Music in the movies: John Williams and Steven Spielberg collaborations — part two

Glen takes a second look at the long and successful collaborative movies of director Steven Spielberg and legendary composer John Williams...

I won’t provide too much of an intro on this one, as that was pretty much covered in part one.

Here’s the concluding part of my look at the collaborations between John Williams and Steven Spielberg…

Schindler’s List

The score for Schindler’s List is an incredible piece of work that compliments Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust epic wonderfully. It’s an interesting piece to get a hand on, as it seems to be simpler than much of his output, but in many ways it’s much grander in scale.

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The highlights of the score include the contributions from violinist Itzhak Perlman, whose work here is absolutely masterful.

For the most part, this is a perfect example of restraint and effective film composing , even if the film’s finale is a little overcooked as it goes all out to tug on the heart strings. This is nothing short of a masterpiece and well deserved the Academy Award for Best Original Score.

The Lost World: Jurassic Park

Those of you following the Den Of Geek Twitter feed may recall a tweet a few weeks back stating that this was a superior score to that of Jurassic Park. Now, whilst I don’t share that view (sorry, guys), I still think it’s an incredibly strong follow-up.

I think the reason why I don’t hold it in such high regard as the first is that I don’t quite attach the same level of awe as I do to the first, as it brings back memories of seeing the dinosaurs for the first time, accompanied by Williams’ majestic themes.

The key themes are present here, but for me, the pieces making up the rest of the score don’t match what was heard previously. Even with that being the case, this is still a functional score that serves the set pieces well.

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Amistad

A return to an historical epic, this time focussing on the mutiny by the slaves aboard La Amistad en route to America, produced another fantastic score by Williams. Not one that received the same level of attention as much of his other works for the great director, but one that showcases a high level of versatility, with Williams incorporating traditional African music and choruses alongside his typical orchestrations.

It’s varied thematically, going from swelling drama to reflective introspection seamlessly.

Saving Private Ryan

This film features one of my favourite opening scenes in cinema. I remember seeing it on the big screen, open mouthed, as the long and brutal series of events rolled on. The film as a whole is hugely enjoyable and stands as one of the director’s finest works.

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However, the same compliment can’t be paid towards Williams’ score, which lacks the memorable cues that typify much of his work, and music is largely absent from some of the key scenes from the film.

I appreciate that this is a deliberate tactic to heighten the effect of certain scenes, but as a whole, I don’t feel that the score does the material justice.

Artificial Intelligence: AI

I’m not a huge fan of AI, but I really do enjoy the score. The film itself was one of the projects that Stanley Kubrick had intended to make, but thematically, it’s not a million miles away from some of Spielberg’s projects, particularly E.T.

Whilst there’s a lack of a rousing key theme, Williams still creates a hugely effective composition through largely ambient tracks that more closely resemble the works of Philip Glass than any of his own.

Minority Report

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Williams is perhaps not most often associated with out and out sci-fi action thrillers, but he does a decent enough job here, even if he relies a little too heavily on themes covered by true masters of the genre, such as Horner and Goldsmith. And there’s also an influence of Glass again here, although he’s slightly less successful in conveying this aspect of the score when compared to his work on AI.

Catch Me If You Can

I’m a big fan of Catch Me If You Can, a film that’s thoroughly entertaining with great performances, an interesting look and a rather ace score.

Williams’ score is a Jazz-tinged classic that reflects the setting of the film, giving a great sense of time and place, whilst putting across the mood of playfulness and excitement that carries much of the film. It may lack some of the bold orchestrations and icon themes that the composer is known for, but this is a score that compliments the film perfectly and is constructed with a considerable level of skill.

The Terminal

Sure the film itself sees Spielberg go all out in terms of sentimentality, but it was a much more enjoyable film than I was expecting going in. It’s no masterpiece, by any means, but it’s a fairly entertaining film that features a score that sees Williams at his feel-good best, with elements of comedy as well as some of the jazz influences that made Catch Me If You Can so great, and in many ways, this is the superior score of the two.

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War Of The Worlds

Given the iconic music composed by Jeff Wayne has been so popular for so many years, striking the right balance for a movie version of H.G. Wells’ novel was always going to be tricky, and this is something of a mixed bag.

Williams makes the right choice in attempting to stamp his own identity on the works and creates some genuinely dramatic pieces with a backing of a full orchestra. There are some interesting effects used to create a sense of alien weirdness, but for me, this never quite escapes the shadow of Wayne’s work and never reaches the dramatic heights heard in that recording.

Munich

Spielberg’s film about the massacre of the Israeli Olympic team at the 1972 games in Munich is one of the director’s bolder efforts in the later stage of his career, and sees a classic score from Williams after a few spluttering efforts for Spielberg collaborations that preceded it.

I think a large factor in this is that Williams is clearly more comfortable with both the setting of the film and the themes it explores. It’s a much darker score in tone than much of his previous work, which makes it all the more interesting.

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It shows that he’s as adept at accompanying material such as this as he is with films like Star Wars, for which he completed his composition for Revenge Of The Sith in the same year as he composed this.

Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull

A return to the franchise that, in many ways, defined both Spielberg and Williams’ work in the 80s saw mixed results. For Spielberg, this marked a huge misstep that saw the cheapening of a great series of films with a subpar fourth instalment.

How much of the film’s failings are down to Lucas is up for debate, but this is a film I, along with many others, I’m sure, could easily have lived without.

Williams’ score sees him return to the iconic themes that never fail to raise levels of excitement and also sees him introduce two other motifs to accompany scenes with the titular skull and the character of Mutt.

The score is a fine addition to the franchise, even if the film itself isn’t.

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So, that concludes my look at the feature film collaborations between Williams and Spielberg, showing that this is one of the most fruitful parings in cinematic history.

I’m planning other Williams pieces that will look at the best of his non-Spielberg collaborations and his work on Star Wars at a later date. So, if you have any suggestions on scores you would like to see, include them in the comments below or get in touch on Twitter @GlenTChapman.

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