- “The Story So Far, with Conductor John Wilson”
- “The Story So Far; Or, Conductor John Wilson—His Limits”
- Read my comic novel of Hollywood COLD OPEN here
- Find my album JOHN WILSON: AN ENGLISH CONDUCTOR here
It actually would hurt me, John Wilson my beloved, if you ever believed I think of you the way MacFarlane thinks of you—as more or less part of his gig rather than as who you are, which is to say John Wilson. Something I’d like to throttle him for but’ll probably go on watching the pre-2013 Family Guy anyway. Nothing personal against your chum.
No, I lie, it’s personal.
About 13, 14 years ago the best friend of the son of my (now ex-) friend died unexpectedly in New York, and it was a shock to everyone. My own son, who was the same age, was a big, big fan of his—more than a fan, in fact, he practically worshipped this young actor—and was in tears that day. I texted my friend and we shared our shock and grief. Daniel Day-Lewis stopped an interview, sobbing, “I didn’t know him, I have a strong impression I would have liked him very much…and so looked forward to the work he would do in the future.” I’d so like to have witnessed this young man’s progress on screen and stage through the years myself. He was the new Brando—better than Brando, in fact, as he not only acted and directed but wrote as well. And he wasn’t even thirty. He was handsome and vigorous, he had a beautiful speaking voice. He was the most committed actor I’d seen on screen since Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces.
So there he was dead in NY. On the streets of Beverly Hills, some roving celebrity reporter from one of the gossip shows was out and about getting sound bits for his show, and came across Rob Lowe and MacFarlane. After some genial exchange of bullshit the rover blurted, Did you hear the news from New York? and without a pause went right into giving them the news. Lowe dropped his mask, truly stunned for a moment, and turned human, while MacFarlane drawled almost offhandedly, “We-ell, this is disconcerting…” And at that moment I started to genuinely dislike the calculating little creep. MacFarlane’s an almost supernaturally gifted dealmaker, Stewie’s a pretty inspired animated character, and the guy seems to have a genuine fondness for the old styles…but that just isn’t enough for my scorecard. If you could say that there’s such a thing as a Seth MacFarlane Tolerance Level, mine’s pretty low I guess.
Anyway, I’m less ironical and more earnest than one would assume at first. And I tend to take things like that hard. Not exactly an asset around here.
On another note:
As I said in another post, I’m three degrees away from my beloved John Wilson with one particular MGM musical, Give a Girl a Break, as the bridge. But! I’m only TWO degrees away from the man I love with this MGM musical, Silk Stockings—from me to Rouben Mamoulian to Andre Previn to John.
Silk Stockings was adapted from the 1955 stage musical of the same name, which itself was an adaptation of the film Ninotchka (MGM, 1939). It was directed by my old boss, Rouben Mamoulian, produced by Arthur Freed, and stars Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse (who wound up as Mamoulian’s neighbor on Schuyler Road). Musical director was Andre Previn. It was the last movie Mamoulian, aka The Old Man, ever did (at 60—he died at 90), and “Stereophonic Sound” is one of the numbers on John Wilson+Orchestra’s 2014 Cole Porter album. But watch the clip instead. Janis Paige is the focus in this number but Fred Astaire at 58 is still a joy.
Sarah Millican first. Tried listening to this fast-talking comedienne from nearby South Shields the middle of 2019 but could not keep up with her pace or her accent. Later I started watching old episodes of Auf Wiedersehn Pet, The Likely Lads, Byker Grove (which starred BGT presenters Ant & Dec when they were kids), and now one of my favorite shows ever on television, Our Friends In the North (all episodes here) etc etc but they’re just so…masculine, you know? Which I suspect probably pretty much characterizes Geordie culture anyway… So I started alternating watching that show with When the Boat Comes In, which was more successful for me, as the estimable Northumbria-born actress Jean Heywood provided a good model of what a feminine northeast accent sounds like. After her it was a snap to follow Millican.
Second, The Orville, Seth MacFarlane’s Star Trek-like TV series. Like the 70s folksinger says, “I’m a stoner, I’m a trekker, I’m a young sky walker…” So yeh, I’d be interested in watching this show just to see if it measures up to the standards of my youth. Unfortunately, none of MacFarlane’s (post-Family Guy) projects ever sound interesting enough for me to overcome my intense personal dislike for him. So…maybe later. I did, however, listen to the show’s theme music, which was written by Andrew Cottee, the same young man who wrote some arrangements for The John Wilson Orchestra over in England. The theme does everything expected of it.
