John Williams isn’t just a soundtrack composer; he is the undisputed master of the film score. He is also a composer of contemporary classical music with a post-romantic style and a grand conductor, pianist and jazz buff who used to play the piano for Mahalia Jackson. He really is Dr. Music. Now aged 83 he remains an extraordinary force of nature in his field. His long-standing relationship with Stephen Spielberg is a given, ditto his work for George Lucas and more, recently the ever so slightly popular Harry Potter movies. Mr Williams has won five Academy Awards and four Golden Globe Awards in the States. He has seven British Academy Film Awards and holds an unprecedented 22 Grammy Awards. Away from the razzmatazz his recording career goes back to the 1950s and encompasses concertos, orchestral and chamber works and gospel music. To pick at random – and his discography is truly vast – his tribute to Leonard Bernstein, For New York, which aired in 1988, featured him conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra. American Journey (1999) is another triumph, commissioned by then-President Bill Clinton for the USA’s official Millennium celebrations.
John Williams is an American icon with honours from the International Olympic Committee to sit next to gongs like the Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Composition for his scores for Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman, The Empire Strikes Back, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Angela’s Ashes, Munich, Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and The Book Thief. And that is just cherry-picking. No doubt you will have favourite soundtracks of his that cover more esoteric ground – The Eiger Sanction, say, but there is no denying that his ‘themes’ for Jaws, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Star Wars, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and the Indiana Jones films are vital conduits to the action. They make the hair stand up on the nape of the neck and give a promise of what’s to come in the following hours. That’s not just a rare gift; it is the mark of a genius.
Born John Towner Williams in 1932, Floral Park, New York (situated in Nassau County, on Long Island) he was immersed in a musical environment since his father was a jazz percussionist. Aged 16 John moved with the family to Los Angeles. He attended North Hollywood High, a hotbed school for the children of movie folk, musicians and top sports stars. He graduated from the University of California, took the draft for the U.S. Air Force (he conducted and arranged as part of his assignment), and then entered The Juilliard School back in NYC. Between studies, Williams played jazz piano in the city clubs and studios and struck up a friendship with Henry Mancini.
That man’s invigorating lightness of touch was an influence in some manner but Williams became more steeped in so-called neo-romanticism – the big stuff we associate with 19th-century composers like Richard Wagner and Tchaikovsky. Other inspirations were fellow composers Franz Waxman, Bernard Herrmann (Alfred Hitchcock’s musical maestro) and Alfred Newman, so elements of experimentalism and cinematic mood changes were soon in his repertoire. Add to that his work for Jerry Goldsmith and Elmer Bernstein (as well as Mancini) and you hear his style emerge on the scores for Peter Gunn, Days of Wine and Roses and Charade.
TV work bolstered his aspiring movie career and his versatility was so apparent that his schedule became the envy of many a Hollywood composer.
So while he also had what might be called a solo life his time was divided between glittering worlds of the small and large screen. With Valley of the Dolls and Goodbye Mr. Chips under his belt Williams entered the 1970s with the lavish Jane Eyre soundtrack. Cinderella Liberty (1973) and The Eiger Sanction, starring James Caan and Clint Eastwood respectively, are for the connoisseur but they are wholeheartedly recommended for discovery now.
And so to what may be the most recognizable musical theme of all, Jaws. The shark theme, a clever reinterpretation of the shower scene in Psycho is the ultimate in classic suspense and imminent danger and on release had audiences transfixed, or in many cases, hiding behind their cinema seats! Fantastic.
In terms of official recognition, Williams’ original motion picture soundtrack to Star Wars (1977) has been even more feted with the American Film Institute citing its stirring score as the most memorable in any US film.
Amazingly that same year Williams composed, conducted and produced the music to Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, offering another iconic statement for popular culture with the “five-tone” motif whose arrival during the key moment of contact with the alien life force will still bring a tear to the eye.
Jaws 2 and Superman: The Movie kept him on a roll that is unlikely to be equalled. The former is even more terrifying in parts and typifies hair-raising suspense. How does he do that!
Whatever the answer he continues to do it with mindboggling regularity. 1941, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders Of The Lost Ark are indicators of a composer who knows how to push the right buttons with themes that are full of exploratory promise, patriotism, derring-do and sheer musicality that has movie-goers humming their way home with those JW ear-worms that just won’t go away.
E.T.’s sweetness reveals another side of Williams and like most of his work from this era, it is available in remastered formats. As a measure of merit the score was the fourth in history to accomplish the feat of winning the Oscar, Golden Globe, Grammy, and BAFTA (the previous two, Star Wars and Jaws, were also composed by Williams, who remains the only person to have won all awards for the same score more than once). To date, a total of only six scores have won all four awards. Rock fans might like to note that Williams produced the E.T. score with Bruce Botnick in Los Angeles. Botnick was the long time Doors engineer who produced their L.A. Woman album.
1984’s Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom has all the reassuring ingredients of the franchise in John’s music but Empire of the Sun, directed by Stephen Spielberg, is more traditionally classical.
In the 1990s there are many albums to discover and enjoy: Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List are darker in tone. The former is recommended in the 20th Anniversary Edition from 2013 where the digital download includes extra tracks selected by the composer. The Lost World: Jurassic Park also has a digital download reissue.
Seven Years in Tibet, Amistad and Saving Private Ryan presage a move for Williams’ output to DreamWorks while The Patriot theme (2000) has entered US folklore since it was used after Barack Obama’s victory-speech as President-elect of the United States eight years later.
Incredibly, Williams work soars again on Minority Report, which is arguably his most compellingly atmospheric score of all, combing modernism with his hand-picked classical choices and an overall score that pays homage to the spooked scene setters of Bernard Herrmann – specifically North by Northwest and Psycho, also the creepy FX used on The Birds. Great film, great soundtrack.
Williams wrote all the orchestral pieces for the highly entertaining Catch Me If You Can (2002), starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, Martin Sheen and Amy Adams. He evidently enjoyed himself doing the light romantic comedy The Terminal but got firmly stuck into a return to frightening crescendos for War of the Worlds where his mastery of musical scare tactics and rhythmic switch-hitting are integral to the action.
Many think he should have snapped up the Oscar for Best Original Score on Munich, one of Spielberg’s most underrated films.
He is back on home turf with the ever-popular Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull but out of his comfort zone on The Adventures of Tintin (2011), his first animated film. Most of the score was written while the film’s animation was still in the early stages, with Williams attempting to employ “the old Disney technique of doing music first and have the animators trying to follow what the music is doing”. Naturally, he pulls it off.
In 2015 John’s original themes were the musical highpoint of Jurassic World but it is Star Wars: The Force Awakens that is rocking the world of fans of the galaxy far, far away. With new themes and an evolutionary writing process at the bridge, this has got to be the movie event of the year, bar none. And who better than the emperor of the soundtrack to guide us into the land of the Jedi… May the force be with him for years to come.
Words: Max Bell