Annnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnd we're back!
If I were grading the periods of John Williams' career, I'd say that the span of time covered in the first section of my tour is a Bronze Age, and that the years covered in the second part are an Early Silver Age (a Late Silver Age will follow later).
|Williams and Steven Spielberg, with a grumpy-looking Brian DePalma in the background|
Today's post indisputably represents a Golden Age (as will the next). By virtually any standard, these years represent an astonishing artistic achievement.
Read on and find out all about it.
1975 -- The Eiger Sanction
To one degree or another, I've been a film-music fan (and a John Williams fan) since roughly the time of 1980's The Empire Strikes Back. As with many of my hobbies, the film-music obsession tends to ebb and flow over time, and it was at its peak during the late nineties. During that time, it was not at all uncommon for me to go to a local record store that sold used CDs and buy more or less whatever film soundtracks they had that I did not already own. On other days, I might even drive to one or two good stores in Birmingham and comb through their new CDs, and I was always on the lookout for any soundtracks I'd never seen before.
By that point, I obviously knew full and well who John Williams was, and I already had a pretty good collection of his work. Not comprehensive, by any means; but I owned most of the soundtracks for the movies of his that I'd seen. Once the film-music bug hit me at addiction-level strength, I began buying even the stuff from movies I'd never seen.
The score that prompted that was The Eiger Sanction. I bought that one because I was in the mood to buy something, and that's what was available; and because I figured if it was by John Williams it might be worth a spin. So I took it home, listened to it, and fell in love with it. And from there, I decided to buy ANY Williams score I saw . . . and then, any James Horner score I saw . . . and then, any Jerry Goldsmith score I saw. I had similar experiences with both of them, and eventually, this led to me buying basically any score by anybody.
If that sounds a bit like the story of a junkie looking to replicate an especially fine high, you're probably not wrong to notice the similarities.
That level of film-music nerdery died off after a couple of years, but the Williams fandom never went away. The reason why is simple: the Williams purchases continued to be rewarding, time after time. But I still rank The Eiger Sanction as one of the stronger of the discs I bought during that period, and I enjoy it every time I listen to it.
The movie itself is a Clint Eastwood film (he directed and starred) about an assassin who takes on a dangerous contract in hopes of a big payoff. Or something like that; I've never seen it. A quick bit of research tells me the following things: it was a troubled production that included serious injuries, including one fatality; it was a modest financial success; it was poorly reviewed; and it led to Eastwood leaving Universal Studios permanently.
As for the score, it's dynamite. The main title theme is a jazzy, ominous piece written in waltz time. That melody appears in various other guises throughout the soundtrack album, sometimes with the romance pushed to the fore, sometimes the danger, sometimes the swinging-jazz aspects. There is also a good bit of very fine action/suspense scoring.
How much of this is in the movie? I have no idea. Any film-music fan knows that soundtrack albums often fail to adequately represent the score as it is heard in the movie, just as the score as it is heard in the movie often fails to adequately reflect the scope of the music that was written and recorded. For that reason, the truly committed fan must experience it both ways. That's why I plan to eventually sit down and actually WATCH all of these movies I've never seen. It will be a rewarding task to take on, I've no doubt.
It's a shame Williams and Eastwood never worked together again; that seems as if it could have been a hell of a collaboration.
1975 -- Jaws
Finally, here we are.
Up to this point in his career, Williams had composed a lot of good music; if he had retired immediately prior to making Jaws, he would still have left behind him a rather excellent body of work. Jaws, however, was an entirely different achievement; this was -- and is -- a masterpiece.
The duh-dum-duh-dum main theme has been parodied numerous times (including once by Williams himself, in 1941's opening scene), and is one of those rare pieces of music that is so widely recognized that many people can't even quite hear the music of it anymore. Instead, I think a lot of people hear it as a sound effect moreso than as a piece of music.
What a shame! It's one of the most primally exciting pieces of music ever written; or, if that seems overly hyperbolic, tack "for a movie" on the end of that statement. There is a reason that piece of music is still remembered -- in some cases, by people who've never even seen the movie, one imagines -- forty years later. That reason? Perfection. It was (pardon the pun) instrumental in the movie's success, and in case your film-history knowledge is lacking, let me indicate for you the scope of that success: according to Box Office Mojo, the North American box office gross was $260 million. For comparison, there have been only five movies so far released in 2015 which have done better than that. But let's back up for a moment: Jaws earned that money forty years ago. Adjusting for inflation, Box Office Mojo estimates that $260 million in 1975 dollars equates to slightly more than ONE BILLION 2015 dollars.
A few movies will make that worldwide in 2015, but nothing is going to come within shouting distance of a billion domestic in 2015. [UPDATE: It is now January 13, 2016, and The Force Awakens appears as if it might actually make a billion domestic. If not, it is certainly going to get within shouting distance. It's an astonishing haul about which we will talk more later, but I couldn't let my not-unreasonable declaration in this post stand without comment.]
In other words, Jaws was so big a hit that modern-day audiences really can't even conceive of what that would be like. The counter-argument is that in 1975, there was no Netflix, no Blu-ray, no Redbox, no video games, no Internet, et cetera. It's a valid point; there was nowhere near as much competition for the dollars in 1975. Still, that doesn't mean the dollars weren't spent; they were spent, and in record numbers. Jaws became the top-grossing movie of all-time, ushered in a new era of studio hunger for summertime blockbusters, and changed the face of the industry forever.
At the heart of that success? John Williams, who would win his second Oscar for the score. Heck, even director Steven Spielberg is on the record as saying that the music accounted for at least half of the movie's success.
Remarkably, the score's excellence is not limited merely to the duh-dum-duh-dum. There is also some exciting sea-chase music, a droll promenade representing the clueless tourists, some atmospheric underwater-search music, and assorted other goodness. The entire thing is great, top to bottom. One scene I especially love is involves Chief Brody sitting at the dinner table, depressed by the situation in which he and his town have found themselves; his young son is observing him and mimicking his every move, and Brody notices this out of the corner of his eye and reacts playfully. Williams scores this small but lovely scene in a small but lovely manner, and the end result is one of the movie's best moments. It's proof that Williams and Spielberg alike were never purely about spectacle and bombast; if you ever thought that, you weren't paying attention.
Williams would spend the next forty years making moments like that; few of them quite that great, of course, but he got close occasionally and even exceeded it once in a while.
If I had to say what the best Williams score was prior to June of 1975, I might have a few solid candidates: Heidi, or The Reivers, or Jane Eyre, or The Eiger Sanction, or The Towering Inferno. Once Jaws was out, it immediately became by far the best score of Williams' career, however. It was masterful in every way, iconic through and through. And amazingly, this would merely be the beginning of a phase for Williams, rather than a culmination; I would argue that over the course of the next decade, he would craft eight other scores that were either as good, better, or almost as good. The word "masterpiece" gets thrown around a lot by people like myself who use it carelessly, hyperbolically. But know that in this instance, I am not in any way exaggerating: Williams' best scores from 1975-1984 are not merely good, not merely GREAT; they are masterful.