Third, Get Carter, starring Michael Caine and the City of Newcastle. Made this movie last on my list because it deserves two paragraphs, being the British noir classic that it is…
Sidebar: As we all now know from film school, existentialism is the engine of noir, which means that petty details like Michael Caine speaking in a thick Cockney accent* when his character’s supposed to be from Newcastle-upon-Tyne oughtn’t to matter to the sophisticated auditor. But I had a problem. I’m sorry. Three years ago I wouldn’t have cared, one Brit being the same as any other. Then I fell in love with John Wilson, a Low Fell lad, and individuality suddenly became a very important thing to me.
The Movie Overall: Not quite sure why the filmmakers transplanted novelist Ted Lewis’s story from his original setting in Lincolnshire (Lewis’s birthplace), to Tyneside, but since it’s the classic story of the Anti-Hero’s Revenge, which works anytime, anyplace, it does fine here. Michael Caine’s a little podgy but quick with his reflexes and still a treat for the ladies. Lots of sex and violence, lots of local atmosphere, local faces, and landmarks like Tyne Bridge, the Newcastle Racecourse and, of course, the carpark across the Tyne River.
The Carpark in Gateshead Scene: By a stroke of luck Get Carter was just streamed on Criterion so I watched the entire movie, then to make sure, watched the carpark scene twice more in order to understand why it so sticks in the mind. Because it does, you know, even though I’m not a fan of movies like this. I guess it’s because there’s rather a high elegance to this scene that contrasts with all the mundaneness and phony poshness around it… Very arty, but a genuine statement. Or maybe it’s just because I like watching Michael Caine get all riled up.
The now torn-down carpark at Trinity Square in Gateshead in this famous scene was a dreary piece of English Brutalist architecture that, according to its creator, was never meant to stand the test of time anyway. That’s the theme to The Orville above.
*I understand that a stage version of Get Carter was recently performed in Newcastle, with Carter’s accent spoken correctly.
Another weekend doddle before we celebrate the Fourth (Yanks 1-Brits 0). (Updated October 2021)
Another MGM musical, pre-Freed Unit. They were such a handsome couple and sang like angels, Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. Who in their audience could have realized when watching such a mannered scene that they were in the middle of a chaotic on-again off-again love affair and that right after filming this number—that very night in fact when everyone had gone home—the two of them would be under that very tree having furious make-up sex?
Thanks to fellow MacDonald-Eddy fan Sharon Rich (as related to her by Jeanette’s sister Blossom) for that lovely bit of info.
Disappointing to hear that John won’t be doing Britten’s The Turn of the Screw at Wilton’s Music Hall in London this month. So, to cheer everybody up, here’s the full 2-hour program of my John and The John Wilson Orchestra at the Proms, 2013. That’s Jane Monheit, John, and Matt Ford below.
DAMN! UPDATE 16 JAN 21: Both DailyMotion and BiliBili have DELETED this video of the complete 2013 BBC concert! If I find it again I’ll reinstate the link. (Links to selections available on YT are in red.)
As a compensation, here are ALL the other, complete JOHN WILSON AT THE BBC PROMS available on my blog:
The full program of 2013 (with remarks as they come to me):
I booked my first acting gig as a result of getting into a bondage game with that producer from England with the hot tub. Pau—sorry, think I’ll call him Basingstoke* from now on—and I were fooling around in his sex dungeon when he asked me if the place was giving me any story ideas. This is how movies are born.
I told him it reminded me of one of my favorite flicks from the golden pre-Code days, The Mask of Fu Manchu (MGM, 1932), starring Boris Karloff as Fu Manchu and Myrna Loy as his “ugly and insignificant” daughter, Fah Lo See. With Karen Morley, Charles Starrett, etc etc and a cast of literally hundreds of male extras of various types. Was especially partial to the oiled and muscular mamelukes.
Fah Lo See watches with lust-crazed eyes as her dad turns the handsome English adventurer into her zombie love slave. She promises to be gentle, John.
*All in affection, Paul.
My bonny John was 30 when he recorded, with the orchestra that bears his name, this achingly tender theme.
I saw The Bad and the Beautiful (MGM, 1952) for the first time in New York when I was 20, at one of those great cinema art houses, the Little Carnegie I think. Anyone remember that fabulous nosh pit in the lobby of the Little Carnegie? It was set up to resemble an outdoor Parisian cafe, complete with wrought tables and chairs, painted scenery, etc… Here after the show my date treated me to a glass of cabernet and a flaky meat pasty, the leftovers of which the waiter wrapped up for me in a square of foil he molded into the shape of a swan.
