Music in the movies: John Williams and Steven Spielberg’s collaborations

Glen salutes the work of John Williams, and its enormous contribution to the success of director Steven Spielberg’s pictures...

A prominent feature of the recent Iconic Movie Themes article we ran on this site a while back, John Williams is one of the most respected and prolific composers working today. He has also received more Oscar nominations than any other individual, with over 40 nominations and five wins.

With that kind of back catalogue, it would do the man a great disservice to try to condense his work into a single article. So this is one of several planned pieces celebrating his work, and will be the first part of my look at his long working relationship with Steven Spielberg, and the feature films they have collaborated on.

The Sugarland Express

This is the score that marked the start of Williams’ long collaboration with Spielberg, and set the foundations for his career as one of the most respected composers of all time. It calls back to some of the great scores that have accompanied western films over the years, despite the film’s 60s setting. The highlight is the main theme, an area that Williams has established himself as something of a master of, so it comes as little surprise that proves to be the case here.

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Jaws

Iconic theme aside, this is a highly accomplished score from start to finish. And whilst it’s not the most complex score he would compose over the years, it’s certainly one of his most effective. A master class in tension and action, the music heard here is for me more iconic than any of the images in the brilliant film.

A near-perfect score that announced both the director and composer’s emergence on the blockbuster stage.

Close Encounters Of The Third Kind

Williams’ work herein really is quite beautiful. Much praise quite rightly goes to the five note main theme, but the score is packed with emotive pieces of music. Early releases of this score failed to do the amazing scene-setting music Williams created justice, but the album that’s now widely available really is excellent, making this a must-own for all Williams fans. Williams earned an Oscar nomination for his work here, but lost out to another one of his own compositions – his score for Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

1941

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At the time of this film’s release, Williams’ score was regarded as one of the most forward-thinking of his career. There are the grand militaristic marches and rousing numbers in there, but there’s an underlying playfulness to the piece as a whole, as he sets out to subvert the traditional scores of some of Hollywood’s great war films by highlighting the ridiculousness of some of their over-the-top patriotism.

Spielberg’s film set out to achieve the same thing, but was far less successful than Williams’ score. Even with this bordering on parody at times, it’s still an incredible piece of work, featuring one of Williams’ finest pieces of music in the title march.

Raiders Of The Lost Ark

Taking inspiration from 30s and 40s matinee films, Williams presented Spielberg with ideas for two different title themes. But when asked why they couldn’t use both, Williams reworked them to fit together, and created one of the most instantly recognisable themes in cinema history.

To perform the score, Williams called upon the talents of the London Symphony Orchestra, whom he had previously worked with on his Oscar-winning score for Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. Their collaboration here earned another Oscar nomination, but would lose out to Vangelis’ score for Chariots Of Fire.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial

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One of the more subtle and restrained pieces in Williams’ back catalogue, but one that earned him an Oscar win for best original score. Not great as a standalone listen, but incredibly effective when accompanying the film, it conveys a childlike sense of wonder, as well as handling more dramatic moments with great skill also. There are incredibly beautiful moments here that more than justify the Oscar win.

Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom

Like the film itself, Williams’ score for the second instalment in the Indiana Jones franchise moves into darker territory while keeping its iconic theme. There’s a heightened sense of threat and adventure as Williams really ramps up his efforts here to create one of the most engaging and, most importantly, exciting action scores of the 80s.

Empire Of The Sun

A mixture of classical standards and Williams’ score make up the soundtrack to Spielberg’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel. The score is an incredibly dramatic and moving piece of work that saw Williams receive another Oscar nod. Whilst the accompanying soundtrack release would never include the entire score, it’s still a great addition to any record collection.

Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade

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For the closing instalment of the 80s’ greatest action franchise, Williams favours the playfulness and sense of adventure of his first score in the series over the darkness and threat heard in his work for the second, and it’s another classic he puts together. Sure, there are moments of suspense, but there are also more comedic moments heard here than in the previous instalment. Obviously comfortable with the characters and his theme, Williams recycles motifs heard previously, but gives them an interesting twist, making this an essential purchase for fans of his work.

Always

Not a strong Spielberg film by any means, Always is a little too overly-sentimental for my tastes, and the same complaint can be directed at the score, which is one of the weaker compositions to accompany a Spielberg film. Like the film, it was a little dated, even for its time.

Hook

Williams’ soundtrack for Spielberg’s film about Peter Pan returning to Neverland far exceeds the quality of the film itself. In fact, it ranks among the finest scores of his career, whereas the film itself is one of the director’s weaker efforts. It’s a masterpiece of film scoring, full of layers to discover on repeat listens, and also features differing themes for each of the characters.

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Jurassic Park

Many don’t regard this as being among Williams’ best work, but this score holds an incredibly special place in my heart. Jurassic Park is a film that blew me away when I was taken to see it as a child, and only being able to convince people to take me to see it a certain number of times, I had to settle with listening to the score to conjure up the imagery instead. For the summer of ‘93, this was very much my soundtrack.

Even hearing the film now, it still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. There’s a sense of wistfulness about two of the three main themes that are used to make up much of the score, but the third that accompanies scenes where characters are under threat is incredibly effective and creepy, recalling similar emotions elicited from his work in Jaws. Look out for the second part of our look back at Spielberg and Williams’ collaborations in the coming weeks..

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