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John Morris (1926-2018) - composer for musical theatre, film and television

John Morris John Morris (not to be confused with the other John Morris who scored Peyton Reed's teen comedy Bring it On in 2000) has to be one of the most undervalued American composers ever. The entire film industry stood up and took note back in 1980, when Morris released his poignant score for David Lynch's film The Elephant Man, earning universal respect due to its moving string sections and confident orchestration. This would be the composer's ultimate breakthrough before sinking back into a sea of mundane projects. This state of affairs would prove an obstacle to Morris' artistry. In spite of everything, John Morris has managed to fashion some tremendous music throughout his career, on a level that Hollywood could not possibly comprehend. John Morris was born in October 1926 in Elizabeth, New Jersey (U.S.A). The composer's early career was made easier thanks to the surfacing of Mel Brooks, a clown-come-director with the most delightful personality, an eccentric Jewish comedian with an instantly identifiable sense of humour. Morris' first three compositions comprise a Ron Winston picture in 1970 ("The Gamblers") and two Mel Brooks spoof movies in 1968 and 1970 once again ("The Producers" and "The Twelve Chairs"). While John Morris would profit from his long-term collaboration with Mel Brooks, scoring another 7 movies together, it could be argued that the comicalness of these movies overtakes the musical backdrop, despite the fact that these elements are perfectly combined.

John Morris - The Producers album cover "Blazing Saddles", Mel Brooks' third film, hit the screens in 1974, and marked John Morris' return to orchestration from a few years pause. By that time, Mel Brooks' cinematic concept was somewhat of a love-hate relationship with critics; on the other hand, John Morris was getting more and more successful in capturing his audience's interest. As a matter of fact, the uplifting tones and familiar climate of Morris' score for Blazing Saddles won the hearts of the audience and the critics. Most importantly the title song (a joint effort with Mel Brooks supplying the words) was recognised with a nomination at the Academy Awards in 1975 for "Best Original Song". The score for Blazing Saddles wasn't John Morris' only fruitful work from 1974, as he also composed the soundtrack to another Mel Brooks comedy the very same year "Young Frankenstein". Although the film is typical of Brooks' sense of humour, Morris' music is a fine piece of dramatic scoring; the ambiguity here being that the American film industry did not seem to notice the score at all. The music for "Young Frankenstein" contains the most gorgeous violin sections ever, providing emotion for Brooks' film that would be non-existent otherwise.

John Morris - Young Frankenstein soundtrack album cover At the end of the seventies, nearing the awkward consumer-boom era of the 80s, Morris was drafted into both the commercial TV arena as well as some rather pointless productions. This period would however bring along some fairly interesting projects like "World War II, when Lions Roared" in 1994, as well as a 1996 documentary called "With God on our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America". In such productions, John Morris' music was rather traditional but never less satisfactory. During the course of his commercial years, he continued scoring films for his friend Mel Brooks, as well as "Ironweed" by Hector Babenco in 1987, and most notably Michael Toshiyuki Uno's 1988 movie "The Wash". The composer's most intense and inspired soundtrack came around in 1980: the score to David Lynch's Elephant Man. John Morris arranged his beautiful strings sections in such a perceptive manner that it has an immediate impact on the film's audience. With a clear understanding of the cinematic material he was dealing with, Morris set out to make film score history.

Films by John Morris

    John Morris - The Elephant Man soundtrack CD cover
  • The Producers - the original, though nicely adapted into a musical by Mel Brooks several decades later
  • The Gamblers
  • The Twelve Chairs
  • Blazing Saddles - hits all the right buttons, including the musical homage to Westerns
  • Bank Shot
  • Young Frankenstein - a nicely balanced dramatic score
  • The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother
  • Silent Movie
  • The Last Remake of Beau Geste
  • The World's Greatest Lover
  • High Anxiety
  • The In-Laws
  • In God we Tru$t - comedian Marty Feldman directs and stars as a monk
  • Elephant Man - a haunting film with an equally haunting soundtrack
  • History of the World, part 1
  • Table for Five
  • Yellowbeard - comedy featuring some of the Python team
  • To Be or not To Be
  • The Woman in Red - Gene Wilder directs and stars, obviously knowning John Morris from their respective roles in previous Mel Brooks films
  • Johnny Dangerously
  • The Doctor and the Devils
  • Clue
  • Haunted Honeymoon
  • Spaceballs - this Star Wars spoof is worth a small chuckle, with Morris creating the dramatic score and Mel Brooks co-writing the title song
  • Dirty Dancing - Morris providing the underscore to the song-filled soundtrack
  • Ironweed
  • The Wash
  • Second Sight
  • Stella
  • Life Sucks (aka Life Sucks) - Mel Brooks again, but well past his peak

Television music by John Morris

  • The Scarlet Letter - mini-series based on the novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • Dr. Franken
  • The Mating Season
  • Splendour in the Grass
  • The Electric Grandmother
  • Ghost Dancing
  • Katherine Anne Porter: The Eye of Memory
  • Fresno
  • The Fig Tree
  • Favorite Son
  • Coach - Morris wrote the theme and possibly some of the episades for this long-running series
  • The Last Best Year
  • The Last to Go
  • Our Sons
  • Carolina Skeletons
  • World War II, when Lions Roared - documentary drama
  • Scarlett - mini-series, and one of many dramas directed by John Erman for which Morris provided the music
  • With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America - documentary series
  • Ellen Foster
  • Only Love
  • Murder in a Small Town - written by long-time collaborator Gene Wilder
  • The Lady in Question
  • The Blackwater Lightship

John Morris - Recommendations

The soundtracks listed below are all available on CD, and we also recommend you look out for "Silent Movie". Our review of The Elephant Man has more detail about this particular soundtrack, and also check our review of "The Producers" Stage Musical (subsequently made into a film musical) for which Mel Brooks has sole credit for composing the music.

John Morris - Memorabilia:

Here are som CD covers signed by John Morris. Our thanks to Petr Kocanda for permission to use his collection of autographed CDs. Click any thumbnail below to see the image full size in a separate window.

John Morris: Blazing Saddles - signed CD John Morris: Clue - signed CD John Morris: Haunted Honeymoon - signed CD John Morris: Spaceballs - signed CD