What do you do when you’re a passionate actress still in love with a wounding bastard who’s a screen genius? You make the damn movie.
As for Bad+Beautiful: Cast headed by Lana Turner, Kirk Douglas, Gloria Grahame, Dick Powell, Barry Sullivan, Gilbert Roland, Walter Pigeon. Vincent Minnelli helmed. MGM, 1952 (trailer here). 5 Oscar wins. To feel the full effect, get your heart stomped on by a Hollywood louse before viewing.
“The Bad and the Beautiful”
Soft Lights and Sweet Music, album
Classic Angela Morley Arrangements
The John Wilson Orchestra
John Wilson, conductor
*Oscar-winning transsexual composer-arranger Angela Morley (1924-2009) has quite a story herself, which maybe I’ll get to in another posting. For now, here’s a 1977 article in the Independent that should whet your interest.
Above Oscar: Michael Tilson Thomas conducts Yuja Wang in Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F.
Fred Astaire was 58 when he made this movie. Mamoulian was 60. Cyd Charisse was ageless.
Here’s “Red Blues,” choreographed by Balanchine-trained Eugene Loring on my YT channel, from the 1957 MGM musical, Silk Stockings, directed by Rouben Mamoulian. Mamoulian hadn’t directed a picture since 1946; after the Cleopatra debacle in the early 1960s, Silk Stockings turned out to be his last completed work in Hollywood.
In winter 1979, Charisse and her husband, singer Tony Martin (“Temptation”) lived in a house up the hill from The Old Man on Schuyler Road in Beverly Hills in tranquil retirement. However, at the top of the hill also lived the Shah of Iran’s 86 year-old mother, and came the revolution Iranian students from all over the Southland marched up Schuyler Road to demonstrate outside her house, indulging in a little vandalism on the way. Mamoulian was, of course, furious, and his lovely wife Zayde, who never left her bedroom, buzzed me on the intercom to fume over the “criminals” (her word) who toppled their sovereign letter receptacle. The Old Man’s second concern—after his own mailbox, of course—was the mailbox of his good friend and former leading lady, and I was dispatched to phone them at once. Happily, the protesters had missed theirs.
“I think I’ve done my last batch of film music,” says bonny John. Interview starts at 9:50. (Update 5 March 2019: Damn, the Beeb yanked this podcast! Will replace the link if they ever bring it back. To make up for it below are some downloadables.)
Included with the interview in their entirety: Met soprano Joyce DiDonato sings “You’ll Never Walk Alone” (Rodgers & Hammerstein); the famous barn-raising dance in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Gene de Paul, Alexander Courage), and “I Got Rhythm” (George and Ira Gershwin), all played in that ineluctable John Wilson Orchestra way.
Above bloodily hardworking John: Kim Criswell, the Maida Vale Singers and The John Wilson Orchestra tear into the Gershwin brothers’ “I Got Rhythm”.
From a 15 June 2016 article in The Sydney Morning Herald:
It’s rare, if ever, to hear a kind word said about James T Aubrey, the ruthless former CBS executive hired in 1969 to turn around the stuttering fortunes of the MGM movie studio. In a four-year reign he slashed staff numbers, cancelled many projects and sold off the company’s archive in a sale that, famously, included Judy Garland’s iconic ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz.
“They had no intrinsic value,” was Aubrey’s icy comment at the time.
And along with that brutal act, incredibly, he also ordered the destruction of many of the film scores in the company’s archive, trashing music from legendary films including The Wizard of Oz, High Society and Singin’ In the Rain.
These gems might have been lost forever were it not for the passion and dedication of English conductor John Wilson, who for the past 15 years has dedicated much of his time to re-creating them.
Now he has re-scored some 200 separate numbers from MGM musicals from the 1930s to the early ’60s purely by ear, a task he was driven to largely out of necessity—he loves the music and wanted his orchestra, the John Wilson Orchestra, to play it.
“I had to do it,” he says simply.
He’s also quite frank about the tedium of minutely reconstructing each part.
“First and foremost, I’m a conductor—it’s all I do really,” he says. “I don’t like writing music out but I have to. It’s a pain in the arse! It’s hours of toil.
“I do love hearing it back—I only do the numbers I think are really sensational—but sitting listening to four seconds of music on a loop for half an hour just to get one bass clarinet part—is that going to be anything other than just necessary?”
