JohnWilliams

9 Favorite John Williams Scores

Last month’s “9 on the 9th” list post featured the music of Jerry Goldsmith, the man behind my first love of film music. So I thought it appropriate that this month’s post focus on another essential composer in my early years of film music exploration, and arguably the most famous film composer in history–John Williams.

Through his string of hit films and his long-time tenure as conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra, Williams is as close as we have to film music royalty, if for no other reason than his music is so recognizable to the general public. But in the extraordinary box office success and the countless tubs of buttered popcorn that have accompanied so many of his films, let us not forget that Williams is a first-rate composer. A Williams score is immediately identifiable. His gift of melody and dramatic sense have given fans–and non-fans–countless hours of listening pleasure.

Like Goldsmith, narrowing down the list of favorite Williams scores to a mere nine seems not only futile, but ultimately foolhardy. Yet I hereby submit nine of my favorites…at least as they stand today when I hit “publish.”

9. THE RIVER (1984)johnwilliams 9 Favorite John Williams Scores

For all the criticisms leveled at Williams for his bombast–and some of them are justified–when the film requires it, he pulls back. And nowhere is that more evident than in his lovely score to this relatively forgotten film. Released in what some critics called the year of “country” films, which also included COUNTRY and PLACES IN THE HEART, Williams’ score was deservedly nominated for this film of a farm family in trouble. In a rare use of guitar by Williams, the score has its tinge of country without the twang. Intensely melodic with a touch of Americana, this score never fails to delight me.

8. DRACULA (1979)

Williams caught all the sexual sturm und drang of Bram Stoker’s blood-sucker. Frank Langella reprised his Broadway role but the film doesn’t add up to much. It was up to Williams to capture the Gothic horror of the classic story. Long out of print and prohibitively expensive, the original MCA disc is sorely in need of expansion and remastering. I defy you to name a better vampire score.

7. THE FURY (1978)

At age 16, THE FURY frightened me almost as much as my beloved OMEN did. And like Goldsmith did with THE OMEN, much of the fear in THE FURY came from Williams’ music. Brian de Palma’s film was relatively stylish at the time, even if it was based on literary trash. Now, except for the justly famous horrific ending, Williams’ score is the best element in the film. The main theme, a minor key slow waltz, had a memorable clarinet melody that I would have killed to play.

6. THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST (1988)

I’m a big fan of Anne Tyler’s books, though THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST did not catch my interest initially, nor did the film. What did catch my interest was Geena Davis’ pitch perfect dog trainer and Williams’ lovely mono-thematic score. With its constant four-note motif underscoring the main theme, the steady tempo rarely speeds up or flags. The decibel rarely rises above a mezzo forte, and yet the music gets under your skin, making you care about characters you may not have at the beginning of the film. So that when Williams lets loose with the final joyous statement of the theme, you can’t help but be moved. I also have a soft spot in my heart for this film because of Edward, the Cardigan Welsh Corgi dog. When I was deciding on a dog, I remembered that odd, goofy-looking animal, and Watson came into my life because of my fond memories of this film.

5. HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN (2004)

I am not a fan of the Harry Potter movies. I think every director has taken J. K. Rowling’s magical world and turned it into CGI-infested (and cheap-looking CGI at that) claptrap. When Williams was on the podium for the first three films, you could be assured of at least a few moments of musical magic, even if that magic was in short supply elsewhere in the films. Williams set the stage in HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE  (2001) with a handful of memorable themes, and built upon those themes for HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS (2002). But he really hit his stride with this third film. From the humor of “Aunt Marge’s Waltz” to the medieval choral “Double Trouble,” Williams’ music had matured along with the characters, even if that wasn’t always evident onscreen. But it is in the action cues that he excels. From the punching mania of “The Whomping Willow” to the sheer exhilaration of “Buckbeak’s Flight,” the score is full of one memorable moment after another. And that’s more than I can say for the film.

