John Williams turns 75 tomorrow and in honor of his reaching the "3/4 of a century" age, I wanted to say a few words about him. Words that I was already planning to say in Edward Copeland's upcoming Star Wars Blog-athon (I even had a great title picked out: "The REAL star behind Wars"). Since this is, however, a landmark in William's life, I have decided instead to say them here and now (I'll just have to think of something else to write about on May 25).
Still, what could I possibly say about this classically trained composer/conductor that hasn’t already been said? Certainly he is one of the most popular musical minds of the twentieth century and has had more of an effect on filmmusic than any other living person, but we already know these things. Williams has been praised, criticized, discussed and dissected to such an extent that my trying to add something new to the conversation would be a futile endeavor. Thus, after a woefully brief synopsis of his musical career thus far, this post is going to become an intensely personal and highly subjective expression of my own regard for this supremely gifted artist. You will forgive me if I happen to “gush.”
After studying at Juilliard in the 1950's, “Johnny” Towner Williams (also known at times as "John Williams Jr.") got his start in the world of music writing for television (Lost in Space being one of his more remembered themes) and then, in the 1960’s, scoring films like How to Steal a Million and Valley of the Dolls. In an era heavily influenced by jazz, Williams’ work was no exception (I remember how intriguing it was for me to learn that Williams was at one-time a piano player in the Henry Mancini Orchestra; it’s as if one master was learning from another master). His scores were catchy, quaint and fun. Then, in 1971, a significant achievement came to Williams when he was given his first Oscar for orchestrating the film adaptation of the stage musical Fiddler on the Roof. Though worldwide fame still eluded him, it was just on the horizon when, in 1973, he met and collaborated with 25-year-old filmmaker Steven Spielberg on the movie Sugarland Express. This would produce two extremely important effects on Williams’ life: 1) his partnership with director Spielberg, which has lasted up to this day and 2) his association with Spielberg’s close friend George Lucas who would go on to create one of the most revolutionary, influential (and lucrative) movie franchises ever. These two events, coupled with Williams’ own blossoming talent and eventual replacement of Arthur Fielder as resident conductor for the Boston Pops Orchestra, solidified once and for all his place both in the history of cinema and the world of music. Williams has arguably become the most popular film composer ever; at the very least he's become one of the most popular. Williams has created some of the most enduring melodies of any musical artist of recent memory and has been nominated for more Oscars then any other individual (save Walt Disney). Incidentally, I once heard someone say that nominating John Williams for an Oscar is like answering “Jesus” in Sunday School. That may be, but perhaps there’s a reason why kids tend to feel like they always have to answer “Jesus” in class. Perhaps it’s because more often than not “Jesus” is the correct answer to whatever question the teacher is asking. Likewise, if Williams would only stop writing so many good scores, we wouldn’t have to keep hearing his name on the nominations list year after year.
I have long been a huge fan of John Williams. Being 30 years old I am of that generation that essentially “grew up” on his music, who spent our formative years in that period when Williams was, as many people say, “at his peak” (though I take issue with that statement). His scores are the ones that introduced me to the world of orchestral compositions and which eventually paved the way for my falling in love with classical music. Like a lot of people my age I knew by heart the themes to Star Wars, Superman, E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark. I loved these movies and I loved the music that was in them, but though I might have appreciated them individually, the sense of wonder and respect I felt when I discovered that they were all done by the same man (I still vividly remember the night that I had this revelation) was monumental. I resolved to learn what I could about him and the more I read, saw and heard (which is probably most important of all), the more convinced I became that this fellow was a genius.
Anyway, I thought I might take some time and mention a few of my favorite scores of his. He has produced so many brilliant ones in the last forty years that anyone would be hard-pressed to select only a few. Nevertheless, I am going to try. So, here they are (in alphabetical order):
ALWAYS – Working once again with his friend Steven Spielberg, Williams wrote this delicate and ethereal tone poem almost, as the Musichound Soundtrack Guide eloquently says, as if it “existed on glass” (Years later, Williams would again try this approach with the Chris Columbus film Stepmom). Though the story involves the death and ghostly return of a pilot who douses forest fires from the air, Williams chose to emphasize the emotional aspects of the film, focusing more on the tragic love story than on the firefighting action. The whole score has an overwhelming gentleness and effervescence that cannot help but relax the listener (this would be great music to meditate to). Indeed, the lovely “Pete in Heaven” has an almost dreamy, new-age quality. As we listen to it we are always aware that though it is technically music, it seems to bear more in common with a “Sounds of the Ocean” CD. William’s score for Always is a beautiful, subtle, delicate piece of work that is far better than the film for which it was written.
