Cinema’s most esteemed and popular film composer, John Williams, turned 85 this year (you might have seen the recent spectacular BBC Proms concert in his honor). Careers don’t come more astonishing than that of Williams, nominated for 50 Academy Awards which puts him second only to Walt Disney for the most ever.
However it’s all too tempting to boil Williams’ career down to the more obvious highlights: Star Wars, the Indiana Jones trilogy, Superman, E.T., Jurassic Park and the like. In truth, he’s a far more versatile composer than many like to give him credit for, and he’s much more than just a big themes guy. Here are some seriously overlooked highlights in ascending order of greatness.
15. How To Steal A Million (1966)
Did you know that the eventual Star Wars composer began his scoring career as jazzy Johnny Williams? In truth many of his scores from this period in his career (pre the Fiddler On The Roof Oscar win) are fluffy and somewhat forgettable. However it’s worth making an exception for his breezy and effervscent soundtrack for this Peter O’Toole/Audrey Hepburn caper.
14. Goodbye Mr. Chips (1969)
Another Peter O’Toole-starring, John Williams-scored classic, in which the composer arranged and conducted the infectious music and lyrics of the noted Leslie Bricusse. Williams’ familiar warm touches from the noble horns to the delicate wind sections foreshadow many of his later childhood masterpieces including the likes of Hook.
13. Rosewood (1997)
Williams’ skill at scoring controversial grown-up drama is not to be underestimated. He went through a purple patch of such scores in the mid-90s – Nixon, Sleepers et al – and his Gospel-inspired, bluegrass-inflected soundtrack for John Singleton’s shocking fact-based drama, based on the 1923 Rosewood massacre, is a subtly emotional masterclass.
12. Heidi (1968)
One of the first scores that saw Johnny Williams officially credited as ‘John’, a heartfelt and beautiful TV soundtrack that scored an Emmy win. The appealing harmonies, pastoral woodwinds, warm strings and supportive brass undercurrents for which he is so famed can be heard taking shape here in the early stages of his career.
11. Black Sunday (1977)
Darkness and intrigue is something Williams depicts tremendously well. His angular, suspenseful and moody score for John Frankenheimer’s overlooked suspense thriller is seemingly one of his least characteristic. Yet it has dynamic connections to later Spielberg scores like Close Encounters and War Of The Worlds. Composed in the same year as Star Wars, it’s a sign that there’s a lot more to the composer than meets the ear.
We wrote more about Black Sunday and other “Super Bowl disaster movies” here.
10. The Cowboys (1972)
Williams’ collaboration with director Mark Rydell was one of his most fruitful, the filmmaker’s diverse range of projects drawing out the composer’s lush Americana side. And they don’t get more quintessentially wholesome than Williams’ wonderfully rambunctious, sweeping Western score for this John Wayne vehicle, arguably his definitive work in the genre.
9. Dracula (1979)
Post-Star Wars, it’s easy to imagine that all Williams scored were epic Spielberg and Lucas blockbusters. However he found time to make a rare dip into horror with this lavish and menacing offering. In fact, Williams cleverly plays off Frank Langella’s seductive title performance, eliciting an orchestral performance that is as alluringly attractive as it threatening.
We wrote more about the brilliance of Frank Langella’s Dracula here.
8. The Fury (1978)
More explicitly menacing than Williams’ later Dracula score, this churning, portentous masterwork showcases his marvellous knack for swirling orchestrations that engulf the listener in a cloud of dread. Director Brian De Palma is famous for eliciting outstanding scores from Hollywood’s soundtrack masters, and this is certainly a standout Williams treat.
7. Nixon (1995)
Williams’ collaboration with the contentious Oliver Stone resulted in a superb triple whammy of scores: Born On The Fourth Of July, JFK, and this. It’s almost certainly the darkest of the trio, Williams’ increasingly claustrophobic and complex 1990s orchestrations taking us inside the turbulent mind of the disgraced President, as brilliantly played by Anthony Hopkins.
6. Images (1972)
It’s easy to forget that Williams and the legendary Robert Altman were once a dynamic duo (the jazzy The Long Goodbye was another serious contender for this list). Williams’ unnerving use of rhythmic motifs in the Images score, not to mention percussion from the esteemed Stomu Yamashta, creates one of the composer’s most unique and unrelentingly eerie soundscapes.
5. The Reivers (1969)
Another Mark Rydell collaboration and another melodious Williams pleasure that is redolent of easygoing Americana. This Steve McQueen drama is adapted from William Faulkner’s final novel, a freewheeling character study and one that allows the composer to paint with the emotionally lush textures for which he has become so renowned.
4. Born On The Fourth Of July (1989)
One of Williams’ greatest dramatic masterpieces, this moving score is both a celebration of the noble American spirit and a deconstruction of the Vietnam War that almost destroyed it. Contrasting Tim Morrison’s glorious trumpet solos with harsh, anguished strings and electronics, it’s one of the most assured and dynamic works in the composer’s canon.
3. Memoirs Of A Geisha (2005)
In recent years, Williams’ scores for both Spielberg and Lucas have tended to dominate. How refreshing it was to get a sumptuous, Japanese-infused extravaganza that reminded us of his extraordinary capabilities in the realms of pure drama. With solos from violinist Itzhak Perlman and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, it’s an intoxicating, beautiful, ravishing tapestry of emotion.
2. The Witches Of Eastwick (1987)
Another aspect of Williams’ musical personality that’s easy to underrate is his wicked sense of humour. His folk-inspired, flighty and darkly comic score for George Miller’s outrageous John Updike adaptation so perfectly captures the whimsical menace of Jack Nicholson’s Satan that its’s hard to imagine the movie without it. It’s Danny Elfman before the latter even became famous.
1. Jane Eyre (1970)
Said to be Williams’ own personal favourite, this exquisitely wrought delight combines everything that is great about his music: emotional sincerity, memorable thematic ideas and a mastery of orchestral tone that takes the breath away. Williams captures the Gothic and rustic aspects of Charlotte Bronte’s novel magnificently, the ultimate rejoinder to those who define him through Star Wars and nothing else.