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The 44th recipient of the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award, John Williams, 84, is the first composer ever to be so honored. With 50 Oscar nominations and five wins, Williams — who began as a session musician (working for such composers as Henry Mancini) before moving into TV and then film composing himself — has provided musical signatures for everyone from Luke Skywalker and E.T. to Indiana Jones and Harry Potter. No slacker, he also served as principal conductor for the Boston Pops from 1980 to 1993, and his most recent work, for Steven Spielberg’s The BFG, his theaters July 1.
“We were having some screenings of Home Alone around town, and the word got out that people were enjoying the movie, and so John’s agent said, ‘I’d like to show it to John Williams.’ Now, at the time this was a tiny movie, and we didn’t expect to do huge business. I thought it was a long shot, but we’d show John the movie and see what he thought of it. So I got a call from John telling me how much he loved the movie, how emotional he thought it was. He decided he wanted to write the score. Shocking to me because I never in a million years expected to get somebody who was a personal hero of mine. If he’s not the greatest composer who’s ever written for film, he’s the greatest living composer.
“I was shooting a film called Only the Lonely in Chicago, and I couldn’t leave the set to go to the scoring session for Home Alone. Back then, pre-internet, the scoring session would happen and I would sometimes listen over the phone. So I really didn’t know what we were getting. So we got the first-day scoring FedEx-ed to us on cassette tape. We were having lunch, and I popped it into the old boom box and played it for the crew. People had tears in their eyes. We were amazed by the beauty of the score coming out of these little, tinny speakers. When we put the score up against the film, it just elevated the movie in a big way. That’s the power of John’s music. He can take something that’s good and make it great.
“One of the things we were struggling with when we were adding temp music to the movie is having a comical score. A comical score is one of the most difficult things to write, because composers tend to overwrite for comedy. If you write something comedic for a comedy scene, it basically kills it. You have to know when to stay away from the moment and let the comedy play. With John, it was amazing how subtle it was. You don’t have an overbearing comedic score. That taught me a lot. You have to let comedy breathe and accentuate just those special moments. When we first heard the movie’s theme, I just thought, ‘This is one of those special themes that will hopefully live forever.’ And the theme carried over into the final moments in the movie, which are extraordinarily emotional. John’s score beautifully accentuates the moment without making it overly sentimental.
“John was my immediate first choice for Harry Potter [and the Sorcerer’s Stone]. He had also done Stepmom for me at that point, and I loved working with him. I though he’d be the perfect person to do Harry Potter, and he agreed to do it. He flew to England at one point, and I showed him a rough cut of the movie and we talking about the score. It was a slightly darker score at times because we talked about the evolution of all the movies, and J.K. Rowling had told us the books were getting progressively darker. So we wanted to plant that seed early on in the first picture. John then went off to Boston to write for the film, and I flew to Boston to hear snippets of the score on the piano. When I first heard the Harry Potter theme, I thought it was one of the most amazing pieces of music in its simplicity. Now they’re playing it with the Universal theme park ride. It’s really remarkable how with those first notes, John reaches out and brings you into the world with that haunting theme. Even after other composers came in, they still had to use that theme. It’s been in all eight Harry Potter movies.
“John always feels extraordinarily youthful to me. He’s never lost that excitement or the love of film and making movies. It’s very contagious. When you see someone who’s been working as long as he has and who has so many Oscars and awards, it’s really amazing how down to earth he is. How it’s all about the movie. It’s not about anything else.”
“Over the years, I had collected hundreds of movie scores from Bernard Herrmann to Max Steiner, but one of my favorite scores was from The Reivers, by a composer named John Williams. I made a promise to myself that if I was ever lucky enough to make a feature film, this was the man I would try to hire. So I showed John the rough assembly of The Sugarland Express. He liked it, said he’d write the music and, until now — on the eve of his AFI Lifetime Achievement Award — the two of us have never looked back.”
“We had a completed version of Superman, and much like you do with any composer, we ran the picture and spotted it, deciding where the music should be. But John was so far ahead of us after seeing it just once that he kind of took charge emotionally. He read so much into the picture, almost more than we did.
The first recording session for Superman was the opening reel of the movie, and those brilliant titles that were done by Richard Greenberg came flying onto the screen. It demanded special music, but you didn’t have to say that to John because when the title ‘Superman’ came flying in, John made the music say, ‘Su-Per-Man!’ If you listen to just that one little piece, you can literally hear the music say, ‘Superman.’ It brought tears to our eyes.
When he’s conducting, you’re usually looking at his back, because you are looking at the orchestra much like he is. But I would often go on the music stage, up behind drums and the top instruments, and watch John like the orchestra was watching him, and his face conveyed the whole movie. He must have studied acting because it was like he was living the entire piece. Very beautiful. It ended with this truly happy expression on his face as if to say, ‘Oh my God, that was good, and I did it.’ “
A (Very, Very) Select Sampling of Williams’ Work
Having written music for 138 films and TV shows, he is not done yet.
Drag racing and drug dealing figured in this B-movie on which he earned his first big-screen credit.
Fiddler on the Roof, 1971
He won his first Oscar for best music, scoring adaptation and original song score for adapting this Broadway musical.
The Long Goodbye, 1973
He wrote the title tune with Johnny Mercer, and it repeats throughout Robert Altman’s detective tale in various orchestrations.
The Sugarland Express, 1974
This chase movie, starring Goldie Hawn, became the first of 28 movies that he has scored for Steven Spielberg.
The ominous theme that signals each scary shark attack contributed to his second Oscar victory.
Star Wars, 1977
The thrilling fanfare welcomed movie fans into a faraway galaxy that he would revisit six more times over the years.
Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981
With a flourish, he summoned up the spirit of Saturday matinee serials in the first of the four Indiana Jones movies he composed.
Schindler’s List, 1993
Violinist Itzhak Perlman performed on the emotional soundtrack for which Williams won his fifth Oscar.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, 2001
He scored the first three films, and his magical motif has appeared in all eight.
A version of this story first appeared in the June 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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