The Composers: John Williams

Don’t think of an elephant. Now you see an elephant, don’t you?

Star Wars. Harry Potter. Jurassic Park. Jaws. Now you’re hearing the music of John Williams, aren’t you? Williams turns 79 today and yet is still turning out music for his most prominent collaborator, Steven Spielberg. Spielberg’s adaptations of Herge’s intrepid character Tintin and the novel War Horse will both have Williams’ musical touch, as has every theatrical movie in his career except for Twilight Zone: The Movie (which was handled by Jerry Goldsmith) and The Color Purple, via Quincy Jones.

You can’t have a website devoted to pop culture, or a column called The Composers for that matter, without honoring Mr. Williams’ unmistakable mark on modern filmmaking. Happy birthday, may you have many more, and may there be more music in all our collective future.

As a film historian and preservationist, Michael Matessino has been directly involved with our collective film legacy, and over the years, he has been at the forefront of presenting film music as it was meant to be heard, both in context and out, with his knowledge of mixing and mastering. He has worked on such projects as the soundtracks for the Star Wars Special Editions, Superman, and many more. In short, if there was someone Popdose needed to speak to regarding John Williams, Michael Matessino was the man for the job.

The first thing I’d like to know is what you think John Williams’ place in modern composing is. To my mind, I can’t think of another in the last 40 years that has contributed signature themes like he has. This isn’t a knock to James Horner, but people don’t hear his score when they think of Titanic. If anything, people will remember Celine Dion and “My Heart Will Go On.”

However, when someone says Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, Harry Potter, and most of all Jaws, their minds play his music. In that, he may well be considered the biggest “hit maker” in that field. What’s your take on that?

John Williams’ place is absolutely unique in music and extends beyond writing for the movies. Broadly what he has achieved is the bringing of orchestral music to a mass audience in a way that has never gone out of style. At the time Williams started his Hollywood career, things were very different. Families watched orchestral performances together on early television and knew the names of composers and conductors. Changing trends in music and entertainment caused this to sort of fall away and the torch was pretty much carried in the U.S. by the Boston Pops Orchestra under Arthur Fiedler. Williams was the perfect choice as his successor in 1980, and that speaks to the impact he had already made at that point with Jaws, Star Wars, Close Encounters and Superman, which were all done in a four-year period. Then, during Williams’ fourteen years with the Pops he composed things like the “Olympic Fanfare”—which still comes to mind just as easily as Arnaud’s “Bugler’s Dream,” and the NBC News music, which remains in use after a quarter century.

Add to that the themes for Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Home Alone and Harry Potter, and there’s little doubt that the man’s achievement in the orchestral music field as a whole is second to none. He’s the only composer who could ever conduct an entire concert of his own work and have every piece recognized by the audience.

A lot gets said about Williams’ Wagnerian sensibilities and his use of leitmotif. He really was the one who brought it back into fashion with Star Wars in 1977. Before that, there had been a drastic pulling away from the big, orchestral score. What are some scores that would make a listener do a double-take, and maybe cause them to rethink their impression of what he does?

Leitmotif never really went away in film scores. What “came back” with Star Wars was the audiences’ outward embrace of it, evidenced by the phenomenal sales of the soundtrack album. Williams himself had employed the technique in scores like None But the Brave from 1965, The Cowboys from 1972, and Family Plot from 1976, but during this era the movies that were really popular tended towards grittiness and realism, and big orchestral scores were usually not right for them.

Certainly John Barry and Jerry Goldsmith also employed leitmotif throughout their work of the period, but with Star Wars Williams absolutely intended—with tongue more in cheek than most people perceive—to recapture the Golden Age approach of Max Steiner and Erich Korngold. I don’t think that when he wrote it he thought that audiences would embrace the work seriously, since you had to go back probably to Ben-Hur to find a score like Star Wars, meaning that it was all orchestral, featured a lot of themes, and was heard throughout most of the film. Star Wars was originally intended—by George Lucas as well—as an homage to a movie genre from the past, but it ended up becoming its own new thing.

