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John Williams at 90: A Celebration

10 min read
John WIlliams at 90

Music has long been an important part of filmmaking. From the early days of silent cinema, it has been used to create emotion in place of dialogue, add to the suspense of a vital set piece or stir the heart in times of triumph. There have been many successful and revered composers in the history of cinema, from to John Barry, from to Hans Zimmer.

Arguably the most beloved and influential composer of all time is , who celebrates his 90th birthday in February this year. Over the course of a near sixty-year career, he has been responsible for some of the most influential movie scores in cinema, whether epic, sweeping operatic tones, to quieter, more reflective pieces. Ask any casual cinemagoer to name five film scores, and chances are Williams will have composed most of them. He's as much of a celebrity as the countless actors he's composed music for, and the many, many directors he has worked with over the years.

Studying music

Williams' early life reveals his love of music. Born in New York City on 8th February 1932, his father Johnny was a jazz drummer and percussionist, he played piano whist serving in the Air Force in the 1950s and studied at the Juilliard School, originally hoping to become a concert pianist, before changing to composition. Upon returning to Los Angeles, he worked as an orchestrator at film studios, studying for the likes of Franz Waxman, Bernard Hermann and Alfred Newman. Further collaborations occurred with Jerry Goldsmith, Henry Mancini and both Leonard and Elmer Bernstein. All of these very successful individual composers would become influences on Williams' later career, and in many cases, he would be nominated alongside them at various award shows over the years.

Early Hollywood career

Williams' style of music can be described as ‘neoromantic', inspired by 19th century orchestral music from the Romanticism period. It's the sort of music that is operatic in scope and heavy in emotion and feeling. He made his film scoring debut with 1958's Daddy-O, but wouldn't be credited on-screen until 1960's Because They're Young. Throughout the 1960s, his combination of jazz, piano and symphony saw him create music for a variety of films of different genres, including war (None but the Brave, 1965), Westerns (The Rare Breed, 1966), comedy (Not With My Wife You Don't, 1966) and thrillers (Daddy's Gone A'Huntin, 1969).

He earned the first of his 52 Academy Award nominations for Valley of the Dolls in 1967 and became one of the most sought-after young composers in Hollywood. Williams's 60s work isn't quite as famous as his later efforts, perhaps because there isn't a ‘standout' among them, but it's important in the evolution of his career.

Echoes of what he would later go on to earn huge success with can be traced back to some of his scores from this period- in many cases, his music is used as a replacement for dialogue, creating the required translation to the audience without them having to be bombarded with a lot of exposition. He essentially turns into a secondary storyteller.

The 70s: Spielberg, and Superman

By far the most important and vital period of Williams' career is the 1970s. It's in this decade that his two most enduring partnerships were formed. Having earned his first Oscar win for adapting the music for Fiddler on the Roof (1971), Williams became more in demand than ever, scoring ten films in the period 1972-1973 (these included The Poseidon Adventure, one of his most underrated scores).

In 1974, he was approached by a young, dynamic filmmaker to compose the music for his feature film debut, The Sugarland Express. That director was , who a year later asked him back to do another film, this time a simple little shark thriller called Jaws (1975). Suddenly, Williams' career exploded. His brilliant, forebodingly sinister main theme has become a classic of suspense cinema, a rising, terrifying dread that signals approaching, instant danger.

Williams' insistence that the theme would work despite Spielberg's disbelief paid off, as he won his second Oscar and turned almost instantly into the leading figure of film music. Jaws is in itself a masterpiece but watching it without Williams' music is a strange and entirely unsettling experience- it feels like an entirely different movie. Williams later claimed the film kickstarted his career, allowing him the opportunity to expand his musical horizons. Since Jaws, Williams has worked with Spielberg on all but five films (The Twilight Zone: The Movie (1982), The Color Purple (1985), Bridge of Spies (2015) Ready Player One (2018) and 2021's - although he did provide an uncredited assistance on the soundtrack, and previously served as the pianist on the original film in 1961)

Of course, Williams' relationship with Spielberg has been enduring, but the work for which he will surely be remembered more than any other is the contributions he has made to one particular series in particular- Star Wars. Since 1977, when that triumphant main theme blasted out of cinema stereos to accompany the opening crawl of George Lucas' sci-fi classic, Williams has provided the soundtrack to all nine films in the and has produced some utterly breath-taking music.