4. SUPERMAN (1978)

SUPERMAN started the comic book film craze and if some of the film’s have surpassed this early entry in special effects, there was no equal to that first thrill of seeing Christopher Reeve fly. But those flights wouldn’t have been half so soul-stirring without Williams’ classic score. That memorable trumpet SU-PER-MAN fanfare is one of the all-time great film music themes. When Film Score Monthly released their mammoth SUPERMAN box set last year, it was a reminder that they don’t score them like this anymore. More’s the pity.

3. E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982)

I rarely see a film more than once in the theater, but I saw E.T. ten times. I have a dear friend who hates Williams’ score for its bombastic ending and its manipulative quality; two reasons I love it. No matter how many times I see the film or hear the score, the clarinet solo accompanying E.T.’s “death” gets me every time. And it’s not Spielberg’s images that fly Elliott and E.T. over the moon, it’s Williams’ music. Our hearts soar along with that bike. The score has been released many times on disc, each one expanded a bit more, each one leaving off tracks from earlier incarnations. To have the most complete version, you need to own all three. And if I remember correctly, it is still missing some music. But no matter how much music is released, nothing will ever quite equal the cohesive quality of the original LP.

2. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977)

How Williams found the musical inspiration for STAR WARS and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS in the same year defies explanation. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS is arguably the richer, more complex score. And I have fond memories of getting it as an Easter gift, finding it hidden behind some books on a shelf. Even the orange, spongey circus peanuts that were di rigeur on that holiday were forgotten once I played that opening crescendo in the strings. From its interpolation of “When You Wish Upon a Star” to the action cues and the musical awe at the appearance of the Mother Ship, Williams’ music crossed not only language and human barriers, but those of space and time.

1. STAR WARS (1977)

What else is there to say about STAR WARS? With one film, John Williams changed the face of film music forever, not only returning it to its Golden Age roots, but reminding us that there always was–and always will be–a place for great orchestral music in film. Is it the strongest of the six scores? Maybe not. You could argue for THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. But nothing equaled the thrill of this music in 1977. The leitmotivs are numerous and classic, even to the most casual filmgoer. I’d argue there’s not a fan boy–or girl–alive who bought that original double LP and did not wear it out. I would assume for seasoned film music fans, it provided them a public outlet to finally stand up and be counted. For those of us still in relative film music virginity, nothing provided us with as much orgiastic pleasure as Williams’ legendary score.

What are your favorite Williams scores?

About Jim Lochner

Jim has been writing about film music for over a decade. He holds a Bachelor of Music from The University of Texas at Arlington and a Master of Music from The University of Texas (Austin), both in Clarinet Performance. He has written soundtrack CD liner notes for Intrada, Varèse Sarabande Records, Film Score Monthly, La-La Land Records and Disques Cinemusique. Jim has been a bimonthly guest on BBC-Kent’s Drive Home at the Movies radio program and has been interviewed by a number of online and print outlets, including The Toronto Globe and Mail and the Los Angeles Times. Jim served as the managing editor of Film Score Monthly Online (FSMOnlineMag.com) and is currently writing a book on Charlie Chaplin's film music. For more information, visit JimLochner.com.

43 comments

  1. Some great ones here! I haven’t heard The River, Dracula or The Accidental Tourist. The others goes on my list as well with the exception of Prisoner of Azkaban. I think Chamber of Secrets is a much better score. Also I would include Jaws, The Patriot, Memoirs of a Geisha, Saving Private Ryan, Jurassic Park, Home Alone, Hook, Indiana Jones on my list. Hmm too many?`

    Ok, 9… Star Wars, Memoirs of a Geisha, Jurassic Park, The Patriot, Hook, Superman, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Saving Private Ryan and Indiana Jones…. No rankings however.

    • All of them worthy selections, though I’m not a big fan of Memoirs of a Geisha. For some reason, it doesn’t move me like it does other people. But that’s no reflection on the quality of the writing.

  2. No love for Indy?

    BTW, if I haven’t said so in the past this is a great site! I don’t read too many film music related blogs but I’ve bookmarked this one and will be back regularly.

    • Plenty of love for Indy, they just didn’t make the cut. (Though you’ve given an idea for a future blog post. Thanks.)

      Thanks for your kind words, Erik. Hope Janet and Charlotte are doing well.

  3. I think my favorite is The Witches of Eastwick but i do LOVE Accidental Tourist.

    • And yet another title that didn’t quite make the cut. I thought about WITCHES, I really did. Maybe next time. :)

  4. You must be a masochist for trying to determine which 9 movies to include with Williams or Goldsmith. There are so many considerations. In leaving out Jaws, you’re overlooking what may be the shortest most recognizable motif in film music (the low strings half-step that warns us of the shark).

    Maybe that’s an idea for a whole new blog piece. The great motifs of film music. Bernard Herrmann’s “The Murder” from the shower scene in Psycho comes to mind.

    • Yes, I AM a masochist and I knew it before I even tried it, hence the “foolish and futile” caveat. :)

      Actually, that’s not a bad idea for a post. Hmmm… (wheels turning).

      And if it makes me look any better, I was embarrassed to leave out JAWS, but what could I do…

  5. “For those of us still in relative film music virginity, nothing provided us with as much orgiastic pleasure as Williams’ legendary score.”

    I love that sentence.

    Wow, picking nine favorite Williams scores is a difficult task. Let’s see, I’ll definitely include Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. My favorite film of the series so far, because of the soundtrack. I’ll never forget everyone in theater applauding at the end of Aunt Marge’s Waltz.
    Even though it’s a little repetitive, Catch Me if You Can is another favorite. Always nice to hear a bit of saxophone in a film score.
    Superman is a must.
    Jurassic Park. I practically destroyed my VHS copy from watching it too much.
    Memoirs of a Geisha, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Witches of Eastwick, and, of course, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

    Other favorites: Jaws, Hook, Schindler’s List, Home Alone, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

    Embarrassed to say I haven’t heard his Dracula and The Fury music yet.

    Great site!

    • Thanks David. Glad you’re enjoying the site. And, yes, I like that sentence too. LOL Though it was a bit more “purple” in its original form. I decided to edit a bit. Still ended up okay though. All of your choices are very worthy, but when it’s Williams, it’s hard to say no because there are so many. You must check out DRACULA and THE FURY.

  6. Alphabetical. Asking me to rate = Chinese Water Torture.

    1. The Accidental Tourist. I’ve said it before — Williams understood the melancholy better than Kasdan and Hurt. “New Beginning,” the final cue, is a three-hanky tour de force.

    2. Dracula. A la Badham, Williams confessed to knowing zero vampire shorthand. Maybe that’s why this glorious, ketchup-and-thunder opus is the definitive example of the genre. Bliss.

    3. The Empire Strikes Back. Two Words: Imperial March. Everything else is gravy, and that’s saying a hell of a lot. “Battle in the Snow,” baby!

    4. The Fury. Masterwork. A Main Title that both echoes and tops Herrmann, and then Guignol ensues. “Gillian’s Escape”! Saving Goldsmith’s richly deserved “Omen” honorific, why don’t these scores ever get nominations?

    5. JFK. Paranoia personified. “The Motorcade” and “The Conspirators” nail this one to the wall. Stone was lucky to find his historic muse.

    6. The Long Goodbye. Beau jest, if you will. Altman and Williams’ wry response to the proliferation of title tunes and themes. The entire score is one long riff on a single track, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that, whether played by a chamber orchestra, jazz combo, Mexican street band or even as a doorbell chime, it’s a characteristically great one. (My favorite? The jazz vocal.) Best joke ever.

    7. The Patriot. Gibson as badass poster boy for our revolutionary ancestors inspired one of Williams’ finest themes. Chest-swelling, drum-and-fife majesty.

    8. The Poseidon Adventure. Not much of it, but what’s there is choice. The orchestra as watery menace, rolling waves and all. Herrmann did this earlier in “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir,” but Williams sees the tsunami behind the reflection. The End Title build and crash is peerless, and those final piano notes are money.

