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)
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 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.
SUPERMAN started the comic book film craze and if some of the films 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 fanboy—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.