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Comments about the soundtrack for Nixon (John Williams)

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Filmtracks Sponsored Donated Review
• Posted by: Todd China
• Date: Sunday, May 3, 2009, at 8:54 a.m.
• IP Address:

(The following donated review by Todd China was moved by Filmtracks to this comment section in May, 2009)

Nixon: (John Williams) Although Nixon is not the best work from either director Oliver Stone or composer John Williams, it is one of their more underrated efforts. Nixon represents an important landmark in the careers of both men. For Stone, who was up till then coasting on the success of JFK, Nixon's disappointing financial performance undercut, for the time being, his ability to make films with political themes. For Williams, the score marked the beginning of a trend toward darker, more complex music, as shown by scores such as Sleepers, Seven Years in Tibet, and parts of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.

The first track, "The 1960's: The Turbulent Years," is a precursor to "Duel of the Fates," bearing similarities in its driving ostinatos and piercing brass-punctuated phrases. This first track, used in the preview trailer, epitomizes what the score to Nixon is about. The tagline for the film reads, "His roots were humble, his ambitions huge. Triumphant in victory, bitter in defeat, he changed the world and lost a nation." The dark theme, which bears superficial similarities to "The Imperial March" represents the pettiness and bitterness of a man who felt surrounded by enemies. I feel that the "turbulent" theme from Nixon and "The Imperial March" are fairly unique themes, sharing only the first three notes in common.

A second major theme is introduced in the first track. It is a deceptively simple theme used to represent the grand, noble, and heroic aspect of President Nixon's character. The "heroic" theme receives a wistful, warm, Americana treatment in "Growing up in Whittier," as the film goes into one of many flashbacks into Nixon's humble and difficult childhood. Tim Morrison, who also appeared on the soundtracks to Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, and Saving Private Ryan, gives another excellent solo performance in this track, as well as a haunting and desolate solo line in "Losing a Brother." Morrison generates, for the latter, interest which the cue would otherwise lack.

The middle section of the score is the most quiet and least exciting on the soundtrack. It consists mostly of brooding, boring atmosphere music (tracks 5, 8, 9, 12) an annoying source music track (track 7), and a weak derivation of "The Conspirators" from JFK (track 4). The soundtrack to Nixon definitely is not one that lends itself to frequent listens on its own, all the way through. Nevertheless, we should not allow the less enjoyable aspects of the Nixon score to overshadow its merits. In addition to the highlights previously mentioned, "The Miami Convention" features a thunderous statement of the turbulent theme as well as some great bombastic brass licks, "The Meeting with Mao" is an effectively sweeping, portentous, self-contained theme all in itself, and "The Farewell Scene" offers a reflective and moving recapitulation of the heroic motif.

Nixon is a wonderfully dark and motivic score. Williams accomplished what Stone hoped for in the film by crafting a score rooted in duality. The turbulent and heroic motifs suggest the duality of Nixon's character; he was a man driven by demons, yet one for whom greatness was just beyond his reach. It is lamentable that Oliver Stone has been unable to make a political film since Nixon; his films about the American experience in the 1960's and 1970's count among his most powerful works. If Stone is ever able to make another film with an American history theme, perhaps we will see another Stone-Williams collaboration. ***

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