Cantina Band is joyfully silly. The Imperial March gives recognition whenever he appears on-screen. Duel of the Fates gets the blood going as Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon battle Darth Maul. Battle of the Heroes plays out as master and apprentice do battle on the volcanic planet Mustafar. Whenever Star Wars needs its music, Williams delivers. There has arguably never been a more perfect fit of composer and movie. Just as Williams will forever be associated with a galaxy far, far away, so too will Star Wars never escape Williams' influence.

In 1978, brought the Man of Steel to the big screen, with stars including and Gene Hackman working alongside newcomer Christopher Reeve to make Superman, the first true superhero film. Riding high on the success of Star Wars, Williams stepped in to replace Jerry Goldsmith as composer for the film, employing the London Symphony Orchestra to help him.

Superman is arguably Williams' biggest success outside of Spielberg and Star Wars. The main theme, a soaring, majestic, sweeping introduction to the hero, opens the story with a bang. ‘Can You Read My Mind?' is a beautiful love theme that highlights the growing romance between Clark and Lois Lane. ‘The Fortress of Solitude' emphasises intrigue and mystery as Clark hears his father's message.

Williams sadly never returned to score any of Superman's sequels, but his indelible imprint on the franchise makes it impossible to imagine the character without his music (why was it ignored in Man of Steel?)

Maturity and Continuing Success

After the enormously successful 70s, Williams continued his contribution to Spielberg and Lucas into the 80s, starting with his masterful return to the Star Wars universe with The (still the best film and score of the saga). He helped Spielberg bring the benevolent visitor to life in E.T The Extra Terrestrial (1982) and dovetailed their individual projects with a new one that brought the two together- .

Once again, he dug deep into his imagination and crafted another unforgettable tune, this time the ‘Raiders March', which has become as synonymous with Indy as his hat and whip. He carried a darker edge into the follow-up, Temple of Doom (1984) and lent a playful edge to The Last Crusade (1989). Sadly, his efforts on Kingdom of the Crystal Skull are as lacklustre as the film itself.

Most of Williams' output as he reached his 50s were devoted to what he had done before, but he did branch out to other films, such as Born on the Fourth of July, which paired him up with Oliver Stone and began a run of films that were mature in content, forcing him to restructure his work ethic.

Examples include Presumed Innocent (1990), JFK (1991- this score is excellent, both perversely invasive and strangely compelling), and, most notably, Schindler's List (1993), an emotionally exhausting, utterly draining experience that so overwhelmed Williams he at one point felt he couldn't score the film. He was rightly rewarded with his fifth (and, thus far, final) Oscar.

Williams balanced these excursions to the dark side with Home Alone (1990), the Christmas staple that features some lovely, ethereal music as Kevin takes on the burglars in his home. (1993) saw him return to the blockbuster style of music he'd made his name with in his early career. He would also bring romance to Sabrina (1995), suspicion to Nixon (1995) and Asian aesthetic to Seven Years in Tibet (1997), as well as returning to the world of Star Wars with The Phantom Menace (1999).

The 90s was a decade of real growth from Williams. Now in his 60s, he was just as capable of driving his audience to tears as he was at getting them to cheer from the rooftops. At this point, he was shaping the careers of other composers as well, in particular Danny Elfman, who like Williams, frequently worked with the same directors and composed a memorable theme for a superhero- in Elfman's case, Batman.

New Millennium, New Williams

As the new Millennium dawned, Williams was as in demand as ever. After stepping in to David Arnold's place on The Patriot (2000), he teamed up once again with , who needed someone to give life to his film adaptation of J.K Rowling's and the Philosopher's Stone (2001).

Williams, enchanted by the book, duly obliged, delivering yet another timeless piece, ‘Hedwig's Theme', which appeared in all eight Potter films. He returned for Columbus' Chamber of Secrets (2002) and remained on board when took over for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004).

