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.