If I was to ask anyone reading this to sing or hum the first film theme that comes into their head, the chances are that they will perform one written by John Williams. It is quite possible that you do not realise that the tune you croon is by John Williams, it is also not entirely inconceivable that you may claim to have never heard of John Williams. I can guarantee however that if the name isn’t overly familiar then the work definitely will be. He is the foremost film composer in Cinematic history, whose work has transcended Cinemas, to firmly embed itself into popular culture. Nominated 51 times for an Academy Award, winning on 5 occasions, when it comes to scores for films, his is the greatest of all Greatest Hits compilations.
There is not a beach open to the public on Planet Earth that hasn’t had a person, at one time or another, stand looking at the sea/ocean going “Dur-dum” in honour of John Williams famous two-note characterisation of a terrifying ocean dwelling monster. This also applies to all swimming pools and lakes across the globe. Even those who have never seen Jaws instantly get the reference of some guy (it’s always a guy) who considers himself a bit of a character who stands on the edge of a lake going “Dur dum”. A loud, annoying laugh usually follows this as the “bit of a character” convinces himself that in the 43 years since Jaws’s release he is the first person to do this.
Dismissed initially by Spielberg who thought it was a joke, the two note masterpiece would quickly help turn Jaws from a disaster that nearly ended Spielberg’s career to becoming one of the most successful films of all time. A temperamental shark meant that Spielberg had barely enough usable footage to keep the audience on their seats, never mind on the edge of them. Enter Williams’s “Dur dum” and the stuff of seafaring nightmares is changed forever, by showing very little, Williams’s score becomes a member of the supporting cast, and a relationship with Spielberg was firmly established.
I am not going to write for too long on the actual Spielberg films themselves as I have covered them in great detail in my previous Spielberg through the decades blogs, instead, I will focus more on what John Williams scores have brought to those films. Spielberg’s first feature-length cinematic release in 1974, The Sugarland Express, was a small-scale, road movie that whilst demonstrating a capable filmmaker only gave slight hints as to the wonders that lay ahead. Williams produced an unassuming, relaxed, harmonica based score, that whilst perfectly complimenting the journey through the scorched, bare Texan landscapes, gave a little indication of the multitude of entries into popular culture that was to come, a bit like the film itself for its youthful director. The simplicity of the Sugarland score would be followed by the instantly recognisable and iconic two-note motif of Jaws and the five-note alien communication employed in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
This was the start of over 40 years of collaboration that has produced not only some of the most successful films of that time period but some of the most memorable musical scores of any time period. From the the action-packed, adventure thrill ride of his scores for the Indiana Jones films to the childlike wonder of watching E.T and Elliot cycle past the moon, (Imagine that scene if you will without Williams’s score) to the mournful, desperation of a single violin on Schindlers List or the respectful brass led orchestrations encapsulated in Saving Private Ryan, Williams’s scores not only captured perfectly the time and mood of each piece but added a different dimension to the stories being told that is often, in lesser hands, taken for granted in movies.
It could be argued that Williams’ scores have lifted even some of the more mundane, or less appreciated Spielberg films above the ordinary. Films such as Hook divided audiences but Williams’s score perfectly captured the pantomime feel of the film, whilst throwing in plenty of soaring orchestral moves to add to the magic of what is, in essence, a fairytale aimed at children. The 2000s, in particular, saw Williams demonstrate a variance in styles to suit the feel of the picture, from the jazz-based score for caper Catch Me If You Can, the jaunty clarinet led score for whimsical romcom The Terminal, to perfectly capturing the terrifying claustrophobia for the dour and brutal War of the Worlds and Munich.
In the last decade, we have been treated to a number of styles that illustrate his mastery of genre score composition. The Indiana Jones-inspired score to the Adventures of Tintin, the sprawling historical epicness of both War Horse and Lincoln to the playful jollity of The BFG and tension building configuration that accompanies The Post. It is clear that Spielberg and Williams understand each other, as masterful as I consider Spielberg to be, I do believe without John Williams his films would not have had the emotional and cultural impact that they had and will no doubt continue to do so for years to come, and if you don’t believe me, go stand on a beach next to the Ocean and see what tune comes into your head.
