Friday, May 28, 2010

John Williams: My Personal First Film Composer

(This is my contribution to the John Williams Blog-a-thon hosted by Ali Arikan and Matt Zoller Seitz over at the blog Edward Copeland on Film.)

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—For me, when it came to film music, John Williams's was the first that made me aware of the music as music, whether in concert with the film or not.

Of course, when you're pulverized by the kinds of overwhelming brass fanfares of Williams's famous themes for the Star Wars films, the Indiana Jones films, and Jurassic Park (1993), among others, it's perhaps difficult not to take notice. But none of those films were my introduction to the man's film music. For me, it was his more delicate work for Steven Spielberg's E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) that first perked up my ears not only to his music, but to film music in general. From the spooky opening ondes-martenot moans underneath the opening credits to the full-orchestral surge of unabashed sentimentality in its final frames, Williams's music for that film fascinated me almost as much as the film itself moved me as a young kid, with little more than a passing interest in movies, on the verge of teen-hood. (Also, I grew up listening to classical music, so I was probably primed to respond enthusiastically to the kind of grand orchestral sound Williams frequently employed in his scores.)

Older and wiser now (ostensibly), I'm more aware of the composers behind the music in movies, and there are probably a few others I might name either alongside Williams or maybe even above him in stature: Jerry Goldsmith; Bernard Herrmann; Nino Rota; hell, even Carl Stalling, who scored many of those Warner Bros. cartoons. But John Williams is the one who opened the door to a personal awareness of music in the movies—helped in no small measure by the amount of exposure to him I had whenever I watched him conduct the Boston Pops on PBS back in the day.

For that, I salute him.

I will defer further commentary on John Williams's art to others participating in this blog-a-thon; those others would probably have deeper insights into the intricacies of his genius than I do. The blog-a-thon's two hosts already have a fine inaugural post up at Edward Copeland on Film about the subtleties of his approach to scoring George Lucas's Star Wars prequels, a post which a) actually makes me somewhat interested in finally getting around to seeing Episodes II and III, and b) emphasizes that, for all the bombast Williams may be known for as a film composer based on some of his famous themes, the real measure of his brilliance is how selflessly and imaginatively he adopts his approach to the film he's scoring. You may remember the rousing, endlessly catchy music in Star Wars (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) or E.T., but that doesn't make his relatively hands-off approach to, say, Presumed Innocent (1990), Saving Private Ryan (1998), or Munich (2005), among many others, any less impressive.

Sure, great film music deserves to be heard on its own...but I would argue that the full measure of a film score's brilliance can only really be gained in concert with the film it's accompanying. On both counts, John Williams, for lack of a better word, scored high more often than not.


In the meantime: I recently got an earful of John Williams when I visited Universal Studios Hollywood during my trip to Los Angeles—Jaws this, E.T. that, and Jurassic Park all over. I'm still working on that video summing up my trip out there, but here's a preview that fits quite nicely with this John Williams blog-a-thon.

Hope this all makes you hungry for my eventual vacation-video main course:

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