“So much of what we do is ephemeral and quickly forgotten, even by ourselves, so it’s gratifying to have something you have done linger in people’s memories.” – John Williams
American composer John Williams is often considered to be one of the greatest of all time. Over a career that has lasted more than six decades, Williams has become the epitome of success in the film industry. With 25 Grammy Awards, seven British Academy Film Awards, five Academy Awards, and four Golden Globe Awards, the composer has cemented his place in the pantheon of innovative artists. His work on immensely popular films like Star Wars and Indiana Jones has ensured that Williams is nothing short of a cultural icon.
“It’s a little bit like how the olfactory system is wired with memory, so that a certain smell makes you remember your grandmother’s cooking,” Williams said in an interview. “A similar thing happens with music. Really, at the root of the question is something about our physiological or neurological setup we don’t understand. It has to do with survival, or protection of group identity, or God knows what. Music can be so powerful, even though it wafts away and we chase it.”
He added, “It has been an extraordinary journey with these films, and with my entire career as well. The idea of becoming a professional film composer, never mind writing nine Star Wars scores over forty years, was not a consciously sought-after goal. It simply happened. All of this, I have to say to you, has been the result of a beneficent randomness. Which often produces the best things in life.”
On his 89th birthday, we revisit some of the iconic scores composed by John Williams as a celebration of his monumental contribution to the world of cinema.
10 best John Williams scores:
10. Seven Years in Tibet (Jean-Jacques Annaud – 1997)
Based on Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer’s 1952 book, Seven Years in Tibet tells the harrowing story of two mountaineers who traverse through a politically volatile landscape in search of meaning. In the beautiful score for the film, Williams employs Eastern elements and features the brilliance of Yo-Yo Ma on the cello.
While speaking about the experience, Brad Pitt said: “For an audience it’s two hours, but for me it’s a half year of living. And this one particularly. Being in a different culture for so long, you couldn’t help but walk out of there with something… I didn’t know anything about Tibet, really, and the first images in my head were of Shangri-la, and that’s not it at all. You just get these notions of an oasis in the middle of this violent world, but it’s the people who make it a Shangri-la, not the land.”
9. Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg – 1998)
Spielberg’s attempt at recreating the events at Normandy has gone down in film history as one of the most popular depictions of the tragic events. His unique visual narrative helped the film win two Academy Awards in 1999, for ‘Best Cinematography’ as well as ‘Best Direction’. Williams’ score acts as a fitting tribute to all the martyrs who lost their lives while fighting the war.
The filmmaker said, “If we pulled this off in the right way — and it stood the test of time — this was going to stand in, in some small way, for what those kids experienced at 6:30 in the morning on June 6, 1944. We took every inch of that beach — as filmmakers, not as war veterans. It took us 25 days of shooting to capture 25 minutes of those landings.”
8. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg – 1982)
A cute film where Spielberg managed to transform the Freudian ‘Other’ into an adorable friend, E.T. has become one of the enduring symbols of ’80s pop culture. At this point in his career, Williams had already worked on bigger sci-fi projects like Star Wars but he takes a different tone here while trying to find the right balance between heartbreak and wonder.
Spielberg said, “E.T. was a gift that came from the heavens from me. I was in Tunisia, making Raiders of the Lost Ark and we were setting up a shot. I was picking up fossils in the desert…I was remembering the end of Close Encounters…I thought, ‘What if the alien had stayed behind on Earth?’”
7. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Chris Columbus – 2002)
The famous first adaptation of J.K. Rowling’s phenomenal fantasy series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone introduces us to the magical world of Hogwarts that is isolated from the monotony of real life. Apart from the visual translation of Rowling’s imagination, Williams’ score becomes an indispensable part of the narrative because it captures the initial loneliness and the growing confidence of our heroic protagonist.
Columbus recalled the pressure of making the original film, “The first film was fraught with anxiety for me. The first two weeks I thought I was gonna get fired every day. Everything looked good, I just thought if I do one thing wrong, if I fuck up, I’m fired. And that was intense. I didn’t let any of that show on the set, there was no frustration, I’m not a screamer, I get along with everybody and I want everybody to feel like they’re part of the family, so I just had to hide that side of my emotions.”
6. Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg – 1993)
Arguably Spielberg’s magnum opus, Schindler’s List is one of the essential documentations of the Holocaust that have penetrated the mainstream consciousness. Spielberg finds the right mixture of stylised cinematography and unabashed bleakness to frame the atrocities of the concentration camps. Williams’ score accentuates the overwhelming pathos of the events on screen, amplifying the tragedy to heart-wrenching extents.
As Williams poignantly put it, “Everyone’s forgotten now, but at the time a lot of people were sure that Spielberg couldn’t film the Holocaust – he was far too glossy a director. What can one say about the Holocaust that wouldn’t seem empty and banal? But I would say this; that it was dear that part of the musical assignment of Schindler’s List was to make a statement that even in these years of unspeakable tragedy there were loving aspects and beautiful aspects of jewish life… even then.”
5. Superman (Richard Donner – 1978)
The seminal 1978 Superman film is often cited as a vastly influential work in the oversaturated oeuvre of superhero flicks. One of the iconic elements of the film (and there are many) is Williams’ fantastic score that earned Academy Award nominations. Although Jerry Goldsmith was originally slated to take care of the score, it is great that Williams got the platform to show the world how he was capable of designing a stellar theme for one of the most towering figures in popular culture.
When Hans Zimmer was tasked with composing the score for Man of Steel, he said “There’s no more masterful composer than John Williams. Let’s just declare the truth here: there is nobody better than John. One of his best scores, of course, was the original Superman film. Secondly, I grew up with Superman. Superman is in my DNA.”
4. Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg – 1993)
Spielberg’s highly influential 1993 film Jurassic Park is an ambitious vision of a world where technology has managed to rebel against the natural order of things by recreating the dinosaurs, creating several disastrous consequences. Williams manages to convey the sense of fascination with the impossible through his music which quickly morphs into anxiety and panic.
The composer said, “Jurassic Park has a 95-minute score. It pumps away all the time. It’s a rugged, noisy effort – a massive job of symphonic cartooning. You have to match the rhythmic gyrations of the dinosaurs and create these kind of funny ballets.”
3. Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg – 1981)
The first and the finest of all the Indiana Jones films, Raiders of the Lost Ark introduces Harrison Ford to the world as the endlessly charming archaeologist/professor/bad-ass intellectual cowboy who gets caught up in a mystery of Biblical proportions. The iconic theme composed by Williams has become an instantly recognisable musical representation of the trope of cinematic heroism.
Williams explained, “The interesting thing about The Raiders March is that it is a very simple little tune, but I spend more time on those bits of musical grammar than anything else. The sequence of notes has to sound just right so it seems inevitable, like it has always been with us. It was something that I chiseled away at for a few weeks, changing a note here and there, to find the correct musical shape. Those little simplicities are often the hardest things to capture.”
2. Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (George Lucas – 1977)
The legendary first film in the Star Wars series, George Lucas’ original work opened the eyes of the world to the possibilities of the sci-fi genre and the potential of envisioning a radically different world. Ranging from galactic politics to phallic symbolism, Lucas dealt with it all and managed to create the definitive work of the genre. Williams’ soundtrack is inextricably linked to the infinitely large legacy of the films, proving to be as iconic as the story of Jedis and Siths.
The composer recalled, “When we did the initial recording in London in 1977, I didn’t have any inkling that there would be a second film, and George Lucas, who has created all this, as you know, didn’t tell me or, as far as I know, anybody else, if there was going to be a second film or, let alone, a third film. I thought that it was a great film and that it would be a wonderful sort of Saturday afternoon show for the family, and then in a few weeks it would be gone.”
1. Jaws (Steven Spielberg – 1975)
Based on Peter Benchley’s best-selling novel, Spielberg investigates philosophical dilemmas about life and death through a pretty specific scenario: a monstrous white shark who has acquired a taste for human blood. The shark acts as a constant reminder of our own mortality, assuring us that death is inevitable and it is just easier to accept our fate.
This was the apotheosis of Williams’ collaborations with Spielberg, composing a score that constantly plays with the voyeuristic expectations of the audience. He described the theme as “grinding away at you, just as a shark would do, instinctual, relentless, unstoppable.”
In an interview, Williams emphasised that the music only works well when synchronised with the film: “Steven was always fond of saying that the music really made the film, but I think the film also made the music. If you played the music without the reference to the film I don’t think we’d pay much attention to it.”