And the ones that aren't quite up to that level are still pretty damn great, too.
With one exception...
1975 -- Thomas and the King
Never heard of Thomas and the King? I'm not surprised. It was not a film, but a London-based stage musical (the only musical Williams ever composed).
In collaboration with lyricist James Harbert and playwright Edward Anhalt, Williams tells the story of King Henry II's friendship and professional relationship with Thomas Beckett. Unfortunately, the resulting musical is a complete misfire, at least if the extant cast recording is any indication. I want to hold out a tiny amount of hope that this is because the album (which was recorded in 1981, some six years after the show's brief run ended) is a bit ragged-sounding. It might be that a proper production with a full orchestra (instead of the small ensemble of musicians this recording sounds like it had) might improve things. It might also be that seeing the full musical, rather than merely hearing song selections, could enhance things.
On the other hand, nothing could improve Harbert's lyrics apart from a full rewrite. At one point, he rhymes the exhortation "imagine it!" with "Plantagenet." In another song, in which Henry and Thomas are planning to build a better England, Harbert introduces the couplet "We shall do it! / Get down to it!"
There are a few songs which are decent (including "Am I Beautiful?", the only song from the musical that I found on YouTube), and occasional musical/orchestrational moments that do at least sound consistent with what Williams had been doing in the early seventies. Overall, though, this is very weak stuff. How much of the blame for that is due Williams and how much should instead go to his collaborators is impossible to say for this blogger; and in the end, it is irrelevant. It's not good, and that is the only salient thing I have to say.
1976 -- Family Plot
Williams' first post-Jaws film score would not turn out to be the milestone that that project had been, but it was a milestone in its own right: it was the score for what turned out to be the final film ever directed by industry legend Alfred Hitchcock.
Hitchcock is, alongside Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick, one of three directors perpetually vying for the crown of Bryant's Favorite Director. He had a lengthy career, beginning in the 1920s as a director of silent films. He was prolific and highly successful for six decades, and if one cares to become invested enough in his work to march through all of it, one will be rewarded amply.
Family Plot is not one of his more well-known efforts, and indeed its reputation has suffered by way of not being particularly prized by the academics and film historians who have done the majority of his myth-making and canonizing. Most of them tend to write off all of his movies after The Birds, which to this blogger's way of thinking is short-sighted and narrow-minded. It can be fairly argued that Family Plot lacks the keen psychological insights that were the hallmark of the best Hitchcock films, but so what? It's still a rip-roaring good time at the movies.
The John Williams score is a huge part of that, too. The main theme is a terrifically fun piece, scored for harpsichord and orchestra and also including a gorgeous section for female choir which represents the "psychic" subplot. Those choral elements are a foreshadowing of certain elements of the next year's Close Encounters work.
Amazingly, Family Plot never had a soundtrack album released; not, at least, until Varese Sarabande stepped in and finally put one out in 2010. It is glorious.
1976 -- The Missouri Breaks
Before we proceed, a quick clarification: producer Robert M. Sherman should not be confused with either of the Sherman brothers with whom John Williams worked on 1973's Tom Sawyer: that's Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, and they are of no relation to Robert M. Sherman. But I can see how a reader would be confused by that; I was, and had to research the matter to make sure what was what and who was whom.
That aside, The Missouri Breaks was a thoroughly unsuccessful Western directed by Arthur Penn (who'd made Bonnie and Clyde and Little Big Man) that starred two of the world's biggest movie stars, Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson. Having never seen the film, I can't tell you why it didn't work, but I can tell you who not to blame: John Williams, who contributed a terrific low-key score that goes in a completely different direction from previous works like The Cowboys and The Reivers.
The highlight of the music, for me, is "Love Theme (Reprise)," a gentle piece for guitar and harmonica that is so good that I don't care that the movie was a failure; it's worth it having happened if only to have brought this piece of music into the world.
There's also an ominous main-title theme that I like a lot; its opening bass line seems to prefigure the dread-through-repetition style of John Carpenter, and there's a terrific middle section consisting of a rhythm section. Another standpoint cue is a rollicking train-robbery piece.
This score was another instance in which the as-released soundtrack album was not entirely representative of the score Williams recorded for the movie. The album consisted mostly of rerecordings designed to play well divorced from image, whereas the film versions were tailored more to the cinematic experience. In this particular case, I would probably opt for the album recordings; they seem a bit more full-bodied. The soundtrack label Kritzerland put out a two-disc version with both album and film recordings a few years back, but it is hella sold out now.
Stephen King connection: Jack Nicholson, of course!
1976 -- Midway
For his final score of 1976, Williams worked on the WWII docu-drama Midway for director Jack Smight, and (among others) star Charlton Heston. There is only about thirty minutes' worth of music in the film, making it one of the composer's leaner efforts. No soundtrack album was released at the time (the year 1976 was a rough one for Williams collectors), but the "Midway March" was a staple of Williams concerts and compilations for years, as well as patriotic-music compilations and concerts. The full score would not be released until a 1998 re-recording by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra; the original recordings did not hit disc until 2011!
A second march, "The Men of the Yorktown March," is slower-paced and more deliberate, but is also quite good. The rest of the score is, to my way of thinking, a bit unremarkable.
1977 -- Black Sunday
1977 was what might fairly be called a watershed year for John Williams, and it began with the score for Black Sunday, a John Frankenheimer-directed film about a fictional Black September plot to explode a blimp over the Super Bowl, killing thousands of people.
The movie was based on a novel by Associated Press reporter Thomas Harris, who would go on in a few years' time to find a profitable career as the creator of the character Hannibal Lecter. The movie starred Robert Shaw and Bruce Dern, and was only a modest success, thanks in part to the poorly-received release of another football/terrorism movie, Two Minute Warning, in which Charlton Heston tries to prevent a sniper from taking aim at a championship game. The movie is very good, for the most part; it falls apart a bit at the end when it becomes much too ambitious for the effects budget to handle the requirements. At that point, only the Williams music keeps it afloat, and if you didn't grow up during this era of movies, you'll likely feel it doesn't stay afloat at all.
Williams' score is intense and effective, and while I wouldn't put it on a list of his best work, it certainly gets the job done. There are a few passages that sound almost as if they could have come straight out of Star Wars, and given that that score happened a mere two months later, Black Sunday proves to be a fine opportunity to look in on the work of a composer whose career was about to kick into an even higher gear.
The score is yet another one which failed to receive a soundtrack-album release; no such thing existed until Film Score Monthly plugged the hole in 2010 (although a widely-circulated bootleg existed, and was so readily available that even I found a copy at a sci-fi con).
