Blake Neely Scores in Hollywood
When Star Wars premiered in 1977, an eight-year-old boy sat in awe in a dark theater in Paris, Texas. Along with millions of other viewers, he was intrigued with the story of the young farm boy Luke Skywalker who joins forces with a Jedi Knight and other interesting characters to save the universe and rescue Princess Leia from the evil Darth Vader.
But unlike most little boys, it was the sounds of the London Symphony Orchestra that kicks off the film and weaves its way through every heroic and adventurous scene that captured the attention of Blake Neely and ignited a force within he couldn’t ignore.
Bonnie and Bill Neely ushered baby Blake into this world April 28, 1969. Bill was a farmer and Bonnie a stay-at-home mom, with three children eventually. Life was simple, and creative, amid the backdrop of a rural small-town in Northeast Texas, that proudly claims it’s the second largest Paris in the world.
Neely remembers his interest in music starting when he was just about four years old as he touched the keys of the family piano. He also enjoyed watching hours and hours of TV, mostly cartoons where characters like Mickey Mouse perform the William Tell Overture, the three little pigs build their houses to Brahms’ Hungarian Dances, Bugs Bunny conducts Von Suppe’s Morning, Noon and Night in Vienna, and Tom and Jerry conduct an orchestra of cats to Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermous.
Neely often spent time in his bedroom “studio” with a toy magic wand conducting his parent’s Leonard Bernstein records.
By the time of the Star Wars experience, Neely was well entranced in music, but on this day, he knew something changed.
“I was sitting in the theater and thought ‘I’ve never heard that before,’” Neely recalls, realizing for the first time that creating music for film was somebody’s career.
“’I want to have this job,’” he said. “And I became obsessed with all the Star Wars music and that became my quest to get to Hollywood and do this for a living.”
For an eight-year-old in rural Paris, Texas, that was a lofty goal and long way away from the life of a farmer.
“There was no Internet,” Neely said. “You can’t see outside of Paris growing up in the 70s. Access to Hollywood was extremely limited.”
He read magazines and took piano lessons and played in bands and while many kids his age were into sports or other small-town activities, music was his outlet, in several forms.
“I was always a classical music geek,” he said. “I was in little garage bands and bought synthesizers. We played Top 40 Rock. I played drums and keyboard.”
Neely said people believed in him while growing up in Paris and nurtured his passions.
“My parents were very encouraging,” he said, even taking him to Dallas for private lessons with composer Simon Sargon when he expressed an interest in writing his own music at around age 12.
Three piano teachers in Paris stand out in his mind as well.
“They let me write my own music,” he said. “I remember even at a very early age one of my first piano recitals — my teacher allowed me to do one of my own.”
In high school his band teacher at Paris High School encouraged him to continue pursuing music.
But things got a little less encouraging outside his hometown when he entered college at the University of Texas in Austin.
“I auditioned to get in the music department and did not pass the audition,” he said. “I got a letter that said, “we encourage you to pursue other options.’”
Confident of his true calling in life, he was not deterred.
“It put a fire under me to prove them wrong.”
He went to a composition class taught by Dan Welcher and asked if he could sit in to feed his need to learn more even though he would get no educational credits for it.
“I was probably a bit begging when I knocked on his door but I really wanted to do this,” Neely recalls, grateful that the teacher agreed and for the knowledge it gave him.
Not your typical run-with-the-crowd college student, Neely was focused on his interests and it paid off.
“I was always playing music in my dorm room and didn’t go out,” he said. “I stayed in to write music.”
When his friend Jordan Levin noticed this about him, he mentioned Neely to his father who happened to work at Disney studios in California, which resulted in an offer for an internship.
“I jumped at the chance,” Neely said, still remembering the excitement and his childhood ideas about getting to Hollywood.
While working as an unpaid intern at Disney in the summer of 1989 he was doing odd jobs for the music department and would go in to the film-scoring department.
“I was hooked,” he recalls. “This might be a way to get out there.”
The next summer he did a different internship at Disney and when he graduated from college there was an opening at their record company and he got
“I got from Paris to LA and I’m working at Disney,” he thought, “I’m good for a while now.”
Joining him in California was his wife Beth — they married in Austin in 1988. During the next 10 years or so they had two children, Jordan and Jacob, moved back to Texas for five years and then back to Los Angeles when Neely’s work started keeping him away from his family too much.
He worked at Disney from 1991 to 1996. After a few years he moved to the music publishing division and handled publications of Disney’s sheet music and songbooks. His job was to make sure it was correct and had credits. This put him in close proximity to teams for composers the likes of Elton John and he began to build relationships.
When composer Michael Kamen (Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, Mr. Holland’s Opus, What Dreams May Come) was doing a concert tour and looking for someone to put the scores in order, Neely was recommended.
He worked with Kamen for about two years building a library of scores for him, and then Kamen turned to Neely one day and said, “You’re probably an orchestrator.”
“I wasn’t, but knew how to do it so I said sure,” Neely recalls.
Kamen was working on something for Metallica.
“He said, ‘see if you can orchestrate this piece,’” Neely remembers, “And I became an orchestrator.”