As for Williams scores that would make listeners do a double take, I think that Close Encounters really deserves more appreciation. People just tend to think of the five-note alien signal, but the score is really complex and ambitious—communication through music is a central theme of the film, after all. In a way it’s a shame that the work was overshadowed by Star Wars because it’s certainly one of Williams’ favorites of his own work, and while he’s a very humble man I bet he’d have rather won the Oscar for that over Star Wars.

For a real double-take, just go back five years before Star Wars and Close Encounters and listen to the amazing score for Robert Altman’s Images from 1972. The other overlooked part of Williams’ career are his adaptations. He is a terrific arranger and orchestrator and in the musicals he’s done there is an amazing degree of taste and quality that comes across. What he did with Fiddler on the Roof, his first Oscar win, is incredible. Compare the film soundtrack to the Broadway cast album and you find that Williams’ contribution brings it to a whole new level and that it has the sound of a true Williams score.

On a more controversial side, Williams has been believed by some to be too “influenced” – they’ll cite Holst’s “Mars, The Bringer Of War” as a direct relative of “The Imperial March.” Now, quotation has always played a part in film composition, so is it fair to level that charge against Williams?

Musicians use existing music the way painters use existing colors; they just look for interesting ways to blend them. I don’t think it’s fair to criticize the Star Wars scores for their musical influences since the whole point was to bring a mythical, archetypal quality to the proceedings while recapturing a feeling of an earlier era of the movies. Williams reached into the collective unconscious, probably by seeing what pieces of music came up in his own mind, and then evoked them in what he was writing in his usual deft manner. In this way, the package sort of becomes clearly marked and when the audience is (perhaps unconsciously) reminded of Holst then he or she looks at the movie differently… Star Wars becomes something no longer about the Empire and the Rebellion but about every war between good and evil ever fought or that ever will be fought. Williams really hit the ball out of the park with Superman in this way… he didn’t just score the movie, he score the myth itself. You can’t do that without reaching back into past expressions of this idea.

When you were working on the Special Edition soundtrack releases, how much contact/input did you have with Williams? Was it easy or difficult for him to revisit those scores, not just for the Special Editions, but to get back into the swing with the prequels?

The only contact with Williams on the Special Editions was with regard to “Victory Celebration” for Return of the Jedi. He was neither revisiting the scores nor thinking about the prequels at that point. As I recall he was focused more on Rosewood.

Williams is very much always in the present. When he’s conducting his older works in concert his focus is not on what he wrote years ago but on how the orchestra is performing. When the prequels came up he listened to the earlier Star Wars scores to remind himself of what he’d done, but his style had evolved since that time and he just did what he always does… look at the movie and decide what he felt the scores called for. The prequels are also very different from the first trilogy (especially the original Star Wars, which still has a different feel no matter how much it’s tinkered with), and the scores reflect this.

Clearly, a composer’s work is in service to the film, and there can’t be too much of a need to stroke one’s own ego with this work, certainly not as one would with a thoroughly independent, untethered orchestral composition. What is Williams’ perspective on his work then? He has so much that is appreciated outside of context, yet he needs to create it will within context…

Once again, Williams is always in the present. He is a true artist in that sense. His focus is on putting pencil to paper and how the orchestra is performing. Everything else is just a side trip along the way. Whether a project succeeds or fails doesn’t phase him, because he’s always on to the next one. He literally looks at the the job in front of him and just does what he does. In this regard he has not changed since the beginning of his career.

Steven Spielberg has almost exclusively worked with Williams. It’s a relationship like few in the industry. I recently wrote that Joe Dante had that with Jerry Goldsmith, but certainly not in the totality that the Spielberg/Williams pairing has been. What is it about that relationship that has endured as it has over the years?

