9 great John Williams scores for his 90th birthday
At 90 years old, John Williams is the most famous orchestral composer in the galaxy. The average person may not know who’s in the vanguard of current concert music, but you can bet your bantha’s bottom they can hum the main themes from “Star Wars,” “Harry Potter,” and “Jaws.” In the 1970s, when New Hollywood was employing scaled-down movie scores both for economic reasons as well as stylistic ones, Williams looked back to the classic era of Tinseltown and took inspiration from composers like Franz Waxman and Erich Wolfgang Korngold to write rousing, big orchestral scores that filled audiences with fear, excitement, and inspiration. Acclaim and awards have followed Williams throughout his career, including five Oscars in 52 nominations, 25 Grammy Awards in 72 nominations, and three Emmy Awards in six nominations.
There's more on the way, too, from a new album out this month featuring Williams conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, and two more collaborations with Steven Spielberg coming in 2022 and 2023. To celebrate John Williams’ 90th birthday, here are nine great screen selections by Williams to enjoy.
LOST IN SPACE (1965)
Before we go big, let’s get small... onto the small screen, that is. “Johnny” Williams was hired to write the theme song for this television series set in outer space, and loosely based on “Swiss Family Robinson.” The jazzy, brassy theme sounds like it may have been influenced a little by Henri Mancini’s work of the same period. Williams also scored four of the show's individual episodes.
Although he had already won an Academy Award for adapting “Fiddler on the Roof” for the big screen, “Jaws” thrust John Williams’ music into the public consciousness. Who can hear anything else in their head except for “duh dun, duh dun” whenever they see a shark onscreen? The story goes that Williams came over to Steve Spielberg’s house to demo the shark theme for him and played two notes on the piano. And again. And again. Spielberg rolled with laughter, and the relentless theme stuck. Throughout the movie, the two-note motif trains the audience to expect the shark, so when the shark arrives from silence in the famous “you’re gonna need a bigger boat” scene, it gets one of the biggest jump scares in the movie. (Then listen as the music kicks in, and a harp glissando gracefully follows the dorsal fin as it breaks the surface while passing the boat.)
Is there any other composer that could have made an instrumental piece like the Superman march practically sing the word “Superman?” Nope. I recommend playing this piece of music on your drive into work. It’ll make your day 100% more super, guaranteed.
THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980)
Sure, “Star Wars” started it all in 1977, but for my money the theme from a galaxy far, far away that John Williams will most be remembered for is Darth Vader’s theme, officially known as “The Imperial March.” Admit it—you love the bad guy music. It’s so threatening, it has a Force choke hold on your brain. Usually, this piece gets the biggest cheers at any “Star Wars” themed concert (See video below).
I also love the way that Williams uses the Imprerial theme in subtle ways throughout the rest of his score for “The Empire Strikes Back,” such as the swirling, slow, intense version heard as Vader battles Luke Skywalker in Bespin, or in the 1999 film “The Phantom Menace,” when Williams subtly alludes to the melody at the tail end of “Anakin’s Theme.” That cue constantly shifts between major and minor tonality illustrating the conflict within the young Padawan, and the darkness to come.
HOME ALONE (1990)
For the first of five collaborations with director Chris Columbus, John Williams was brought in to score the slapstick holiday comedy “Home Alone,” starring Macaulay Culkin as a young boy left to his own devices at home after his family forgets to pack him up for their Christmas trip to Florida. Home alone, he fends off two bumbling robbers played by Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern. Williams was nominated for his score, and also for the song, “Somewhere in My Memory,” with lyrics by Leslie Bricusse. Williams succeeds in creating a beautiful modern carol, sung by a church choir during one of the film’s rare quiet scenes.
For Oliver Stone’s conspiracy thriller “JFK,” Williams wrote both a mournfully heroic theme for the slain president, as well as a series of cues highlighted by percussion and rhythmic drive, as the plot thickens and Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) works to unravel the mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma that led to the assassination of the 35th president. Stone’s breakthrough editing style and Williams’ score keep the tension tight for the entire three-hour runtime of this film. Listen to how the percussion begins at :36 seconds in this clip and becomes almost unbearably disorienting for the next minute.
HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE (2001)
Williams became the voice of Harry Potter’s magical world in 2001, and also scored the following two films in the popular series, setting the template for later composers Patrick Doyle, Nicholas Hooper, and Alexandre Desplat. For “Hedwig’s Theme,” Williams turned to the celesta, an instrument with a history of creating magical sounds ever since one of its earliest uses in Tchaikovsky’s ballet “The Nutcracker.”
CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (2002)
“Catch Me if You Can” evokes the glamour and romance of air travel in the 1960s, when Pan Am captured the public’s imagination and we dreamed of beating the birds down to Acapulco Bay. Leonardo di Caprio stars as Frank Abagnale, a real-life con man who successfully impersonated an airline pilot, doctor, and lawyer, all in his late teens and early twenties. Williams’ Oscar-nominated score harks back to the composer’s jazz roots. The music is fluffy and light, but with a touch of menace, and features prominently the breathy sound of saxophones.
Side note: The opening credits sequence (below video) is one of the coolest ever, and sets up the movie beautifully.
WAR HORSE (2011)
For Steven Spielberg’s World War I drama set in England and the European continent during the war, John Williams goes Ralph Vaughan-Williams and evokes the sound of the British composer (1872-1958), who served in the First World War himself. There’s an almost pastoral sound to much of the score. Regarding his inspiration, Williams said, "I got in the habit of watching the horses in the morning, and I began to see how they connect to each other and how they became curious about me. That's when I really began to get the sense that horses are very special creatures. They have been magnificent and trusted friends for such a long time and have done so much for us with such grace."
This month, Deutsche Grammophon released a fantastic new album, “The Berlin Concert,” featuring John Williams conducting the Berlin Philharmonic for the very first time. Enjoy this excerpt below.
Happy birthday, John Williams!