Gary Lionelli’s musical background is as diverse as the projects he has worked on. Coming from a rock band background, he followed his future wife to Los Angeles and transitioned to writing for film and television. One of his early projects, a spin-off of Tales From The Dark Side (1983) called Monsters (1988), came from an introduction to a producer through his ophthalmologist, a very LA story.
Monsters only lasted a year, but Lionelli wasn’t done writing music for fantastical creatures. He sent a tape to Hanna Barbara, the animation studio. Then a year later, he sent another one. After a couple more fits and starts, Lionelli joined Hanna Barbara. While there he worked on multiple projects for Cartoon Network including The Real Adventures of Johnny Quest (1996) and famed properties like Scooby-Doo.
So how does a composer follow up a stint at the home of Tom and Jerry and Magilla Gorilla? By moving into scoring for serious documentaries, of course. Documentaries are where a lot of exciting things are happening in film today. Lionelli is excited by the innovation and originality of the form, where you “don’t have to play by the same rules.” Even so, there are still a lot of similarities, particularly when it comes to composing music for the score.
The example Lionelli likes to use is John Williams’ score for Schindler’s List (1993). If that had been a documentary, if it had been archival footage instead of Spielberg’s work, the music would have been no less impactful, no less moving, he says.
Lionelli has a short answer and a long answer when asked how he got involved with O.J.: Made In America (2016). The short answer? Ezra Edelman, the director, called and asked. The long answer? Lionelli had worked with Edelman before on Brooklyn Dodgers: The Ghosts of Flatbush (2007) and they had a great working relationship and respect for each other. Lionelli points to Edelman’s reputation as being a challenging director, but also Ezra’s smart, clear vision for his work, including the O.J. project. Edelman had created this seven and a half hour film for ESPN, and it was going to be Lionelli’s longest single project to date. Unfortunately, he didn’t have too much time to work on it. The production team first game him three months to complete the work. “It didn’t happen in three months, but it wasn’t far off,” Lionelli says. “I basically worked seven days a week non-stop for five and a half months.” He finished a week before the film opened in theaters for its limited run.
Those theater screenings were important to the creative approach to the project. Edelman told Lionelli to think of it as one gigantic film. “We didn’t want it to sound like a TV series,” he says. “Thematically, I approached it like a narrative feature.”
Anyone who has watched the film, either in a movie theater or at home on TV, can hear the depth and weight of the score. Edelman and Lionelli have taken essentially some of what can be the most boring footage, everyday trial footage even in a high profile case, and given it the drama of a suspense thriller. Finding that mood was important to Lionelli, who, at first, asked himself the question, “ How do you write music to a courtroom scene?” that anyone who watched the Simpson trial in real time knows can be long, tedious and boring.
This is another place where the collaboration between director and composer came into focus. Edelman had very specific opinions on how the music should work with the film. For example, when Mark Fuhrman is on the stand being grilled by F. Lee Bailey, Lionelli says, “That was a real ‘gotcha’ moment,” and the music needed to match. “For Johnnie Cochran’s closing – we were literally just amping up what was happening at the time. The subtext, the greater implications of what was happening at the time. We were intent on showing that this is a bigger-than-life moment.” Edelman had it all mapped out, building to the dramatic moment and underlining it with music.
The whole tone of the piece turns after Simpson’s acquittal. Part Five, as the film aired on ESPN, is about that "after" time. The facts are surreal and would feel fictional if not absolutely true. Lionelli's music evokes that crazy, creepy feeling. “That was the idea, to make it creepy. It needed to feel ominous. Because the things that were happening were so nuts,” Lionelli says. “Most people would do what so many said in the film: if you got away with it (or at least were acquitted), you would do everything to stay out of trouble. And that is just not what happened.”
Lionelli remembers watching a screening in LA where some of those characters from Las Vegas were in attendance. He remarks on the irony that they are there watching the movie while Simpson is in jail in Nevada. It evokes this uncomfortable, almost distasteful, sympathy for Simpson.
For Lionelli, some of the most exciting projects are the ones with which he has a personal connection. Last Days In Vietnam (2014), the Oscar-nominated documentary Lionelli worked on with Rory Kennedy that tells the story of the evacuation of Saigon, is another impactful piece of historical documentary. It also had a personal angle for the composer. As he worked on it, he remembers watching his daughter, who is Vietnamese, playing in the backyard. She was five at the time, the same age as the children you see scrambling for helicopters on a room in the film.
Up next for the composer is another documentary project. The details are still under wraps, but he was able to give one clue, domestic terrorism. It sounds like another exciting and chilling opportunity for Lionelli to lend his talents to finding the emotional center of a challenging topic.