I think what has made Williams’ collaboration with Steven Spielberg endure is that they are just really close friends and have total respect for what the other does. Williams has great instincts, and Spielberg became the beneficiary of that from the very beginning when he convinced the director that The Sugarland Express needed a small-scale score with bluesy harmonica rather than the Coplandesque approach Spielberg was originally thinking of.

Then, of course, came the genius stroke of the Jaws theme and the indelible Close Encounters alien signal. By that time, the partnership was solidified and Williams just became the musical voice for Spielberg’s work. Spielberg loves the scoring session, partly I think because hearing the music shows him what he’s got and what his movie is really about. It brings it back into perspective. For Williams, Spielberg always brings him a challenge. It’s really a great partnership.

What does John Williams’ work mean to you personally?

For me personally, Williams stands for consummate musicianship. He knows everything there is to know about composing and conducting and there is a consistent taste and quality to his work. It’s also amazing that he has had a consistently noteworthy Hollywood career that spans more than a half century. Musically I’ve always responded to his particular brand of melodic structure, orchestration, his harmonic choices, and so forth, and in his film scores I am always amazed at how he knows just the right thing to say at the right time. In that sense, he’s almost like a loyal friend, which is why I think a lot of listeners feel that way about him.


For one of the coolest opening credits sequences of all time, Williams sets the tone of the film beautifully with this rousing march. I remember clearly sitting there in the movie theater and thinking that I didn’t want these credits to ever end. But when they did, I was ready for anything.

The piece I played over and over again as a kid from the 1978 soundtrack album was called “Theme from Superman (Main Title)” and had a completely different opening than what was in the film. But years later, in 2000, the full film version was finally released, which restored the wonderful prelude music that plays over the Daily Planet into and builds slowly to the familiar 6/8 “Super” rhythm.

I only wish there was a way to figure out how many times I put on that old Superman 2 LP set. The main title from Superman just might be, along with the entire side two (“Love Theme from Superman,” “Leaving Home,” and “The Fortress of Solitude,”) my most-played pieces of music ever.

To me John Williams is not just the greatest living film composer, but the greatest living composer period. Whether listening on a mediocre turntable as a kid or on an iPod during my commute as an adult, his music is, and always has been, the fuel that keeps my brain going. It’s hard for me to articulate, being someone with no musical training, but his music moves me in the way that great music should — it gives me chills, it gets my blood flowing, it brings tears to my eyes, and (this may sound corny but) it makes me feel human. - Jeff Johnson


“Adventure On Earth” from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

For me, the music of John Williams is more than something that emotionally elevates a film. It’s more than an audio souvenir of some of Generation X’s most triumphant film music moments. It marks my own first foray into even having a music collection.Williams’ Oscar-winning soundtrack to E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial – the first film I ever saw and my all-time favorite to this day – was the first compact disc I ever bought, at an age most kids already had CDs by Green Day or Puff Daddy. I have since purchased two other pressings of the score on CD; if a fourth is ever pressed, I will put money down again.

Some 800-plus CDs later, E.T. remains a favorite and features one of my favorite pieces of music: a 15-minute, three-part suite from the end of the film, as Elliott (Henry Thomas) and his friends attempt to reunite E.T. with his mothership.That piece of music, filled with action, suspense and emotional climax, also possesses a backstory that epitomizes Williams’ relationship with director Steven Spielberg. Though Williams had, at the time, composed music for every one of Spielberg’s theatrical features since 1973 (he has been Spielberg’s musician for all but one since), he had difficulty adapting the complex suite to fit each shot as it played on-screen during recording sessions.

Eventually, Spielberg suggested Williams conduct the piece as one would in a concert, without the constraints of marrying the music to the film. He was so moved by the orchestra’s success that he had the sequence re-cut to better fit the music.

