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John Williams

John Williams 2003

Hollywood legend John Williams has provided the soundtrack to many a movie fan’s childhood, with the composer crafting iconic scores for big screen heroes such as Indiana Jones, Superman and Harry Potter. He is almost certainly the most well-known film composer, and possibly to many people the best-known composer, period.

He was born in New York where his father Johnny Williams was a percussist and the young John started piano lessons from age 7. When the family moved to the West coast, his father found session work playing on film soundtracks so it was quite a natural thing for John to start out with similar work as a freelance pianist. During the Golden Age of Hollywood Cinema, he worked as a pianist and arranger with film music luminaries such as Alfred Newman, Franz Waxman, Bernard Herrmann, and later Henry Mancini. With such exposure to the industry, and the encouragement of Newman in particular, Williams made the transition into composition. Among his early work as a composer were the television shows of Irwin Allen such as “Lost in Space”, “Time Tunnel” and “Land of the Giants”. He then composed for a variety of films including “The Reivers”, “The Cowboys” and some popular disaster movies including “The Poseidon Adventure” and “The Towering Inferno”. One particular early success was his first Oscar (of five currently) for his adaptation of Jerry Bock’s music for the stage musical “Fiddler on the Roof”.

Williams was already establishing a respected position for himself in Hollywood, when his career was to reach an important turning point. Stephen Spielberg was starting out in the movie business and approached Williams to score his early movies. In quick succession this led to Williams’ second Oscar for Jaws and his introduction to George Lucas who then hired him for his Star Wars saga leading to his third Oscar. This succession of events rapidly established John Williams as one of the foremost film composers of the day. The close relationship with Steven Spielberg and the director’s own meteoric career meant that he was the composer for many major films of the period, including “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, “Superman”, “E.T.” (Winning Oscar number four) and the Indiana Jones movies.

Williams’ music is firmly from the classical tradition, based heavily on the style of the late-romantics such as Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. It has at times some modernistic overtones (such as with Close Encounters of the Third Kind), yet primarily it is just wholesome music full of good memorable tunes with fanfares and fun marches particularly prominent. Williams is rightly well-regarded for his ability to construct a tune and sound which perfectly complements the mood of a film. An interesting documentary about John Williams’ film music has appeared on YouTube, made during the making of “The Empire Strikes Back” but including many clips from his films and comments from Lucas and Spielberg.

Although the relationship with Spielberg was obviously central to his career in Hollywood, it can also be seen as perhaps limiting musically, since most of his movies belonged to a narrow range of family fantasy and adventure stories. However that limitation was not significant in the longer term. Firstly, both director and composer have not always shared an exclusive relationship. Spielberg chose Quincy Jones to score his “The Colour Purple” for example, and John Williams for his part has worked with a number of different directors. Irwin Allen and George Lucas and, outside this circle, Williams also scored The Witches of Eastwick (for George Miller), “J.F.K.” (Oliver Stone), “Home Alone” (Chris Columbus) and many others. The other factor that impacted the type of movie he worked on, was that Spielberg himself sought to broaden his range of movie genres with films such as “Empire of the Sun”, “Schindler’s List” (Williams winning his fifth Oscar), “Saving Private Ryan”, “Amistad” and “Minority Report”.

For a time Williams was conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra, and he has written several classical concert pieces. As America’s best-known composer, he has also been commissioned to compose works for some big events such as the Olympics and the unveiling of the Statue of Liberty. Several of these works can be found on album collections of Williams’ music. In the realm of film music, it seems as though Williams will always be very much in demand. John Williams has won five Oscars, four Golden Globes, seven BAFTAs and 21 Grammys. With 48 Oscar nominations, he is second only to Walt Disney as most nominated person ever.

Steven Spielberg, who has collaborated with Williams on 25 films, believes the composer makes him appear a better director. “John’s music immediately bypasses the brain and goes straight to your heart,” he said. “That’s the way he’s always been… an amazing talent.” “Writing a tune is like sculpting,” Williams once said. “You get four or five notes, you take one out and move one around, and you do a bit more and eventually, as the sculptor says, “In that rock there is a statue, we have to go find it.”

