Wednesday, December 16, 2015

My Top 10 John Williams Scores - 200th Post Special.

I originally intended to post this in June before Jurassic World, but decided to hold off on it for the time being. Now with The Force Awakens almost being upon us, I decided to post it now.

There really is no need for an introduction to John Williams, as far as I'm concerned the greatest film composer that ever lived, and that will ever live. From his collaborations with Steven Spielberg to being behind some of the most legendary franchises of all time, it almost makes a ranked list pointless given that his resume is chock full of some of the greatest and most memorable scores in cinematic history, even becoming the second most award nominated person in history by AMPAS behind Walt Disney, tallying an impressive 49 nominations and five wins, and likely on his way to a fiftieth this year. His themes are so iconic that even people who've never seen movies he's composed know of his melodies.

So for today's topic, we're going to be honoring this great composer with a rundown of my personal favorite scores of his, and it's going to be an impossible one for me to narrow down, but I'll try anyway.

First up are some honorable mentions. Not quite making it on was The Phantom Menace, for while George Lucas stumbled in the 16 year gap, Williams never did so with his evolution of old themes meets excellent brand new additions. While I'm not the biggest fan of Richard Donner's Superman, the music by Williams is the greatest superhero score I've ever heard, particularly for it's amazing main title march. War Horse featured some of the most unashamedly old-fashioned and bold compositions of Williams' entire career, complementing the colorful and epic nature of the film with suitably sweeping and emotional tracks. The score from Hook is such an underrated gem, seeing Williams putting a clever spin on swashbuckling adventure with much graceful beauty. The Adventures of Tintin takes all of his most famous stylistic ticks and tendencies, and turns it not only into a thoroughly entertaining album presentation, but a fun spot the reference game. We may as well lump in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith as well... and Far and Away... and Empire of the Sun... and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban... an-

Now onto the actual list.

Number 10
Return of the Jedi

As the final entry of the Star Wars saga at the time, Williams had a number of musical loose ends to tie up, but continues to explore them all in more direct ways, while adding onto them with new compositions and themes to bring his collection of symphonies full circle. It was really fun and exciting to see Williams embrace more of the adventurous nature we’d come to love Star Wars for, adding onto the emotional pull of the finale with haunting intensity, and even using creative experimentation in orchestrations, such as the Emperor’s horrifying low pitched all male choir, and the cheery Ewok theme.

Number 9
Schindler's List
Schindler’s List to this day remains one of Spielberg’s greatest achievements, and so much of that impact was owed to the grim accompaniment of Williams. In one of the more toned down scores in Williams’ entire career, the man infused the score with heavy and effective use of Polish atmosphere, and deeply moving violin solos courtesy of Itzhak Perlman. Outside of its orchestrations and themes (including the children’s choir for the girl in the red coat), it earns much of its staying power through its emotional presentation. Like the film it plays with, after a listen to the album, it’ll leave you in tears.

Number 8

One of the more simplistic scores of his career to be certain, as anyone could easily play it note for note on the piano, but as effective a horror score as any movie could ask for. From its thrilling action to its light hearted Amity theme, the score’s most iconic moments come from its two-note throbbing strings joined by trumpets, which may not sound like much, but it still stirs a lot of suspense and terror before the titular creature appears to maul another helpless victim. Despite Steven Spielberg initially thinking Williams submitted it as a joke, it remains one of his most famous and terrifying.

Number 7
Memoirs of a Geisha

Another very atypical entry for Williams, while the film itself was one of many duds from Rob Marshall, Williams embraced the assignment without a hitch, fully immersing himself into some of the most colorful exotic flavors of his career. Once again joined by Itzhak Perlman, he also teamed up with cellist Yo-Yo Ma to bring out the most of the film’s sweeping Japanese culture, relying heavily on varied orchestrations utilizing native percussion and the erhu. It’s one of the more un-Williamsy projects that he’s ever taken on, but it marked for a refreshing change of pace, standing as the best effort from his very busy 2005.

