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THE FABELMANS – John Williams

November 22, 2022 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

At some point in the fall of 1973 a young 27-year-old filmmaker named Steven Spielberg was entering post-production on his second major film, The Sugarland Express, and was introduced to composer John Williams. Williams was the hot young composer in Hollywood – he had already been nominated for six Academy Awards at this point in his career, winning for Fiddler on the Roof in 1972, and had just scored the smash hit The Poseidon Adventure – and the two got on like a house on fire. The Sugarland Express was the first of their collaborations, and over the course of the next fifty years or so they would work together on more than 30 film and television projects, resulting in some of the most iconic and beloved scores in film music history: Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark and its sequels, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan… the list goes on and on. Steven Spielberg is now 75 years old, and John Williams is now 90, and if the stories in the press are true, Spielberg’s new film The Fabelmans will be their last collaboration together.

The Fabelmans is basically the story of Steven Spielberg’s own childhood: him growing up in suburban Arizona, his early love of movies, his relationships with his artistically-inclined mother and his more down-to-earth engineer father, his first faltering steps making ultra-low-budget short films with his friends, and his more personal experiences, including his first girlfriend, and his brushes with antisemitism as one of the only Jewish kids in his high school. It’s a deeply personal, intimate film which sheds some light on who Spielberg is as a person, and how his upbringing informed who he became as a filmmaker (notably, why ‘absent fathers’ are a recurring thematic element in his stories). There are no great special effects, and no big action sequences – just lots of great performances and moments of truthful honesty, all of which is framed around a deep, overwhelming love of cinema. The film stars Gabriel LaBelle as Sam Fabelman – the avatar for Spielberg himself – with the luminous Michelle Williams as his mother Mitzi, and Paul Dano as his father Burt, plus Seth Rogen and Judd Hirsch in key supporting roles.

Much like the film itself, the score for The Fabelmans is not a typical Spielberg effort. There are no action cues, no moments of sweeping romance, no epic orchestral anthems. Instead, what John Williams wrote for the film is what Spielberg describes as ‘a love letter to his parents,’ a gift to them which is as small, intimate, and quietly emotional as the story. Spielberg’s late mother, Leah Adler, was an accomplished pianist, and could have had a concert hall career had life led her in a different direction; as such, Williams wrote much of the score for piano, with the solos performed by Joanne Pearce Martin, the principal pianist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. The piano is then accompanied by a chamber-sized orchestra with special solos for harp, guitar, and celeste, offering delicate textures and subtle, almost introverted colors. Tonally, The Fabelmans has quite a lot in common with the low-key drama scores Williams wrote in the 1980s and 1990s – things like The Accidental Tourist, Always, Stanley & Iris, and later Stepmom – and will appeal especially to those who appreciate Williams’s gentler, more thoughtful side.

“The Fabelmans” is a pretty, hopeful, nostalgic solo piano melody that speaks with fond affection for the childhood Sam had, and the loving atmosphere and support he received from his parents – particularly his mother – as he follows his dreams of being a filmmaker. “Mitzi’s Dance” underscores an iconic scene in the film when Sam’s mother Mitzi performs a beautiful, ethereal, ballet like dance in the headlights of the family car while on a camping trip; in this moment Mitzi seems almost mythical, angelic, her flowing dress shimmering in silhouette, and Williams captures this transcendent moment with delicate harps, a tinkling celesta, and magical string figures that sparkle in the moonlight.

“Midnight Call” offers a moment of darkness – low, churning cellos backed by strained string figures and tinkling metallic percussion – underscoring a scene where Mitzi wakes up in the middle of the night and hallucinates receiving a phone call from her recently-deceased mother, an early sign of the mental health problems that would plague her later in life. “Reverie,” on the other hand, returns to the introspective, thoughtful piano writing of the first cue, beauty tempered by a touch of bittersweet poignancy.

“Mother and Son” is perhaps the score’s most affecting cue, and certainly represents the film’s key relationship, as it is Mitzi’s free-spiritedness and love of art that encourages Sam to follow his dreams; she is keen for him to not repeat what she sees as her own mistakes, settling down and sacrificing her own artistic life for the benefit of others. In this cue Williams initially switches focus to a warm and tender acoustic guitar performed by the great George Doering, before switching back to strings and piano in the cue’s second half with a lovely return to the main theme. Williams often wrote for guitars in the early part of his career, but rarely does any more, and on the few occasions when he returns to the sound it’s a delight; I can’t help but wonder whether this touch was specifically inspired by the score for The Sugarland Express, which used guitars extensively.

“Reflections” is again wondrous and dream-like, a light and pretty piece for celeste, harp, and strings which, due to its timbre, will of course be compared with the beautifully spooky opening moments of Hedwig’s Theme from Harry Potter. “New House” is a little more downbeat – gossamer piano textures and elongated string chords, backed by one of the score’s few prominent uses of soft brass – as it touches on the darker and more troubling aspects of young Sam’s life: moving to a new city, feeling lonely and isolated from his old friends, and suffering antisemitic bullying at school. Eventually “The Letter” offers new hope for young Sam, as he receives correspondence from a film studio offering him work; the fact that Williams returns to the celeste and strings here brings back warm feelings of his mother, as her faith in him is vindicated, while the lovely woodwind writing has a touch of relief.