My Top 5 Spielberg related Williams pieces
Some of these are known the world over, some are just smaller pieces embedded in certain films that have always had an emotional resonance with me. The Truth is I could have quite easily picked a different 5 or even a different 500 tracks but the below 5 instantly sprung to mind.
5. Father’s Study – Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
The swirling central oboe piece makes way for the haunting brass section mixed with Eastern Promise in this short but vital scene close to the start of the Last Crusade. This is the scene that first questions Indy’s belief system. He questions Marcus as to whether he believes the Grail to be real, the glance of the Religious iconographic artwork in Henry’s home coupled with Marcus prophetic response about the perils that potentially lie ahead add to the mystique. For me, the score for the Last Crusade is the strongest of the Indiana Jones films, mixing just the correct amount of sentimentality with rip-roaring adventure.
4. New Beginning – Minority Report
This uplifting piece played at the redemptive finale of one of Spielberg’s more melancholic, yet thrilling movies that graced the start of the 21st Century. 90% performed by the string section, Williams dreamy opening builds up to an ending of optimism and hope that was a refreshing face wipe after a dour and dank film
3. The Face of Pan – Hook
In a film that struggles at times under the sheer weight of its sentimentality, slap bang in the middle of all the chaotic raucousness of the Lost Boys teasing the now adult Pan, there is this brief respite, of quiet reflective exploration that is as moving as this film should have been allowed to get “Oh there you are Peter”.
2. Journey to the Island – Jurassic Park
From its perky, effervescent start that buzzes with adventure and excitement, to its familiar reprise of the now famous Jurassic Park main theme, to its playful interior moments that accompany Dr. Grant’s struggle to fasten a seatbelt, Williams is throwing everything at this almost 9-minute opus. Along with the thrills and spills, there is enough lower tone brass to ensure that we don’t get too comfy and that there is a need to approach carefully. It all culminates in one of the most breathtaking shots in Cinematic history, the introduction of the Brachiosaurus to Drs’ Grant, Sattler, and Malcolm. The music perfectly matches the moment of sheer exhilaration that the audience is feeling and the bewilderment experienced by the characters. The track once again continues as the troop of explorers heads back to the visitor centre, and there is a brief reminder from Williams, that no matter how excited we are feeling about seeing these dinosaurs, assisted by a ferocious looking T-Rex skeleton in the Centre, we must as an audience exercise caution.
1. Escape/Chase/Saying Goodbye – E.T
Spielberg recently said, “without John Williams, E.T wouldn’t have been able to fly”. This piece of music is pure childhood. I’ve already talked about exhilaration and adventure in this blog, how can you not when writing about John Williams, but here we have the ultimate musical accessory. Split into 3 parts starting with Elliott and Michael escaping the home with E.T to rendezvous with their friends at the local park. This first segment is filled with peril and tension aided by Michael’s erratic driving and Elliot’s nailbiting tunnel peg removal from the back of the stolen van. As soon as we get on the bikes the second part kicks in with the frenetic strings that elicit pure childhood. The money shot moment kicks in 6:58 as the reprise of the flying theme launches, E.T, Elliot, Michael and their friends across the sunset. The final act of the piece, the emotional goodbye as Elliot and E.T part ways, is never allowed to descend into total mawkishness, but lets be clear here, it is not the intention of either Spielberg or Williams to have any dry eyes in the audience at this point, you cry at this, or else may I suggest you go audition for the role of the Tin Man in the Wizard of OZ as there is clearly a heart needed.
The Star Wars Universe
Away from his work with Steven Spielberg, Williams is perhaps most noted for his work on the Star Wars saga. Recommended to Star Wars creator George Lucas by Spielberg after Williams’ work on Jaws, Williams, and Lucas began yet another one of Hollywood’s great collaborative relationships. I will start by showing the original 1976 trailer for Star Wars to illustrate my point. The trailer conjures an almost unrecognisable atmosphere of the film to the one we know and love. Watching the trailer, you would have no idea that the film would be released in the UK with U certificate, but what is perhaps most intriguing is the lack of John Williams’ imperious classical score. Without the music, Star Wars is marketed as a suspenseful action thriller, almost a horror movie set in space. It is impossible for anyone in my generation to imagine a world before or even without Star Wars but the trailer below demonstrates that without John Williams we are watching a very different film.