Moments like these make me grateful for John Williams and happy to join the Popdose staff in wishing him a happy 79th birthday. – Mike Duquette


“Gillian’s Power” from The Fury

After the world-beating success of Jaws, Williams (whose career stretched back into the late 1950s, sometimes as “Johnny Williams”) was in demand among Hollywood’s Young Turks. His only collaboration to date with Brian De Palma yielded one of my favorite scores, for The Fury (1978). Williams had written exciting “action” music for one of his contemporaries, John Frankenheimer (1977′s Black Sunday), but his themes here, while pulse-pounding in their own right, are dreamier, spacier, more cosmic. (Pauline Kael called it “as elegant and delicately varied a score as any horror film has had.”)

Rather than pay homage to Hitchcock De Palma instead decided to pay homage to himself, to some degree re-imagining his hit Carrie (1976) on a broader canvas, with stars (Kirk Douglas, John Cassavetes), international locations, and bigger payoffs as telekinetic teens Andrew Stevens and Amy Irving learn the true extent of their powers. Like North by Northwest (ahem) it’s a movie on the move, which gives Williams ample opportunity to strut his stuff–notably when De Palma slows everything to an agonizing crawl for a breath-holding rescue that goes terribly wrong at the very end. Speaking of the very end, it’s there where the two virtuoso talents really mesh, as Irving, realizing the extent of her betrayal by Cassavetes, unleashes the full fury of “the fury”–a climax so over the top it hardly requires music, but Williams pushes the body-shredding thrills to the limit, a shriek of Gothic/sci-fi delirium. Many of Williams’ scores are mind-blowing; this one literally is. – Robert Cashill


“The Search For The Blue Fairy” from A.I. Artificial Intelligence

A year before I saw A.I. in the theater, A.I. being the controversial Steven Spielberg film famously instigated by Stanley Kubrick but never fully initiated, I lost my mom to brain cancer. It finished as brain cancer, but it started as cancer of the lymph nodes, then the breast, lung and finally the brain. That rather descriptive rundown is important because it wasn’t like I had lost her all at once. It was a bit-by-bit siphoning of her life, her functions and her memories. It was a lot like a hard-drive that had sector after sector crash until finally the unit gave out.

With humans, it’s so much more than failed equipment, but I had to relegate my emotions to these analogies. After all, I had to keep functioning myself, and falling apart wasn’t going to help anyone. So you might be able to see why I gravitated so fully to the story of A.I. Here was the story of the artificial boy who sought the love of his adopted flesh mother, searching for her out in the harsh future world, and even into the impossible realms of time and death, as being a robot, he was the only one who could. If you’re coping with loss, you preoccupy yourself with thoughts of “what could have I done differently,” “what should have I done,” and “why didn’t I force her to give up the goddamn cigarettes a decade earlier?” You play out these scenarios in your head with methodical, robotic precision and you usually do so when you ought to be sleeping at night.

So say what you want about Spielberg’s last act of the story, his requisite happy ending, how he bled all the kink out of Kubrick’s often knotty vision, and how the robot boy should have died beneath the oceans of Manhattan, so close but so terribly far from his goal. That’s life, and that’s how life should be depicted, right? Maybe.

But I would counter that would only work without John Williams’ score to the film, specifically “The Search For The Blue Fairy.” When I hear it, I hear that soaring voice accompanying the deep, resonant strings and it is like a voice from another place. It isn’t saying, “continue the search” but “we’re okay here. You need to continue living your life.”  The track never fails to cause my eyes to well up. It is one of the few emotional outlets I can afford myself on this particular subject, and it can be deeply cathartic when my mind won’t shut down when I need it to.