Number 6
Star Wars
Even George Lucas never saw Star Wars becoming the phenomenon that it did, and as one of the few elements of production that actually exceeded his expectations, the score and themes by John Williams became a new gold standard for film scores everywhere. It’s one thing to create a series of memorable themes, weave them together, and time each of them to hit specific on screen events, but it’s another to do that job so well that the score arguably becomes more famous than the movie that it plays with. While it’s not my favorite Williams score (due only to the strength of his portfolio), it objectively remains the greatest film score ever recorded.

Number 5
Raiders of the Lost Ark

Being that Raiders was a thoroughly entertaining ode to the pulpy treasure hunting serials of the golden age, Williams paid similar homage to those old-fashioned adventures with one of the most exciting film scores of all time. I know I’ve already said this a lot, but this movie owes a lot of its strength to its compositions, from the iconic Raiders march to the bittersweet romantic theme for Marion. On top of that, being that it is a John Williams score, many of its best moments were typically heard in the film’s enrapturing action sequences, where the tension of these scenes would be appropriately reflected by Williams’ rises and falls in tempo and severity.

Number 4
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
While the quality of the actual movies would get better with each new entry and different directors, the music of the Harry Potter universe would never again hit the high marks that it would under Williams. A cliché to say, but there was always something so magical to the themes that Williams had written, matching the mysticism, mystery, pure terror, and the endearing friendships of Hogwarts that made us feel just as connected to the wizarding world as Harry did. Everything from the chimes of Hedwig’s theme to the Quidditch anthem sucked us into the film’s atmosphere, and became as much a part of its identity as the trio of young wizards.

Number 3
E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
On top of being one of the more emotional entries in Steven Spielberg’s directorial output, when it came to the music, Williams embraced that same emotional spirit through the entirety of writing. It’s one of the most complex efforts of all of his musical output, weaving its large number of themes and shifting orchestrations with a lot of skill and sincerity. Some would deride the score for being more manipulative and cloying than honest (bunch of cynics!), but through the various ups and downs and the progressive friendships in the film, when we roll around to the teary finale, both the film and Williams have earned the right to embrace that sentimental side in their hearts.

Number 2
The Empire Strikes Back
While Star Wars was vital in setting the gold standard for what all film scores should strive to be, The Empire Strikes Back shattered those same expectations, surpassing its predecessor in every conceivable area. An all too common vice of sequel scores at the time was the lazy rehash of older themes with barely anything new brought to the table. Williams broke this mold by his smart, epic reinventions and re-arrangements of the many classic themes, but supplied them with countless new additions to its musical identity in robust fashion. They included the thrilling action during the Battle of Hoth and asteroid field sequences, Boba Fett’s motif, the Cloud City theme, Yoda’s theme, Han and Leia’s love theme, but especially for the Imperial March accompanying Darth Vader, standing as the finest piece of music in the saga. It’s simply perfection.

Number 1
Jurassic Park
I know everyone saw this coming, but I can’t even begin to tell you just how much I love both the movie and this score and what they mean to me. The score may be the ultimate in nostalgic fondness for me, quite possibly being my favorite music in any format ever. As Alan Grant put it in the film, the dinosaurs were animals and not monsters, which Williams punctuated perfectly. He always knew how to capture the majesty, the gracefulness, the terror, and the imposing weight and stature of the animals with the most classical and bombastic themes he’s ever written, and that’s saying a lot. From the four note raptor suspense cue, the suspenseful tones as Nedry raids the embryo chamber, the dozens of intense action beats, the epic island theme, and the amazing and gorgeous dinosaur theme that nearly made me sob when hearing it in the theaters during its rerelease, everything about the music in the movie is flawless to me. It’s one of the few scores I’ve memorized from beginning to end, I’ve listened to it more times than any piece of music I can think of, and though I’ve watched the film too many times to count, I will never get sick of it no matter what. I will adore it forever.

And that was my list of my top ten favorite John Williams scores, and it sure was a tough one to form. So now that that's done...

The Force Awakens is almost here!!! I really have no idea how the music of that movie will affect this top ten, as well as Spielberg's adaptation of the BFG next Summer, but I know that it's all going to be amazing either way. Here's to you, John Williams, and may the future work you do be just as spectacular.

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