Friday, May 28, 2010

On the road with John Williams

The Sugarland Express in pan-and-scan should just be renamed The Shittyland Express. I can picture Vilmos Zsigmond screaming about the butchering of his cinematography, Tony Shalhoub in Big Night-style: 'Raaaaape! Of the cinema!'

For the John Williams blog-a-thon, I wish I did an entire post about my favorite out-of-print Williams work, the amusing Long Goodbye score, which I've briefly mentioned on my blog before. But someone beat me to it. I don't want to write another post about Williams' pivotal role in the Star Wars or Indy franchises, so I'll bring some attention to a great unreleased score that hasn't been covered in the blog-a-thon yet.

Williams isn't my favorite film and TV composer--that would be Ennio Morricone--but from the mid-'70s to the early '80s, the American maestro was on fire and wrote terrific score after terrific score. His first score for Steven Spielberg, the 1974 tragicomedy The Sugarland Express, one of my favorite Spielberg flicks, has very little of the grandeur or bombast Williams later became known for in his collaborations with the filmmaker. The last time I saw the Spielberg road movie was also the first or second time I saw it--letterboxed on AMC in 1992, and that's the only way the film should be watched outside the theater--but after all these years, I've never forgotten Williams' understated music.

The score's primary theme is a simple harmonica melody performed by Toots Thielemans. The piece effectively captures the longing of the Poplins (the not-so-bright but sympathetic Texan fugitive couple played by Goldie Hawn and William Atherton) for their baby without being syrupy. It's especially haunting during ace cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond's glistening end credits images of Michael Sacks' young state trooper standing over the Rio Grande, saddened by the outcome of his experience with the Poplins.

The main theme has been re-recorded a few times, most notably by Williams and the Boston Pops Orchestra for Sony Classical's 1991 Spielberg/Williams Collaboration album, but the full Sugarland score has never been officially released (it's been bootlegged though, with album graphic designs that look like the Poplins just discovered Photoshop). I actually don't mind its unreleased status because outside the context of the film, the minimalist and downbeat score isn't the kind of score I'd listen to a few times on disc, like Williams' scores from Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Long Goodbye and Catch Me If You Can. But within the body of the film (and accompanied by Zsigmond's stunning cinematography), it's powerful stuff.

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