1977 -- Star Wars
What can be said about the music for Star Wars? Plenty. Okay, let me rephrase that question: what can be said about the music for Star Wars that will fit in the space I'm going to allot for it here?
Probably not a whole heck of a lot. I mean, there's this: it's unquestionably one of the greatest film scores ever written. There's this: it single-handedly made symphonic film music popular as a record-store genre for at least the next decade. There's this: it helped make classical music concerts and albums a viable pastime for untold thousands -- millions? -- of people who might otherwise have never given it the time of day. It won Williams a well-deserved Oscar, and the soundtrack sold 4 million copies.
Any time I talk about music in an analytical fashion, it's dodgy. I know nothing about composition, or performance, or instrumentation, or orchestration, or arrangement; for all I know, some of those words might be synonyms for each other. The best I can typically do is to issue a slightly more verbose version of "I like this," "I don't like this," "I love this," or "I hate this." So yeah, sure, I guess I could do a track-by-track analysis of this soundtrack; but for every track, I'd just write some variant of the third of those four options, and who wants to read that? Nobody.
That said, here's a partial list of my favorite tracks from the Star Wars score:
"Main Title" -- That explosion of sound at the beginning has never been rivaled by anyone.
"Binary Sunset (aka the Force theme)" -- On the soundtrack, this is merely part of a longer track that also contains the music which plays when the hologram of Princess Leia is projected from R2-D2's dome. I don't know what it is about that moment of Luke looking at the double sunset, man. Is it just that there are two suns? Is it just that Mark Hamill is sympathetic? Is it just the cinematography? Is it just the music? Nah, it's all that rolled together, and who knows what else I'm not thinking of.
"Cantina Band" -- Odds are good that I could hum every note of this weird piece of jazz to you. (To prove this to myself, I've just done it, including the mini-drum-solo.) Odds are good that you would not enjoy that. But if you don't enjoy the original piece, somethin' wrong wi' yo' ass.
"The Trash Compactor" -- This isn't a cue that you hear many fans talking about all that often, and I don't know why that is. It's a terrifically ominous piece that (excepting the cutaways to other scenes) just builds and builds and builds.
"Ben Kenobi's Death/TIE Fighter Attack" -- When I hear this piece, I swear to you I can practically hear Luke Skywalker scream" No!" at the moment of Ben's death. That's the extent to which this music is written in my brain. The second part of the track is arguably the best action music of the score.
"The Throne Room/End Title" -- That throne-room fanfare, brother . . . that's what music is all about, right there. I'm a fan of all sorts of music, but not the heaviest of metal or the slickest of pop can do what John Williams is doing in those moments.
"Princess Leia's Theme" -- The album version of the Princess Leia theme is easily one of the top five loveliest pieces Williams ever wrote, and might be rivaled only by the Love Theme from Superman, for my money.
It might be that nostalgia is overriding my logic center, but either way I would assert that this music is handily among the best film scores ever written. It's been a part of my life almost as long as that life has existed, and it's no exaggeration to say that a substantial degree of my mental and emotional makeup sounds precisely like this.
1977 -- Close Encounters of the Third Kind
One aspect of film scoring that most people probably never consider -- indeed, I tend to forget it unless some reminder comes my way -- is that most scores are timed to the film. By that, I mean that the music is written to fit within a specific time-frame corresponding to the scene at hand. That means that a composer like John Williams is not free to simply write a bunch of brilliant music and then trowel it onto the image willy-nilly. It doesn't work like that. If you're dealing with a three-minute sequence in which Han Solo and Luke Skywalker fire lasers at enemy spacecraft, you've got a precise amount of time to deal with; you have to match any emotional changes that might occur during the scene, you have to account for dialogue, you have to account for sound effects. If you want to accentuate certain moments, you have to do so precisely.
All of this has to fit together in a very rigid way, more often than not. For that reason, film music often does not play well when divorced from the film itself; and even within the film, it runs the risk of being bland and formulaic.
The fact that John Williams has not merely avoided this problem but has transcended it so often during his career is cause for amazement. The score for Star Wars is just as good played on its own as it is within the context of the film. The same can be said for the best cues from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which is my favorite movie that carries a Williams score.
The most famous piece of music from the film is the five-note piece -- described by Steven Spielberg, when he was requesting what he wanted Williams to compose, as a sort of doorbell-like greeting -- that represents the musical conversation between the aliens and the humans. This piece is used in various ways during the movie, notably as sound effects heard by various characters in various circumstances. During one scene, researchers visit a village in India, where hundreds of people are chanting it after encountering an alien spacecraft. That scene gives me chills just thinking about it.
Later, it is developed into a full-blown orchestral piece for the finale, and this piece of music is as majestic as anything I know. When Williams lets the orchestra loose and they play these notes in their full statement, it's an example of art at its finest. Another moment that stands out for me is a smaller one, but no less impactful: when Roy is talking on the phone and pacing around the room where he's constructed his insane sculpture, a television is in the shot with him; he's paying no attention to it, but it begins showing images of Devil's Tower in Wyoming, which (unbeknownst to him) is the very thing he's obsessively been sculpting. You think he's going to fail to notice, but the call ends abruptly, and he is looking around in frustration; his eyes land on the television, and you can practically see the locks inside his mind clicking open. The music Williams employs is gentle, but insistent; it is the sound of a spirit being set at rest, and the promise of ever greater revelations to come.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind is one of my two or three favorite movies (in a perpetual death-match for that crown with The Wizard of Oz and 2001: A Space Odyssey), and I'd never seen it in a movie theatre until recently. It's a great film in any format, but if you have an opportunity to see it on a big screen, TAKE IT.
The final sequence of the film, in which Williams' music comes fully to the fore, is sheer magic. Notably, it's a rare instance of the movie being edited to match the music, rather than the other way around; that's how important the music is to this particular film.
It's also worth underlining that Williams did both this AND Star Wars in the same year. That's a heck of a year, folks.
Worth a brief mention: as was also the case with Jaws, the original soundtrack album consisted in some cases of different takes than the takes used in the movie. The biggest example is probably the music that represents "The Conversation" between humans and aliens, using musical tones as language. I actually prefer the album version; the film version is great, too, though. There is an expanded soundtrack that contains the film versions. I say find copies of both.
1978 -- The Fury
Pity the poor movie that has to be a composer's follow-up to the one-two punch of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. That's an unenviable position to be in.
The Fury was directed -- Stephen King connection alert! -- by Brian DePalma, who was hired on the basis of his success with Carrie. It starred his Carrie alumnus Amy Irving (who was Steven Spielberg's girlfriend at the time), as well as Kirk Douglas; the faintly Carrie-esque (and Firestarter-esque) story involved telekinetics kidnapped by the government, which means that this score is one of our greatest opportunities to hear what a John Williams score for a Stephen King movie might have sounded like.
