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LBJ – Marc Shaiman

November 7, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Lyndon Baines Johnson was the 36th President of the United States. Born in Texas in 1908, he served in the US Navy and worked as a high school teacher before winning election to the House of Representatives in 1937, and then to the Senate in 1948. After a widely-praised career in Washington, Johnson was chosen to be John F. Kennedy’s running mate in 1960, and became Vice President after Kennedy’s victory. He ascended to the presidency in 1963 after JFK was assassinated; as President, he won the 1964 election with ease and instituted a series of sweeping popular social reforms aimed at combating racism, poor healthcare, and poverty, but was simultaneously criticized for his aggressive personality, and for the United States’s controversial involvement in the Vietnam War. Amid the Vietnam controversy Johnson lost the 1968 Democratic primary to his own vice president, Hubert Humphrey, after Robert F. Kennedy was himself assassinated, and when Humphrey lost the general election to Republican Richard Nixon, Johnson retired from politics and returned to his Texas ranch, where he died in 1973. Director Rob Reiner’s movie LBJ tells Johnson’s life story, with Woody Harrelson portraying the man himself, and with Richard Jenkins, Bill Pullman, and Jennifer Jason Leigh in supporting roles.

The score for LBJ marks the return to the film scoring world of Marc Shaiman after more than a decade away from the Hollywood mainstream. The last major dramatic film Shaiman scored prior to this one was The Bucket List in 2007; in the intervening period Shaiman scored a handful of lower-profile movies – including Flipped in 2010, The Magic of Belle Isle in 2012, And So It Goes in 2014, all of which were also directed by Rob Reiner – but for the most part he has been on Broadway. Shaiman won a Tony in 2002 for his stage musical Hairspray, and subsequently won acclaim for his shows The Odd Couple in 2005, Catch Me If You Can in 2009, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in 2013. In the light of all his New York stage success it’s easy to forget that in the 1990s Shaiman was considered a truly great dramatic orchestral film composer. Although he predominantly worked on popular comedies, his scores were never anything less than sophisticated, and emotionally direct, as works like City Slickers, The Addams Family, A Few Good Men, the Oscar-nominated The American President, the Oscar-nominated The First Wives Club, and the Oscar-nominated Patch Adams attest. LBJ is a superb return to that style of scoring.

Stylistically, LBJ probably has most in common with the aforementioned A Few Good Men and The American President. As is the case with all Shaiman scores, the music is orchestral and thematic and, for the most part, Shaiman treats Johnson with warmth and respect, but he also never shies away from moving into darker musical territory when the film calls for it. Instrumentally, the music strongly features horns and strings, and there are passages for solo piano, harp, and woodwinds, as well as sequences where he introduces rat-a-tat snare drum tattoos, and even some more intense writing for timpani to convey some of the more serious, dramatic elements in the story.

Thematically, the score appears to be built around two main ones: a six note main theme for brass which first appears at 1:50 of “Opening,” and a secondary four-note theme which emerges from out of the first theme, and which tends to assert itself in the score’s second half. The main six-note LBJ theme gets several superb renditions in the meat of the score, including a performance with dramatic intent in “Motorcade Leaves,” in a softer variation for strings and harp in the more tender “Bird, Get Me a Drink,” and rendered on darker cellos under surging strings in “Thank You Bobby.”

The four-note theme appears to be a sort of motif for the presidency itself: the ideals that govern it, the seriousness and dedication it takes to be it, and the sense of history that surrounds it. “Do You Want This?” introduces the motif and has a sort of wistful nostalgia about it, with especially lovely writing for strings, piano, and harp. It continues on through cues such as “Gazing at the White House” and “Air Force One,” before its most potent performance in the excellent “The Oval Office,” a cue which furthers the sense of the presidency being a noble calling, to be respected and revered.

The sequence of the score which deals with the Kennedy Assassination and LBJ’s ascension to the presidency is a highlight. Beginning with the urgent, militaristic “Through Downtown Dallas,” the “Assassination” itself is dark and solemn, with a variation on the main theme for brooding strings and high trumpets conveying a sense of loss and tragedy, and an explosion of dissonance as Lee Harvey Oswald’s bullets strike their target. “Rush to Hospital” is chaotic and frantic, with clattering percussion and dissonant string and brass whines

“It’s About ’68/He’s Gone” is the score’s longest cue, and one of the cleverest, in which both the six-note LBJ theme and the 4-note Presidency motif combine with each other, as LBJ assumes command. The cue is built around repeated performances and variations of both themes, surrounded by a series of interesting textures, including patriotic trumpets, solo piano, and oboes underpinned by strings and snares. The progression of the emotion in this cue is excellent; it begins with an appropriately downbeat tone, but through several clever and subtle shifts in texture it becomes rousing, almost celebratory, towards the end. The subsequent “Swearing In” features several sweeping, dramatic swells, during which the main theme is performed on lush strings, and it builds through a series of lovely rhapsodic piano textures in the cue’s second half.

The score’s finale, which accompanies the closing period of Johnson’s presidency, contains the score’s most stirringly patriotic moments, most of which involve the Presidency motif. “Writing the Speech” has a faster pace and more insistent piano writing, while the string wash, contrapuntal horns, and timpani rolls add to the sense of drama and urgency. The sadly brief “Time to Go” is full of big sweeping strings and more contrapuntal horns, while both “The Speech” and “Let’s Go To Work” are warm and intimate, featuring lovely string textures and harp accents which build to a rousing and emotional finale anchored by several statements of the Presidency motif.

If I was to offer any sort of criticism of LBJ it would be to say that, to modern audiences, this music could feel too manipulative. Marc Shaiman is a composer whose music remains deeply rooted in that enormously emotional 1990s style where the music was constantly lyrical, tonal, and never left the audience in any doubt as to what they should be feeling at any given time. This is the music I grew up loving, so for me this is a breath of fresh air, but anyone whose tastes developed in the 2000s or 2010s, and who appreciates more subtle or ambiguous emotional content in their scores, may find Shaiman’s work a little on the schmaltzy side. Speaking for my own taste, however, I couldn’t be happier that Rob Reiner is still commissioning scores like this for his films, and that Marc Shaiman is still as good at writing them as he always was.

Buy the LBJ soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Opening (2:57)
  • Motorcade Leaves (0:40)
  • Bird, Get Me a Drink (1:17)
  • Do You Want This? (1:41)
  • Nomination Announcement (0:57)
  • Kennedy on the Phone (1:26)
  • Thank You Bobby (1:42)
  • Through Downtown Dallas (0:51)
  • Gazing at the White House (0:34)
  • Assassination (1:33)
  • Rush to Hospital (1:36)
  • Kennedy TV Speech (0:48)
  • It’s About ’68/He’s Gone (4:24)
  • Air Force One (3:10)
  • Swearing In (2:51)
  • Funeral on TV (1:42)
  • Dinner and Funeral (2:15)
  • Ice Cream (3:47)
  • Size of a Texan’s Balls (1:45)
  • The Oval Office (2:34)
  • Writing the Speech (2:24)
  • You’re a Racist (1:54)
  • Time to Go (0:54)
  • The Speech (3:42)
  • Let’s Get to Work (1:44)

Running Time: 49 minutes 08 seconds

Lakeshore Records (2017)

Music composed by Marc Shaiman. Conducted by Jeff Atmajian. Orchestrations by Jeff Atmajian and Jon Kull. Recorded and mixed by Jake Jackson. Edited by Christopher Brooks. Album produced by Marc Shaiman.

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