Over the 40+ years since Star Wars was unleashed on the popular culture zeitgeist, each installment has been met with either Universal acclaim (Episode 5) to Univeral panning (Episode 2 anyone?) but what has never been in doubt in any Star Wars film has been the scores produced by John Williams. Even Episode 2 has the melodramatic but majestic Across the Stars, which proved that even when dialogue is written and delivered with the poise and guile of a drunk man being tasered whilst carrying a tray of marbles, that form may well be temporary but class is permanent. The music of the Star Wars saga is as much of an importance to our auditory functions as the collection of alien lifeforms or the fantastical worlds are to our visual appeals.
George Lucas created the Star Wars universe but I think John Williams created his own unique world with the variety, dynamism and pure out emotion that accompanies the visuals better than any other film series I can think of. Fans of the films can listen to the scores from any Star Wars film and instantly be able to pinpoint the part of the film it applies too. Those slightly less devoted can listen to the score and have an entirely different experience as they are taken on a journey through their own imagination that holds no barriers. Here are my 5 favourite pieces from the Star Wars saga, in no particular order.
The Asteroid Field from The Empire Strikes Back
Recently adapted by John Powell for the Score of 2018’s Solo, this piece takes me back to my 4-year-old self who sat in the flea pit, cigarette stained, overflowing toilets and sticky carpet Canon Cinema in Bolton where I was watching a double bill of Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back. I don’t remember a great deal about Empire from that showing but I do remember this bit. Leaving all the damp, festering stench of the numerous discarded packs of Peter Stuyvesant Reds behind I was suddenly transported into the cockpit of the Millenium Falcon as we twisted and turned through the Asteroid Field to escape the pursuing Empire. I remember ducking and yelping in a C3PO style voice as the rocks (and occasional potato) flew past the screen. It was pure cinema, pure exhilaration and was the greatest thing this 4-year-old had ever experienced. Adding to this unbridled joy was John Williams who perfectly captured the excitement of this daring race through the stars. After the first 2 minutes of cat and mouse banter between the brass and woodwind section, with Han furiously searching for his Hydro spanners, we finally get to the precipice of the rollercoaster hill climb to be plunged at 2 mins 18 headfirst into ripping cornets and frantic strings. One of the finest demonstrations of film music dropping you right into the action.
Luke Vs Vader – Return of the Jedi
Due to my family being a bit late to the VHS party and not being regular cinema-goers I had to wait an eternal 5 years to finally get to see Return of the Jedi. On the night my dad brought home our first video recorder he had managed to obtain a copy of Jedi from the local video shop and that was me done for the weekend. Food was not necessary, I ran upstairs got my pyjamas on and waited impatiently for the rest of the selfish oafs to finish their Friday night chippy tea. Eventually, they sat with me and we pressed play and my mind was blown. I had read the storybook version of Jedi having received the St Michaels annual for a previous Christmas (see image below) cover to cover dozens of times but never seen the film. This was the one I had waited for, my whole life had led to this moment. I won’t bore you with the time we were told we were to watch it at school as part of our patron saints feast day only to find that the kid who organised it brought The NeverEnding Story instead, counseling did not help.
So finally Jedi, it was everything I’d wanted and more. None more so than Vader’s redemption which occurs just after the piece above. I don’t think it’s the saga’s greatest lightsaber duel but it is the most important to me and that is partly down to John William’s music, which captures the moment where Luke really does get the upper hand for the first time. The main hero and the main “villain” battling possibly to the death. The original trilogy to me was building up to this moment and it is hauntingly beautiful as a result.
Princess Leia theme – Star Wars a New Hope
It is often taken for granted just how much of an emotional punch John Williams brings to the Star Wars saga with his scores. Similar to the Yoda theme, the Princess Leia theme is instantly recognisable to the character that it accompanies. From the “Help me Obi-Wan, you’re my only hope” hologram of a New Hope, to the heartbreaking reprise 2 mins 40 into the Finale from The Last Jedi, as Williams remembers the late, great Carrie Fisher, we know we are in the presence of nobility, a courageous warrior and indefatigable leader. Princess Leia was in so many ways ahead of her time as a character, a shrieking damsel in distress she most certainly wasn’t. From the moment she meets and basically ridicules both Luke and Han at their lame rescue attempts, we have a hero with more than her fair share of guts and steely determination. Watch how she verbally spars with both Vader and Tarkin and how she ruthlessly dispatches stormtroopers whilst Luke faffs around with his makeshift cord/vine that will enable them to swing to safety and that’s just the first film. Williams score, although gentle and melancholic in places also demonstrates that this is no shrinking violet, this is a Force to be reckoned with.
