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ALWAYS – John Williams

January 30, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Always is the Steven Spielberg film most people tend to forget. Sandwiched between such classics as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Schindler’s List, and Jurassic Park, it came during the period where Spielberg was alternating between making major box office blockbusters and smaller, more personal films that tackled intimate themes and emotions. Always is a remake of the 1943 Spencer Tracy film A Guy Named Joe, which was written by Dalton Trumbo. Richard Dreyfuss stars in the Tracy role as Pete Sandich, a daredevil pilot who works putting out forest fires; his long-time girlfriend Dorinda (Holly Hunter) and best friend Al (John Goodman) fear that his recklessness in the air will lead to tragedy. Their worst fears come true when Pete is killed in a plane crash saving Al’s life; in the afterlife, Pete is given guidance by an angel-like figure (Audrey Hepburn, in her final screen role), and told that he has one last life to save before he can move on to heaven – Dorinda’s, who has become overwhelmingly grief stricken and suicidal as a result of Pete’s death.

Always is a sentimental, but ultimately life-affirming film about all the big topics: life and death, grief and mourning, guilt, and how all those things can hinder people from finding love and happiness, and moving on after the passing of a loved one. It was also a deeply personal film for both Spielberg and Dreyfuss, who shared their mutual love of the Spencer Tracy original with each other while working on Jaws in 1974. Ultimately, however, the film failed to take off at the box office, and today it is considered something of an overlooked curiosity in Spielberg’s filmography. The same can be said of the film’s score, which of course was by John Williams. It was his third score of 1989, after Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Born on the Fourth of July, and it was completely overshadowed by them in terms of popularity and acclaim at the time – in fact it was one of only four theatrical scores Williams wrote in the 1980s that was not nominated for an Oscar (the others being Heartbeeps in 1981, Monsignor in 1982, and Spacecamp in 1986).

Always has generally struck me as being one of the least John Williams-esque scores in his canon. It’s the antithesis of what people usually consider a typical Williams score – something which has a strong and memorable main theme, powerful action, and bold dramatic strokes. Instead, Always is dreamy, wistful, and unfolds more like a tone poem than one of Williams’s usual attention-grabbing powerhouses. It’s very much in the vein of some of the other low-key drama scores he was writing at the time – The Accidental Tourist, Stanley & Iris, and so on – and for the longest time I had trouble connecting with it in the way I usually would immediately connect with new Williams scores. Always requires patience, and a willingness to sit through some beautiful but somewhat abstract orchestral textures. Whole minutes of the score go by wherein Williams simply allows his music to meander, exploring different instrumental colors and tonal combinations. However, once you get it, as I eventually got it, it’s a very rewarding experience.

The opening cue, “Among the Clouds,” is perhaps the perfect summation of everything the score has to offer. It’s an 8-minute piece that plays almost like an overture, and is full of soft, shifting ideas that come together like a dream. Williams uses high, wavering strings and gentle woodwinds to create a feeling of peacefulness, slowly adds in chimes and harps to add a touch of magic, and then counterbalances this with Jim Thatcher’s wholesome French horn solos, which ground the score in strong, earthy tones. There’s no real prominent theme to speak of; instead, Williams hints at little melodic ideas and recurring textures, but it never really coalesces into something tangible until the very end of the cue, which was probably the idea considering that Dreyfuss’s character spends most of the film in a non-corporeal form, unseen by the rest of the cast, but quietly influencing their hopes and dreams in a positive way from beyond the grave. The textures are just lovely, vintage Williams, and they occasionally rise to subtle emotional heights, especially when he incorporates a more substantial piece of cello writing or a timpani rumble to heighten a specific moment. The sequence that begins at around the 7-minute mark has clear echoes of the finale of E.T., especially in the brass writing, and is where the main theme of the score finally begins to emerge and assert itself.

Much of the rest of the score builds on the ideas introduced in this opening piece. Cues like “Pete in Heaven,” “The Return,” “Seeing Dorinda,” “Intimate Conversation,” and “Promise to Hap” feel very similar in tone and texture; dreamy, ethereal, appropriately ghostly. Small thematic ideas re-appear once in a while (listen for the reprise of the finale from the first cue, re-orchestrated for light chimes and harps around 3:30 into “Pete in Heaven,” and later on soft pianos throughout all of “Intimate Conversation,” for example). Several of these cues enhance the orchestra with some light keyboard performances and synth writing too, which adds another level of pretty wistfulness and increases the other-worldliness of the work as a whole.