One might then expect Wilson to join the chorus of Aubrey critics but he is surprisingly generous towards the man who presented him with a lifetime’s work.
“It would be easy to say James Aubrey was a vandal but I think there were a lot of people around then who had no idea that this was worth keeping,” he says.
The pace at which the studio system turned out films left little time for those involved to consider their longer term significance.
“If you had said to anyone in the 1930s that what they were creating was art they would have laughed at you,” says Wilson. “It was entertainment designed to make a profit. Nobody was archively minded. A lot of the scores were an unfortunate casualty of that prevailing attitude. It would have been a case of, ‘Who wants a load of old crumbly pages’?”
Wilson’s passion for “good quality light music” sprang from listening to the TV and radio when he was growing up in Gateshead in the 1970s-80s.
After an extensive apprenticeship playing piano, arranging music and conducting for amateur dramatics, pantomimes and other productions he went on to study in London.
“By the time I arrived at the Royal College of Music at 18 I was fairly hands-on and practical,” he says. “There were never any divisions for me between David Raksin, Max Steiner and Erich Korngold and Strauss, Mozart and Brahms.”
Now he is working alongside his long-time friend and collaborator, Sydney Symphony Orchestra co-concertmaster Andrew Haveron, bringing his favourite light music to Sydney audiences.
Haveron has led the John Wilson Orchestra since its inception.
“Andrew knows how to play this music better than anyone on the planet. That’s a real game changer,” says Wilson.
On a program that also includes music from Citizen Kane, Gone With The Wind and Star Wars will be Erich Korngold’s music for 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn.
Wilson’s face lights up. “It is,” he says, “the greatest movie score that has ever been written. I never get past how impressive it is.”
MGM’s best-known music director arranged this piece in 1954 in commemoration of the studio’s 30th birthday. And since 2004, when my beloved John Wilson and his eponymous orchestra first played this reconstituted medley at the 2,900-seat Royal Festival Hall, it has gone on to become sort of their signature piece, which they’ve played all over the world from Sydney to Berlin. I can’t imagine how John was able to reconstruct the score directly from hearing this lusterless film short, but my darling has the gift of patience and commitment.
The MGM Jubilee Overture above John Wilson, the Francois Villon of the podium. Added attraction: Here’s one of those rare moments when John conducted without his baton, which fell out of his grasp but was retrieved seconds later by an alert string player. Berlin, 2016.
Now….right. Because this is turning out to be the second most clicked-on post on my blog (the first most clicked-on being the one about Noli Me Tangere, the Filipino opera based on Jose Rizal’s classic novel) I’ve decided finally to take a few minutes to come back to this posting and add the names of the composers and lyricists as I promised—and bear in mind, I’m doing this pretty much from memory. (I was the night solfeggist at ASCAP, remember?): “Singin’ In the Rain” / Nacio Herb Brown; “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” / Cole Porter; “Broadway Rhythm” / Nacio Herb Brown; “The Last Time I Saw Paris” / Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein II; “Temptation” (shades of Tony Martin!) / Nacio Herb Brown, Arthur Freed; “Be My Love” (shades of Mario Lanza!) Nicholas Brodzsky / Sammy Cahn; “The Trolley Song” (with the Judy sound) / Hugh Martin, Ralph Blane; “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” (more Judy sound) / Harry Warren, Johnny Mercer; “Donkey Serenade” / Herbert Stothart, based on Rudolph Friml; and “Over the Rainbow” (the Judy sound of all Judy sounds) / Harold Arlen, EY Harburg.
The last two numbers “Donkey” and “Rainbow” were obvious tributes to Green’s late predecessor as music director, Oscar winner (for The Wizard of Oz score, which John reconstructed by ear), Herbert Stothart.
Deleted: 2 bars plus “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” / Frank Loesser and John, I’d really enjoy a little chat with you regarding, among other things, your fellow musical reconstructor Philip Lane’s comments one of these days…
The following was translated on Google from the Czech and transcribed by me—except for minor grammatical emendations—verbatim:
PRAGUE DAILY | 24 SEPTEMBER 2007 – John Wilson has brought restored film music to the Prague Autumn and is preparing to pay his respects to John Williams.
From the point of view, conductor John Wilson gives the impression of an intelligent young man. He is one of those rare people who is a joy to meet. In addition, he finished a several-hour rehearsal with the Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra. He has prepared a concert for the Prague Autumn Festival, called “Famous Film Music from Hollywood”, which will be performed twice due to great interest. At the age of thirty-five, Wilson has gained a recognition that many might envy. Some time ago, for example, he performed at the prestigious BBC Proms music festival, but he still remains modest and immediately attracts listeners with a helpful, understanding speech.