John Williams Film Scores:

  • Valley of the Dolls
  • Goodbye, Mr. Chips
  • The Reivers
  • The Missouri Breaks – an example of Williams’ earlier experiments using a Jazz influenced style
  • Images
  • Tom Sawyer
  • The Rare Breed
  • Cinderella Liberty
  • The Cowboys – an early taste of the Williams style
  • Dracula – just like the Hammer Horror sound
  • Fiddler on the Roof – though Jerry Bock did the songs
  • The Poseidon Adventure
  • The Long Goodbye
  • Earthquake – the main disaster effects are played without music, but the titles and rescue scenes show interesting examples of John Williams’ early style for the cinema
  • Jane Eyre – made for TV in 1971
  • The Fury – some very effective string writing for this Brian DePalma horror movie
  • Sugarland Express – his first film collaboration with Steven Spielberg, who had previously worked with the composer Billy Goldenberg on several TV series and the film “Duel”
  • Black Sunday – an action suspense movie with a suggestion of ethnic musical influences in the earlier scenes
  • The Towering Inferno
  • The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing – replacing Michel Legrand at short notice, Williams used some Cowboys western style, but mostly a harmonica led jazz theme with some dreamy sequences and short cues for timpani and snare drum
  • The Eiger Sanction – suitably European sounding
  • Jaws 1, 2, 3D, 4
  • Family Plot
  • Battle of Midway – a long film with a single stirring march
  • Close Encounters of the third Kind – with its integral 5-note theme
  • Superman 1, 2, 3, 4 – absolutely perfect for the comic book hero
  • 1941 – Includes another march and also borrows the Jaws theme for a rising submarine!
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark, no.2 Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, no.3 (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) and no.4 (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) – another rousing march, adventure, excitement and some nods to ethnic styles
  • Star Wars 4 (A New Hope), 5 (The Empire Strikes Back), 6 (Return of the Jedi) [the Original Trilogy], and 1 (The Phantom Menace), 2 (Attack of the Clones) and 3 (Revenge of the Sith) [the later prequels] – fanfares and themes to denote characters now familiar the world over
  • ET, The Extra-Terrestrial – full of childhood innocence and wonder
  • Yes, Giorgio – the song “If We Were In Love” with lyrics by Marilyn & Alan Bergman and sung by Luciano Pavarotti, here are Williams and Pavarotti rehearsing the song
  • The Big Chill
  • The River
  • SpaceCamp
  • Empire of the Sun – underrated soundtrack, the boy choir illustrates certain innocence unaware of the war, but there are many harsh events to bring a darker touch to the music
  • The Witches of Eastwick – devilishly good!
  • The Accidental Tourist
  • Always – the music is mostly light, impressionist, dreamy and ethereal
  • Born on the Fourth of July
  • Home Alone and Sequel “Lost in New York” – delightfully cartoonish in places but overall a wonderful family Christmas score
  • Presumed Innocent
  • J.F.K.
  • Nixon
  • Hook
  • Schindler’s List – haunting Jewish melodies
  • Jurassic Park and Jurassic Park 2 – majestic
  • Far and Away – almost Celtic and with a contribution from Enya
  • Sleepers – with Brad Pitt and Robert de Nero
  • Amistad – includes African influences
  • Rosewood
  • Saving Private Ryan – low-key except for the end title “Hymn to the Fallen” which emotes reverence, sorrow and pride
  • Sabrina
  • Stepmom – a homely theme and generally playing a supportive role to the story and characters
  • Seven Years in Tibet – the music is a touch enigmatic for this soul-less film
  • Angela’s Ashes – Williams’ first soundtrack for director Alan Parker, the movie is set amid abject poverty in Ireland and the hauntingly sad theme uses oboe, strings, harp and piano
  • A.I. Artificial Intelligence – among the dreamy tracks there are some modernistic cues like CE3K or suggestions of the Ligeti and Khachaturian tracks on Kubrick’s 2001
  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (and sequels “Chamber of Secrets” and “Prisoner of Azkaban”) – magical and exhilarating with the third being a touch darker and more adult, see Patrick Doyle for “Goblet of Fire”
  • The Patriot
  • Minority Report – an exciting departure from Williams’ familiar family fantasy movies
  • Catch Me if You Can – yet another Oscar nomination, for this unusual score with 60s feel and jazz influences
  • The Terminal – this has a light sound with suggestions of Eastern European origins and a jazz influence for the decorating scenes, in many ways the music is hardly noticeable but adds immensely to the mood of the film
  •  War of the Worlds – for Steven Spielberg
  • Memoirs of a Geisha – with performances by Yo-yo Ma (cello) and Itzhak Perlman (violin)
  • Munich – a suspenseful, sad and thoughtful yet ultimately hopeful soundtrack
  • The Adventures of Tintin
  • War Horse
  •  Lincoln
  •  The Book Thief
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