There are a couple of exceptions that break the mold. “Follow Me” is a fun and lively piece of Americana featuring a playful, slightly mischievous scherzo rhythm that showcases dancing strings, buoyant brass writing, and a tambourine-led percussive undercurrent. Darker, more forceful string and brass writing makes “Saying Goodbye” feel important, while the rushing strings and lithe, darting woodwinds which underpin the statements of the main theme throughout most of the cue give it a sense of energy that the rest of the score lacks. The subsequent “Pete and Dorinda” uses a series of beautiful piano lines and apparent improvisations to give the main theme a new, romantic dimension.

Another moment of darkness comes in “The Rescue Operation,” which uses much more prominent brass and hearty percussion rolls to create a sense of danger and gravitas, although even here fragments of the main theme continue to peek through via the keyboards, continually offering a subtle foreshadowing of the tragedy to come, and Pete’s ultimate destination. Later, “The Old Timer’s Shack” uses keyboard and electronics in the score’s most prominent way, and initially comes across as a little threatening and ominous, before again settling into another serpentine extrapolation of the main theme. Curiously, some of the textures Williams uses here appear to be the roots of the magical sound he would later explore much more vigorously in his Harry Potter scores more than a decade later; clearly, magic sounds and feels much the same to Williams whether it takes place in heaven or at Hogwarts.

The conclusive “Dorinda Solo Flight” is the one moment where Williams embraces a more heroic tone, taking many of the ideas from the opening cue – the ascending string scales, the fluttering brass, the main melodic theme – and giving them a sense of dramatic catharsis and closure. In the film this is the moment that Pete’s ghost, having been following and guiding her from the afterlife, finally appears to Dorinda, and they share a poignant and emotionally resonant goodbye before both of them finally move on – he to heaven, her to the rest of her life with his love and blessing. The album is rounded out by a variety of light rock and country songs from artists like Jimmy Buffett and Lyle Lovett, including two performances of the classic “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” which in the context of the film is Pete and Dorinda’s ‘their song,’ and of course is ironically appropriate considering what they do for a living.

Many reviews of this score voice how disappointing it is because it fails to adequately capture the excitement and wonderment of flight in any meaningful way, but I would argue that those who do so are missing the point. Always is not a film about that; the breathlessness and excitement of aerial firefighting – while undoubtedly a worthy and important job – is ultimately the cause of so much pain in this film, and the music reflects the emotions of those who are left behind when things go wrong. It doesn’t so much celebrate flight as much as it mourns it. Williams focuses on these emotions – love, sorrow, grief, and ultimately redemption – because the film is a celebration of the human spirit when it overcomes those internal personal obstacles, instead of the more tangible and dangerous ones presented by fires and plane crashes.

Despite my personal appreciation for it, I still feel that Always is going to be one of the scores that appeals least to Williams fans, especially those who are more attuned to his bombastic marches, rousing action music, and moments of soaring emotion. As I mentioned, this is a score which requires a degree of patience, and a willingness to sit quietly and fully immerse yourself in the beautiful textures and instrumental combinations that Williams creates. If you do, you will be rewarded with some truly excellent moments of musical emotion that are both subtle and powerful, and prove that Williams is not just a composer who smacks you in the face with endless themes and variations. As a thoughtful rumination on life and love, and what death means for those left behind, Always leaves a positive impression.

Buy the Always soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Smoke Gets In Your Eyes (written by Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach, performed by J. D. Souther) (2:51)
  • Boomerang Love (written and performed by Jimmy Buffet) (5:19)
  • Cowboy Man (written and performed by Lyle Lovett) (2:51)
  • Give Me Your Heart (written by Phil Marshall, performed by Denette Hoover and Sherwood Ball) (3:54)
  • A Fool In Love (written and performed by Michael Smotherman) (4:09)
  • Smoke Gets In Your Eyes (written by Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach, performed by The Platters) (2:38)
  • Among the Clouds (8:34)
  • Follow Me (1:14)
  • Pete in Heaven (6:41)
  • Saying Goodbye (3:13)
  • Pete and Dorinda (3:18)
  • The Return (2:29)
  • The Rescue Operation (5:14)
  • Seeing Dorinda (3:33)
  • Intimate Conversation (1:26)
  • Promise to Hap (2:29)
  • The Old Timer’s Shack (4:52)
  • Dorinda Solo Flight (3:16)

Running Time: 67 minutes 56 seconds

MCA Records MCAD-8063 (1989)

Music composed and conducted by John Williams. Orchestrations by Herbert W. Spencer. Featured musical soloist Jim Thatcher. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Ken Wannberg. Album produced by John Williams.

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