Film music historymaker

Notes on eleven scores by John Williams

Published: Feb 08 2014, 01:01:am

With 145 film scores currently to his credit, JOHN WILLIAMS (b. Feb. 8, 1932 in Floral Park, New York) is the most successful composer of film music ever. The 25 scores of his four-decade-long collaboration with Steven Spielberg guarantee his place among the all-time greats. For baby boomers, his Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) are the defining musical moments. For Millennials, he's the sound of the Harry Potter films. The notes that follow are my capsule reactions to eleven soundtrack CDs released during the 1990s that featured Williams scores. Because several are reissues, I've listed them in the order of the feature film's original release.
STAR WARS - A NEW HOPE (RCA; 1997) — Soundtrack scoring's own Superman, John Towner Williams changed the course of movie music in 1977 with this landmark symphonic work. Wagnerian in concept, its classical leitmotifs elevated director George (American Graffiti) Lucas's rousing space opera into the realm of myth, contributing to a rebirth of both screen sci-fi and full orchestral film scores. Recognizing its importance, RCA has issued his entire score in a spectacular two-CD set. The first of three "special edition" albums marking the 20th anniversary re-release of the motion picture trilogy, it includes outtakes and wonderfully detailed notes on every track. * * * * *

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (Arista; 1998) — His third creative collaboration with director Steven Spielberg, John Williams's innovative, often abstract alien-contact score lost the 1977 Academy Award to his own gloriously classical space opera, Star Wars. A winner by every other standard, the music had a starring role in the film — the famous five-note "Greeting" — as well as offering the usual superb emotional support. Here the composer pays his respects to 20th-century musical theorists Scriabin and Kodaly, and manages to quote from "When You Wish Upon a Star." CD producer Laurent Bouzereau's loving restoration has expanded the original soundtrack album's 41 minutes to 78, creating an irresistible "collector's edition" celebrating a cinematic landmark. * * * * *

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (RCA; 1997) — His place in film music history already established, the 48-year-old John (Star Wars) Williams might have rested on his leitmotifs. Instead, the composer seized the opportunity to soar even higher, using the second [1980] part of the trilogy to add spacious new rooms to the adventure-fantasy's symphonic home. To counter the inevitable mid-section letdown, the composer provided producer George Lucas with almost non-stop classical thunder. We feel the strength of the Dark Side as Darth Vader's new "meaner than sin" theme, "Imperial March," dukes it out with variations on the previously established "Rebel Fanfare." The second complete Star Wars score to be issued in the "special edition" two-CD format, the package includes 20 minutes of previously unreleased material. * * * * *

E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (MCA; 1998) — Facing less formidable competition, John Williams easily won the 1982 Oscar for his wonderfully nuanced fairytale score for director Steven Spielberg's "sequel" to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Gentle and uplifting, the music describes a romantic progression, moving from uncertainty to reassurance to a final, soaring elation. Recognizing the power of Williams's composition, Spielberg cut the film's finale to fit the music (rather than vice-versa). Recognizing that the original soundtrack's 42 minutes represented only the highlights, Laurent Bouzereau returned to the master tapes to produce this 71-minute "expanded edition." * * * * *

RETURN OF THE JEDI (RCA; 1997) — Succumbing to the dark side of the force, soundtrack producer Nick Redman turns what should have been the crown jewel in the special-edition trilogy into a completionist's nightmare. Cut from the re-released film and missing from a two-CD set that otherwise boasts a full hour of previously unavailable music, are two songs from the 1983 original: torch singer Michelle "Snooty" Gruska's "Lapti Nek" and the exuberant "Ewok Celebration." A package that promises it all falls short of perfection by four minutes, 40 seconds. * * * *

JURASSIC PARK (MCA; 1993) — A by-the-numbers work, this unexciting effort suggests that America's most famous screen composer finds little inspiration in dinosaurs. Predictable and ploddingly performed, it sounds a lot like a James Horner imitation of a Williams score. As forgettable as the film, its themes are not up to the great Spielberg/Williams collaborations — Jaws, E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Expect no more than competent theme park Muzak. * * *

SCHINDLER'S LIST (MCA; 1993) — With 31 previous nominations, Steven Spielberg's famous collaborator is Oscar's favourite living composer. Called upon to deliver prestige goods, Williams provides a technically correct, suitably subdued symphonic score. Recalling the klezmorim — and, perhaps, his own 1971 Oscar win for Fiddler on the Roof — Williams's work here is dominated by Itzhak Perlman's solo violin and the occasional clarinet. Like a well-mannered condolence letter from a non-family member, his music is proper and sincere, a work of sustained restraint in memory of an unspeakable tragedy. * * * * *

SABRINA (A&M; 1995) — Just as British-born composer Frederick Hollander mined his middle-European roots for the original Sabrina (1954), John Williams harks back to his American musical youth to score the 1995 remake. A classically-trained jazz pianist, he puts a fine Mancini spin on romantic themes that invoke nostalgia for the polite passions of A-list movies from the 1950s. Maintaining the mood is Sting's piano-bar rendition of "Moonlight." * * * 1/2

THE LOST WORLD (MCA; 1997) — Jungle raiders? Dino-monsters? In a been-there, done-that score, Jurassic Park concertmaster John Williams reflects reluctant hero Jeff Goldblum's bad feelings about a 1997 return to director Steven Spielberg's jaws-filled lizard farm. Restless native drumbeats punctuate a series of prolonged suspense passages reminiscent of the much-honoured composer's work on the Star Wars and Indiana Jones trilogies. Effective in the theatre, it's less so as stand-alone listening. * * 1/2

AMISTAD (Dreamworks; 1997) — With the combination of sensitivity and caution that characterizes his "important" works, John (Schindler's List) Williams sounds all the right notes for an historically significant tale of 19th-century alien abduction. Nominated for an Academy Award, his orchestral score's triumphal main theme is based on West African rhythms while reluctant advocate John Quincy Adams's courage is shaped by hints of Copland's "Lincoln Portrait." The composer's 15th collaboration with director Steven Spielberg, its melodies — including a wistful flute and harp leitmotif for the righteous rebel Cinque — are unabashedly if unfashionably romantic. * * * * *

SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (Dreamworks; 1998) — His mission: Capture the sense of unbearable loss central to director Steven Spielberg's all-guts, no-glory feature and do it with journalistic directness. Sombre and studiously unsentimental, John Williams's 16th score for the increasingly serious Spielberg is a ritual commemoration marked by the same dignity and restraint as his Schindler's List. Throughout, muffled drums and brass solos mitigate any feeling of triumph and cool the blood lust as the music records the cost and recalls the pain. Not until the end-credits coda ("Hymn to the Fallen") do the tears burst forth with choral-enhanced emotion. * * * *

The above are restored versions of a number of Province capsule reviews by Michael Walsh originally published between 1993 and 1998. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

More music: You might also enjoy reading HOWARD SHORE (seven scores).