Midway through The Holiday (2006), Jack Black and Kate Winslet are roaming through a video store when Black begins grabbing movies and doing a running commentary on their themes. One DVD case he selects is Jaws. “BA-BAM! Two notes and you’ve got a villain. I don’t know what to say about it. Totally brill.”
John Williams has composed totally brill movie and television themes for 60 years – long enough that his original credits listed him as “Johnny Williams.” He’s done over 150 scores in those years, and it’s not surprising he has the second most Oscar nominations, and the most for anyone alive, with 50 nominations and 5 wins. (The most nominations belong to Walt Disney, with 59.) Along with the Oscars, Williams has collected 7 BAFTAs, 4 Golden Globes, 5 Emmys, 22 Grammys, plus numerous gold and platinum records. Now midway through his 80s, he continues to work with Steven Spielberg, a partnership that has made Williams’s themes the soundtracks of our lives.
As often happens, Williams worked for 20 years to become an overnight success. Born in Flushing, Queens, in 1932, his father was a percussionist for CBS radio who also played with a jazz quartet. Williams was drawn to a different type of percussion instrument – the piano – and by 15 he determined he’d be a concert pianist. In 1948, when Williams was 16, his family relocated to Southern California. Soon he was leading his own jazz band and trying his hand at arranging, in addition to composing original music. He wrote a piano sonata at age 19.
Williams trained at Los Angeles City College and UCLA along with private studies under Robert Van Epps, who’d begun his career in the music department at MGM working on the orchestrations for The Wizard of Oz. He was also tutored by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, an Italian who was the foremost composer of guitar pieces and who scored more than 200 films after coming to Hollywood just before WWII, including Gaslight and And Then There Were None. After a stint in the Air Force, Williams headed east to attend Julliard to study piano. He also worked as a jazz pianist in clubs and for recording sessions. After he completed his studies, Williams returned to California to work in the film and television industry.
In 1956, Williams composed his first theme for “Playhouse 90,” a popular anthology series, though most of his work in the 1950s was playing the piano for the theme music of TV shows. Williams played for “Peter Gunn” and “Mr. Lucky,” both scored by another great, Henry Mancini, and he even appeared as a piano player on the show “Johnny Staccato,’ a series about a jazz pianist/private detective that starred John Cassavetes.
At first his movie work was mostly uncredited, and included playing piano or orchestrating movies like Carousel, South Pacific, and Some Like It Hot. He worked with Mancini again on Charade and The Great Race. At the same time, he compose TV scores for “M Squad,” “Bachelor Father,” “Wagon Train,” “Kraft Theater,” and even “Lost In Space.” (He also did the music for Delbert Mann’s TV adaptation of “Heidi” that notoriously cut into a playoff football game just before Joe Namath staged a stunning comeback.)
By the mid-1960s, he’d worked his way up to scoring major pictures and adapting musicals for the screen, leading to his first Oscar nominations. Today there are only two musical Oscars, Best Original Theme and Best Original Song, but over the course of the Academy’s history there have been different breakdowns. In the 1960s there were two score Oscars, one of Original Theme, the other for Adaptation of the Score. The long run of Oscar nominations and wins for Williams began in the Adaption category, first for adapting the score for Valley of the Dolls in 1968. His first win for adapting Fiddler on the Roof in 1971. More high-profile productions came his way in the 1970s, when he scored The Poseidon Adventure, Cinderella Liberty, The Paper Chase, The Towering Inferno, and The Eiger Sanction. But mixed in was the score he did for The Sugarland Express, Spielberg’s first feature film. That was the beginning of a partnership that’s lasted for forty years and made cinematic music history.