Rey’s Theme – The Force Awakens
There are people on Planet Earth who like pineapple on pizza, who think Cristiano Ronaldo is a better football player than Lionel Messi, who think Queen never made a decent album after News of the World, and those who think that the latest Star Wars films are childhood destroyers and a slight on all of humanity…………..these people are all wrong. The one thing that they will no doubt all agree on, however, is that the music John Williams has produced for the most recent entries into the Star Wars universe is of an unflappable quality that captures the essence of the original and prequel trilogies. Joking aside, regardless of what your tastes of the visual action on screen maybe (and if you hate Episodes VII and VIII, you are and always will be wrong :)), you would be a deemed a pineapple pizza eating monster if you did not revel in William’s scores. Capturing elements from the original scores and mixing in new themes like a master alchemist. This is perhaps none more so illustrated by Rey’s theme, which starts with a solo clarinet which reflects Rey’s solitude before moving onto percussion with the rising strings as the audience surveys Rey’s barren surroundings whilst hinting at the adventure yet to come. Thematically it recalls Luke being called across by Aunt Beru to check that any translator that Uncle Owen may buy can speak Bocce. Packed with nostalgic nods to a Universe we are so comfortable in, here Williams’ score for Episode VII grants us a time to reminisce, whilst embracing new thrills and terrors that will mean just as much to a new generation as the Imperial March did to mine.
Duel of the Fates – The Phantom Menace
Ah, the Phantom Menace, the most eagerly awaited film of all time and possibly the biggest anti-climax. However, I watched it again recently with my kids, and although far from any kind of classic, it isn’t as bad as some would have you believe. In fact, I would go so far as to say compared to Episode II it’s a veritable masterpiece. As I have mentioned already, whatever the artistic merits of the films, one area that has never been questioned are John Williams’s scores for the prequel trilogy. Duel of the Fates was instantly iconic and has become firmly embedded into pop culture history. The piece also accompanies the standout scene of the prequel trilogy as Jedi’s Obi-Wan and Qui-Gonn battle against the devilish Darth Maul (2nd best thing in the prequel trilogy after Williams’ scores), in a literal fight to the death. It’s easy to forget how perfectly choreographed this sequence actually is, and to coin a cliche, is worth the entrance fee alone. The music is a balletic partner to the ferocious battle on screen and is simply brilliant.
Other film work
Of course, there is more to John Williams than Star Wars and Spielberg films. Oscar-nominated 51 times, starting in 1968 for his score in Mark Robson’s The Valley of the Dolls till Brian Percival’s 2014’s The Book Thief, Williams has notched nominations for his work with 23 different directors including the likes of Oliver Stone, Norman Jewison, and Alan Parker. Before his Star Wars and Spielberg, Williams made an impact in a slew of disaster movies that were all the rage in the early 1970s, providing scores for major ensemble works such as the Poseidon Adventure (1973) and the Towering Inferno (1974), both scores were nominated. Following on from his double hitter of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Williams hit big again in 1978 with Superman, yet another score to firmly lodge itself into popular culture psyche for decades to come. The love theme from Superman the Movie (below) is near on perfect and once again is an example of perfect mood and moment capture.
Williams would continue to mix serious politically inspired scores most notably for Oliver Stone’s bruising Vietnam nightmare Born on the 4th of July and his conspiracy theory led JFK, both of which were Oscar nominated, with iconic festive fayre like the theme for Home Alone (see below)
Working with director Christopher Columbus, Williams’ score perfectly captured the magic of Christmas and the childhood wonder of that time of year, and the menace of the films two main miscreants. There is more of that magic incorporated in the Harry Potter scores that he also produced for Christopher Columbus. Once again Williams was able to produce an instantly recognisable score for a new generation of literary, movie and music fans, best encapsulated perhaps by Hedwig’s theme (see below)
Not only has John Williams had a profound effect on the lives of audiences the world over, but he has also left indelible impressions on some of the finest film composers working today. All brilliant in their unique way the following have all produced scores of the most exacting beauty of raucous bravado that lends more than just a hint of the John Williams Approval Shadow looming above them.
