by Christopher Dole
Sometimes, in working on on My Big Score, I am moved to write a piece about a particular composer or score. For now, this is its own page, we will probably organize them more down the line.Almost no artist has played as important a role in my life as John Williams. For a quarter-century, since I was really introduced to his work via the Star Wars Special Editions, his music has fired my imagination like very few others. His music is aspirational, narratively complex and richly satisfying - able to sweep me (and so many others) off our feet and onto a wondrous journey again and again and again. It’s difficult to put into words what his music achieves (because talking about music is often a fool’s errand), but it’s meant a lot over the years, and I constantly find myself discovering or rediscovering new facets to his work.I was recently fortunate enough to see Williams conduct at the Hollywood Bowl (one of 11 times I have done so), where he debuted a new theme from Indiana Jones 5, which is ostensibly going to be his final film. It was a wonderful theme, full of Old Hollywood lush string romance. To think the man - at 90 - is still up there conducting and composing is immensely inspiring. And it inspired me to look back at Williams’ extraordinary career to pick my fifteen favorite scores he has composed.One note: Yes, two of Williams’ most popular franchises are omitted here. No, I didn’t forget them. And they are both very good. Great themes! But for whatever reason they’re not ones I go back to as frequently as these scores.Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, 1980)A masterpiece. It takes everything great about SW and deepens it. The most memorable villain theme of all time, arguably the greatest action and romance cues of all time, a gorgeously whimsical and authoritative theme for Yoda, a score without a single wasted moment, and the grandest, most electrifying conclusion to any score ever composed in “The Rebel Fleet and End Titles”. A triumphant achievement to take what was then the most iconic score of all time - and then top it. This is one of the two or three greatest scores ever composed for film, and perhaps the greatest.Standout Cues: “The Asteroid Field,” “Yoda and the Force,” “The Clash of Lightsabers,” “The Rebel Fleet and End Titles”Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Spielberg, 1977)Perhaps the single biggest challenge of Williams’ entire career. You have to sell a peaceful first contact and your music is the reason for that peaceful first contact. Williams rises to the occasion with this film’s five-tone theme and its ultimate development in Wild Signals, featuring career-topping tuba work from Jim Self. The rest of the film builds to this beautifully as well. It’s a shockingly menacing score, never quite resolving until we finally arrive at Devil’s Tower and learn what is really going on. One of two times Williams thrillingly pays tribute to When You Wish Upon a Star. A dazzlingly aspirational score.Standout Cues: “Lost Squadron,” “Outstrech Hands,” “Wild Signals,” “The Visitors / "Bye" / End Titles”Jaws (Spielberg, 1975)Yes, the two notes are justly iconic. And if Jaws was merely those two notes, it would be a perfectly fine score. But the musical world Williams builds around that - of heroism, adventure, paternal love, suburban normality - and then shatters with the two notes is magnificently full-bodied. As thrilling and complex as any other score in his filmography. And yes, it does all come back to those two notes, and the sheer terror and thrill that sets in every time you hear them.Standout Cues: “The First Victim,” “Father and Son”, “Tug on the Line”, “Shark Cage Fugue”A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Spielberg, 2001)In 2001-2002, Williams enters one of the most productive and remarkable periods of his career. With A.I., he pushes himself into knottier emotional territory than he’d ever reached before, daringly parodying himself with such effectiveness that it took audiences time to catch up to what he had done. But I will say no more about A.I. … for now…Standout Cues: “Abandoned in the Woods,” “Journey to Rouge City”, “The Mecha World,” “The Reunion”Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg, 1981)If the Raiders March is the sound of adventure, Marion’s theme and the Ark theme are the real juice of this film, and the real battle going on inside Indiana Jones. The former is the heart, blooming beautifully over the course of the story as Indy and Marion reconnect, a swooning Old Hollywood romance theme. And the latter adds so much mystery and menace (see: The Map Room - Dawn) until it reaches its electrifying conclusion in The Miracle of the Ark, a reminder that awe is full of both wonder and terror. And shout-out to the Desert Chase, one of the greatest action cues of all time.Standout Cues: “The Map Room - Dawn”, “Marion’s Theme”, “Desert Chase,” “The Miracle of the Ark”E.T. The Extraterrestrial (Spielberg, 1982)The Flying Theme is one of the most purely aspirational pieces of music ever written for film. Maybe the apex of Williams’ writing for childlike wonder. A stunningly emotional conclusion that pays off everything the film had been setting up. Seeing this one performed with live orchestra was a very special experience that emphasizes how perfectly Williams’ work matches with Spielberg’s tone - the utter sincerity of both is a beautiful marriage.Standout Cues: “Far from Home/ET Alone”, “Sending the Signal,” “Invading Elliott’s House”, “Escape/Chase/Saying Goodbye”Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (Lucas, 1977)The Force Theme and Leia’s theme are what make this one sing. Achieves an emotional peak in The Hologram/Binary Sunset that