very distinctive musical representation, but always remaining very discrete and almost subdued in his overall approach, gifting some sequences with mournful chamber-like pieces.

Rosewood is one of John Williams’s most underrated scores for a largely (and unjustly) forgotten film about an important historical fact of racism against black people. It’s another genuine proof of his unerring ability to write a perfect film score while also creating a musical work that can be enjoyed as pure music. I heartily recommend to purchase the release assembled by genius producer Mike Matessino for La-La Land Records, which contains the complete instrumental film score on Disc 1 and the composer’s own 1997 album assembly on Disc 2.

John Singleton wrote a lovely introductory note for the original soundtrack album release in 1997. Besides praising the work of the Maestro for his own film, the director spoke about the joy of watching the composer at work and how his music was a crucial element during his childhood. It’s a truly loving testament to the legacy of John Williams and we offer it here as a tribute to a talented director gone away too soon.

As a child fascinated with the world of film and cinema, I would constantly listen to the recorded music of my favorite motion pictures. Listening to certain portions of the original soundtrack of a film often gave me the same joy or reminded me the feeling I had when watching a movie.

As an eleventh grader, I can remember waking in the morning, washing my face, washing my teeth and combing my hair to the enormous sound of the London Symphony Orchestra as I would blast the music to the last scene in Star Wars where my heroes get their medals. In high school, my day-long Sunday study sessions were filled with music from Raiders of the Lost Ark and the moving piano music from E.T. I could remember what action Indiana Jones was doing by the way the music changed and still get charged by his daring adventures. Sometimes I would close my eyes and visualize these movies which I’d seen so many times using the soundtracks as a guide. In doing so, I would feel the very soul of the film—the rhythm, the pace, the themes, all these would come to me in pure form without any visuals. As my collection of tapes accumulated I had noticed that all of the film scores I purchased were the work of one man—without realizing it I had grown up listening and studying the film music of John Williams.

Now in my adulthood, I’ve had the opportunity to realize a boyhood dream. To have John Williams to compose the score for one of my films. Working with Mr. Williams, I felt like a teenager again, privileged this time to not only hear, but to witness the process of his creativity. He’s a consummate craftsman, writing music that magnifies the power of the film. I can truly say Mr. Williams embodies the soul of Rosewood.

—John Singleton
23 January, 1997

John Williams and director John Singleton '90
John Williams and director John Singleton (ca. 2010)

In loving memory of John Singleton (1968-2019)