Oh, if only. Can you imagine Williams being hired for The Dead Zone, or Cujo, or Misery? All of those movies have very good scores, but I can't help but imagine Williams showing up to kick them into an even higher gear.
Williams' music for The Fury is very much in the mode of the great Bernard Herrmann, and that's no surprise: Herrmann's penultimate score, Obsession, was for a DePalma film, and there is every indication that his collaboration with the director would have continued if he had not passed away (literally the same day he completed his gorgeous score for Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver). So whether DePalma asked Williams for something Herrmannesque or whether Williams did it on his own, it was a very appropriate decision.
1978 -- Jaws 2
One of the first big-time cash-grab sequels, Jaws 2 is a Spielberg-less sequel that is in no way in the same league as it progenitor. I say this having never seen Jaws 2, of course, which makes it a dubious statement. And yet, I know I'm right. YOU know I'm right, too.
I don't have any particular plans to ever see Jaws 2. Apparently there is a scene in which the shark attacks a helicopter and drags it under. I don't feel the need to take part in that sort of bullshit.
I don't always mind sequels, even when they are cash-grab sequels that ditch most of the first film's creative team. However, there are some movies that I love so much that unless a GOOD sequel is made -- maybe even a great one -- I just don't feel like I need to swim in that pool. Jaws, The Exorcist, Psycho, The Blair Witch Project, and American Graffiti come to mind.
That said, if I ever do see Jaws 2, it's going to be for the John Williams score. Let's not count this possibility out, either.
The score is not as good as the original -- that would be a tall order, even for John Williams -- but it's very good, and it has remarkably few similarities with the first film. This is true of the soundtrack album, at least; I can't speak to the full score as it is heard in the film.
The best track is probably the end title cue, which is lovely. "The Catamaran Race" and "Ballet For Divers" are both awfully good, too. This is definitely some of the best music I've ever heard that was written for a movie that probably ought not to exist.
1978 -- Superman
You kids nowadays can have your Zack Snyder and Henry Cavill and Hans Zimmer, all of whom are perfectly talented people. But for me, there's unlikely ever to be another Superman like Superman. Fifty percent of that is Christopher Reeve, and the other fifty percent is John Williams, who turned in what might be his very best score. If it isn't, it's certainly on the short-list.
In one of the all-time great crimes against art perpetrated by the Academy Awards, this score somehow failed to win an Oscar. It lost to Giorgio Moroder's Midnight Express, which boggles my mind. (Oscar would give the world a right buggering in this category the next three consecutive years, too: in 1979, Jerry Goldsmith's majestic and unforgettable Star Trek: The Motion Picture lost to George Delerue's A Little Romance; Williams lost the '80 and '81 Oscars, with The Empire Strikes Back defeated by Michael Gore's Fame -- fucking Fame, for fuck's fucking sake! -- and Raiders of the Lost Ark losing to Vangelis's Chariots of Fire, which is admittedly great, but not Raiders great. Williams would go on to lose a great many Academy Awards over the years, and if he had as many as he deserved, his mantle could not hold them all.)
My favorite tracks:
"Theme from Superman" -- With the possible exception of the James Bond theme, this would get my nomination for best theme in cinema history. And hey, look . . . I'm a big fan of the fact that modern Hollywood is awash in superhero movies, and I've liked most and loved more than a few of the resultant films. But not a single one of them has had a theme for its hero(es) that even approaches this level of quality. Danny Elfman's 1989 Batman theme comes close, but from the current millennium...? There's nothing. Hans Zimmer's Batman music is great, and so is his Superman music, but they can't touch this.
"The Planet Krypton" -- The fanfare for Superman's planet of birth is majestic and haunting, and is good enough that it would have been easily the standout theme for 99% of the other movies ever made. EVER. Here's, it's a b-side. That's how good that main theme is.
"The Trip to Earth" -- I've always been a sucker for this scherzo, which is an exciting and soaring piece that covers Kal-El's journey to his adopted planet.
"Love Theme from Superman" -- This is almost certainly the prettiest and most romantic piece of music Williams has composed thus far. (In his mid-eighties now, it seems unlikely he will top himself; but if you count this guy out, you are a fool.) This particular recording is a concert arrangement, which means that it does not itself appear in the movie. The theme does in different arrangements, though, most notably in the scene in which Superman takes Lois Lane for a midnight flight and Margot Kidder gets to engage in some dreadful vocal stylings.
"Leaving Home" -- The theme that comprises the majority of the latter half of this track is referred to in most places as the Smallville theme, and, once again, it's good enough that most directors would choke their grandmothers to death in order to have it playing over their movie's credits. Here? It's, like, maybe the fourth-best theme. Good lord; talk about an abundance of riches.
"The Fortress of Solitude" -- This lengthy track is just flat-out incredible. It restates the Krypton theme for Clark's discovery/construction of the arctic fortress, turns esoteric and haunting for the appearance and years-long tutelage of a holographic version of Jor-El, and then triumphant when Superman makes his first appearance and leaves to join (and safeguard) the world. Ever heard the phrase "tour de force"? It may as well have been coined to describe this piece of music. Oh how it hurts my heart to think that this lost to Giorgio Moroder...
"The March of the Villains" -- I guess a lot of modern viewers feel like this movie's Lex Luthor sucks, but not me. I think Gene Hackman is great, and while I know in my mind that Ned Beatty's Otis DOES kind of suck, I still like him. ("Otisberg?!? Otisberg?!?!?") This march is light-hearted and goofy, but as it progresses it takes on some edge, suggesting that these villains might have more power than you think.
Man alive . . . this is a heck of a score, folks. Williams flung it out into the world a mere year after Star Wars and Close Encounters, both of which are roughly as great.
Who has a trifecta like that within such a brief span of time (not to mention having two other works as good as The Fury and Jaws 2 sandwiched in between)? Honestly; name me anyone, in any field, at any period of history. If they exist, I definitely want to know about them.
And then he follows it with this:
1979 -- Dracula
John Badham directed the 1979 remake of Dracula for Universal, and while the movie was a mild disappointment at the time (possibly owing to the near-simultaneous release of two other Dracula theme movies, Love at First Bite and Werner Herzog's remake of Nosferatu), it has built a fanbase over the years.
Much of this is due to the lush score by John Williams, whose foot was firmly on the pedal in 1979 and was seemingly glued in place. His music for Dracula is probably not in the same league as Superman, but it's every bit as good as The Fury, and that, friends, is pretty dang good.
1979 -- 1941
To the extent it is remembered at all, 1941 is mostly remembered as a box-office flop that temporarily derailed the on-fire career of Steven Spielberg.
Thing is, it actually did fairly well at the box office; nobody made a profit on it, but nobody lost their shirt, either. And if you ask me, it's not only a very funny movie, but an extremely well-made one on virtually every technical level.
