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STANLEY & IRIS – John Williams

February 21, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

After enjoying a 1980s which saw him score two Star Wars movies (one of which is, in my opinion, the best score ever written), three Indiana Jones films, and such standalone masterpieces as E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Empire of the Sun, and Born on the Fourth of July, all while picking up one Oscar from eleven Best Score nominations, one could be forgiven for thinking that Williams would begin the 1990s with yet another blockbuster to put under his belt. Instead, his first score of the new decade was for Stanley & Iris, a small, intimate drama directed by his old friend Martin Ritt, for whom he previously scored Pete ‘n’ Tillie in 1973 and Conrack in 1974. The film starred Robert de Niro and Jane Fonda in the title roles, and it tells the story of the gentle romantic relationship that develops between Stanley, a kind-hearted baker who loses his job when it is discovered that he is illiterate, and Iris, a lonely widow who teaches him how to read and write. It was also the last film Ritt directed prior to his death in December of that year.

Stanley & Iris is one of a series of small scale scores John Williams wrote in the late 1980s and early 1990s, along with titles such as The Accidental Tourist and Always. It’s written for a comparatively small ensemble comprising strings, woodwinds, and piano, plus occasional embellishments from a couple of solo brass instruments, and solo harp. Words which could be used to describe the score include ‘pretty,’ ‘innocent,’ and ‘charming,’ and the whole thing radiates an overall feeling of wholesomeness, decency, and goodness, with a focus on themes of friendship and family. One could also be forgiven for thinking that Stanley & Iris was a fairly simple and straightforward scores, but this is John Williams we’re talking about here – even for a film such as this, which requires no significant orchestral outbursts, there are still an astonishing five themes in play through out the score, which often come together in lovely contrapuntal combinations to illustrate the relationships at the heart of the story.

The first theme is the relationship theme for the titular pair, which first appears in the opening cue “Stanley and Iris”. It’s a playful, light, airy melody led by the piano, and is very reminiscent of the wholesome family themes he would later go on to write for subsequent scores such as Presumed Innocent, Hook, Home Alone, and Sabrina. The way Williams shifts the melody effortlessly from piano to woodwinds to strings is just lovely, as is the very brief brass statement at the 2:43 mark. A subsequent statement of this theme in “Stanley’s Invention” is quite delightful, and features a pseudo-deconstruction of the melody led by woodwinds that is especially attractive.

The second cue, “Reading Lessons,” introduces a specific theme for Jane Fonda’s Iris, which depicts the good-natured and welcoming personality of her character with writing for piano, woodwinds, and strings that are lush and warm, with an inviting sound courtesy of it’s lower key. The third cue, “The Bicycle,” introduces another new theme which tends to follow Robert DeNiro’s character as he rides around town on his trusty bike – he can’t drive because of his illiteracy. The theme emerges from a bed of rolling pianos and low woodwinds augmented by harp glissandi, woodwind trills, and subtle pizzicato touches which give the whole thing a magical touch, and the piano writing especially reminds me of a more pleasant, less virtuosic version of the piano-led finale from E. T. The Extra-Terrestrial.

The fourth cue, “Factory Work,” introduces the specific theme for Robert DeNiro’s Stanley, and is a little melancholy, a little more serious, and a little more dramatic than everything else in the score. Stanley’s character has a lot of struggles in his life – not only is he trying to keep up the façade of not being able to read or write, and hold down a steady job, but he’s also caring for his elderly father Leonides (played by veteran Russian actor Feodor Chaliapin, Jr.). Williams uses the trumpet more prominently in cues which feature Stanley’s theme, giving it a touch of gravitas that is not present in the rest of the score.

Cleverly, many of the middle-album cues blend Stanley’s theme with other themes to illustrate the different shifting relationships in Stanley’s life. “Finding a Family,” for example, brings together Stanley’s Theme on piano with the Relationship Theme on woodwinds, while “Night Visit” oscillates between Stanley’s Theme arranged for piano and woodwinds, and a slower and slightly more restrained version of the Bicycle Theme arranged for flutes. In the similarly-textured “Looking After Papa” Williams uses pretty strings, light woodwinds, tender harps, and metallic textures to offer a downbeat acknowledgement of Leonides’s increasingly serious health issues.

