Christmas week marks the release of two brand new Steven Spielberg movies in The Adventures of Tintin-Secret of the Unicorn on December 21st and War Horse on Christmas Day. With Spielberg being my favorite director, I've decided to do a series of four lists over the course of the next three weeks.
Week one I've decided to count down my ten favorite scores by John Williams, Steven Spielberg's frequent collaborator. Then next week I am going to list my ten favorite performances in Spielberg movies, followed up by a list of my ten favorite moments in Spielberg movies, ending up with an updated version of my ten favorite Spielberg films of all-time. However, today is all about the music of John Williams.
John Williams and Steven Spielberg have been working together since The Sugarland Express in 1974, and since then, the only Spielberg film that John Williams has not scored is The Color Purple. However, John Williams has also written scores for a high multitude of movies by other directors, from George Lucas to Chris Columbus to Oliver Stone.
Often hailed as one of the greatest film composers of all-time (if not the greatest), he is known for creating material that is highly melodic and utilizing it as themes to associate with characters, places, and situations. It is in his ability in utilizing these themes, cementing them within the hearts and minds of the viewers, that almost every movie he scores is only as good as the score he wrote for it.
This was a tough list to come up with. Such iconic works as Close Encounters and a few of the sequels he scored just missed the cut, but alas there were only ten spots. So with all of this said, the Top 10 Scores by John Williams!
10. Catch Me If You Can (Dir. Steven Spielberg)
A jazzy interlude for Mr. Williams. In Steven Spieleberg's 2002 film, John Williams captured the innocence of the story with a sense of whimsy. All of the music was written in a style befitting of a jazz band, with the light-hearted moments of the film underscored by bouncy woodwinds, the suspenseful moments underscored by staccato saxophones and marimbas, and the tragic moments given to smooth sax solos. This is one of John Williams' scores that is least like any of his other film scores, falling into a category with Memoirs of a Geisha, during the period in the early 2000s where he experimented a bit more with his traditional style. Obviously it payed off, giving the movie an identity that set up how cool and slick it was in the opening credits.
9. Jaws (Dir. Steven Spielberg)
Duh, duh! Easily one of the most recognizable pieces of music of all-time (and one of the most parodied), and it is only two notes! This was John Williams' stroke of brilliance. You don't even see the shark till the final thirty minutes, but John Williams created the shark as this malevolent force of nature that was unstoppable through what you hear, not what you see. By using these two low notes and having them swell louder and louder while accelerating in speed, it makes one's heartbeat race as the music goes, and it still works to this day. As well, the music of the three men hunting the shark is as equally stirring, adventurous, and just as well written as those two notes.
8. Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi (Dir. Richard Marquand)
Everyone knows the, "Main Theme," they can probably hum the music even if they haven't seen a single Star Wars movie. Having scored every single flick in the saga, John Williams is as much the identity of Star Wars as George Lucas is, and that is saying something. With Jedi, John Williams showed how to compose a score for a sequel. He revisited all of the previous themes he had written for the two preceding movies, while adding on new ones like, "Parade of the Ewoks," and, "Luke and Leia." What follows is a score that has a theme to associate with every character, and it lets you know with the first few notes how you should emotionally feel about that said character. Brilliant composition.
7. Superman: The Movie (Dir. Richard Donner)
When the trumpets blare the fanfare to the, "Main Title March," I swear you can almost hear the trumpets saying, "Superman!" This is the pure brilliance of John Williams. He manages to take four or five notes, and associate them to a character, to where whenever we think of that character, we hear those notes in our minds. This is what makes this score so special. It is heroic, and it still to this day embodies everything that is fantastic about the character of Superman. Add on to the fact that, "The Love Theme From Superman," is a stirring romance theme that creates the sensation of flight through the strings and dainty woodwinds. As well, the hilarious, but also menacing, "March of the Villains," which is an odd combination of comedic instrumentation with the theme repeating itself over and over till it gets more hectic and creates that menace of Lex Luthor.