    9. The Reivers. Americana in its purest form. One of the few scores I can always play start to finish. Simply lovely.

    • Some random comments to your choices…

      3. Empire Strikes Back – “Battle in the Snow” indeed, baby!

      4. I can tell you why horror scores don’t get nominated today, because they all sound the same. And the fact that it’s a genre that gets no respect from any corner. That hasn’t changed.

      5. JFK – Great score and movie. Good choice.

      6. Never seen The Long Goodbye, though I do have the CD. I think I need to hear the score in context.

      8. The ending of Poseidon is fantastic.

      • And I fixed this one too. :) And so you guys don’t feel bad, I fixed an “it’s” to “its” that I did. (One of my pet peeves.) Typos, ugh. So easy online.

    • LOL Thank God I never make mistakes like that! Sheesh! ;) Actually I corrected it for you.

  7. Good Lord! I didn’t misspell “it’s,” did I?! I LOATHE poor punctuation and grammar, and that would slay me! If so, it was purely a keyboard slip. (Sorry — I was an English major.)

    RE horror scores: I don’t think that ALL of them sound the same these days. Christopher Young keeps doing really fine work in the genre, and even Hans Zimmer provided compelling and eerie scores for the two “Ring” films. But honestly — Williams and Goldsmith are on an entirely different plane. And if Howard Shore would ever get another opportunity to write for the creepshows again, we might get some fun stuff.

    • No, it was MY “it’s,” not yours. Far be it from me to slay you (except with a particularly witty bon mot…but don’t sit around waiting for those.)

      As to horror scores, perhaps I spoke a bit prematurely. I’m not familiar with Young’s work particularly and horror films are definitely not my thing. I think avoid the scores because I have no desire to see them in context of the films. I’m not a big fan of being scared. It’s a personal thing. But I’ll give some of these a “go.” And I’d forgotten about Shore’s entries which are pretty fantastic.

  8. Horror movies are approach/avoidance. I must see them in the end.

    Being scared in real life? F&#k that! I was once only 10 minutes into a Halloween Horror Night before I literally walked out. That’s fun?!

    Back on topic: I was stunned in ’91 when Shore didn’t receive a nomination for “The Silence of the Lambs.” I thought certainly it must finally be his time to, at the very least, roll in on the crest of a monster hit. No — they nominated “Bugsy” instead. Sorry, Ennio — that was some terribly uninspired work.

    • Steve, I can’t believe I didn’t see this come in! Sorry for the late reply.

      I was shocked Shore didn’t get a nomination for SILENCE as well. I’ll disagree with you about BUGSY. I think Morricone’s work is haunting and captures a mood that gives the film an added emotional depth. If anything should have been dropped from that category it was George Fenton’s THE FISHER KING. I don’t like the movie, I don’t like the score, and I don’t think Fenton added anything to the film. An absolute waste.

  9. Anthony Parsons
    Reply

    Late to this party, but here are some of my favorite Williams scores/themes, in no particular order.

    Lost In Space television series
    Penelope
    Guide For The Married Man
    Jurassic Park
    John Goldfarb, Please Come Home
    Themes for Time Tunnel & Crisis (aka Kraft Suspense Theater)

    I certainly haven’t heard all of his soundtrack work but I tend to prefer the less commercially successful stuff.

    • Hi Anthony. No such thing as late to the party on here. Welcome!

      I wholeheartedly support your choices of PENELOPE and GUIDE FOR THE MARRIED MAN, two absolutely delightful scores (and MARRIED MAN is a pretty good movie too). I even find JOHN GOLDFARB a lot of fun to listen to (but torture as a movie). I loved TIME TUNNEL as a kid but don’t remember the music at all. Never heard of CRISIS. Will have to check it out.

  10. I enjoyed your rankings. But, for me, any ranking of John Williams best scores would always have to include JAWS. Although Jaws is so full of Stravinsky’s ‘Right of Spring’ influence, as well as many other classical influences, it is just such profound film music that it truly raised the bar in film scoring for good in my eyes. His two notes and minor second – back and forth shark theme – is one of the most undeniably iconic film music statements of all time. It is instantly identifiable to the public, even if they don’t know who composed it (although many do). Much like Hermmann’s ‘Psycho’ shower strings or Morricone’s ‘The Good, the Bad and The Ugly’ whistling trill, John Williams made a bold statement here that has stuck through time and still resonates today.