The finale of the score, in “Letters” and “Putting It All Together,” returns strongly to the Relationship Theme heard in the opening cue. The first of these cues is probably the most overtly emotional music in the score, building from little flourishes in the woodwind performances, and rising to several pretty crescendos, before presenting a superb thematic variation for solo trumpet, and ending with an enthusiastic, evocative finale where woodwinds and brass play off each other. The second cue offers several warm settings of the theme for a notably beautiful cello that has echoes of Luke & Leia from Return of the Jedi, before segueing into the “End Credits,” which begins with a faster and more rhapsodic piano version of Iris’s theme, before switching back to the main Stanley & Iris relationship theme to close.

What impresses me most about Stanley & Iris is just how much musical mileage Williams can get out of a story this simple, and an ensemble this concise. Lesser composers would simply write one over-arching main theme, maybe come up with a couple of instrumental variations, and leave it at that, but not John Williams: nom he instead provides five recurring themes, numerous instrumental variations, contrapuntal combinations, and so much more. It’s gorgeously orchestrated by Herb Spencer and John Neufeld, and is a delight to listen to from beginning to end.

The original album release of Stanley & Iris was one of the infamous Varese Sarabande half hour albums. Personally, I have always found the album to be sufficient in terms of conveying all the main things the score has to offer, but collectors always want more, so in 2017 Varese released an expanded version of the soundtrack, featuring more than half an hours worth of additional music (mostly different variations on the core themes), with the bonus addition of 17 minutes of music that Williams wrote for director Ritt’s film Pete ‘n’ Tillie in 1973.

Stanley & Iris is a small score in John Williams terms, a footnote in a stellar career which is easily overlooked in favor of the more crowd-pleasing and acclaimed scores that came out either side of it. Despite this, I find it to be thoroughly entertaining; it’s light and tuneful, cautiously emotional, and offers a look at a different side to Williams’s composing talents, which here are a world away from the bombastic marches and rousing action one usually associates with him.

Buy the Stanley & Iris soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Stanley and Iris (3:24)
  • Reading Lessons (2:26)
  • The Bicycle (3:07)
  • Factory Work (1:23)
  • Finding a Family (1:41)
  • Stanley at Work (1:31)
  • Looking After Papa (3:10)
  • Stanley’s Invention (1:17)
  • Night Visit (1:58)
  • Letters (3:25)
  • Putting It All Together (1:46)
  • End Credits (3:03)
  • Stanley and Iris (3:26)
  • The Bicycle (3:09)
  • The Pink Sweater (1:07)
  • Iris After Work (0:40)
  • Stanley at Work (1:33)
  • Looking After Papa (3:05)
  • Entering the Library (1:07)
  • Night Visit (2:00)
  • Factory Work (1:26)
  • Naming the Trees (3:37)
  • Finding a Family (1:42)
  • Lost in the Streets (2:56)
  • Stanley’s Invention (1:18)
  • The Kitchen Table (1:06)
  • Seeing the Baby (1:15)
  • Reading Lessons (2:28)
  • Growing Together (2:09)
  • Putting It All Together (1:47)
  • Letters (3:28)
  • End Title (3:04)
  • Stanley and Iris (3:24) – Film Version Bonus Cue
  • Stanley at Work (1:29) – Film Version Bonus Cue
  • Looking After Papa (3:11) – Film Version Bonus Cue
  • Stanley’s Invention (1:18) – Film Version Bonus Cue
  • Putting It All Together (1:49) – Film Version Bonus Cue
  • Letters (4:00) – Film Version Bonus Cue
  • Pete ’n’ Tillie – Main Title (1:57)
  • Pete ’n’ Tillie – Afterglow (1:46)
  • Pete ’n’ Tillie – Marriage Book (1:48)
  • Pete ’n’ Tillie – Bedroom Scene (0:57)
  • Pete ’n’ Tillie – Vacation (2:45)
  • Pete ’n’ Tillie – For Robbie (1:33)
  • Pete ’n’ Tillie – Funeral (0:52)
  • Pete ’n’ Tillie – Hospital (0:42)
  • Pete ’n’ Tillie – End Title and End Cast (3:49)
  • Pete ’n’ Tillie – Love Theme (2:27)

Running Time: 28 minutes 56 seconds (Original)
Running Time: 76 minutes 10 seconds (Expanded)

Varese Sarabande VSD-5255 (1990)
Varese Sarabande VCL-0317-1178 (1990/2017)

Music composed and conducted by John Williams. Orchestrations by Herbert W. Spencer and John Neufeld. Recorded and mixed by Dan Wallin. Edited by Ken Wannberg. Album produced by John Williams. Expanded release produced by Robert Townson and Mike Matessino.

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