No one and I mean no one, has contributed more to cinema and our idea of modern blockbusters than composer John Williams. His accolades are numerous; winner of 5 Academy Awards and nominated for 52 which puts in rare company along with Walt Disney who claimed 59 during his career. The themes for Star Wars, Superman, Jaws, E.T.: The Extraterrestrial and Jurassic Park have become cemented in the minds and hearts of movie going audiences for generations. It would be next to impossible to properly quantify William’s legacy but in honor of the composer’s recent 90th birthday, here are a few of his most iconic compositions.
There aren’t a lot of films that instantly come to mind after simply playing two musical notes but 1975’s Jaws immediately enters the brain. This film would cement the collaboration between Williams and director Steven Spielberg for the next 50 years and Williams’ music for the monstrous shark evokes feelings of dread and fear but the score also contains strong adventure themes as our hero’s journey out onto the ocean to kill the shark. The music that plays over Robert Shaw’s monologue of the U.S.S. Indianapolis and his survival in shark infested waters is the rare example of actor and composer working beautifully in tandem.
While I am unable to add more praise to the numerous praise and accolades Williams has received for the original film, his work across all 9 films of the Skywalker Saga is truly a marvel to behold. His ability to tell a story through music is astounding as he creates in the first film of the trilogy that build and grow during the course of the remaining films. You probably have a favorite film in the series and odds are good that you have a favorite piece of music from it; Possibly the theme for the Empire during The Empire Strikes Back, the music that plays as Luke stares into the dual suns of Tattooine in A New Hope or it’s the dramatic chorus that plays during The Phantom Menace but everyone has a theme that speaks to them. For me, it is the Force Theme that is a constant presence in the series but it’s specifically tied to Jedi like Obi-Wan Kenobi or Yoda.
If you are a 90’s baby then chances are that this is the score than made you a John Williams fan or is just one of your favorite films. Instead of creating music similar to Jaws and evoking horror for the onscreen dinosaurs, Williams crafted a score that evokes wonder and awe as dinosaurs come to life in some of the best visual effects ever created for a film. His themes for both the island and the predators are incredible. In particular, his music as the film opens and a park worker is killed by a raptor is a prime example of how to properly establish tension in an adventure film.
If you’ve noticed a pattern of the Spielberg/Williams collaboration then you are right on track. The composer and director have worked together on more than 20 films and while this caper film lacks the bombastic score of past blockbusters, Williams composed a jazzy score that reflects the cat-and-mouse nature between Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks. It feels improvisational similar to how a conman would escape hairy situations and it feels tender while concealing a seedy motive. It’s a testament to how Williams is a chameleon and is able to craft a mysterious but compelling score.
Even though Williams does his best work in the adventure genre, he does amazing work in making his themes unique. His work in Raiders is rousing in the action scenes and evokes wonder during the mysterious sections particularly when Indy investigates the Well of the Souls and discovers the location of the Lost Ark. Even Indy himself has a theme during the Raider’s March and has left an indelible mark as it has become synonymous with the iconic character. While Williams has scaled back his work in recent years, he is set to return as the composter for the fifth Indiana Jones film set to release in 2023.
If I have not mentioned your favorite John Williams score, check out The Soundtrack Show podcast where composer and host David W. Collins takes a deep dive into film scores and the stories behind them.
Featured Image Credit: LucasFilm, Ltd.