Photo: Jan Handrejch. Above: John and his O’s MGM Jubilee Overture.
It surprises me that at your age, you are so interested in early film music. One would expect that a witness would be more enthusiastically interested in the archives.
I would like something really valuable to be left behind. That is why I try to concentrate a large part of my energy and diligence on the restoration of old, often non-existent or directly lost sheet music scores. [I do this] most often in collaboration with the Hollywood studios Warner Bros and MGM. In the 1960s, the MGM studio liquidated its entire music library, which was one of the largest and most valuable of its time. At the time, people simply did not think that film music needed to be preserved for future generations. The only thing that has survived are the movies. I’m trying to correct their mistake now.
This must be extremely challenging.
Yes, it really is. It is necessary to listen to the whole composition from the film second by second and to the smallest detail. I’ve seen “The Wizard of Oz” at least two hundred times. With all your will and senses, you focus on each and every measure. You must not miss anything if you want to get the most accurate description possible. You spend all day working hard and eventually find that you have two or three seconds of music. You have to be patient, but I think it’s worth it.
Will we hear the result of your efforts at your Prague concert?
Yes. The first in the first part, which will focus mainly on music “for witnesses”, will be heard, for example, the remembered “Wizard of Oz”. In the second half, however, I would like to pay tribute to John Williams. Not only because he is one of the best modern composers of film music, also successful and popular, but also because Williams is more based on tradition than anyone else. Therefore, I hope that the listeners will notice the context, which I would like to point out non-violently at the concert.
Do you mean, for example, the work of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, a Czech native famous during The Golden Age of Hollywood?
Naturally. Williams’s orchestration, for example, is almost identical to his. This is clearly evident in “Star Wars”, which, of course, cannot be missing from the program. You must understand that Williams began as a pianist in Hollywood recording studios in the 1950s and came into direct contact with the generation that laid the foundations of modern film music. In addition to Korngold at the time, Max Steiner and Alfred Newman, who is the composer of perhaps Hollywood’s most famous tune, a fanfare of 20th Century Fox, were still active. At the same time, I hope that the audience will recognize how much Williams still remains himself and in the true sense of the word, an original.
Last of the Mohicans
Are you well acquainted with the past of film music, but how do you look at its future?
You know, Williams is seventy-five years old this year, and even though he’s still active and still composing great music, he won’t be here forever. I don’t think there’s anyone in the current generation who can replace him. That’s why I’m afraid the whole era of film music will leave with John Williams.
But that sounds pretty hopeless.
Maybe a little. On the other hand, I am convinced that the hope of film music can be the current generation of European composers, who come up with cultured, intelligent and imaginative music. In Hollywood, on the other hand, music is basically declining, becoming flatter and flatter by the day. Sure, it helps the film become great, but I prefer music that will stand up on its own. My concert is also trying to point out that. I try to prove that good film music is not lost in concert halls.
At the same time, film music is struggling for recognition, and many musicologists still see it as an indecent, used form.
In the words of a classic: “Who ever built a monument to a critic?” I will not say at all what the critics say. The attitude of such people is not so critical or professional, but rather snobbish. But attitudes and opinions are changing. Constantly. In July, for example, I conducted British film music with great success at the BBC Proms, a large and acclaimed festival. No one would have dreamed of that ten years ago.
Give a Girl a Break (trailer here) is a US 1953 musical comedy film starring Debbie Reynolds and the dance team of Marge and Gower Champion. Helen Wood, Richard Anderson, Kurt Kaszner and a young Bob Fosse have featured roles. At only 88 minutes, Give a Girl a Break shows residual elements of the big project it started out to be, with a passable score by Burton Lane and Ira Gershwin, direction by Stanley Donen, and musical direction by Andre Previn.
Degree rule: You have to’ve personally worked with the person in the next degree. I worked with Damiano in his 1981 porn classic Beyond Your Wildest Dreams as Simona Wing; Damiano wrote and directed 1972’s Deep Throat, which Helen Wood (as Dolly Sharp) was in; Helen Wood co-starred in the musical Give a Girl a Break, on which the musical director was Andre Previn; Previn worked on the 2012 Proms My Fair Lady with my beloved John Wilson.
Above Marge, Debbie and Helen: The overture to the 2012 Proms My Fair Lady, with John conducting The John Wilson Orchestra in his own arrangement of Andre Previn’s orchestration of the film score.