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Oscar-Winning Composer Paul Williams on What Makes a Perfect Movie Song

Paul Williams
Paul Williams

The man who wrote "The Rainbow Connection" says the goal of any composition is to connect the audience to the movie's message.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

When they're done right, songs from the movies catch the heart of the story or a character's struggles. From Dorothy's longing to discover what's "Over the Rainbow" to Springsteen's brilliant "Streets of Philadelphia" and beyond, there have been great songs that nailed the task. Remember, the goal of the song is to connect the audience to the message of the film. Watch Hustle & Flow and you'll see why Three 6 Mafia's "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" deserved to win the Oscar. Ditto Eminem's compelling "Lose Yourself" from 8 Mile. It seems to me that sometimes the greatest movie songs not only connect you to the story and character, they are personal to the songwriter as well. It's not just a job for hire. Your own heart and truth is in the lyric.

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I've been lucky enough to work with some great filmmakers and composers in the many, many years I've been scratching out lyrics and tunes. In 1973, John Williams hired me to write lyrics to several songs for Cinderella Liberty. Talk about starting at the top! Twice I worked with my friend Jerry Goldsmith. Perhaps my longest-running collaborative love affair has been with The Muppets. Jim Henson had to be the most trusting man you could ever work for. When Kenny Ascher and I wrote the songs for the first Muppet movie, I promised I'd show him the work in progress along the way. He smiled and said: "Oh, that's all right. I'll hear them at the recording session." He gave us free rein, and we gave him [the Oscar-nominated] "The Rainbow Connection."

Is the song ever autobiographical? It is when you're writing a song for a documentary called Paul Williams Still Alive (spoiler alert: The doc's about me!). But, the fact is, it's impossible for me to write without some emotional connection to the story. When a bit of dialogue manufactures a lump in my throat, it's a good bet I'll try to use it in the song. In the 1954 version of A Star Is Born, James Mason would repeatedly stop Judy Garland as she walked away. When she asked what he wanted, he replied, "I just want to take another look at you." That line leaped across decades and made it into the Streisand/Kristofferson version of A Star Is Born, which I was asked to work on. "With One More Look at You" is performed in one brilliant, uninterrupted shot at the end of the film.

Sometimes you get really lucky. Barbra Streisand called me with a beautiful melody she had written for A Star Is Born and asked me to write the lyrics. The song became "Evergreen," and her recording flew up the charts, and our song won the Oscar. As beautifully as Barbra sang it, it would have worked even if the whole song was about an easy chair.

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At its best, a movie song is a labor of love -- a piece of art inspired by the filmmaker's successful telling of a meaningful story. It's a three-minute memoir. A chance to say Audrey Hepburn's Holly Golightly made your heart sail away on a "Moon River" among your "Huckleberry Friends." If you're too young to catch the reference, watch Breakfast at Tiffany's and marvel at the brilliance of Hank Mancini and Johnny Mercer.

It'll make your heart sing.