Whenever an older, revered icon of the film industry dies, there are plenty of testimonials and remembrances written about that person. But it’s sad that we only take the time to fully appreciate these people’s brilliance after their passing. Hence, The Greats, a biweekly column that celebrates cinema’s living legends.
The look of the Hollywood blockbuster was shaped by men like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, but its sound is John Williams. It’s not easy to conjure up the essence of a film in the span of a few seconds of music, but that’s what Williams has done again and again. Jaws isn’t just about a shark—it’s about dun-DUNN, dun-DUNN. Superman: The Movie may be the first modern superhero movie, but the slow, beautiful buildup of the first minute of Williams’ opening theme practically defines comic-book films as a whole. Popcorn movies can lose their luster over time thanks to bad sequels, dated effects or ill-advised reboots. Williams’ music endures, unblemished.
Born in February 1932, Williams grew up in Long Island, playing everything from clarinet to trumpet to piano. (His father, Johnny, was a jazz percussionist. “The only adults I knew were musicians, his friends, so I thought that’s what you did when you grew up,” Williams once said about his dad. “It seemed to be an inevitable life path for me.”) By the age of 16, Williams and his family were living in Los Angeles, the young man eventually studying classical piano at UCLA before being drafted into the Air Force, where he served for three years. His term over, he went to Julliard, making money playing in jazz combos around New York. After graduating, he moved back to L.A., becoming an in-house pianist, conductor and composer for Hollywood. “I was not selective [at the time],” he told Classic FM around 2005, and indeed he was working on shows as varied as Gilligan’s Island and Heidi. “I would do whatever I was given and had no idea it would lead to being a film composer.”
Williams began writing film scores in the late ’50s, but he was still doing TV jobs well into the next decade, notably working on Nightmare in Chicago, a 1964 small-screen film directed by a newcomer named Robert Altman. Williams recalled to Altman biographer Mitchell Zuckoff that he usually didn’t have much contact with the directors, “[b]ut once I was assigned to Bob he practically lived over in the music department with me … He became a collaborator in a way that wasn’t usual in those days in TV.”
The two would reunite in the early ’70s, after Williams had been nominated for a few Oscars, winning one for his adaptation of the musical Fiddler on the Roof. Their first film together was Images, Altman’s 1972 psychological horror picture. (Williams got nominated for that score, too.) But the highlight of their collaboration came out a year later. The Long Goodbye was a contemporary reworking of Philip Marlowe, and it was Altman who hit upon the idea for Williams’ jazzy title tune. Williams recalled, “[Altman] said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if there was one song, this omnipresent piece, played in all these different ways?’ We would go into a dentist’s office or an elevator and there would be this ubiquitous and irritating music playing. It was threaded though, kind of like an unconscious wallpapering technique.” It was daring and effective, wrapping Los Angeles up in a dream-like texture that was melancholy and unquestionably cool.
Around the same time, Williams scored big event films like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno. But people forget those—and the reason why they do is because of the event films he scored soon after. Williams had worked with Spielberg on his first movie, The Sugarland Express, and when it came time to score the filmmaker’s second effort, he went to watch it for the first time in a screening room by himself. “I came out of the screening so excited,” Williams said in 2012. “I had been working for nearly 25 years in Hollywood but had never had an opportunity to do a film that was absolutely brilliant.”
The film was Jaws, and Williams soon locked onto the four-note motif that would become the cue for the shark’s imminent attack. It was “so simple, insistent and driving, that it seems unstoppable,” he said. “I just began playing around with simple motifs that could be distributed in the orchestra, and settled on what I thought was the most powerful thing, which is to say the simplest. Like most ideas, they’re often the most compelling.” Spielberg was initially unconvinced but was quickly won over once he heard the music with the film. Williams’ second Oscar was mere months away.
For the next 10 years, Williams simply dominated the world of film music. Star Wars (another Oscar), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (nominated, lost to Star Wars), Superman: The Movie (nominated), 1941 (hey, the music’s good, at least), The Empire Strikes Back (nominated), Raiders of the Lost Ark (nominated), E.T. (another Oscar) … you get the idea. His booming, full-orchestra scores evoked an innocent, emotional exuberance that was perfectly in keeping with this new era of Hollywood tentpoles. If the blockbuster mentality that Lucas and Spielberg pioneered can be blamed for our current glut of lumbering franchises—and that’s hardly fair to those two men at their creative peak—then Williams made sure that the films reverberated with the high-drama joy of watching a well-constructed piece of escapism in a darkened, crowded theater.
But that’s not to say that Williams only adds musical accompaniment to popcorn fare. When Spielberg decided to go into more serious terrain, Williams ably followed, scoring Empire of the Sun and Schindler’s List, his fifth Oscar. “When he showed me Schindler’s List,” Williams said in an 2002 interview with The Guardian, “I was so moved I could barely speak. I remember saying to him, ‘Steven, you need a better composer than I am to do this film.’” Schindler’s List worked out just fine with Williams, the composer incorporating an austere tone that was, in some ways, more restrained than the movie at times.
He’s worked on practically every one of Spielberg’s films, their partnership not affected by the fact that he’s 15 years older than the director. Williams recalled to the Los Angeles Times that when they had their first lunch meeting in 1972, “It was like going with a teenager who had never ordered wine before and didn’t quite know what to do with the silver. He was so young, a little older than my children but not a whole lot. And seemed to know more about my music than I did. He would sing third themes from some remote western.” Thirty years after that initial lunch, Williams said of Spielberg, “It’s been a very happy relationship … though I take nothing for granted: There are a lot of composers in the world and he may wish to use some others.” Considering his superb work on later, varied Spielberg films like Catch Me If You Can (with its jazz themes drawn from Williams’ childhood musical influences) and Lincoln, it seems hard to imagine the partnership ending anytime soon.
Williams is a workhorse; even better, he delivers at a surprisingly high level. Listen to his music for Oliver Stone, a filmmaker whose temperament is so different than Spielberg’s. Williams’ JFK score is a wonder of percussive, paranoid urgency and bruised, resolute idealism. His contribution to the best of the Harry Potter films, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, is superb, supplementing that movie’s encroaching darkness. He’s in such demand that he doesn’t have time to write things for himself, not that he minds. “Once in a while I will make some sketches for something that may be a future project, but rarely,” he confessed. “I’m focused on what I have to do that particular day. The demands of the schedule are so great that you have to keep pace with it.” The inspiration comes not from staring out the window, waiting for the muse to shine its light on him. “Composing music is hard work,” he has said. “Any working composer or painter or sculptor will tell you that inspiration comes at the eighth hour of labor, rather than as a bolt out of the blue. We have to get our vanities and our preconceptions out of the way and do the work in the time allotted.”
And he is not slowing down. When the cast of the forthcoming Star Wars sequel was announced, fans understandably got excited about the return of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill. But perhaps just as importantly, Williams was coming back, ensuring a continuity to the original trilogy that even Lucas can’t provide since he’s not writing or directing the new film. Movies are indelible because of their faces and their words and their images. But their music touches the soul, and Williams has his fingerprints on ours.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.