In that piece of music, the listener knows instinctively that Williams has experienced loss and has somehow been able to transcribe it into this cue. It is his ability to subvert the hardware, the chips and wires, and get to the blood and the bone that makes him one of the best at what he does. His legacy is assured, as is his bid for immortality, because he’s found a way of articulating what it sounds like to be mortal. – Dw. Dunphy


“Panaka and the Queens Protectors” from Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace

A quick poke around Google informs me that the score for the first Star Wars prequel is regarded very highly by film music buffs. Unfortunately it suffers for the simple fact that the film itself is so awful. In his obsession with making everything he touches “faster, more intense,” director George Lucas and his editors did a real number on parts of the score, especially during the film’s climactic battles. At times it sounds like one of those funky audio loops the Beatles did by cutting up bits of two-reel tape, tossing them into the air, and then fastening them back together in random order.

On CD, the score lives in a fashion closer to how the composer imagined it. Providing just the right amount of subtle reference to his previous Star Wars work, John Williams contributes several strong new themes to the film series, including the underrated “Anakin’s Theme” and “Duel of the Fates,” the kind of orchestral and choral bombast that fans hoped he’d deliver after returning to Star Wars for the first time in over a decade.

I anticipated the first prequel with rabid intensity, so I bought the score on CD the day it came out, which was two weeks before the premiere of the film itself. Though I was impressed by the new themes and glad to hear the classic bits all over again, it’s this “album cut” that has always stood out for me. It’s a classic bit of adventure film scoring from Williams, calling to mind “Here They Come,” his cue for the Millennium Falcon’s battle against two TIE fighters from the original Star Wars. It’s got a dynamic sweep, it builds in bits of theme from previous scenes and previous films, and yet it’s also one of those brilliant throwaway Williams moments where he creates a “micro-theme” of sorts for just one scene. (Another one of my favorites in this category is the pulsing brass that accompanies the trucks approaching the Isla Nublar visitors’ center for the first time in Jurassic Park.) The bits he tosses off in the midst of a score are better than what most film composers would build an entire score around as a major theme.

More than anything else, I love this track because in the case of Phantom Menace, it suggests not so much what the film was as what the film could have been. It’s got the perfect mix of swash and buckle, and I wish the movie had more of either. Its strength is a fitting tribute to a composer who is rightly celebrated for the brilliance of his movie themes, but who remains a master of the delicate art of crafting music to an entire film, and not just the opening credits.

One of my favorite pop culture memories will always be hearing John Williams conduct his own Star Wars theme at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles on a perfect southern California evening. Lightsabers danced in the air above the audience; I got chills. Happy birthday, maestro. – Matt Springer


“Born On The Fourth Of July” – from Born On The Fourth Of July

Considering that the scores of John Williams have long been associated with the fantastical (Superman, Indy, E.T., Luke, Vader and Harry Potter wouldn’t be the same without his lush themes behind them) teaming up with the controversial and sometimes abrasive Oliver Stone seemed like an odd fit. Yet Williams was the perfect choice for Born on the Fourth of July, Stone’s Academy Award winning adaptation of Ron Kovic’s memoir.

The opening “Prologue” theme that plays at the very top of the film clocks in at 1:27. This succinct piece sets the tone for the entire motion picture. Low strings play under a lone trumpet singing a mournful song. This composition tells us the seriousness of the film, that this is a story about loss- loss of innocence, loss of physical capabilities, and loss of love. Yet, that same trumpet also indicates the underlying patriotism of Kovic’s story and the film. It tells us that Kovic (convincingly played by Tom Cruise) believes in his country and its ideals; despite her flaws, and that he will stand up for what be feels is just and right.

All of that in 1:27.

When the film ends, Williams gave Stone a soaring suite that then summed up Kovic’s heroism and redemption. The closing credits roll as a triumphant orchestra inspires the viewers, telling us that now that the film is over it’s our job to go out and carry on the work of the Kovic’s in the world to make sure what happened to him doesn’t happen again. – Scott Malchus


A selection of our favorite John Williams tracks.

“The Conspirators” – from JFK

“The March From 1941″ – from 1941

“The Penitent Man Will Pass” – from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

“Finding The Orca” – from Jaws 2

“End Titles from the Special Edition” – from Close Encounters of the Third Kind

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