When Paul Williams turned up on last year’s Daft Punk album a generation of folks now in their forties wondered . . . he’s still around? For the guys in Daft Punk, it was the rock opera “Phantom of the Paradise” that endeared him to them. For others, like this writer, it was watching “Bugsy Malone” and “The Muppet Movie.” For those slightly older than us, it was the hits he wrote for The Carpenters and for his solo career.
But while Mr. Williams did go away – into a haze of addiction, seclusion and then recovery some 24 years ago – he’s been back longer than his fans might know. Oh, and he’s been head of ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers), the industry leader in performer rights protection, since 2009. He visits Santa Barbara this Monday to kick off a series of three screenings over the course of five months honoring composer Elmer Bernstein.
The series is put on by the Santa Barbara Center for the Performing Arts, which debuted its new programming back in September with a screening of “Bugsy Malone.” Mr. Williams then curated the next three films, starting with this Monday’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” January 26’s screening of “The Great Escape” and March 30’s screening of “The Magnificent Seven.” Completely different genres, stars and directors, but all tied together with a stirring Bernstein score.
“These three are a great cross-section of the work that he did,” he says. “I was on a plane from Paris recently and I watched ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and I swear I cried for two hours and 10 minutes. It is the most remarkable film, there’s some emotional harmonic to it. It’s Gregory Peck’s performance and that fabulous score. So minimal, strong and gentle at the same time.”
If Mr. Williams had to choose two films that sparked his interest in music, he says, one would be “Blackboard Jungle” (which launched “Rock around the Clock” into pop culture) and the Elmer Bernstein-scored “The Man with the Golden Arm.”
“In both those films music is not just the score, but the environment,” he said. “‘Man with the Golden Arm’ is remarkable, and as someone who is 24 years sober, he allowed us to hear what addiction sounds like.”
For each of the three evenings, Mr. Williams is bringing along a composer to join him in the discussion. For the first, Santa Barbara resident Richard Bellis (“Stephen King’s It”) to talk about Bernstein’s methods; for the “Magnificent Seven” he will bring Bruce Broughton, who scored “Silverado” and “Tombstone.” (The third is unannounced). Mr. Williams’ own journey to scoring film was convoluted. He was a musician first, but he says after his father’s death in a car crash, the 13-year-old became obsessed with film and becoming an actor. But music kept calling and his successful string of hits – for The Carpenters, Three Dog Night – led to soundtrack work. When it first came out, “Phantom of the Paradise” was unpopular, a “film even my family didn’t go to see,” he says, but its fans over the years included the two French men behind the helmets of Daft Punk and horror movie director Guillermo del Toro, who hired Mr. Williams to write songs for the recent animated feature “Book of Life” and an upcoming musical based on “Pan’s Labyrinth.”
“The big lesson is that you can’t write something off too quickly,” he says. “Because 40 years later it may deliver success.”
Bernstein Memorial Series: “To Kill a Mockingbird”
When: 7 p.m. Monday
Where: Granada Theatre, 1214 State St.
Information: www.granadasb.org, (805) 899-2222