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Former El Verano man writes music for ’Robin’s Wish,’ a new documentary about Robin Williams

When Aaron Drake first sought the job of composing a musical score for “Robin’s Wish,” the new documentary about late comedian and actor Robin Williams, he thought the film might call for some brash and snappy tunes.

“Robin Williams was a comic genius. My immediate reaction was that this was going be a lot of fun. I imagined a lot of trombones,” said Drake, 43, who grew up in El Verano and now lives and works in the Los Angeles area. “I thought the music would be bombastic and gregarious, suggesting John Phillip Sousa marches and circus clowns.”

However, “Robin’s Wish” is not a comedy.

In August 2014, at age 63, Williams committed suicide by hanging at his home in Paradise Cay in Marin County. His widow, Susan Schneider Williams, attributed his suicide to his struggle with Lewy body dementia, a little-known degenerative brain disease that is difficult to diagnose. An autopsy confirmed that Williams had the illness.

The film documents the actor’s private struggle with the disease and features appearances by 17 people who were among those closest to him, including comedians Mort Sahl, Rick Overton and Michael Pritchard.

“During the last year of his life, Robin was confronted with anxiety, paranoia, insomnia, scary altered realities and a roller coaster of hope and despair,” his widow said in a written statement promoting the film.

Drake soon realized his film score must fit the documentary’s more serious tone.

“It’s a very tragic film,” Drake said. “When I saw it, I knew the music needed to be quiet and reflective. What people didn’t see was that Robin Williams was fighting a battle within his own mind with this disease.”

The composer still used trombones and French horns, but in a small ensemble of half a dozen musicians, with a much more subdued approach.

“I was trying to get across how fragile Robin Williams was. When you’re first watching a film without a score, you have to be honest with your own emotions and reactions to the film. You need to see what the film needs,” he explained.

“I provided 10 musical tracks for the film editor to work with, and he sort of ad libbed with those,” Drake said. “Then I went back and recomposed some of the music.”

The soundtrack album for “Robin’s Wish” comes out July 24 and the film is scheduled for nationwide release Sept. 22.

Drake grew up next to El Verano Elementary School, where his father worked as a custodian and his mother was a school bus driver. The youngest of three boys, Drake began playing piano at age 5 and later learned to play guitar and flute.

He graduated from Sonoma Valley High School in 1994 and attended both Santa Rosa Junior College and Sonoma State University before earning his bachelor’s degree in music from San Francisco State University and a master’s in musical composition from the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia.

“There was a time when I was a semi-professional pianist and for a while, I was a really OK flutist,” Drake said.

But he was more interested in writing music than performing it.

“While I was in grad school, I got into experimental music and then, while I was there, I starting working on films,” he said. “I found the perfect combination of composing music for visual media.”

Drake has composed music for nearly a dozen short films and roughly a dozen feature films, including the fantasy “Phantom Valley,” which premiered July 11 at a film festival in South Korea, and the documentary “California Typewriter,” released in 2016.

While working on “California Typewriter,” Drake got to know Ben Sinclair, now one of the producers of “Robin’s Wish.” Sinclair invited Drake to offer ideas on a score for the new film.

“I pitched the idea to him two years ago and started work on the score 18 months ago,” Drake said.

The ultimate result is a subtle musical score that Drake hopes will suggest the famed comedian’s inner torment.

“My music suggests something going on underneath the surface,” he explained. “It was a very private situation that Robin was living with.”

You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @danarts.

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