And then there's the score by John Williams. It's fantastic, and the march is among the composer's best works. The rest of the score is a lot of fun, too; in keeping with the slapstick tone of the film, Williams tosses in quotations of his Jaws and Close Encounters scores at opportune moments, but also provides a lot of music that stands proudly shoulder-to-shoulder with the best of his late-seventies work. I'm particularly fond of a trilling (not "thrilling," but that too) piece of music that represents one character's fascination with airplanes (it's probably best featured in "The Battle for Hollywood," a standout track). I also like the Benny Goodman pastiche.
Williams failed to land an Oscar nomination for either 1941 or Dracula, as the Academy thought it was more important to put forth Georges Delerue for A Little Romance and Dave Grusin for The Champ. But they also failed to nominate Jerry Goldsmith's Alien, so it wasn't merely Williams' turn to be screwed.
1980-1995 (and onward) -- the Boston Pops Orchestra
In January of 1980, Williams took over the post as Principal Conductor for the nationally-renowned Boston Pops Orchestra, replacing Arthur Fiedler, who had passed away the previous summer after heading the Pops for 49 years. Fiedler had recorded numerous successful albums with the orchestra, so it was no small task for Williams to accept the position.
He would somehow juggle this job -- which included Evening at Pops, a PBS television series that featured concerts by the orchestra -- with his film-composing work (and his concert-hall compositions) for the next thirteen years.
Williams has recorded something like thirty albums with the Boston Pops, ranging from Christmas albums to classical recordings (such as Holst's The Planets, which was a major influence on Star Wars) to Broadway suites to Williams compilations to orchestral versions of Frank Sinatra songs. I'd love to cover all of them here individually, but will not do so, simply because it would make this series of posts genuinely unwiedly. If you're interested in exploring those albums further, here is a good place to start.
1980 -- The Empire Strikes Back
The odds of topping a score like Star Wars must be astronomical. Depending on your point of view, you might feel as if Williams did not manage it; but if so, you and I part ways. Don't worry, I still love ya; I just think The Empire Strikes Back is an even more marvelous piece of work than Star Wars is.
Williams introduces three major new themes (one for Darth Vader, one for Yoda, and one for the developing love story between Princess Leia and Han Solo), and all three are spectacular. I'm also a big fan of a track called "Hyperspace," which is some of the best action writing Williams has ever done. (Am I tossing out those superlatives too often? If so, it's only because it's true.)
I already mentioned this, but it bears belly-aching about repeatedly: this monumental piece of excellence lost the Oscar to the score to Fame, which would be like Abraham Lincoln losing an election to Richard Simmons. (Granted, as I type this my country is strongly flirting with the idea of electing Donald Trump to be President; I think we may have already gone to first base, too.) [UPDATE: he's got at least two fingers in us, as far as I can tell from January 13, 2016's vantage point. Ugh.]
Ultimately, I think I'd have to say that this is the composer's finest achievement. A few upcoming films might be able to convincingly put a stake to that claim, but for me, this is it. Which means it's all disappointment from here, right...?
1981 -- Raiders of the Lost Ark
If adventure has a name, it must be Indiana Jones. Seems like I heard somebody say that once upon a time.
Look, I don't need to tell you this is a great score. Do I? Maybe I do. It occurs to me that the movie is old enough now that a blogger like me can't take it as a given that everyone in the world has actually seen Raiders of the Lost Ark. I work with people who haven't seen it. Poor bastards.
In any case, the score is a rollicking good time from beginning to end. The main theme is one the best-known compositions of the latter half of the century (I say, bereft of data to prove it); but there are many standouts subthemes and action cues, and overall the entire score works like a charm.
A few of my favorite cues include "The Basket Game" (a comic piece that underscores Indy chasing through the streets of Cairo trying to find Marion, who has been kidnapped and shoved inside a huge laundry basket); "The Map Room: Dawn" (a glorious cue which might as well be titled "The Ark Theme" and which underscores a scene in which Indy infiltrates an ancient map room and uses light shining through a headpiece to find the location of the Ark of the Covenant); and "Desert Chase," which might get my vote for the best piece of action-scene film-score ever written.
In short, this is yet another A++ effort from John Williams.
1981 -- Heartbeeps
Ever heard of Heartbeeps? I didn't figure you had.
The movie was a box-office dud that told the tale of a small group of escaped servant robots, two of whom fall in love and raise a "child" together. It was produced by Michael Phillips, who had previously produced Close Encounters of the Third Kind and who convinced John Williams to score the movie for director Allan Arkush.
It starred Andy Kaufman, Bernadette Peters, Randy Quaid, and future Cat's Eye co-star Kenneth McMillan. It was considered a bit of a turd at the time, but it did earn an Academy Award nomination for Stan Winston's terrific makeup.
The score by Williams is quirky, with weird synth disco-esque synth sections that seemingly represent the artificial nature of the characters. The synth gradually gives way to a more symphonic orchestration that emphasizes the humanity of these robots' emotions. Is it an obvious approach? Yeah, of course. But it works, and Williams turned in a score that might not rank alongside some of his other work of the era, but which is nevertheless outstanding.
1982 -- E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Hits don't get much bigger than E.T. Before its run in theatres had ended, it had taken the crown of #1 movie all-time at the box office, which marked the third time in seven years that a John Williams film had accomplished that task (Jaws and Star Wars being the others). It wouldn't be the last: Jurassic Park did it again in 1993. (And the odds seem decent that The Force Awakens makes it an even five times later this year.) [UPDATE: It already has, if we're talking about North American box office. It's not going to do it on a worldwide basis, but it's doing pretty well, to say the least.]
Just as he had done for Williams on Close Encounters, director Steven Spielberg edited parts of the film to fit the music, rather than asking the music to fit the movie. In so doing, Spielberg ensured that the music indeed DID fit the movie. I'd say something hyperbolic like "in fact, the music fits like no score had ever fit before," but that'd be a lie; by 1982, Williams had accomplished near-perfection half a dozen times or more, and his music for E.T. is just more of the same. Brilliance and genius: ho hum, yawn.
The standout of the score is probably the "Flying" theme. If you were a child with a bicycle in 1982 (and probably for a solid decade thereafter), there is a very good chance that that piece of music is The Sound Of Your Childhood. It certainly is mine. Or, at least, it's on the album, and that album is about half John Williams. (The other half is probably mostly Michael Jackson, with a dollop of Duran Duran and a few James Bond theme songs. Also, the Flash Gordon theme by Queen.)
It's not just "Flying," though; the whole score is great, ranging from the opening in which the little alien becomes lost in the woods to the mothership flying off at the end. One of my favorites is the scene in which E.T. telepathically gets Elliot drunk; another is the scene in which the house is invaded by the government.