CATCH ME IF YOU CAN – A real “trip down memory lane” for Johnny, Catch Me If You Can provided Williams with an opportunity to compose in a style he hadn’t worked in since the 1960’s (the period in which the film is set). Inspired by the true-life adventures of Frank Abagnale Jr., the world’s youngest con artist, this amusing story allowed Williams to reach back into his past (before the bombastic days of Star Wars, Superman, et al) and write a charming and sophisticated jazz score that is light, fluffy and fun… just like the Spielberg film it accompanies. One could almost say Williams pulls a “Mancini.” The “Main Title Theme,” a sneaky little cat-and-mouse number that first appears during the animated opening credits and reappears whenever federal agents are closing in on the main character, features a bouncy saxophone solo that one would swear was improvised, but apparently John wrote every single note of it. There is also an uplifting theme that plays whenever our hero does something particularly clever or narrowly eludes the FBI. Finally there’s the emotional “Father/son” theme that perfectly captures the affection and loneliness of the Leo DeCaprio/Chris Walken relationship. A wonderfully light, very pleasant score (described by Williams as a "bon-bon") which earned Williams one of his many Oscar nominations.
DRACULA – Williams scored this 1979 John Badham film having never seen a vampire movie of any kind. As it turned out this was a blessing because it allowed him to focus on the more tragic, romantic side of the infamous vampire (portrayed this time by a sexy young Frank Langella, reprising his role from the Broadway revival show) instead of playing up the “horror” aspects of the movie as previous composers have done. The music in the film has an almost operatic quality and, much like the Count himself, is hypnotic, seductive, passionate, powerful, sensual, exotic and, at times, even poignant. "Night Journeys" and "The Love Scene" are a couple of my personal favorite pieces and for action cues, they don't get much more exciting than "To Scarborough" (which has a technique Williams is an expert on: "scherzo") and the climactic "Dracula's Death." A lot of fun to listen to.
E.T. – Along with Star Wars, this is probably the first motion picture score to really grab me when I was young and make me pay attention to movie music. I believe I saw the Spielberg film only twice in the theatres, but I knew the music intimately, could recognize it instantly and could hum it effortlessly. To this day, listening to the CD (especially the uninterrupted ten-minute climactic cue; one of the rare times in cinema where the movie was actually edited to the music) gives me a warm, emotional feeling that few experiences can. A few moments that I happen to like are the exciting opening chase music, the tender “Toys,” the unforgettable “Flying” (can one hear this piece without visualizing that iconic "bicycle-before-the-moon" image?), the quirky “Halloween” cue (featuring a brief, humorous quotation of Williams’ own “Yoda” theme to underline the sight gag in the film), the terrifying “Invading Elliott’s House” (the scene that scared the crap out of me as a kid), the amusing “E.T. and Elliot get Drunk” and the... Aw, the hell with it! I love them ALL!
EMPIRE OF THE SUN – This is considered by some (including myself) to be one of Williams’ most underrated efforts. The merits of Spielberg’s film about a young English boy caught in Shanghai during the Japanese invasion of WWII may be debatable, but one cannot deny the beauty and lyricism of Williams’ rich, emotional score. The silm opens with the lovely “Suo Guan” being sung by the film's protagonist Jamie Graham (a young Christian Bale who I don't believe did his own singing) and accompanied by a boy’s choir. There is also the majestic “Cadillac of the Skies” (which surreally plays during a spectacular air raid on a Japansee labor camp), the joyful “Jim’s New Life,” the fantastic “Imaginary Air battle” and the anthem “Exsultate Justi.” All are marvelous cues that I just love listening to over and over and over...
THE FURY – The Fury provided Williams with an opportunity to write one of his dreamiest, most haunting and, at times, most stunning compositions. This is a lush, dark score that brilliantly captures the psychic terror of Brian DePalma’s chilling 1978 sci-fi/horror film about two young people with powerful telekinetic abilities. The slow, waltz-like main title, which uses the same kind of ascending / descending notes that characterized Bernard Hermann’s Vertigo, starts slow but builds to an intense, powerful climax that punches the listener square in the face. Williams constructs his entire score around the main theme and produces a thrilling listening experience even if you’ve never seen the movie. Two of my personal favorites cues are “Vision on the Stairs” (when Amy Irving’s character Gillian has a psychic episode while ascending some stairs) and “Gillian’s Escape” (an extended action sequence shot entirely in slow-mo where Gillian manages to effect an escape from the institute where she is being held).
HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE – I remember when I first saw the trailer to this movie. I could tell immediately that John Williams had done the score and I got quite excited because it sounded like something that I had been awaiting for a while, namely the return of the “John Williams of the late seventies-early eighties.” Don’t get me wrong, I love the mature, sensitive Williams of the late eighties and nineties (Always, Schindler’s List, Sabrina, Empire of the Sun, etc) but every now and again I want something that will just blow my socks off the way Star Wars, Superman, E.T. and Raiders did. When I heard the innocent, slightly sinister, but, most importantly, magical main theme that starts out soft and then builds into an amazing flurry of activity and excitement, I was quite pleased. This was the Williams I first fell in love with as a child, the Williams who was responsible for making me aware of the importance of movie music. Now, here he was again, doing it for a whole new generation of children. Though some might feel this score is little more than just the same thing repeated over and over again (a contention which BTW I disagree with; Williams does make ample use of the main theme but there are plenty of other different musical styles and melodies used throughout the film). Anyway, I never got tired of it. In fact, after having seen the film, I walked out of the theatre actually humming the theme. A great score and worthy of the Oscar nomination it received.
HOME ALONE – Every holiday season I whip this little baby out, stick in my player and remind myself (as if I needed reminding) how great Williams is. John Hughes’ obscenely successful film about a young boy who gets left home by his vacationing family somehow inspired Williams to write one of his most enjoyable scores. The memorable main theme (“The House”) is strangely innocent and sinister at the same time (reminiscent of something Danny Elfman would write). The high-spirited “Holiday Flight” is quite obviously inspired by “The Russian Dance” from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. Most wonderful of all, however, is the warm-hearted “Somewhere in My Memory” (with lyrics by Johnny Mercer) that is just as good as any classic Christmas song that Nat King Cole ever recorded. Both the song and the score got Williams yet another Oscar nomination.
JAWS – The second collaboration by Spielberg and Williams (after Sugarland Express) proved to be one of their greatest and most unforgettable efforts. Williams won his second Oscar for this score but this time, unlike Fiddler, he was being recognized for his own work. By now the choppy main title motif, perfectly capturing the mindless drive of what Richard Dreyfuss' character Matt Hooper calls an “eating-machine,” has become so legendary that the music and the animal it represents (a shark of course) have become forever linked in people’s minds, like the activity of taking showers and Hermann's score for Hithcock's Psycho. Most of the music in the film is scary and suspenseful, but a great deal is also rousing and fun (much like, as Williams himself said, a “pirate adventure”). The original LP soundtrack release also contained one of the most clever cue titles ever conceived: “Tourists on the Menu.” Never let it be said Williams doesn’t have a sense of humor.
MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA – In a "making-of" segment on the film's DVD John Williams admits that this was the first score that he actually requested to work on. Having been quite moved by the book, Williams felt compelled to tell the story of Sayuri, a young Japanese girl taken from her family and forced into the life of a Geisha, through music. Williams’ deeply felt passion and affection for the material comes through beautifully as this score is extremely emotional. Aside from a similarly “Eastern” approach that Williams took to a previous score (Seven Years in Tibet), this experience marked a rather a decisive departure for the very “Western” Williams. In fact, with a few exceptions, one who didn’t know it was Williams would probably be unable to tell, as it sounds like something Tan Dun or Joe Hisaishi might do. The heartbreakingly sad, yet surprisingly hopeful, “Sayuri’s Theme” (sensitively played by cellist Yo-Yo Ma) functions as the centerpiece of the score and serves as an interesting counterpoint to the stoic yet romantic “Chairman’s Waltz” (played by Williams’ former Schindler’s List collaborator Itzhak Perlman); both themes are distinctly different and yet, at the same time, remarkably similar to demonstrate the connection between these two souls. A couple other cues I like are the playful "Going to School" (which follows the young Sayuri amd her friend Chiyo in their education) and the bold “Becoming a Geisha” (which plays during the montage where Michelle Yeoh shows the grown-up Sayuri, now played by Ziyi Zhang, about the ways of Geisha). Chalk up one more Oscar nod for Williams!
RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK – Although I love all three of the Indiana Jones films (yes, even the much maligned Temple of Doom), I maintain that the best one is still the first one. It is also contains the best score I think. From the eerie opening notes of “South America, 1936” to the lighthearted “Basket Game,” from the thrilling “Map Room: Dawn” to the sinister (and incredibly abstract) “Well of Souls,” from the exciting “Desert Chase” to the powerful “Miracle of the Ark” and from Marion’s romantic love melody to the eerie Ark of the Covenant motif (quoted briefly, and to humorous effect, in Last Crusade when Indy sees a drawing of the Ark on a cave wall) this Oscar-nominated score is a classic through and through. And, of course, nobody can forget that grandiose “Raiders March,” a hero’s theme if ever there was one!
SABRINA – For this 1995 Sydney Pollack remake of the 1954 Billy Wilder comedy, John Williams created an elegant and classy score that demonstrates once again his ability to reinvent himself. Nobody would ever guess listening to the numerous cues on this soundtrack CD that this is the same guy who wrote Star Wars, Superman or even Schindler’s List. Williams’ score for Sabrina is unusual but highly enjoyable. The theme for the title heroine (played by Julia Ormond), a marvelously romantic mini-concerto for a piano that eventually gets joined by a full-blown orchestra, recurs throughout the film in various forms. Meanwhile the theme for Linus Larrabee (Harrison Ford) is a very straight, business-like march that captures the “stuffiness” and comedic appeal of the character. At times suave and jazzy, at times sweet and sentimental, the best way to describe Williams’ work for Sabrina is to say quite simply that it “sparkles.” One of the composer’s most underrated efforts and the recipient of (you guessed it) an Oscar nomination!
SCHINDLER'S LIST – I am always amused when someone says to me, “How can you like John Williams so much? He’s a hack... at best! He just keeps repeating himself.” (Incidentally, I always find this is to be a rather interesting criticism when you compare Williams to, say, James Horner; I mean, I’ll grant Williams writes similar scores, he has a highly recognizable style, but Horner literally writes the same damn score over and over again). People love to claim that “all Williams can write is the larger-than-life action theme or the big, brassy Wagnerian marches. Superman, Star Wars, Raiders, etc! They're all the same!” To remind myself that said individual has absolutely no idea what he/she is talking about, I like to put on this soundtrack and revel in the beauty, subtlety, dignity and depth of Williams’ sublime work for Spielberg’s cinematic masterpiece. Following the directors’ lead, Williams used amazing restraint with Schindler’s List (a film that is over three hours in length and less than a third of which features actual score). Shedding his usual penchant for melodramatic emotions, Williams produced a score that is mournful, poignant and surprisingly low-key. Williams also employed the talents of renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman. Perlman’s soulful playing infuses the composer’s strains with a sensitivity that few other soloists could have offered. The haunting main theme, the hopeful “Remembrances,” the tragically innocent “OYF’N Pripetshok” (played during the unforgettable “girl-in-the-red-coat” scene), the intensely terrifying “Auschwitz” and the haunting “I Could Have Done More” are just some of the samplings this score has to offer. Schindler’s List is nothing short of stunning and definitely earned the Oscar that it won for Best Original Score. If ever you hear anyone express the idiotic sentiments I mentioned above (or worse, you find yourself starting to think them) listen to this soundtrack immediately and you’ll very shortly remember why Williams deserves his position as one of the most supremely gifted and versatile composers around.
STAR WARS – In the liner notes to the soundtrack CD for Star Wars Episode I, The Phantom Menace, John Williams writes: “While recently recording the music for Episode I with the London Symphony Orchestra I was delighted to see that there were a dozen or so members of the orchestra who had played on the original 1977 soundtrack. During our first intermission, several of the younger players approached me and explained that, as children, they had seen and heard Star Wars and immediately resolved to study music with the goal of playing with the London Symphony.” Wow. Now, how many film scores can you say have had that kind of effect on people?