With a new director, and a story that was beginning to take a deeper turn, Williams regained his groove. His score for Prisoner of Azkaban is superb. It's atmospheric when the stakes are raised, melancholic when the emotions are stirred and thrilling when the action kicks in. The highlight is ‘Window to the Past', a haunting theme played with harps that mournfully follows Harry and Lupin's conversation about Harry's parents. It's an atypical Williams album yet remains the best work he has done this century. Sadly, scheduling conflicts caused him to step aside for the next film, ending his association with the Boy Who Lived. Once again, though, his legacy on the series continued.

In both 2002 and 2005, Williams scored four films. Standouts from these two years include Catch Me if You Can (2002), a criminally overlooked Mancini-flavoured composition that is jazzy and intimate, a pulse-pounding, goosebump raising flavour for (2005), the moody undertones of Munich (2005), his epic, awe-inspiring efforts for Revenge of the Sith (2005) and the Oriental sounds of Memoirs of a Geisha (2005).

This busy period was soon followed by an unexpected dormancy, as Williams remained very quiet after Indiana Jones' fourth adventure in 2008. Had he finally decided to wind down after being practically overactive since the 1970s? Or had age caught up with him?

The answer, it seems, was a resounding no. Although he has noticeably slowed his input in the last decade, Williams hasn't entirely retired from the industry. (2011) was a return to form for his first animated film, as he combined boundless energy with a touching maturity, while WW1 adventure War Horse (2011) was saved from schmaltz by his talent. Lincoln (2012) may be a bit talky, but it gives Williams his chance to go full patriot.

Disney wisely chose to bring Williams back when they revived Star Wars, but there's a noticeable dip in his loyalty as the story progresses. Maybe as a sign of age, or a result of a lack of planning, there seems to be a bit of laziness on his part, particularly in the final film, Rise of Skywalker (2019), which lacks that memorable ‘wow' factor.

Nevertheless, it's refreshing that Disney recognised the effort Williams has made with Star Wars over the years, and admirable that he stayed loyal to it for over forty years. There's not much on the horizon for Williams, apart from the fifth Indiana Jones film, and potentially Spielberg's next film, The Fabelmans (2022). Although, given how hard he's worked over the years, he's earned some quiet time.

When it comes to describing Williams' contribution to cinema, Steven Spielberg said it best- ‘without John Williams, bikes don't really fly, nor do brooms in Quidditch matches. Nor do men in red capes. There is no force, dinosaurs do not walk the earth. We do not wonder, we do not weep, we do not believe'.

Williams has defined movie music for six decades. He has turned the impossible into the believable, the absurd into the sublime. He has crafted so many childhood memories for generations of people and the list of films he has put his name to are varied and impressive. Whether providing excitement and awe, or terror and fear, he has given us his all. There has never been, and never will be, anyone who can do it as good as John Williams. He's a master of his craft, and as he enters his tenth decade, he remains the benchmark to which every modern composer should hope to match.

Overlooked Works

To wrap up this celebration of John Williams, below are ten Williams scores that aren't as well known as they could be, yet represent the versatility Williams has shown throughout his career:

10. The Cowboys (1972)– sweeping, heroic score that lends maturity and depth to a surprisingly effective John Wayne performance.

9. Dracula (1979)- eerie and foreboding, with an effective use of tension and suspense.

8. Hook (1991)- Spielberg's outright worst film features a terrific score from Williams, who captures the sense of imagination in a way the movie never does.

7. The Fury (1978) – A varied and emotive horror score that marks his only collaboration with .

6. Presumed Innocent- A rare Williams score that remains quietly in the background, yet manages to convey the feeling of forbidden lust that drives the story.

5. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)- Not a great sequel, but some of the most effective isolated themes of Williams' career.

4. Minority Report– Noirish and atmospheric, with a rich and complex thematic construction.

3. JFK– a powerful score that emphasises the paranoia and corruption present in the story.

2. Catch Me if You Can- jazzy, playful, and eminently hummable, Williams' tribute to the 60s is the perfect accompaniment to what may be Spielberg's most purely enjoyable movie.

1. The Adventures of Tintin– Indiana Jones for kids, Tintin features some truly wonderful Williams compositions, with the composer revitalised by the challenge of scoring his very first animated movie. Taken in isolation away from the film, it's joyful and soaring. It's Williams rediscovering the child in himself.

Original photo by Choodcree