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JFK – John Williams

November 24, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The assassination of US president John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas, in November 1963 was one of the defining moments of twentieth century American history. History books state that he was killed by a lone gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald, who was himself murdered by local Dallas businessman Jack Ruby while in custody just a day or so later. Oswald’s true motive has never been categorically established, and in the years since the event a series of conspiracy theories have emerged – that Oswald was a ‘patsy’ working for the Russians, that there were additional shooters who have never been identified located on a nearby ‘grassy knoll,’ and even that Kennedy’s vice president Lyndon Johnson was somehow involved as part of a coup for him to seize power. Many of these theories are examined in great detail in director Oliver Stone’s film JFK, which looks at the events leading up to, during, and after the assassination, and then focuses deeply on the subsequent investigation by former district attorney Jim Garrison, as well as the official congressional commission led by chief justice Earl Warren. The film is a dense, complicated, intricate film that offers plenty of theories, conjecture, and opinion, but never really settles on a decision as to what really happened, although Stone heavily implies that he believes that the conspiracy goes much deeper than the official investigation concluded.

The film was a critical and commercial success, receiving Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, and Best Sound, and winning for Cinematography and Film Editing. It has a stellar cast, including Kevin Costner as Garrison, and Gary Oldman as Oswald, plus Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Bacon, Joe Pesci, Sissy Spacek, Laurie Metcalf, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, and Donald Sutherland in major supporting roles. The film was also the first of several ‘presidential biographies’ that Oliver Stone would direct, following this film with looks at Richard Nixon in 1996, and George W. Bush in 2008.

The score for JFK is by the great John Williams, and was the first of his two scores in 1991, with the other being Hook. Williams had scored Born on the Fourth of July for Oliver Stone in 1989, and the score for JFK can very much be seen as a continuation of the style he established in that earlier film. It’s a score which veers between understated but patriotic Americana, and rather intense and dissonant thriller music which initially captures the shock and distress of the assassination itself, but then seeks to illustrate the duplicitous actions of those in power seeking to ‘cover up’ the truth of the event.

The former aspect of the score is by far the most appealing; it focuses strongly on a series of superb horn performances by Tim Morrison, the principal trumpeter of both the Boston Symphony and the Boston Pops Orchestras, and seeks to inspire a reverential and solemnly noble musical tribute to President Kennedy. The latter aspect deals with the assassination, the conspirators, and the obsession Garrison experiences while trying to uncover the truth; Williams’s music for these elements is rhythmic, intense, a little on the minimalist side, and often more concerned with texture and tone than melodic content, and showcases a very different musical edge to the master of thematic writing,

The “Prologue” begins with a solemn, haunting statement of the main JFK theme accompanied by snare drum tattoos, giving the whole thing the air of a military funeral; it slowly moves from one of Morrison’s iconic trumpet performances to the full orchestra, and is a superb, emotionally powerful introduction to everything the thematic core of the score has to offer. However, this quickly segues into “The Motorcade,” which underscores the assassination itself, and could not be more different. The mood is tense and portentous, and is filled with rumbling clarinets, shrill brasses, and crashing pianos carrying an 11-note motif that builds in intensity throughout the cue. The chaotic finale of the piece sees the entire orchestra shrieking in unison, passing the assassination motif around within itself, while a rowdy version of the main theme emerges from the turmoil and confusion.

The “Theme from JFK” is a lovely piano-based concert arrangement of the main theme performed by virtuoso pianist Gloria Cheng, soft and reverential, but which dissolves into quite harsh rumbling dissonance towards the finale, as if commenting on the similarly harsh fate suffered by Kennedy himself; the conclusive piece on the album is an identical reprise, which ends the score on a downbeat note.

“Garrison’s Obsession” takes some of its inspiration from the sound of another Williams thriller, Presumed Innocent, and uses tumultuous piano and keyboard textures, along with sawing strings and emphatic brass passages, to underscore the numerous important scenes of Garrison’s determination to see justice done. The flip side of this is “The Conspirators,” a superb piece of intensely rhythmic writing for tick-tock wooden percussion, synthesizers, and pianos, performing a relentless, energetic staccato rhythm. This music is usually heard underneath scenes where Clay Shaw, David Ferrie, and Lee Harvey Oswald are planning the assassination; it has its roots in some of those great political thriller scores of the 1970s by people like Michael Small and Dave Grusin, but actually became something of a Williams staple through the rest of the 1990s, with variations featuring prominently in scores such as Jurassic Park, among others. The conspirators idea also bleeds through into the subsequent “The Death of David Ferrie,” which re-purposes several of the same textural ideas but gives them a spooky electronic sheen, atmospheric and eerie. Some of the percussion textures Williams uses here also have a slight Latin flavor, cleverly linking Ferrie and the other conspirators with the members of the Cuban government whom Stone also heavily implies were involved in the assassination plot.

