TCM’s ‘Great Composers’ Series Turns a Spotlight on the Movies’ Maestros

When TCM channel host Dave Karger used to be a writer for Entertainment Weekly in his early days as a print journalist, he would focus a great deal on interviewing the big pop stars of the day, along with his duties on the film beat. But little did very many people suspect then that what he really wanted to be writing about was “Laura”… not Branigan, but David Raksin’s music for the classic 1945 noir. That was the film that really prompted Karger’s lifelong love of movie scoring.

“His score for ‘Laura’ really turned me on to classic film music, and film scores in general,” says Karger. “And then you go back and you learn that in 1945, there were 20 Oscar nominees that year in the category of best score for a non-musical film — and David Raksin wasn’t even one of the 20 nominees. That’s a score that has really stood the test of time, unlike many others, so it’s interesting to see which composers had the acclaim, particularly from the Academy in the moment, and then which ones seem to be more revered decades later.”

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Karger is serving as the host throughout June of TCM’s “Great Composers” film series, in which all the programming for the movies being shown each Monday has been done with the idea of spotlighting particular music giants. The Monday night prime-time blocks, starting at 8 p.m. ET, is when you can catch Karger offering intros and outros for three films a week. Tonight, he’ll be talking about Quincy Jones and “In the Heat of the Night,” John Williams (pictured above) and “Superman,” and Howard Shore’s work on “The Aviator.”

Says Karger, “I’ve been able to do a lot of music related things, like hosting a series with Chris Isaak five years ago about movies that had hit songs in them. And then I do a musical every Sunday. So to get to do a primetime month long series focused on music, it’s just a thrill. I can take absolutely zero credit for the idea, which came from our programming team, led by Charlie Tabesh and Stephanie Thames. But I really think that they did a fantastic job picking films that were quite representative or, in some cases, also surprising.

“We have John Williams, but we’re showing not a George Lucas or Steven Spielberg film but Richard Donner’s ‘Superman’ — obviously one of his most iconic scores, but one that felt like a little bit to me off the beaten path, if you will. I also think it’s great that we have Rachel Portman spotlighted amid a very male-heavy lineup overall, and that there’s a lot of foreign composers in there. We also a lot of people who are still very active today, whether it’s Howard Shore or Alexandre Desplat or Thomas Newman, so it’s a great group of people from the classic era as well as people who are still doing great work today.”

The fact that the programmers didn’t always go with a composer’s best-known work is underscored — so to speak — by the fact that Desplat was represented last week by 2000’s “The Luzhin Defence,” and that the pick for Danny Elfman was the uncharacteristic “A Simple Plan.” But the series hasn’t eschewed the obvious, when it comes to recognizing Erich Wolfgang Korngold for “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” Bernard Herrmann for “Psycho” or Ennio Morricone for “The Mission.” A documentary about Morricone was also featured in the first week, as was a film about the trail-blazing Max Steiner.

The series turns into a Newman Fest on June 24, when there are four successive films scored by family members — Randy Newman’s 1990 “Avalon,” David Newman’s 1987 “Throw Mamma From the Train,” Alfred Newman’s 1939 “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and Thomas Newman’s 1994 “Little Women.”

Naturally, if you’re not a scoring buff, there’s plenty of other reason to tune in. “If nothing else, this is like a greatest hits of TCM,” Karger says, “and it just happens to be that with these truly iconic films, what they all share is being able to shows you the power of a great score. When the filmmaking and the music are doing their dance together, it adds to the power of the film in an exponential fashion.”

Karger isn’t just about the classics. “Obviously this is not something on TCM, but I was mesmerized by. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score for ‘Challengers’ this year,” he says. “I mean, that’s a soundtrack that I look forward to listening to separate from the film. It was so exciting, so modern, almost futuristic, and it was my favorite thing about the movie, hands down.”

If you point out that Reznor and Ross tend to write music that could be used by the director without necessarily having a beat-for-beat correlation to exactly what’s happening on screen, Karger will point out that this isn’t a new development, pointing to a classic film that already aired as part of this series. “When George Stevens was directing ‘A Place in the Sun,’ he was playing the Franz Waxman score for his cast members to help get them in the mood. So there even back that long ago, there are some examples of the score being somewhat completed ahead of time, and that being able to kind of help the cast,” Karger points out.

For the host, there’s a bit of vindication here. “When I was in college at Duke University, one of the electives that I took was a class called ‘Hollywood Film Music,’ and I wrote a paper on the Leonard Bernstein score for ‘On the Waterfront’ as my end-of-semester term paper. I remember telling my parents that I was taking this class, and they told me years later that they thought I was absolutely crazy and asked themselves why they were paying all this money for my Duke tuition when I was taking a class called ‘Hollywood Film Music.’ Well, 30 years later, I am now hosting, as part of my paid employment on Turner Classic Movies, a series on the best film composers. So if there was one class that I took in college that actually ended up being the most germane to my career, it’s this one — the one that my parents thought I was crazy for taking. So the lesson here is, listen to your children when they tell you what they want to study, and trust them to follow their passion.”

The programming for the last two weeks of the TCM Great Composers Mondays:

Monday, June 17 (all times ET)

6:00 AM             Raintree County (1957) (Johnny Green)

9:15 AM             The Mask of Dimitrios (1944) (Adolph Deutsch)

11:00 AM            The Champ (1979) (Dave Grusin)

1:30 PM             Doctor Zhivago (1965) (Maurice Jarre)

5:00 PM             The Great Escape (1963) (Elmer Bernstein)

8:00 PM             In the Heat of the Night (1967) (Quincy Jones)

10:00 PM            Superman (1978) (John Williams)

12:30 AM            The Aviator (2004) (Howard Shore)

3:30 AM             Papillon (1973) (Jerry Goldsmith)

Monday, June 24 (all times ET)

6:00 AM             A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) (Alex North)

8:30 AM             The Thing from Another World (1951) (Dimitri Tiomkin)

10:00 AM            Cool Hand Luke (1967) (Lalo Schiffrin)

12:30 PM            The Right Stuff (1983) (Bill Conti)

4:00 PM             Avalon (1990) (Randy Newman)

6:15 PM             Throw Momma from the Train (1987) (David Newman)

8:00 PM             The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) (Alfred Newman)

10:15 PM            Little Women (1994) (Thomas Newman)

12:30 AM            The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) (Michel Legrand)

2:15 AM             A World Apart (1988) (Hans Zimmer)

4:15 AM             Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) (James Newton Howard)

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