Another A++, guys; nothing is flawless, but this is close. It won Williams his fourth Oscar, after several years of being shunned by the Academy in favor of eminently less-deserving works.
1982 -- Yes, Giorgio
Yes, Giorgio was a box-office dud in which opera singer Luciano Pavarotti made an ill-advised attempt to become a leading man in cinemas. It was directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, who had previously made classics such as Planet of the Apes, Patton, Papillon, and The Boys from Brazil. His regular composer, Jerry Goldsmith, was unavailable (presumably due to working on Steven Spielberg's Poltergeist), so he turned instead to John Williams.
Williams was also unavailable, at least for writing the score. Michael J. Lewis got that job. However, Williams did have time to collaborate with lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman on a song, "If We Were in Love," which Pavarotti performed for the movie.
It's a lovely composition, but for me, Pavarotti nearly wrecks it. It goes without saying that he is a wonderful and powerful singer, but I'm unconvinced that an operatic delivery is what this particular song called for. Melissa Manchester did a respectable version at the 1983 Academy Awards ceremony (the song had been nominated for an Oscar, but -- rightly -- lost to "Up Where We Belong" from An Officer and a Gentleman), but she tries to blow the roof off the joint. I'd like to hear a more intimate arrangement.
I do like the Pavarotti version, though. I'm just not sure the recorded version suited either him or the song.
Better by far is an instrumental version recorded by Williams with The Boston Pops for a 1982 album called Aisle Seat. It's a terrific album, and among other things includes a Williams-conducted version of Vangelis's Chariots of Fire theme (not as good as the original, but worth hearing).
1982 -- Monsignor
Marking the second consecutive flop for Williams after the mega-smash that was E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Monsignor was a Christopher Reeve movie in which he plays a World War II veteran who becomes a priest, has an affair, gets involved with the Mafia, and generally does things in perhaps an unsuitable manner. The film was a flop, and earned Williams his one and (thus far) only Worst Score nomination from the Golden Raspberry Awards. (The Razzies also foolishly opted to nominate Ennio Morricone's music from The Thing, but they awarded the big prize to Kit Hain for The Pirate Movie).
The score is by no means a classic, but it's pretty good; it's roughly comparable to the sort of thing Williams was doing during the early part of the seventies, and maybe even a hair or two better than that. The main theme (which, according to my liner notes, are actually the movie's end credits) is a lovely downbeat waltz; this is certainly good enough that a Razzie would be out of the question.
At some point in 1982, Williams had written a concert piece called "Esplanade Overture," which was written for Boston's Charles River Esplanade, where the Pops give concerts during the summer. That piece has seemingly never been recorded, but Williams used it as the backbone for certain parts of the Monsignor score (including the tracks "The Meeting in Sicily" and "Reunion in Italy").
1983 -- Return of the Jedi
I've never been in a situation like this and therefore have no idea: if you are the composer of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, the scores for which are among the very finest ever recorded, is the pressure for the next film in the series unbearable? Frankly, I don't know how it could be anything less.
If that is indeed the case, John Williams, in scoring Return of the Jedi, proved to be completely up to the challenge. I personally would rank it third out of the three original-trilogy Star Wars scores, but in doing so I would clarify that it is not meaningfully less great than the other two; put them in any order and it's fine by me.
For this culminating film, Williams wrote four major new themes: one for Jabba the Hutt; one for the Ewoks; one for the Emperor; and one for the Luke/Leia relationship, which undergoes a bit of a change in this movie.
There are also an abundance of standout action cues, including: Luke's assault on Jabba's sail barge; "The Forest Battle"; and "Into the Trap," the music for the leadup to the attack on the Death Star. All of those are classics.
With Return of the Jedi under his belt, Williams could justifiably claim to have completed the finest trilogy of film scores in existence in 1983. In 2015, I might hold Howard Shore's The Lord of the Rings in slightly higher regard. Then again, I might not. Which way is the breeze blowing today? That's which way I'll go, and neither way will lead me wrong. And either way, Williams' music for those first three Star Wars films represents a high-water mark for an entire medium.
It's not every guy who can claim to have achieved that sort of thing.
By the way, in case you were wondering, Williams was screwed out of yet another Oscar for this one. He did receive a nomination, but lost to Bill Conti's The Right Stuff. Great score; not Return of the Jedi great, but great.
1983 -- Out of This World
Out of sheer necessity, I won't be talking individually about most of the albums Williams recorded with the Boston Pops. They are all worth mentioning, but including them would turn an already-unwieldy post into a monster, so we're just not gonna.
I do think a few of them should be included for one reason or another, though, including this one. The best reason for that is that it contains a concert arrangement of Williams' Return of the Jedi Jabba the Hutt theme; the theme does appear in the film and on some versions of the soundtrack, but only in abbreviated form. For Out of This World, Williams put together a terrific concert version that is almost a tuba concerto in miniature; it is played by Chester Schmitz, for whom Williams would write a proper (and much longer) tuba concerto a couple of years later.
For fans of Star Wars music, I would say this album is essential on the grounds that that version of the Jabba theme has never (to my knowledge) been bettered. There are other good tracks, though; several other concert pieces from Jedi are included (all of them familiar to anyone with one of the soundtracks), as is a lengthy E.T. suite. You can get all of that elsewhere, though. Apart from the Jabba theme, the draws here are Williams-conducted versions of "Also Sprach Zarathustra" (popularized by Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey), Jerry Goldsmith's Alien and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Alexander Courage's television star Trek theme, Stu Phllips' Battlestar Galactica, and the Twilight Zone theme by Marius Constant.
1983 -- Violin Concerto * Flute Concerto
By 1983, John Williams mania was probably at its apex. As a result, Williams finally began to be taken seriously as a concert-hall composer, and Leonard Slatkin conducted The London Symphony Orchestra in premiere recordings of two non-film pieces: 1969's Flute Concerto, and 1976's Violin Concerto.
I often find myself struggling to connect with Williams when he steps outside the world of film composition. This is not to say that I dislike his concert-hall pieces; I don't. I am only suggesting that I have little connection to them.
I suspect that this means I'm simply not paying enough attention.
1984 -- Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
People having been fighting for over thirty years now about whether or not Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is any good. I can't bring that conflict to an end, but I can lob a volley across the lines: yeah, it's pretty damn good. As good as Raiders of the Lost Ark? No. But if you told me you preferred it to the first movie, I wouldn't argue with you.
Surely we can all agree that the score by John Williams is yet another damn-near-unimpeachable classic, though, right? There's nothing bad to be said about this music, so far as I can tell. It's glorious, top to bottom. Some of my favorites:
"Anything Goes" -- The movie's opening sequence remains one of the highlights of Spielberg's directing career, and Williams cooked up a marvelous Cantonese translation of the Cole Porter classic. It must sound rather bizarre if you have no context for it; but that's your problem, bub.
