Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Heath Holland On...John Williams

by Heath Holland
Dear Mr. Williams: Thank you.

Some people are underappreciated in their time. Others are so appreciated that they are taken for granted in light of their unwavering creativity and steadfast work ethic and simply become part of the landscape. This is the case for my fandom of John Williams. I’ve long considered John Williams my favorite composer, which isn’t really a brave or exceptional choice because OF COURSE he’s my favorite. He’s a lot of people’s favorite, after all. He’s been cranking out memorable scores for decades and has been attached to some of the best movies of our lifetime. I’ve lived with some of his more memorable scores for almost as long as I’ve been alive, and they’ve just become a part of who I am. It’s not an overstatement to say that his music helped me form that relationship with film that allows me to feel and to empathize with what I’m seeing on screen. Music creates a shortcut between the brain and the heart, and Williams is the best there is at achieving this.

But what does any of that really MEAN? Things have been pretty rough recently, and I’ve been looking for comfort in the familiar and the nostalgic even more than I normally do, so this past week I found myself really leaning on the music of John Williams. I have a bunch of his soundtracks on my iPhone so I can listen to them whenever I want to, and I’ve taken unusual comfort and reassurance in his beautiful anthems this past week. Here’s what struck me all over again, perhaps in a way that never quite has before: John Williams is an amazing talent. No, I get it. Duh, right? But somehow, probably because I was so emotionally exhausted and worn out, the music spoke to me in ways that it hasn’t in a very long time. Between the notes of the scores of Williams lies hope and triumph and regality and defiance and, more important than all of these, BEAUTY. The music of John Williams is LIFE in orchestral form.
I’ll tell you a secret. I’m in my late thirties and I JUST watched E.T. the Extra Terrestrial for the first time. I was prepared for the possibility that coming to it now, over three decades after its initial cultural impact, could only end in disappointment. Yet I had a visceral, emotional reaction to this movie, in part because Spielberg had such a close personal connection to the material, but also, and I believe mainly, because of the music of John Williams. By the time the final bombastic notes had blasted out of the speakers and the image cut to black, I was feeling everything this movie wanted me to feel. This is because of the power of music, and no one seems to have understood that and been more consistent in tapping into musical notes to draw out our inherent humanity than John Williams.

I think about the movies that John Williams has scored that have been of significance to me. The familiar worlds of the Star Wars saga and the classic adventure landscapes of Indiana Jones would be significantly diminished without John Williams. Harry Potter wouldn’t have his mystical wonder. Superman wouldn’t fly. Aliens from beyond our galaxy wouldn’t seem as benevolent and familiar. Our collective fear of sharks wouldn’t have two notes that everyone across the world knew. The little boy who was left home alone on Christmas wouldn’t feel like a member of our own family. The dinosaurs on the island wouldn’t feel both majestic and frightening at the same time, and those giant King Kong gates that open wouldn’t seem as impressive. An aged Peter Pan wouldn’t be able to rediscover his happy thoughts. Schindler’s mission and the plight of Private Ryan would feel more like history lessons and less like living, breathing human drama.