    Star Wars came two years later, and many have said that it is the quintessential score that changed film scoring, particularly orchestral film scoring, forever. Well, for me, I would have to say that Jaws did that. That film was the first true summer blockbuster, and its score, the first blockbuster summer score of its kind, at least of the era.

    As you said in your Herrmann 9 list that his particular list that you chose could interchange and all the scores would still be fine film music, I agree and think that idea applies to your Williams list too (as you alluded to as well). All of the scores you picked are amazing, and I truly do like them all. I especially like Williams’ score for ‘HP and the Prisoner of Azkaban’ and I feel that it is one of his most “mature” scores among his later output, or even when considering all of his output for that matter.

    Nice list!

    • Looking back over the list months later, I’ll admit that the exclusion of JAWS is a little embarrassing. LOL If we were talking “best” (knowing full well there is no such thing in art), it would definitely rank above most, if not all, of the list. But do I want to sit and listen to it? Not that often. Why? Because then it makes me want to watch the movie as well. And I know there’s some writing work that needs to be done… But wait, I’ll just watch 10 minutes of the movies…ok, 20 minutes…ok, 30…oh screw it, I might as well finish it. That’s the sign of a truly great score.

  11. I feel like I’m the only one that really loves the music to Hook- I find Hook and Withches of Eastwick to be very underrated… oh and I hope you arent hating on Wojciech Kilar’s score to Bram Stoker’s Dracula… the first film score i ever bought… (yes i am very late in the game)

    • I’m not a big fan of HOOK, but that’s because I can’t get past how absolutely awful the film is. Perhaps if Spielberg had used some imagination instead of every penny of his budget, the film wouldn’t be so lumbering and dull. Those punk kids creep me out too.

      I’ll totally agree with you that WITCHES OF EASTWICK is a worthy score. And I think the film, flawed though it is, is a lot of fun too.

  12. yea the good thing about listening to a fine score is it can either take you back to the movie as you remember it or it can be taken on its own and erase that movie from existence which is what the score to Hook does for me. that movie Is pretty awful

  13. Here are my favorite John Williams scores of all time:
    1. Superman: The Movie
    2. The Empire Strikes Back
    3. Dracula
    4. Star Wars
    5. Raiders Of The Lost Ark
    6. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
    7. Close Encounters Of The Third Kind
    8. Jaws
    9. Earthquake

  14. David S. Naden
    Reply

    A very late post, but in addition to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (the best of the Indian Jones scores!), E.T., Jaws, Poseidon Adventure, Memoirs of a Geisha (yes…not liked by some), and Earthquake, every has forgotten one of his early scores from the disaster film period: Towering Inferno.

  15. 1: The Fury
    2: Close Encounters of the Third Kind
    3: Superman
    4: The Empire Strikes Back
    5: A.I.
    6: Hook
    7: Jane Eyre
    8: Jaws
    9: Home Alone 2

    Of course this is an impossible task, having to leave out all the other Star Wars scores, The Eiger Sanction, Black Sunday, Dracula, ET, Empire of the Sun, The Witches of Eastwick, Nixon, Seven Years in Tibet, Memoirs of a Geisha…

  16. i remember like it was yesterday – watching Poseidon Adventure when i was just a kid

    and although i was blown away by the story, the actors and the giant wave

    my young mind was most captivated by Williams’ score

    • I too remember being captivated as a kid by the music. Not enough to actually push me into film music yet (that was four years later with THE OMEN), but I do remember how great the finale was.

  17. Time to add the following scores for consideration:

    *Saving Private Ryan
    *Memoirs of a Geisha
    *Schindler’s List
    *War Horse
    *Towering Inferno
    *Far and Away
    *Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

  18. As for vampire scores, what do you make of (if you’ve heard them) Philip Glass’ score for the 1931 Dracula and Wojciech (pronounced “voy-cheh”) Kilar’s score for Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)?

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