"Short Round's Theme" -- Methinks Spielberg and Lucas missed out massively by not having Short Round return in the later films. And hey, all this talk of rebooting the series makes me wonder: why not spin off Short Round into his own series of films? Yeah, I know; never gonna happen.
"Nocturnal Activities" -- I guess almost everybody hates Kate Capshaw as Willie Scott, but not me; I enjoy what she's laying down. Even if I didn't, I'd enjoy the will-they-or-won't-they scene between her and Indy, partially because of the lovely John Williams music.
"Bug Tunnel / Death Trap" -- The setpiece in which Indy is trapped inside a collapsing room is one of the movie's highlights, and the music complements it perfectly: intense, relentless, powerful.
"The Temple of Doom" -- The Hindi -- Sikh? (I confess I have no idea which of these designations I should be using, if either) -- equivalent of a Satanic invocation, this piece of music remains one of the most frightening I have ever heard. The choral performance on this recording is awesome.
"Slave Children's Crusade" -- This kickass march represents the liberation of the ensalved children by Indy and Short Round. Tell me again why Short Round shouldn't have his own movies?
The score earned Williams yet another Oscar nomination; it lost to Maurice Jarre's A Passage to India. Sorry if I'm a broken record on this subject, but Williams has been screwed out of more Oscars than most people will ever even dream of being nominated for.
1984 Summer Olympics
|Disappointingly, this has never been issued on CD, which seems like a major oversight.|
By 1984, John Williams was in his tenth year of creating iconic movie themes. He'd been working in the industry for much longer, of course; but what I mean is that since 1975, he had regularly been composing pieces of music that immediately became -- and are still to this day -- recognizable the world around. The Jaws theme, the Star Wars theme, the five-note Close Encounters theme, the theme for Superman, Darth Vader's Theme, the Indiana Jones theme, E.T.'s theme; at bare minimum, that's six pieces within a decade that are extremely well known.
What, then, must the odds be of writing a piece of music that arguably trumps them all? Astronomical. But that's (arguably) just what Williams did in creating his Olympic Fanfare and Theme for the Los Angeles Summer Olympics. In the three decades since, I cannot even begin to imagine how many people must have heard and enjoyed that piece of music; I can't say for sure whether it is used extensively at the events and ceremonies, or if other nations' television broadcasts feature it the way NBC's do here in America, but if they do then it is entirely possible that this is one of the most-heard compositions in the history of the world. Wrap your mind around that for a moment.
Either way, it's a phenomenal piece of music. When the orchestra kicks into overdrive around the three-minute mark, my eyes get a little watery.
I was ten years old when these Olympics happened, and I'd gone to San Antonio to stay with my grandparents for a few weeks. Because we lived in Alabama, we didn't get to see them terribly often, so I was thrilled to go visit them for a while. The Olympics were going on at the time, and I remember that being all anybody talked about, and I saw a lot of the games on television. I don't remember hearing the music, but I'm sure I must have; and I wonder if it would have blown my mind to know that it had been written by the man who wrote Star Wars?
I'm guessing that's a "yes."
1984 -- The River
|I cannot tear my eyes away from how poorly the heads have been placed on the bodies on this poster. That's bad Photoshop before Photoshop even existed.|
For his final trick of 1984, Williams reteamed with director Mark Rydell for The River, which tells the tale of down-on-their-luck Tennessee farmers who have to face all manner of adversities, culminating in one produced by Mother Nature. The film starred a young Mel Gibson and Carrie White herself, Sissy Spacek. Spacek earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, and Williams earned his second nod of the year for his music. He lost for both this and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and I prefer to believe that the voters simply didn't know which one to give him the statue for, so opted instead to give it to Maurice Jarre. (Jarre, of course, is no slouch, so he probably deserved an Oscar in his own right.)
The score is a bit of a throwback to Williams' '70s style, which is appropriate, given that that was when he did most of his work with Rydell. The main theme is terrific, and almost sounds like it could have been the theme music for some early-eighties soap opera. That sounds like an insult; it isn't.
The River cannot quite add up to some of the other scores Williams had done in recent years, but it's very good, and there's more to it than the one theme. I'm very fond of a track called "Ancestral Home," which seems to my ears to be a foreshadowing of the sort of thing he would do for director Oliver Stone during the next phase of his career.
1985 -- America, the Dream Goes On and Pops In Love
Let's check in on the Boston Pops albums again real quick, starting with America, the Dream Goes On. It includes the title song "America, the Dream Goes On," which has lyrics by Marilyn and Alan Bergman. The song was several years old by the time it made its appearance here; it had been performed by Dionne Warwick in 1982 on the Norman Lear television extravaganza I Love Liberty, and may have been written expressly for that show (I'm speculating about that; I've found nothing to indicate whether it was or wasn't). It was also performed by Johnny Mathis in 1984 at an Olympic Gala, and would later be given treatments by John Denver (at the July 4, 1986 concert celebrating the reopening of the Statue of Liberty) and Marie Osmond (in a patriotic television special that was also called America, the Dream Goes On).
I'll take any of those performances over the one presented on the disc, which is a bit staid for my tastes. The song isn't bad, but you kind of expect more from early-to-mid-eighties Williams.
As for the rest of the album, it's solid; it includes other patriotic pieces such as "Fanfare for the Common Man," "Battle Hymn of the Republic," "America the Beautiful," and "When the Saints Go Marching In." If that sort of thing is your cup of tea, you're bound to enjoy this album.
I'm not a hundred percent sure of this, but I believe Pops In Love may have been the first BPO/Williams album I bought that did not consist of music composed by Williams. I found it at a Sam Goody -- remember those? -- back in the day, and bought it simply because the name "John Williams" was on it.
I did not regret it. This is a terrific album, and it includes some of the most beautiful music ever written: Fauré's "Pavane," Debussy's "Claire de Lune" (which, for my money, is THE most beautiful piece of music ever written) and "La fille aux cheveux de lin," Albinoni's "Adagio in G minor," Saint-Saëns' "The Swan," Satie's "Gymnopédie" Nos. 1 and 2 (#2 being a strong contender for that crown I just awarded "Claire de Lune"), Tchaikovsky's Andante Cantabile from "String Quarter, Op. 11," Ravel's "Pavane for a Deceased Princess" (not entirely sure that's a love song, but it sure is lovely), Pachelbel's "Canon," and a terrific version of Ralph Vaughan William's "Fantasia on Greensleeves."
I had a friend in college who had played in an orchestra earlier in her life, and she pooh-poohed this album specifically and Williams in general. Maybe she knows something I don't know; if so, I'm content in my ignorance.
