Michael Small

Prolific film composer
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The Independent Online

Michael Small, film composer: born New York 30 May 1939; married 1961 Lynn Goldberg (two sons); died New York 25 November 2003.

Michael Small was a film composer of some distinction, working with such noted directors as Alan J. Pakula, Arthur Penn, Bob Rafelson and John Schlesinger. For more than 30 years, he wrote scores for much-respected films as well as, it must be said, for some all-time classic stinkers.

Small was born in New York in 1939 and his father, Jack, a former actor who worked for the Broadway producers the Schubert Organisation, gave him a love for musical theatre and films. He learnt the piano and in his teens wrote for revues at Williams College in Massachusetts. After obtaining a degree in English Literature from Harvard University, Michael Small received personal tuition in orchestration from the composer and university professor Meyer Kupferman (who died the day after he did).

Following work on some television shows, in 1969 Small scored his first film, the comedy Out of It, starring Jon Voight. His first success came two years later when he scored Klute, an edgy thriller set in New York, directed by Alan J. Pakula and starring Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland. Small was to work with Pakula on another exercise in paranoia, The Parallax View (1974), starring Warren Beatty, Comes a Horseman (1978), a film about cattle barons starring Fonda with James Caan, and an unpleasant film about Arab infiltration of the American economy, Rollover (1981), starring Fonda and Kris Kristofferson.

Small wrote and conducted the score for the tense drama Marathon Man (1976), which was directed by John Schlesinger and found Laurence Olivier giving unique dental treatment to Dustin Hoffman. Around the same time, he scored the sci-fi mystery The Stepford Wives (1975), directed by Bryan Forbes and starring Katherine Ross, and Night Moves (1975), directed by Arthur Penn and starring Gene Hackman. He added music to the bodybuilding documentary Pumping Iron (1977), which turned Arnold Schwarzenegger into a star.

Small's most significant television work was on the 1980 sci-fi movie The Lathe of Heaven, which has a cult following. Its director, Fred Barzyk, remarked,

Public television had a very special deal with the music world. We could use anybody's music and we didn't even have to pay for the rights. Lots of times we'd

 

go back to music libraries; but we made a decision to spend a lot of money on an original score. Without Michael Small's music, it wouldn't have added up.

The 1981 remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice was Small's first film for the director Bob Rafelson. The film was notorious for its steamy sex scenes with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange. Small worked again with Rafelson on the convoluted thriller Black Widow (1987), starring Debra Winger and Dennis Hopper, and, with rather more class, he scored Mountains of the Moon (1990), an historical adventure about the explorer Sir Richard Burton, played by Patrick Bergin.

In 1987 Small had the indignity of working on one of the worst films of all time, Jaws - the revenge, the third sequel to Jaws and starring Michael Caine, who should have known better. The film's strapline was "This time it's personal" and cinemagoers were expected to believe that a shark would follow its intended victim around the world. The film was riddled with inconsistencies, errors (sharks cannot float or roar like lions) and budget restraints (some footage came from the original Jaws). Small produced a fine score in the circumstances, as if anyone noticed.

In 1994 John Candy starred in a humourless comedy, Wagons East!, but died during the filming. No one was sure what to do next, but Small helped to complete the film with a warm score played by the Irish Film Orchestra. Ironically, there is more wit in his music than in the whole of the script.

Small's other scores include The Driver (1978), Continental Divide (1981), The Star Chamber (1983) and Brighton Beach Memoirs (1986). His best score is for Mobsters (1991), which explained how the Mob took control during Prohibition and allowed him to write big-band numbers. His most recent work was for the documentaries The Endurance: Shackleton's legendary Antarctic expedition featuring Liam Neeson, and Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns) (2003), the story of the rock group They Might Be Giants.

Spencer Leigh

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