A Tribute To John Williams
Music and how it is used in film is a craft rarely understood, and often taken for granted. Film is the product of a collaborative process that features the artistic interplay between image and music, full of potential but fraught with difficulties. John Williams’, whose music over the decades has been the most recognisable, diverse and loved, collected the 44th AFI Life Achievement award in a star studded event featuring, among others, Harrison Ford, Tom Hanks, JJ Abrahams, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. The best tribute to John Williams is best left to listening to his body of work but here are a few personal reflections on his genius.
With over 121 film scores and 5 Oscars to his name, Williams’s gift for conceiving a melody is undeniable and the fact that we cannot imagine films like E.T, Jaws, Indiana Jones and Star Wars without his score is testament to his talents. E.T’s Flying Theme is one of William’s countless examples of melodies that have remained engrained in our consciousness, and, like the film, loved by young and old alike. In the film’s most iconic sequence, Williams’ music captures the variety of emotions that takes us from melancholy to joy as the bicycles soars into the sky. Williams tried to structure his music to hit every key moment in the scene. He spoke about the challenge for the music to fit the visual cues and after numerous attempts, Spielberg suggested to Williams to stop looking at the film and “conduct the orchestra the way you would want to conduct in a concert”. And in so doing, Spielberg took the rarely taken path of re-editing that sequence to fit William’s score.
For Star Wars, George Lucas wanted a grand symphonic score that sounded like an unashamed throwback to swashbuckling classics that Lucas grew up with. We are spoilt with such memorable melodies such as the brass led opening, the Imperial march, or the horn’s gentle floating theme for Princess Leia. One can hear the heavy influence of Wagner’s use of leitmotifs to paint musical signatures for Lucas’s characters. Another example is the score to Indiana Jones and the themes for its various characters including Indiana and Marion. Have a listen to Harrison Ford’s humorous and insightful tribute in the AFI tribute film (link below).
The most enduring and successful creative partnership in cinema features John Williams and Steven Spielberg. Music to Schindler’s List was his 3rd Oscar triumph on a Spielberg film and was his toughest challenge due, in part, to the difficulty of the subject matter. Williams feared he could not deliver and told Spielberg that he needed to find a better composer. Spielberg responded “I know, but they are all dead!”.
For anyone like me who loves film music and the process of marrying music to film, this wonderfully heart-warming, entertaining and insightful tribute film to John Williams is a must see. John Williams’ unique composition gift is best summarised by Spielberg: