Hollywood Flashback: John Williams' 'Star Wars' Score Won a Golden Globe and an Oscar

John Williams In 1980
Janet Knott/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Steven Spielberg recommended Williams — who'd worked on the director's film 'Jaws,' which would later win an Oscar — for the gig scoring George Lucas' sci-fi film.

Writing the script for 1977's Star Wars, George Lucas drew inspiration from late-romantic symphonies by Richard Wagner and Antonín Dvorák and the ravishing film scores of Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1938's The Adventures of Robin Hood).

He wasn't sure what his space epic would sound like, but he knew he didn't want it to have one of those modernist, atonal scores that had accompanied sci-fi films since 1951's The Day the Earth Stood Still (composed by Bernard Herrmann and featuring a theremin). Lucas' plan was to emulate Stanley Kubrick, who on 1968's 2001: A Space Odyssey abandoned a score by Alex North (Spartacus) in favor of classical pieces by Richard Strauss, Johann Strauss II and György Ligeti.

Talking about his upcoming film with Steven Spielberg, Lucas said, "I want a classical score. I want a Korngold kind of feel about this thing." Spielberg recommended John Williams, who had scored his 1975 blockbuster, Jaws, which would later win an Oscar. Lucas, then 30, and Williams, then 43, met for the first time in April 1975. Williams quickly dissuaded Lucas from using a mishmash of existing compositions. "I felt that the film wanted thematic unity," Williams later said. And so he went about composing a series of audacious leitmotifs: the stirring, brass-heavy "Main Title," the urgent "Imperial Attack," the emotional "Princess Leia's Theme."

The final music track accompanied 88 minutes of the movie's 120-minute running time — unheard of since Korngold's 1930s heyday. The film (whose title was later expanded to Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope) opened May 25, 1977, and was an instant sensation, eclipsing the previous box office record-holder, Jaws. By July, Williams' double-LP score had sold 650,000 copies. It would eventually sell 4 million, becoming the best-selling symphonic album of all time. Star Wars won the 1978 Golden Globe for best original score and, two months later, the Oscar, beating out Close Encounters of the Third Kind — also composed by Williams.

This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.