The “Garrison Family Theme” is the nostalgic heart of the score, a warm but bittersweet melody for oboes and soft strings that quietly laments for Garrison’s family life, and the strain that his investigations put on the relationship between him and his wife Liz. It’s a pretty theme that reminds me of the sort of bucolic music Williams wrote for scores like Stanley & Iris and The Accidental Tourist, but its impact is lessened in context through its natural subservience to the main JFK Theme, which is much bolder and more emotionally direct.

After some more bubbling tension and anxiety in “The Witnesses,” one of the two highlights of the entire score comes in “Arlington,” a tour-de-force arrangement of the JFK Theme. Williams passes the theme from elegiac horns to warm strings to the full orchestra; it’s earnest and dignified, but also has an appropriate undercurrent of anger and frustration, lamenting the fact that a president who still had so much to give, and so much good to do, was cut down in his prime. The darkness and foreboding of the new theme in the cue’s middle section speaks to these emotions, before it returns to the main JFK Theme for a final, tragic reprise.

The “Finale” of the score is the second major highlight, in which Williams arranges the JFK Theme not as a lament, but as a brighter and more upbeat acknowledgement of the honesty, honor, and nobility that Garrison brought to his cause in trying to give justice and closure to the Kennedy family. The orchestral sound in this conclusive piece is notably richer than in most of the rest of the score, more akin to the sound we are used to Williams demonstrating, with familiar contrapuntal flute writing, prominent harp glissandi, and more outstanding horn performances by Tim Morrison and Jim Thatcher.

The album, on Elektra Records, also includes several songs and source music selections, including the traditional “Drummer’s Salute” performed by The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, the hymn “Eternal Father Strong to Save,” period pop pieces performed by Sidney Bechet, Tony Bennett, Brent Lewis, and Ray Barretto, and a selection from Mozart’s Concerto #2 for Horn and Orchestra performed by the Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra. Unfortunately the album sequencing regularly places the songs right in the middle of the score selections, breaking the flow of the album and ruining Williams’s carefully-crafted mood, so listeners will want to program them out, or place them elsewhere in a playlist, in order to properly appreciate Williams’s work.

The fact that JFK was nominated for an Academy Award over Hook in 1991 is not surprising, considering the prestige of the project, and although Hook has since gone on to be a more popular fan favorite, JFK should not be overlooked. Although the main JFK Theme is at times exceptionally beautiful, Williams uses it in a slightly more restrained way than one might expect, and as such the emotional payoff in the conclusion feels earned. This superb main theme combines well with several melodic sub-themes, some unexpectedly challenging orchestral dissonance that at times approaches sound design, and some staccato suspense and intrigue writing that would lay the groundwork for several subsequent scores. Looking back at this score from the vantage point of thirty years in the future, and considering all the excellent scores that surround it in the Williams filmography, one could be forgiven for thinking that JFK is a comparatively minor work, but just as it is with all so-called Williams minor works, there are still kernels of greatness to be found.

Buy the JFK soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Prologue (4:10)
  • The Motorcade (5:15)
  • Drummer’s Salute (traditional, performed by The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards) (2:57)
  • Theme from JFK (2:25)
  • Eternal Father Strong to Save (written by William Whiting and J. B. Dykes) (1:20)
  • Garrison’s Obsession (2:35)
  • On the Sunny Side of the Street (written by Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh, performed by Sidney Bechet) (4:26)
  • The Conspirators (4:07)
  • The Death of David Ferrie (2:49)
  • Maybe September (written by Percy Faith, Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, performed by Tony Bennett) (4:05)
  • Garrison Family Theme (2:14)
  • Ode to Buckweat (written and performed by Brent Lewis) (3:46)
  • El Watusi (written and performed by Ray Barretto) (2:42)
  • The Witnesses (2:47)
  • Concerto #2 for Horn and Orchestra (written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, performed by the Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra cond. Dale Clevenger) (6:30)
  • Arlington (6:30)
  • Finale (3:15)
  • Theme from JFK – Reprise (2:22)

Running Time: 61 minutes 53 seconds

Elektra 7559-61293-2 (1991)

Music composed and conducted by John Williams. Orchestrations by John Williams, John Neufeld, Arthur Morton and Alexander Courage. Featured musical soloist Tim Morrison, Jim Thatcher and Gloria Cheng. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Ken Wannberg. Album produced by John Williams .

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