I can’t think of a single composer who has contributed as much to my life as John Williams. Part of this is because he frequently scores the films of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, and they make movies that everyone sees. However, it’s also because he really is a phenomenal talent; his understanding of human emotion is what makes him so good at what he does, and he can tap into a moment and make you feel exactly what the director is striving for in a way that seems effortless. I also appreciate the way that he is constantly revisiting and revising themes that he wrote years ago. Upon first watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens last December, I left the theater thinking that it was one of the least of Williams’ scores. I made up reasons for this in my head; he is much older now, and he might not have had the time needed to work properly. Cut to a year later and I’ve been living inside that soundtrack, which I actually consider to be the best Star Wars score of all seven. He’s able to play with themes he wrote almost forty years ago and give them new levels and nuances, undercutting triumph with doubt and adding hope to darkness. The theme he’s written for Rey is probably my favorite piece of John Williams music ever. It’s essentially a spaghetti western theme--complete with brass horns that evoke Spain and Italy--that Ennio Morricone could have written for Leone 50 years ago, but with the added benefit of the connection to emotion. During the end titles music, he couples Rey’s theme with The Force theme. It only happens once, but it’s the most heartbreaking, beautiful thing ever. It’s a meeting of two worlds that melds 2015 with 1977 to create something new. You can feel the weight of age, heartbreak, and hope between those notes. The end titles music ends gently with a quiet, almost angelic recitation of Luke Skywalker’s theme. Oscars aren’t enough for what this make evokes with his music.
The jazz-cat-turned-composer is in his eighties now, and I recognize that his contributions are nearing an end. Simple reasoning dictates that there will not be much more to come and that the John Williams catalog is nearing completion. It seems like we are losing our heroes faster that we can mourn them, and it is with this awareness that I remove my hat, stand to my feet, and offer a long ovation for the maestro of this concerto while he is still here among us to hear it. THANK YOU. Thank you, Mr. Williams, for writing the soundtrack to my life. Your music paints the world in beautiful shades of light and dark and rings with humanity and hope. I need that humanity and hope more now than I ever have.


  1. Lovely article, Heath! John Williams is one of the greats, no doubt. Let me point out a few of his scores that might be less well-known:
    The Fury - The one time John Williams scored a Brian De Palma film, and it's a terrific mix. Bombastic in all the right ways, and with one cue, "Coming Down the Stairs," that is eerie and heartbreaking.
    Black Sunday - This is terrific suspense music, and the cues detailing the Goodyear Blimp's final journey to the stadium are tension personified.
    The Towering Inferno - Before he became known as the blockbuster kid, Williams was the disaster flick kid. He did the scores for the big three of disaster movies: The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake, and Inferno. I still think the title cue to this score is one of his best - it primes the audience in such a way that we can stand a half-hour of exposition before the real mayhem starts.

    1. Steve K - Dead on. The Fury is my favorite Williams score though I always felt like it was because he was channeling Herrmann.

  2. For all big time John Williams fans, I must recommend the podcast Rebel Force Radio Oxygen. The most recent podcast, involving the final cues from Revenge of the Sith, is particularly interesting.

  3. The Superman theme never fails to make me smile. Richard Donner once said, the main phrase of that music virtually shouts "It's Superman!"

  4. I almost fainted Heath when I read you just watched ET for the first time. Your F This Movie card should be revoked lol

  5. Heath. I love you, we all love you. But in a world where the greats of music are dropping like flies, this headline made me queasy when I first read it.

    1. Sorry! I definitely wanted to pay respect to him BECAUSE he's still here to be appreciated.

  6. Williams' music has really touched the children of the 70s and 80s like no other film composer. I spent the last 3 years working on, releasing and promoting a book about horror film music and though Williams is not normally considered a "horror composer," that project never would have taken place if his music didn't kindle my love for film music as a kid.

    Many people point to other classical pieces and say he ripped them off and sure, maybe his work is often reminiscent to other work, but it was his genius that was able to take familiar musical motifs and apply them to image in an absolutely perfect and original way. He has quite literally taken some marvelously wonderful films and made them some of the greatest films of all time.

    Great article Heath.


  7. I'm a film score nerd and a half, and recently bought a collection of western themes. There are the big obvious ones that I think are the foundational themes of westerns, The Searchers, The Big Country and The Magnificent Seven, and the rest are mix of movies I know with themes I don't and movies I just don't know. On my first few listens, one of themes struck me as just being *different* (in a good way) because it didn't quite seem to rest on the standard tropes, the theme from The Cowboys, a lesser Wayne movie. I'm not well-versed enough in composer-talk to say what made it jump out at me, but it just had some kind of depth lacking in some of others (and there are really no bad ones in the 27-ish themes.) I looked up the composer to see who wrote it: John Williams. Natch.

    In all of film, there is no one who did their job as well or as distinctly as that man.

    The trend of amelodic scoring is one of my least favorite parts of modern cinema.