Composer John Powell | Photo by Tim Greiving
Hit play below to listen to our extended Music for Moving Pictures interview featuring composer John Powell.
John Powell has just dared to tread where many film composers would kill to go—but also where most composers would be absolutely terrified to venture. He’s only the second person to score a Star Wars film other than John Williams, who, of course, is the almighty creator of the Star Wars musical universe. Powell’s been swapping (star) war stories with the other guy, Michael Giacchino—who scored Rogue One in 2016—and he joked that the process is like “walking through a minefield in clown shoes.”
But his self-deprecating humility belies his talent and hard-won wisdom. His father was a tuba player for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, who played on many film score recordings. Powell is a classically-trained violinist and he studied composition at London’s Trinity College of Music, where he also picked up cutting-edge computer skills. He started out writing music for art installations and experimental concerts, then paid the bills by composing jingles for commercials. He put his tech skills to work as a programmer and assistant for film composer Patrick Doyle in the late 1980s, then found himself helping Hans Zimmer on some scores. He moved to L.A., joined Zimmer’s team, and quickly became an in-demand composer in his own right—particularly for action movies. Powell redefined the style of action scoring with The Bourne Identity and its two sequels, with his churning, catchy minimalism that ratcheted up the heart rate but also the heartache with beautiful, bittersweet lyricism.
He also became the go-to guy for animated films, starting with early scores for Chicken Run and Shrek. He blended a melodic classicism with the tradition of cartoon scoring pioneered by composers like Carl Stalling, and not only was he the first-call composer for the Happy Feet, Ice Age, Rio, and Kung Fu Panda series… his 2010 score for How to Train Your Dragon earned him an Academy Award nomination.
A few years ago, Powell took a sabbatical from film scoring. Partly, he was tired of movies that glorified violence—or as he put it, movies “whose purpose is only to entertain the warrior-lust within 15-year-olds.” But he also stepped back to focus on writing music for the concert hall. The result was a gospel-influenced piece for choir and orchestra, and a large-scale oratorio about a hubristic Prussian general responsible for many of the deaths in World War I. Powell’s Prussian Requiem premiered in London in 2016, and was a huge success, but in a devastating slice of cruel irony, it became a different and very unwelcome requiem. His wife, an English artist named Melinda Lerner, passed away on the night of its premiere, and Powell wasn’t even at the concert.
Since then, Powell wrote another piece based on his own poem. “Requiem Addendum” was performed by the Eric Whitacre Singers, and it joins the gospel piece and the Prussian Requiem on a new album—titled, with typical John Powell cheek, Hubris. His first proper film score since that terrible time was last year’s animated film, Ferdinand, about the pacifist bull. Then, he got the invitation to score a movie that explores the origins of one of the most beloved characters in all of Star Wars: Han Solo. He knew upfront that John Williams would be writing a new theme for the famous smuggler, something the 86-year-old maestro had never done in any of the previous films. And that, Powell says, is why he took the job.
Of course I talked to Powell about Solo, and about playing in the sandbox with timeless John Williams music—but since he’s already given about a dozen interviews about all of that, I decided I’d rather spend more time exploring his origin story… which, I think you’ll agree, is a very interesting, and often entertaining, tale.
Solo is in theaters now, and John Powell’s score—with a new theme by that other John—is available in stores both digital and physical. Powell’s concert album, Hubris, is out June 15.