very, very few other films even come close to reaching. Incredible horn work throughout (in contrast to the other SW scores which feel a little more balanced towards the strings). The trench run is how an adventure score should climax. And shout-out to the Jawa theme, a gleefully whimsical counterpoint to the strangeness on screen.Standout Cues: “The Hologram/Binary Sunset”, “Tales of a Jedi Knight/Learn about the Force”,”The Dune Sea of Tatooine/The Jawa Sandcrawler”, “The Battle of Yavin”JFK (Stone, 1991)One doesn’t usually think of Williams as a “suspense” or “thriller” composer, yet the creeping dread of the JFK score is pretty undeniable. Williams takes his Americana tendencies and gives them a truly sinister edge. A score that begins in hope and ends in a primal scream and bitter melancholy. Wild dissonances battle with Copland-esque melodies in one of his (deliberately) ugliest, meanest, and most wrenching scores.Standout Cues: “The Motorcade,” “The Conspirators”, “The Witnesses”Catch Me If You Can (Spielberg, 2002)The other side of the 2001-2002 coin from A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Williams dips back into his jazz routes in an electrifying reinvention of his style for the 2000s and beyond. But even beyond that magnificent main theme, Williams builds on his “Childhood” and “Christmas” styles to tap into the emotional story of one of the most sneakily emotional films Spielberg has ever made. A film about letting go of make-believe and growing up, as Williams matures his own sound to find something rich and wonderful.Standout Cues: “Catch Me If You Can”, “The Float,” “Recollections,” “Learning the Ropes”1941 (Spielberg, 1979)Scoring comedy is really, really hard. Especially when that comedy is as loud and messy as Spielberg’s 1941, a film that has a few virtues (a wonderfully deadpan Robert Stack, William Fraker’s cinematography, the absolutely exquisite model work) but mostly is a big screaming package of confusion and disarray. And yet, somehow, Williams finds the exact right tone for it, a perfect heightening of John Phillip Sousa’s marches from patriotism into giddy absurdism (while I can’t find a direct source, reportedly Spielberg has said the main theme from this is his favorite Williams piece and it’s not hard to see why - he even reportedly played clarinet on it). And the one truly great scene in the film - the dance hall contest - is all on Williams. His pastiche Swing, Swing, Swing drives the story as Spielberg fully locks in, balancing comedy, dance, and action in truly electrifying fashion.Standout Cues: “The Countdown/Swing Swing Swing”, “The Brannigan”, “Kelso’s Attack”, “End Credits”Superman (Donner, 1978)My favorite Williams march. The first hour and change (up until the exact moment Margot Kidder begins speak-singing in Can You Read My Mind) is as good as any score Williams has ever composed. Blending Romantic influences like Sunken Cathedral with electronic music for the Krypton sequences while the Smallville scenes are the height of Williamsian Americana, and an absolutely swooning romance theme, this is the ultimate superhero score. The last chunk is unfortunately a bit weaker (which is why it misses the top 10), but The Fortress of Solitude track in particular is one of Williams’ crowning moments. Richard Donner claimed that he ruined the first take of recording the Superman theme by running out into the middle of the recording, hugging Williams (who was conducting) and yelling “That’s Superman!” It’s hard to blame him.Standout Cues: “The Planet Krypton,” “The Fortress of Solitude,” “The Big Rescue”, “The Flying Sequence [instrumental]”Schindler’s List (Spielberg, 1993)When Spielberg offered Williams the job of scoring Schindler’s List, Williams attempted to beg off, saying Spielberg needed a better composer than him for the film. “That may be,” replied Spielberg, “but anyone better is dead.” Williams rose to the challenge with an achingly elegaic yet profoundly hopeful main theme underlying all the horror and misery surrounding the story. Itzhak Perlman’s violin performance is remarkable.Standout Cues: “Main Theme from Schindler’s List”, “Remembrances”, “Making the List”Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Spielberg, 1984)The end of Williams’ nine years of total dominance. From 1975-1984 he is the absolute king of the world of composing. After this he goes into a bit of a break (with one exception, which we’ll get to) until 1989 with Last Crusade. ToD is a spectacular closing grace note on this period, thrilling and bombastic and featuring some of the best action music Williams has ever composed.Standout Cues: “Fast Streets of Shanghai”, “Bug Tunnel/Death Trap”, “Temple of Doom”, “Mine Car Chase”Empire of the Sun (Spielberg, 1987)A crucial step in Williams’ evolution as a composer, Empire of the Sun marries the “childhood” music of ET to a greater emotional maturity. A gorgeously moving piece of work, full of wonder and melancholy. Arguably Williams’ most underrated score.Standout Cues: “Lost in the Crowd”, “The Plane”, “Cadillac of the Skies”, “Exsultate Justi”Star Wars: Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (Johnson, 2017)How does one incorporate forty years’ worth of musical history while continuing to surprise and show off new colors on the palate? Somehow Williams achieves that with the wonderful score to The Last Jedi. While Canto Bight is an early standout, the score gains thrilling power in the final act where Williams brings the opera to the space opera, finally closing the loop on one of his most memorable cues of all time, and attains a raw emotional power almost unmatched in film scoring.Standout Cues: “Canto Bight”, “The Sacred Jedi Texts”, “The Spark”, “The Last Jedi”