The final cue, “The Journey Begins,” underscores the film’s final scene where – after a humorous meeting with the irascible legendary director John Ford (played in a brilliant cameo by David Lynch) – young Sam is given the encouragement he needs to start his movie career in earnest, and he walks off into the vast labyrinth of the movie studio backlot that would become his life’s playground, and the end credits roll. The opening few minutes are playful, joyful, even a little comedic, but eventually Williams returns to the main theme, finally embracing the full orchestral sound with a great deal of elegance and effortless grace. The piano, the guitar, and the harp all have starring roles – the piano is especially effusive – but the warmth and fulsome embrace of the orchestra sounds wonderful here.

The final cue also includes an excerpt from Haydn’s Sonata No. 48 in C Major, and is one of several parts of the movie that is actually scored with classical music – the music that Spielberg’s mother liked to play, and which Mitzi, the character based on her, plays throughout much of the film. In addition to the Haydn piece there are extended performances of the “Allegro Burlesco” from Friedrich Kuhlau’s Sonatina in A Minor, the “Spiritoso” section of Muzio Clementi’s Sonatina in C Major, and the “Adagio” from Bach’s Concerto in D Minor, all beautifully performed by Joanne Pearce Martin. The film itself also uses a great deal of classic film music as source music, especially in the scenes that re-create the early low-budget films that Spielberg made as a teenager: there are excerpts from Victor Young’s The Greatest Show on Earth, Elmer Bernstein’s The Magnificent Seven, Alfred Newman’s How the West Was Won, Cyril Mockridge’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Alfred Newman’s Captain from Castile, Max Steiner’s The Searchers, and more.

As a film music fan it’s hard, coming to terms with the fact that, after this, it is unlikely that John Williams and Steven Spielberg will work together again. Jaws was released in 1975, the year I was born, which means that they have been a part of my life for as long as I have had life. Looking forward to the next Spielberg-Williams collaboration has been a part of my cultural world for decades. Some of the most iconic, deeply emotional, life-changing film music-related moments in my life have been because of these two men. Indiana Jones’s iconic grin. That first look at the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. Oskar Schindler weeping for the Jews he could not save. E.T. and Elliott soaring across the moon. “I’ll be right here”. I will miss that tremendously.

However, I do have to say that, for anyone who is expecting the final Spielberg-Williams collaboration to be a blockbuster, the quiet demeanor and lack of showy musical fireworks in The Fabelmans may leave some listeners slightly disappointed. Fans wanting that will likely have to wait for what is projected to be the final score before his expected retirement – Indiana Jones 5, next year – for that. It’s a short score too – just a hair under 25 minutes when you take out all the classical selections – and although it works perfectly in film context, it is probably the most understated and unobtrusive score Williams has written in many years. But, when you sit back and look at things from the right perspective, that type of score isn’t what we should have expected anyway, and if The Fabelmans truly is the last hurrah of this legendary collaboration, it is probably the most fitting way to bring things to a close.

The Fabelmans is, at its core, an intimate portrait of a 50-year friendship, filled with the quiet dignity that befits what is, basically, two old men looking back on the personal and professional life they have shared. There’s a sense of finality here, a coda to a life that has included heroic marches and moments of soaring triumph, epic battles, passionate romantic love, and deep, powerful emotions, but which is now about winding down, looking back at all the things that led them to this moment in time, and smiling in quiet satisfaction.

Buy the Fabelmans soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The Fabelmans (2:13)
  • Mitzi’s Dance (2:05)
  • Sonatina in A Minor, Op. 88 No. 3: III. Allegro Burlesco (written by Friedrich Kuhlau, performed by Joanne Pearce Martin) (1:51)
  • Midnight Call (2:23)
  • Reverie (1:44)
  • Mother and Son (2:28)
  • Sonatina in C Major, Op. 36 No. 3: Spiritoso (written by Muzio Clementi, performed by Joanne Pearce Martin) (1:58)
  • Reflections (2:02)
  • Concerto in D Minor, BWV 974: II. Adagio (written by Johann Sebastian Bach, performed by Joanne Pearce Martin) (3:46)
  • New House (2:28)
  • The Letter (2:08)
  • The Journey Begins (includes excerpt from Sonata No. 48 in C Major, HOB. XVI: 35: I. Allegro Con Brio by Joseph Haydn) (6:08)

Running Time: 31 minutes 14 seconds

Sony Classical (2022)

Music composed and conducted by John Williams. Orchestrations by John Williams. Featured musical soloists Joanne Pearce Martin, George Doering and Robert Thies. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Ramiro Belgardt. Album produced by John Williams and Ramiro Belgardt.

  1. Simona
    December 15, 2022 at 8:51 pm

    What makes you think this is the last film they will ever make? Williams isn’t retiring, he’s stepping away to write concert works that he’s been neglecting. His words. But he said that when Spielberg calls he will never say ”No”. And he’s probably got at least a few more years left in him, despite now being 90 years old. I’m optimistic.

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