It’s quite unfair to suggest that Thomas Newman lives in the shadow of John Williams as he is a composer of such exceptional quality that I could write a blog about the 14 times Oscar nominated musician in his own right. The reason I mention him here is that I feel he is the closest to Williams of any of his contemporaries. Specialising in large scale percussion led pieces, Newman captures that sense of Americana that has become so familiar to Williams fans. When for only the 2nd time in 40 years, Williams was unable to work on a Spielberg cinematic release with 2015s Bridge of Spies, Newman was the natural choice to take up the reigns and in doing so produced my favourite of this decades Spielberg scores. Never is this more prevalent than the 10:51 epic composed for the Glienicke Bridge sequence, where Newman mixes the orchestral swells of Williams with the almost dainty, dreamlike, piano-led mistiness that had served Newman so well in previous classic scores for the likes of Frank Darabont’s Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile.
A regular in capturing the playfulness whimsy of a Pixar movie and more recently the urgency of a Bond score, Newman is one of those composers that conjures up imagery of warm cup of coffee in front of a log fire on a cold day.
The late, great James Horner who’s life was cut tragically short in a plane crash in June 2015, was a master of musical story telling. A regular collaborator with James Cameron, Horner again had the ability to create other worlds through his music to such a degree that it could be argued in some cases the visuals were matched to his music as opposed to the other way round. A fan of including angelic voices alongside perceived native beats, whether that be the tragedy of the ending of Titanic to the illustration of rusticness in Braveheart to the battle-hardened otherworldly experience of Avatar, Horner rose to prominence providing scores to fantasy films of the 1980s for the likes of Willow, Cocoon, and Krull, so the comparisons with Williams were clear to see.
A fellow Pixar regular, Giacchino cut his composer teeth by providing scores for video games in the 1990s before becoming a regular collaborator with J.J Abrams with 2005 Mission Impossible III. He then went onto score the rebooted Star Trek film series in 2008, and the majestic Spielberg inspired Super 8 in 2011. He made his Pixar debut in 2004 with The Incredibles . A now staple of Pixar, Giacchino has also dipped his conductor’s baton into the Marvel Universe with his 1970s nostalgia inspired Dr. Strange score, which if you haven’t listened to then stop what you are doing right now and listen. Giacchino’s John Williams connection saw him enter the Star Wars universe in 2016 when handed the task of composing the score for the first standalone Star Wars movie, the impressive Rogue One. Filling the sizable Williams shoes in a World that only Williams had previously trod was no doubt a daunting experience, but was handled with a deft touch that perfectly encapsulated the mood of a movie that devotees will know the emotional outcome before it even starts. The piece below could have been written by John Williams himself in one of the earlier Star Wars. I think if I’m still able to string coherent sentences together in 40 years time I may decide to write a blog on Michael Giacchino in the same gushing tones that I am currently doing for John Williams
Talking of composers who took the leap into the Star Wars universe I give you John Powell. It could be argued that John Powell’s score for 2018’s Solo: A Star Wars story is the most impressive element of the film, which is a back handed compliment if ever I heard one. I actually really enjoyed the film and think it will be thought of more highly when time becomes the most useful judge. However, there is no denying that Powell’s score is near on perfect. Similar to Giacchino, Powell really came to the fore with a series of action-packed scores for animated hits such as Shrek and the massively underrated, both from a film and score point of view, How to Train Your Dragon series. Powell had demonstrated that he could work music into action set pieces, whilst not being afraid to throw in some curve balls to the listening audience. See below for the rip-roaring and nail-biting Marauders Arrive from the Solo soundtrack, which mixes John Williams’ cues with tribal chants and breakneck pace. John Powell, like Michael Giacchino, will hopefully continue to dazzle us over the next decades as they are the closest I have heard to the mass appeal of John Williams.
With John Williams close to becoming a Nonagenarian it is fair to assume that we are currently witnessing the twilight of his career. However, with Episode IX of Star Wars currently being worked on and a fifth Indiana Jones movie slated for early next decade, there is no sign of him wishing to take it easy. I leave you with the most iconic piece of any movie score and a piece that perfectly encapsulates the brilliance of the brilliant John Williams