6. Raiders of the Lost Ark (Dir. Steven Spielberg)
This is in so many ways the quintessential John Williams' score. The action cues are filled with heavy brass instrumentation and the themes are never lost in all of the bombastic action. What's so marvelous is that when the action slows down to give some romance and mystery to the proceedings, he still never loses the themes, and what great themes they are. "Raider's March," is one of the most iconic pieces of music ever composed, it makes one feel heroic and wanna punch some Nazis, and that is all John Williams' doing. However the film also features a great romance theme in the form of, "Marion's Theme," and the music when the Ark of the Covenant is opened at the end is both mysterious and frightening.
5. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (Dir. Steven Spielberg)
Music is so invaluable to this movie, with the last hour playing almost like an opera. Here is what I love so much about this movie, it hints at the primary theme for E.T. throughout the entire movie, starting out with soft strings and mallet instruments, and then when Elliot and E.T. finally fly through the night sky over an hour into the movie, the theme comes in full as the magic of E.T. is fully realized. However, it is also in how John Williams manipulates the viewer through when he chooses to comfort you with E.T.'s theme, and when he chooses to withhold it and laden you with lingering strings to create tension, so when the theme returns, your heart leaps into your throat.
4. Jurassic Park (Dir. Steven Spielberg)
I think the, "Theme From Jurassic Park," is easily one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written for any movie. It reflects on the elegance and majesty of these once extinct creatures. What makes this score brilliant is how John Williams goes from showing how beautiful dinosaurs were and then goes straight into showing us the dangers of living in a world with both dinosaurs and man. His heavy use of the lower bass instruments whenever the raptors appear rattles your rib cage if you have the low end going on the stereo system, and he manages to perfectly balance the majesty with the suspense to create a score that is not his most original, but is one of his more memorable and entertaining to listen to.
3. Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (Dir. George Lucas)
John Williams' score does as much to create the world in Star Wars as George Lucas' directing did. Williams used the swelling french horns to call Luke to adventure, he wrote that awesome cantina music that was otherworldy, but also made you wanna dance, and he created the heroics through the blaring trumpets. His score tells the story of Star Wars, it gives the moments feeling, and lets the viewer know whether or not to be excited, sad, or tense. This is something he did for all of the other five films in the saga, but there is still something special about that initial moment of Luke staring off into the twin sunset, with the french horns doing a crescendo as the rest of the orchestra joins in and plays the theme that is usually considered the hero's theme in these movies (even though I am not sure if it has a title or not).
2. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Dir. Chris Columbus)
On a similar token, John Williams created the world of Harry Potter with the first notes of, "Hedwig's Theme," coming in under the WB logo in the opening of the film. Those cascading strings and woodwinds created a sense of magic, mystery, and wonder, that establishes all one needs to know about Harry Potter. He goes on to show the majesty of the Wizarding World through his clever use of brass, in particular heavy emphasis on the trumpets and french horns, whenever we are seeing something far beyond what exists in our world. Who can forget the moment, "Hedwig's Theme," bursts into a full orchestral piece when Harry and his friends first glimpse Hogwarts whilst crossing the lake. Though, what makes this score stand out is that it manages to maintain a level of innocence, and sweetness. The score accentuates Harry's yearnings for his parents in the softer, more heartfelt moments of orchestration that take us deeper into Harry's heart, such as in the scene with the Mirror of Erised.
1. Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (Dir. Irvin Kershner)
I feel Empire Strikes Back is Williams' best work on the Star Wars series. Here, Williams expanded upon the themes he introduced in the original Star Wars, but he also introduced themes into the canon that became as iconic as the, "Main Theme," with, "Yoda's Theme," and, "Han Solo and the Princess," being some of the more unforgettable tracks off the score, but I think the single greatest piece John Williams wrote for the entire Star Wars saga originated out of Empire. It was, "The Imperial March," often misconstrued as Darth Vader's theme, that became the iconic Star Wars piece, and possibly the most iconic in John Williams' career.