For all our real-time fascination with the Presidency, audiences usually show very little interest in cinematic portrayals of the Commander in Chief. Perhaps because we have either lived through the period and don’t want to watch it all play out again onscreen, or maybe the era is so far removed that we just don’t care. Whatever the reason(s), these film and TV portraits provide meaty roles for actors and dramatic stories composers can sink their musical chops into. And by ignoring these films, audiences miss out on some presidential film scores.
For this month’s “9 on the 9th,” we visit the Oval Office—real and fictional. With Decision 2012 thankfully behind us, our Facebook feeds once again populated with pictures of paella and puppies, and in anticipation of seeing how John Williams’s LINCOLN score works in context of the film (more on that next week), let’s take a look a nine presidential film scores that are worthy of election in any year.
9. DAVE (1993)
More than once over the course of my lifetime, it seems like the Oval Office has been inhabited by an impostor. If only they could have been as charismatic as Kevin Kline. This charming romantic comedy features one of James Newton Howard’s most delightful scores. Howard gives the music a light touch that keeps the patriotism in check and the spirits buoyant.
8. AIR FORCE ONE (1997)
With the President (Harrison Ford) in distress, only the rah-rah patriotism of Jerry Goldsmith can save him. With a muscular, memorable main theme and typically exciting action sequences, the score is pure Goldsmith. Given that Goldsmith was a replacement for Randy Newman, whose music was deemed too dark for the film, it’s perhaps not surprising that the music bears the hallmarks of earlier Goldsmith scores. But that shouldn’t detract from the typically high level of craftsmanship on display.
7. YOUNG MR. LINCOLN (1939)
Though President Lincoln will be forever immortalized in the cinematic stoicism of Raymond Massey, the homespun, pre-Presidential visage will always be personified by Henry Fonda’s transparent portrayal. John Ford’s quiet look at Lincoln’s early days as a frontier lawyer gets an equally subdued Alfred Newman score. The memorable themes stack up like piles of chopped wood and Newman brings his typical unsentimental outlook to bear on this simple portrayal of the man before the myth.
6. NIXON (1995)
Oliver Stone’s flashy direction nearly swamps Anthony Hopkins and Joan Allen’s superb performances in this Shakespearean tale of power and corruption. Underneath the unnecessary cinematography and editing tricks lie John Williams’s dark, brooding score. This is music that practically reeks of obsession and power. A perfect companion piece to Williams’s work on JFK and the musical denouement of ambition gone unchecked.
5. THE IDES OF MARCH (2011)
George Clooney’s taut thriller of a presidential primary shows the road to the White House paved with lies and deceit. (Sound familiar?) Alexandre Desplat’s music provides the sleazy undercurrent churning beneath the toothy grins and handshakes. The trumpet fanfares are empty and hollow, while the main theme turns fife and drum patriotism on its syncopated ear.
4. SUNRISE AT CAMPOBELLO (1962)
Greer Garson’s buck-toothed Eleanor may be a bit much for today’s audiences but Ralph Bellamy simply is FDR in this adaptation of Dore Schary’s Tony Award-winning drama. The moving story of Roosevelt’s bout with polio at age 40 still retains its punch thanks to its two central performances and Franz Waxman’s music. With its powerful main theme, the score conveys Roosevelt’s bravery and the idyllic New England life at the Campobello summer home. The brief suite that was recorded years ago gives a brief summation of the power of Waxman’s music.
3. THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT (1995)
Writer Aaron Sorkin (THE WEST WING) certainly knows his way around American politics. As Michael Douglas’s widowed President falls in love with Annette Bening’s lobbyist, Sorkin presents a political arena that has much to say about society’s ridiculous obsession with our elected officials’ private lives, while director Rob Reiner keeps it light and breezy, wrapping things up in a rah-rah Hollywood ending that we wish could happen in real life. Marc Shaiman’s marvelous score combines romance and an unsentimental aura of belief in our political system. With a memorable main theme and a thrilling French horn countermelody, Shaiman scores a political world we can only dream of.
2. ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976)
Richard Nixon only appears in archival news footage but his scowling visage hovers over every frame of this stunning political thriller. David Shire’s short, subtle score is judiciously spotted and tightly orchestrated. French horns call out in muted, failed patriotism while the piano and harp create a gurgling undercurrent of dissent. Shire gives musical voice to the pervasive aura of suspicion and our imploding political culture.
1. JFK (1991)
Whether or not you agree with Oliver Stone’s conspiracy theory, JFK is a masterful piece of filmmaking. And though the album isn’t perhaps the most cohesive listen from a score standpoint, John Williams musically captures Stone’s many dramatic moods. From the horrific events surrounding the motorcade to the pulsations underscoring Jim Garrison’s (Kevin Costner) obsession, Williams weaves together a musical tapestry of suspicion at the demise of Camelot, overlaid with a memorable main theme of lost innocence.