So this week I watched AFI’s 44th Annual Lifetime Achievement Award, which this year went to composer John Williams. Even if you don’t know his name, you know his music. From Harry Potter to Indiana Jones to Star Wars, he is the modern master of the lietmotif, and has written some of the most iconic film scores ever. At 50 Academy Award nominations, he is the most nominated person alive (only edged out by Walt Disney at 59). Many things were said at the event, but one stood out to me the most. Harrison Ford came on stage and spoke about a moment in Raiders where Marion’s Theme was prominent and how it wasn’t where it was expected. He expected it to be when Indiana and Marion reunited in Nepal, but noted that that scene had no music. The scene he eventually pointed out was the cut from the truck that Indiana thinks Marion is on exploding to Indiana later drinking with the Nazi Monkey. He was getting very close to an idea I’ve had about film for a long time, the “John Williams Moment”.
A “John Williams Moment” is a moment in a movie where the scene is carried by the music. Many people don’t think about how music effects our engagement in a film– and I’m not talking about characters outright singing, but what others might call “incidental music” or the orchestral soundtrack. So many classic movie moments are classic because of the powerful music that underscores them, a lot of that music being composed by John Williams. It’s when the power behind the scene comes from its score, and there’s so many for so many movie composers. You don’t have to be John Williams to have a John Williams moment.
But he’s had some pretty good ones.
This list, while definitely my top ten, will be organized chronologically by release date, as opposed to ranked– mostly for my own sanity in trying to pick which ones are “better” than others.
The first movie that modern audiences would consider a “summer blockbuster”, Jaws was the beginning of a renaissance of film scores by orchestras. For this film, John Williams gives us the most recognizable horror film score since Hitchcock’s Psycho, and was it needed. “The shark still looks fake.” — Marty McFly, Oct 21, 2015. And as the franchise goes on, oh, how fake will it look. In the original, it’s an hour and a half before the shark is seen fully, but as any good horror nerd will tell you, the monster is scarier when you can’t see it. Instead, we have a stand in via John William’s score, and every attack in this film becomes reliant on that simple “E-F” pattern. During the AFI event, people were making mention of how audience members had to leave the theatre because they couldn’t stand the suspense that John Williams brought with his score.
1977: Star Wars
This one is generally the example I use when trying to describe this phenomenon. A lot of John Williams Moments are totally extraneous to plot or story, shark attacks notwithstanding, but are absolutely essential to understanding the humanity of the characters. The most powerful tool of any orchestra composer is the ability to, without any words at all, tap into your emotions with such precision that the entirety of the scene makes sense with little to no dialogue. This is Luke’s “Part of Your World” moment, you have a sense of what he wants from the preceding conversation, but this is the raw emotion and motivation behind it. John Williams’ score for Star Wars is universally recognizable and what he composed for the entire franchise is possibly his best and most iconic work. We’ll be seeing it again.
1977: Close Encounters of the Third Kind
To talk about another genius for a moment, Steven effing Spielberg, everybody. Yeah, in-universe the reason for communicating in musical tones is because music is one of those universal languages, but come on. Turning what would normally be words into music and integrating it into the scene so that it is essential to the plot? Score becomes the dialogue and dialogue becomes score. Hand the keys over to John Williams and you’re done. The music is very Rite of Spring, which honestly makes sense, because speech patterns are typically atonal, even if they’re patterned.
First, thank you, Christopher Reeve. At least for this one. The John Williams Moment here is that ten seconds when he takes off the glasses, stands up straight, and is suddenly Superman. He looks back at the glasses and thinks over a decision. Not every John Williams Moment is a huge, bombastic thing. But this one shows exactly how he is able to not only take cues from what’s going on in frame, but what’s going on in the heads of the characters. Much like with the Binary Sunset, John Williams taps into emotions with such clarity that it has the power to humanize without a word spoken. Even if the subject is, in fact, a physical god. Not to name names. In particular, listen for the hesitation on the second “Superman” motif, foreshadowing his own hesitation seconds later.
1981: Raiders of the Lost Ark
So, Yu-Gi-Oh! was right about the Ancient Egyptian Laser Beams. The thing about the Indiana Jones franchise in this context is that it is an action series, which means that it necessarily relies heavily on visuals. The tone of those visuals, though, is decided on by the music. This moment, much like in Jaws, relies on the music to give the scene the weight and tension it needs. We already know that the Nazis are digging in the wrong place, but the plot for the first two thirds of the movie has been centered around the Staff of Ra and getting it to the map room. The music gives the audience the emotion behind the payoff.
1982: E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial
ET has a lot of great moments, but this one is by far the best of all of them. A recurring topic at the AFI event was how John Williams was able to effectively score the wonder, emotion, and magic of childhood, with ET (and Home Alone) being the focus of those statements. A great power of movies is to make you believe what is happening on the screen is real, but that doesn’t mean it has to be realistic. If the emotions are real, and the music draws you in to that here, then of course what’s happening is real.
1984: The Olympic Theme
Sometimes life imitates art. In addition to all of the many classic film scores he has written, he also composed many themes that are a part of every day life (at least in America), from NBC’s Nightly News theme, to the theme for Sunday Night Football, to the 1984 Olympic Theme, which has gone on to become the theme for the summer games ever since. The Olympics are the closest thing we have in real life to movies, so it only makes sense that John Williams wrote the score.
1993: Jurassic Park
This was the moment that was going to make or break the movie. You can only talk about seeing dinosaurs for so long and you can only get so excited over revived extinct plants. I talked about the effects in Jurassic Park in my 7 Movies That Would Not Exist Without Star Wars post, but much like with the ET moment, the grounded reality that the scene is based in is the wonder and excitement of seeing real, living dinosaurs.
2001: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone
Harry Potter is to the Millennial generation what Star Wars is to Gen X. I’m probably not the first to say that, nor will I be the last. While I am contractually obligated as an English major to say that the books were better (and they really are, the movies take so much out, and there are plot holes you could drive a semi through and–) I do think that the movies are good, just in a different way. Which is to be expected because what makes a good film doesn’t necessarily make good prose, and vice versa. In the book, Harry’s reaction to seeing his family in the mirror is shown through actions, and there’s a whole group of people behind him in the mirror, not just James and Lily. In the movie, the scene is far more intimate, just him and his parents. John Williams’ score here is melancholy, but with the theme played by a pitched percussion instrument. This fully cements the idea of the childhood Harry lost, without even having to read the books.
2015: Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens
How great was The Force Awakens? I think the most excited I got, though, above everything that was advertised was learning that John Williams was returning to do the score. Much like Clark’s moment earlier, this is a small, subtle moment in the film, but no less powerful. In fact, this is the only time the Imperial March is used in the entire movie. This is important because the entire motivation of Kylo Ren is to emulate Darth Vader, and yet the score itself rejects this, only using the famous motif for the last remnant of Anakin’s darker half.
So those are my favorites. What are yours? Are there other film composers I should look at? Let me know in the comments!