George Lucas’ special effects extraveganza changed the movie industry in many ways, not the least of which was its effect on the modern motion picture score. Although the movie showed us things we had never seen on screen before, the music harkened back to the lush, romantic symphonies of Korngold and Wagner. In the words of Lucas, “the music served as an emotional anchor for the audience.” It captured the imagination of both lovers and non-lovers of music and became, at the time, the highest selling soundtrack album ever. At a time when movie music was dominated by pop song collections (The Graduate, Saturday Night Fever), Star Wars made orchestral scores “in” again. Suddenly filmmusic composers, who ended up having to go all the way over to Europe to get work, were sought after once again. It is no exaggeration I think to say that without Williams, none of the “newer” composers like Alan Silvestri, Danny Elfman, Joel McNeely, David Arnold and John Debney would even have jobs. And yet, despite its cultural significance, the score itself is a work of sheer brilliance. Who can’t whistle, at the drop of a hat, the spectacularly rousing fanfare that blasts off the screen during the film’s opening crawl? There is also the sweet “Princess Leia” theme, the Benny Goodman-style “Galactic Jazz” of the cantina Band, or the lyrically poignant Ben Kenobi/force melody that swells as Luke Skywalker stares longingly into the “Binary Sunset” (which is my personal favorite scene in the entire series).
Finally, one of the characteristics that (in my mind) separates the good scores from the “great” scores is the ability to function not only inside the movie but outside of the movie. Most scores can be said to work within the context of the actual film itself (helping to elevate the story, characters, emotions, etc), but not all scores make for satisfying listening experiences by themselves. This is yet another great thing about John Williams. Not only do his scores complement the films for which they are written (without being distracting or ostentatious) but they tell a complete story all their own. Nowhere is this quality more apparent than in his work for the Star Wars films. Like Howard Shore’s music for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the score it is a “journey unto itself,” taking the listener on a musical adventure that is exciting, suspenseful, sad, humorous and, most important of all, always extremely entertaining. An outstanding score that will not only take its place among the greatest movie music ever written but, as I am sure, among the greatest music of all time.
STAR WARS, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK – Just when we thought John and George had both peaked and could not possibly outdo themselves, along comes the second entry in the successful operatic space saga. Considered by many (including myself) to be the best movie of the original trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back also boasts an arguably superior score by Williams. Reprising many of the original themes and adding some new ones including the wise and reflective melody for the new, and immensely popular, character Yoda, the military-style “Imperial March” (which many people forget was not introduced in the first film and eventually came to be associated with the villainous Darth Vader) and the tragic “Han/Leia” love theme, Empire surpassed everybody’s expectations including the new legion of filmmusic fans that the first Star Wars had created. Though the third film (Return of the Jedi) would not inspire as strong a score as the first two, it didn’t matter. By that time Williams had already established himself as “the” composer of filmmusic for the last quarter of the twentieth century.
SUPERMAN – The Ultimate super-hero score for the ultimate super-hero movie! John Williams’ exciting score for Richard Donner’s landmark film still stands as one of his best efforts. Who can forget that heroic main title fanfare (which, as Donner has pointed out in countless interviews, actually speaks the word “Superman” if you listen carefully to its three-note motif)? Or the romantic and vulnerable love theme? Or how about that mischievously comic “Villain’s march?” A great score for a great movie. Interesting too to consider that it almost never was since Jerry Goldsmith was originally going to write the score. One can’t help but wonder what sort of music Jerry would’ve produced for this film (although from the dismal 1984 spin-off Supergirl, which Goldsmith scored, we get a possible glimpse; not bad, but not certainly great).
As I said, there are many other great scores that naturally deserve a mention (Close Encounters, Jurassic Park, JFK, Munich, Family Plot, Angela's Ashes), but these are the ones that I personally never ever get tired of listening to.
I’m going to end this post with something that occurred to me just the other day. Everyone knows that in filmmaker Steven Spielberg Williams has found a close friend and professional collaborator. Their working relationship is one of the longest and most productive in film history. Williams has scored every one of Spielberg’s theatrical features (save The Color Purple, which was done by Quincy Jones). While visiting the John Williams board of the IMDB the other day, I saw that someone had posted the question: “Who’s Spielberg gonna use when Williams dies?” A few people suggested some other composers that Spielberg could work with. Perhaps he may just retire. I don’t know what Spielberg will do. I’m not even sure he knows what he will do. It’s not a very pleasant thing prospect to have to mull over, but I will admit that the thought has briefly crossed my mind before too. Usually, though, I try to get it out of my mind as quickly as possible because, truth be told, I don’t even want to think about what a world without John Williams would be like. Fortunately, one thing that I will never have to think about is what a world without John Williams’ music would be like.
P.S. Don't forget to participate in the Filmmusic Blog-a-thon here at Windmills Of My Mind this June 22-25.