1985 -- Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra
|Chester Schmitz performing with the Boston Pops circa 1971|
In May of 1985, Williams debuted his Tuba Concerto, which was performed by the Boston Pop's resident tubist (is that a word?) Chester Schmitz. As far as I know, there is no recording of that performance, or of Schmitz performing it at all; but the Tuba concerto appears to be one of the most frequently-performed of all Williams' concert-hall compositions. It's also one of my favorites: you can actually hum parts of it!
I'm not having much luck finding a decent recording on YouTube, so you're on your own with this one.
1985 -- Themes for NBC News
Just as his "Olympic Fanfare and Theme" has likely had a reach exceeding even the largest of his blockbuster movies, it is quite possible that the theme he wrote for NBC's nightly newscast in 1985 has been heard by more people than any of his famous film themes.
Known as "The Mission," this is an exciting and stately piece of music (is that a contradiction?) that ranks quite favorably alongside stuff such as "Flying" from E.T.
There has not, to my knowledge, been a proper release of the actual versions recorded in 1985; the one I linked to just now is a concert-hall rerecording that appeared on a Boston Pops album a few years later.
But wait! There's more! In fact, there seems to have been more than just the one theme; there were at least four of them, which each serve as a separate section of a four-part suite that was seemingly titled "The Mission" collectively but is not the same thing as the version of "The Mission" that was expanded for concert-hall performance.
Confused yet? (It gets worse; the same year, Williams scored an episode of Steven Spielberg's Amazing Stories titled "The Mission," which aired on NBC and -- obviously -- has nothing whatsoever to do with the news themes.)
This is my understanding of how it breaks down (and please bear in mind that this may not be entirely accurate, since I'm working from YouTube sources):
- "The Mission, Part I: NBC Nightly News Theme" -- This is the theme that was later expanded and rerecorded under the title "The Mission" by Williams and the Boston Pops.
- "The Mission, Part II: Fugue for Changing Times" -- Also known as "Before Hours Theme," this consists entirely of material that is not part of the concert version of "The Mission." In other words, this is a different thing altogether.
- "The Mission, Part III: Scherzo for Today" -- This piece served as the theme music for the Today show, and might still for all I know. About forty-five seconds into it, it turns into the NBC Nightly News theme for about thirty seconds, but it ends as it began: its own thing.
- "The Mission, Part IV: The Pulse of Events" -- This piece served as a theme for Meet the Press, and sounds like an alternative version of "Fugue for Changing Times." Or perhaps one might be thought of as a sequel to the other; they are by no means identical.
There is close to eight minutes when you take all four parts together, of which the concert version represents less than half. Was there other stuff composed by Williams in 1985 for NBC that I know nothing about? It's entirely possible. Maybe someday, somebody will take the time to put the original recordings out on a CD (paired with something else if indeed there is not enough to warrant its own separate release) and explain it all to me. In the meantime, thanks be to YouTube.
1985 -- Amazing Stories
In 1985, Steven Spielberg was about as on-top-of-the-world as a fella can get. He used the enormous clout he had in Hollywood to get himself a television series, one which he hoped would revive the fantasy-anthology format of such stalwarts as The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits (albeit with a lighter touch -- usually -- than those spooky shows).
He got NBC to greenlight two seasons up front as part of the deal, and over the course of those two seasons he attracted directors such as Peter Hyams, Bob Balaban, Burt Reynolds, Bob Clark, Phil Joanou, Clint Eastwood, Joe Dante, Martin Scorsese, Irvin Kershner, Brad Bird, and Robert Zemeckis, to name a few. Other directors included Stephen King associates such as Timothy Hutton, Tobe Hooper, Tom Holland, and Mick Garris.
Spielberg himself directed the first and fifth episodes of the first season, "Ghost Train" and "The Mission." The former involved a young boy, his grandfather, and a long-overdue train; the second was an hour-long episode about a WWII bomber plane whose crew finds itself in a sticky situation.
Unsurprisingly, Spielberg drafted John Williams in to score both episodes, as well as the memorable theme music for the series. Neither of the episodic scores is what I'd call top-shelf Williams, but both are solid and sound very much of a piece with the other sorts of things the composer was doing at around the same time. There is a three-part, six-disc series of soundtracks from Intrada that contains every note of the two Williams scores, as well as episodes from other film-music luminaries such as James Horner, Bruce Broughton, George Delerue, Danny Elfman, Jerry Goldsmith, David Newman, Thomas Newman, Leonard Rosenman, Alan Silvestri, and Michael Kamen. It's a hell of a lineup, and while none of them does career-best work or anything like that, those six discs are well worth owning for film-music geeks.
1986 -- SpaceCamp
According to the liner notes for the recent CD rerelease of this soundtrack by Intrada, Williams ended up composing the music for SpaceCamp for one reason above all others: Steven Spielberg had delayed the making of his proposed musical version of Peter Pan, so Williams had a hole in his schedule. SpaceCamp fit into it nicely, so he accepted the job.
Prior to the film's release, the Challenger space shuttle exploded, killing its crew and (some might say) the long-term future of the American space program. It also killed the box-office prospects for SpaceCamp, which is mostly a forgotten film in 2015.
The music is good; not quite up to the A++ standards of much of his eighties scores, but perfectly enjoyable.
The sample I just linked to is not actually a version from the film, by the way. Instead, I used the version of the end credits that was performed by the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra under conductor Erich Kunzel for the sci-fi compilation album Star Tracks II. For years and years, that CD was the only piece of music I had from SpaceCamp, and I treasured it; the soundtrack for SpaceCamp was only released on CD in Japan until relatively recently, and even that was out of print, which meant that it was a tough find for Williams nuts like myself.
Maybe it's because I heard Kunzel's version first (and possibly because it was my sole exposure to the score for years), but I actually prefer his arrangement to the one Williams uses for the film. It's a bit more lively, a bit grander; Kunzel seems to bring out something even more majestic than what was already there. (By the way, he's done quite a few albums over the years, many of them film-music-centric, and many of those including pieces by Williams. The ones I've heard are all good, so if you ever run across one, it's probably worth your time.)
1986 -- "Liberty Fanfare"
The centennial of the Statue of Liberty was celebrated on July 4, 1986, and Williams was commissioned to compose a fanfare which would celebrate the event. It was played live at a concert given by the Boston Pops that day at the site; President Reagan addressed the nation following the concert.
That's how big a deal John Williams was in 1986.
The Liberty Fanfare is pretty terrific; it's a distant second to his Olympic Fanfare, and always seems to suffer in comparison when I hear the two in close proximity to each other. But that's probably an unfair comparison, and taken on its own merits, it's a damn fine fanfare.
Man, alive; I'm telling you, that's a heck of a run. I've said this before and will say it again: if you know of any artist in any field who put together a decade(ish) of work up to par with what Williams did here, please let me know. I will want to check their work out.
I will be back in a day or two with a look at roughly the next two decades of Williams' career, a span of time that wasn't AS great as this one, but pretty dang great nevertheless.