After the success of the Metallica project, Neely worked with Kamen as one of his orchestrators on other projects and all of his films that followed, until Kamen’s unexpected death in 2003.
Neely and Kamen were working on a movie directed by another East Texan, Forest Whitaker. The movie was First Daughter starring Katie Holmes and Michael Keaton.
“Michael (Kamen) was hired to score,” Neely said. “I was doing orchestration. I sent some things to Forest to see how he liked them and found out Michael died that night.”
Kamen had started scoring the music.
“Forest wanted to keep Michael’s music in the film and keep his theme, and he hired me to finish it,” Neely said.
“That was difficult. I scored first using what Michael had done and how he would have done it but I needed to write things that were new.”
The song Dance My Dreams came through in that process.
“Forest wrote the words and I wrote the music,” Neely said. “It worked.”
The film is dedicated to Kamen.
As Neely gained experience and credits, more opportunities came his way.
One of his most remarkable experiences to date came when composer Vangelis (Chariots of Fire, Blade Runner) was looking for an orchestrator to help with large symphonic work.
“I flew to Athens, Greece, we met and I got the job,” Neely said, and then things got even more spectacular. “When I went back for the concert rehearsal, he said he just fired the conductor so could I do that.”
Again, not having done something professionally didn’t stop Neely from jumping in with a resounding, “yes.”
This landed him conducting “Mythodea” with the London Metropolitan Orchestra, Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle, 30 timpani players, a 200-piece choir and Vangelis on keyboards.
“And me at the Temple of Zeus in Athens, Greece,” Neely beams. “It was the experience of a lifetime.”
The performance was filmed for a PBS concert and is available on YouTube.
That project led to Neely working with another great composer, Hans Zimmer who hired him as a conductor.
He conducted Pirates of the Caribbean, which led to even more opportunities and a dream career now in full force. His film credits include The Last Samurai, Something’s Gotta Give, and Life As We Know It to name but a few.
In 2002, Neely also got his first chance at composing for a TV series, Everwood. Following that success, other TV credits came including Brothers & Sisters, No Ordinary Family, Pan Am, Golden Boy and most recently The Mentalist, Arrow, The Flash, and Resurrection.
Today, composing music takes up most of his time and he’s happy about that.
“Oh, definitely, composing is the favorite. I just love the craft of composing music. Whether it’s to film or TV show or just for music titles.”
Writing music comes naturally to Neely.
“There’s a constant music stream playing in my head. Sometimes it’s something I haven’t heard before. Sometimes it’s other pieces.”
With film scoring he meticulously works frame by frame.
“You play up until they kiss (for instance), then crescendo, and make sure it syncs. The idea is to follow the story and support it but not stand in its way. People need to feel it not hear it.”
Neely said he is honored when someone says they didn’t even realize there was music in a scene.
“It’s a compliment. You made them feel it but it didn’t stick out.”
He enjoys that his music helps create the story.
“It’s what wasn’t there, what was needed. It’s not always emotion, or a gotcha, but maybe what wasn’t completely told by the actors in the filming. Sometimes it’s a deeper emotion than can be explained in words or actions on the screen.”
What’s his favorite composition so far?
“I’m happiest with what I’ve just finished, until I move on to the next one.”
He’s also happy these days knowing he’s at a place where he can choose to do projects that he cares about.
He’s come a long way from his first “studio” in his bedroom in Paris, Texas.
When he’s not composing Neely enjoys spending time with his family. He and Beth are proud of their children. Daughter Jordan is 20, and studying theater and acting. Jacob is 17 and although he showed an interest in music at an early age it’s only recently that he’s figured out he wants to follow in dad’s footsteps to be a film composer. It pleases Neely that he may work with his kids on projects someday.
While he doesn’t see his parents and siblings as often as he’d like they do keep up with each other.
His sister Pamela lives in New Jersey and operates a horse farm. His brother Tom lives in Los Angeles and is a graphic artist. His parents are retired and still living in Paris where he occasionally visits.
“I do go back from time to time. It doesn’t change quickly. Not like Austin where there are new buildings and restaurants every time you go.
“It’s kinda nice in small-town Texas — people are happy with it, so why change. I’m happy going to that same old place.
Sometimes it’s good to remember where the spark began. The little boy with lofty goals from Paris, Texas, is not only living his dream but as is so often the case when people discover and follow their passions, it makes the world a much better place.
Listening to Neely’s songs on YouTube often stirs people to post about how they make them feel and sometimes how a particular song helps them through a hard time.
“It’s moving that you’ve touched someone,” Neely said. “It’s kind of amazing. It came from nothing. Something you heard and put out there for the world and it helps someone.”
He’s gotten some great emails over the years too, he said.
“One woman’s daughter is autistic and told me my piece calmed her,” he says in amazement. “Something that came out of my head calmed a child that has such difficulty in her brain to live with — it inspires me to do better and more.
“It’s a crazy thing about music. It’s the only art form that you can’t see. It shouldn’t make sense. It’s just sound waves moving in the air. It hits people differently and sometimes it makes a difference.”