Following are my choices for the 10 best themes Williams has composed for the movies. Rather than make any quantitative judgment on which is best, they are listed simply in chronological order. Click on “Listen to the theme” to hear the music:
1) Jaws (1975)
It was a production-plagued by problems, most notably with Bruce, the animatronic shark that rarely worked. But you didn’t need to see the shark; all you needed was to hear those two notes…da-dum, da-dum, da-dum-da-dum. While the actual theme contained echoes of Aaron Copeland Americana, the string bass line was like a saw against the base of your skull. After the film’s explosive climax, Williams provides a glistening relief from the tension. You knew it was over, that you were safe – until Jaws 2 came out three years later. “Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water…” (Listen to the Theme)
2) Star Wars (1977)
Can you even imagine Star Wars without the music? Or more to the point, when you hear the music, do you see the film again in your mind? It has provided a point of cohesion even as the story has expanded, with the stirring main theme, the threat inherent in the Imperial march, and the gracefulness of the love theme. A particular favorite piece for me is the score for the lightsaber battle between Luke and Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi. When Luke realized Vader knows about Leia, he attacks with all his power until he beats Vader to the ground and lobs off his hand. For that scene Williams adds a choral element to the music that lifts it to a religious climax of good against evil. (Listen to the Theme)
3) Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
This time it was 5 notes, but they became one of the most identifiable themes ever. Even 32 years later, the Dreamworks feature Monsters vs. Aliens could use the theme for a funny moment when the President (voiced by Stephen Colbert) plays the theme to make contact with an alien robot – and gets the last note wrong, as so many people did when they tried to plunk it out on a piano or keyboard. But it also leads to a thrilling scene at the base of Devil’s Tower as the alien mothership and the humans learn to communicate through a tone poem blitz. (Listen to the Theme)
NOTE: In 1980, Williams became the 19th music director for the Boston Pops Orchestra, succeeding the legendary Arthur Fielder. Williams held the baton for 14 seasons, until his retirement in 1993 when he became Laureate Conductor, a title he still holds.
4) Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
When Spielberg and Lucas worked together, there could be no question who would score their collaboration. With its soaring horns laid over a breathless beat, Williams captured the thrill of a 1930s movie serial updated for the modern viewer. What was most effective, though, was how Williams held the theme back. During the opening sequence in South America, the music is somewhat muted while it conveys foreboding. It’s only when Indiana Jones swings on a vine out to the biplane on the river that you hear the iconic theme for the first time, and then only for a short time. It teases you, promising more to come – and you’re hooked. (Listen to the Theme) and check out a short documentary at the end of this post on Williams scoring Raiders.
5) E.T. The Extraterrestrial (1982)
It’s a theme that makes you feel you can fly, for a very specific reason. You only get to hear the full, joyous theme when E.T. makes Elliot’s bicycle fly in front of the moon (one of the most iconic shots in the history of cinema), and again when the five bikes go airborne at the roadblock. (Listen to the Theme)
6) Jurassic Park (1993)
For this box office record setter, Williams used three main themes. There’s the regal, sublime wonder of the main theme, heard when the visitors see the brontosauruses for the first time. Before that, as the helicopter brings them to the island, you hear the thrilling fanfare with brass. And then there’s the third, a menacing 4-note theme that’s similar to Jaws. It’s used with great effect when Dr. Grant, Ellie, and the two children are menaced by the raptors in the main building. Then the T-Rex arrives to fight the raptors and the music switches to the fanfare. Williams could have won the Oscar for the score – he was nominated – but 1993 was a very good year for him. (Listen to the Theme)
7) Schindler’s List (1993)
Williams won the Oscar instead for Spielberg’s other film that year. It was his last statue, though he’s continued to be nominated, including this year with The Post. The haunting Schindler’s List theme, featuring Itzhak Perlman’s plaintive violin, manages to be a requiem that also holds out hope for life in the midst of the Holocaust. When Spielberg first showed Williams a cut of the movie, Williams had to excuse himself after it finished and go outside for several minutes to compose himself. When he came back in, Williams told Spielberg that he deserved a better composer for the project. Spielberg responded, “I know, but they’re all dead.” (Listen to the Theme)
8) Saving Private Ryan (1998)
The director Sam Fuller, who was at Normandy during the invasion, was asked why he never made a movie about the attack. He response was, who’d want to see a beach covered in guts and blood? But Spielberg didn’t shy away from an accurate depiction of the battle that blew away all the cinema heroism that had enshrouded WWII movies since the actual war. Williams’s score layers a melancholic melody over an underlying martial beat. It underlines the cost of war in sacrificed lives, and drives home Captain Miller’s final line: “Earn this.” (Listen to the Theme)
9) Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)
While other composers would work on later entries in in the series, Williams set the theme for all the movies with his whimsical, twinkly music box waltz. It put a new generation under Williams’s spell and was featured in one form or another in all eight movies. To this day, you could say “Harry Potter” to someone under 25, and they would likely hear that music. (Listen to the Theme)
10) Catch Me If You Can (2002)
This theme is special to me because it’s a bit of a tribute to Williams’s old mentor, Henry Mancini. It has the quirky jazz feel that Mancini used, with syncopation that holds an echo of “Charade.” Yet it’s fully original and a perfect fit for the film. The theme music plays during the opening title sequence that is in itself a tribute to the iconic work of Saul Bass, who did the titles for movies such as Vertigo, The Man with The Golden Arm, and North by Northwest. (Listen to the Theme – and watch the credit sequence)
These are my choices, but if you have a particular Williams theme that you love that I haven’t mentioned, please feel free to note it in the comments.