September 16, 2009
The Kraft of Movie Music
“If there’s music in a movie,” said Robert Kraft, president of Fox Music, “whether on screen, or underscore, or someone is playing guitar in a scene, I’m involved.”
That includes the decisions concerning music at every level.
“How it’s paid for, is it creatively appropriate to the film, is it legal, is it focused on selling more movie tickets if it can be ... basically every musical aspect of a film at Fox is my responsibility,” he said.
Kraft is in his 15th year at the helm of Fox’s music division, longevity that belies his journey from songwriter and performing artist to executive. However, if Kraft has become assured in his professional role, he confided that only recently has he become comfortable in and proud of his Jewish identity.
Kraft grew up in Princeton, N.J. His mother, Eve Kraft, was executive director of the United States Tennis Association, and while he spent summers at the Chase Tennis Center, he stood out at camp for always “being on the piano.”
From fifth grade on, he was in bands. Although he attended prep school at Lawrenceville and college at Harvard, his goal upon graduation in 1976 was to move to Manhattan and become a songwriter.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” he said in retrospect.
Kraft, a fan of “jazzy bohemian pop” started his band, Robert Kraft and The Ivory Coast, in 1978 and was signed the following year by RSO Records, the label founded by Robert Stigwood and most famous for the Bee Gees and “Saturday Night Fever.” Kraft toured the Northeast, playing Radio City Music Hall, not once, but twice, opening for The Manhattan Transfer and America.
Despite those memorable moments, Kraft was learning “how rocky a career as an artist can be.” To wit: Although Kraft’s first record was a critical success, his second was never released because RSO collapsed. His third, on RCA Records, released in 1983, Kraft recalled, “tanked immediately.”
“Teetering on the edge of being out of work,” Kraft received a call from Ken Ehrlich, a TV producer in Los Angeles who wanted to use one of Kraft’s songs, “On the Westside,” in his show, “Fame.”
At the end of the week, Ehrlich (who today produces the Grammys) asked Kraft if he might write a song for the following week’s show. Kraft decided to move to Los Angeles with his wife.
Over the next few years, Kraft’s career evolved unpredictably from writing songs for TV shows (including the theme for “Who’s the Boss?”) to writing songs for and with performers (including 1984’s “Something in Your Heart Has Been Telling Me,” which Bette Midler released on her recent compilation album, “Jackpot,” 24 years later). Being asked to produce songs for Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” led to Kraft producing records and soundtracks.
His first million-selling record came as a result of his friendship with an actor from his bartending days at Café Central in New York, who crashed on Kraft’s couch after coming to Los Angeles to audition for the lead on a TV show. That friend: Bruce Willis; the show: “Moonlighting”; the album: “The Return of Bruno.” Kraft produced the album for Motown Records; it sold 1.2 million copies and featured two Top Ten singles, “Respect Yourself” and “Under the Boardwalk.”
“It sounds fun in retrospect, but with each [project] I went from the highest of highs to ‘I’ll never work again,’” he said.
Kraft continued to vary his music gigs. By his late 30s, he had worked for Quincy Jones, been a film composer (something he never felt comfortable doing), and wrote and composed “Beautiful Maria of My Soul,” the Oscar-nominated song from “The Mambo Kings,” with Arne Glimcher, and had started the Henson Recording Studios for The Jim Henson Company.
One day, out of the blue, Bill Mechanic, then chairman of 20th Century Fox Film division, invited Kraft to lunch and offered him the job of Fox’s music chief. Kraft hesitated. Would taking the job mean he was abandoning being an artist? Would he become, in the words of one of his friends, “a suit”?
Kraft’s mother suggested he try it for two years. Bruce Willis said, “You know all the other things ... try this.”
“Who would have known that it would fit me like a glove?” Kraft asked.
Kraft, who has worked on some 300 movies, said, “It took me 10 years to feel reasonably confident.
“There’s no end to my appetite for hearing new music,” he said. Part of his success, he freely admits, is that he has a young, talented staff whose job is to keep him informed about new music and new composers.
On the other hand, the world of movie composers and musicians is small enough that by now there are few people Kraft hasn’t worked with or doesn’t have an opinion about. That, too, is part of the job.
“Quincy Jones once told me that the best producer is the one with the best Rolodex,” Kraft said.
That means knowing the right person to call in any given situation. As an example, Kraft cites calling T-Bone Burnett to ask whether Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon could carry the Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line” as singers. When Burnett, after spending a week recording the stars in his living room reported, “They are going to kill this,” Kraft was able to reassure Fox. “If they’d been horrible, it would have been my ass,” Kraft said.
At the same time, over the last few years, Kraft has been on a journey that has made him more at home with his Jewish identity.
Growing up, Kraft was very aware of “the mythic aspect of his forebears” and their reputation as erudite German Jews. His paternal grandmother was Pauline Seligman, part of the wealthy German Jews in New York known as “Our Crowd,” as were his mother’s family, who were Friedmans of Philadelphia. His parents were introduced through German Jewish relatives, and his father proposed the night they met.
His family celebrated Christmas with a well-decorated tree, and there were chocolate bunnies to be had at Easter. Kraft describes his father’s attitude toward Judaism as “very reluctant.” What his father valued, Kraft said, was “access,” which meant successful assimilation and acceptance in WASP society.
A few summers ago, Kraft’s oldest son saw a painting in an Austrian museum by a Jerome Krafft, from 1820, and wondered whether the artist might be a forebear (Krafft was the family name’s original spelling). Kraft was intrigued.
Knowing that his father had been born in Wheeling, W. Va., Kraft Googled “Jews in Wheeling, West Virginia.” He found a site devoted to a synagogue in Wheeling that featured a Kraft reading room. Kraft “had a complete moment of goose bumps” when he discovered the synagogue’s president at the turn of the 20th century was named Samuel Kraft.
The Web site listed a local genealogist, Julian Preisler, whom Kraft hired to research his family history. Over the next year, Preisler unearthed a wealth of information, tracing the family back to Eva Ahrens of Amsterdam, born in 1790, who came to the United States in 1838 as part of a group of Dutch Jews. Kraft also learned that ancestors from both his father’s and mother’s families, Krafts and Friedmans, may have lived at one time in the same city in Germany.
The Krafts came to Wheeling in the 1860s. Despite being foreigners and despite their desire to assimilate, what the Krafts did in Wheeling was found a synagogue. His great-grandfather, Samuel, raised the money and was a president of the congregation, as was his grandfather, Louis.
“Five generations ago,” his forebears, Kraft said, “were proudly and overtly Jewish.” This touched Kraft, who was struck by “the bravery of it.”
Today, Kraft wonders why his father abandoned this pride in their identity.
Last summer Kraft and his family traveled to Israel, a trip that further reinforced his feelings about being Jewish. “What the last few years have done in a subtle way,” Kraft said, is bring him to abandon the last vestiges of his father’s attitude of being “careful” about being Jewish.
Kraft now wonders what the next step might be: “Will I get bar mitzvahed?”
He doesn’t know. But one thing’s for sure — if it happens, there’s bound to be great music at the reception.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he’s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week and his Tommywood (the blog) appears daily, pretty much.