Friday Night Seitz
Slide show: From Altman to Spielberg, here's a list celebrating Hollywood's most versatile composer
10. Catch Me if You Can (2002)
Every few years, a director — often Steven Spielberg — asks John Williams to put on his Bernard Herrmann hat and do something in an Alfred Hitchcock mode. In this case the Hitchcock movie is “North by Northwest,” with its galloping rhythms and unexpectedly tender strings. Written by Jeff Nathanson, this account of a professional impostor Frank Abagnale (Leonardo DiCaprio) faking his way through high-stakes careers is a character study with the brisk pace and droll wit of an early-1960s caper flick. The movie showcases a late-period Spielberg working in early Spielberg style, bringing the fun and only occasionally leavening it with doubt and darkness.
Williams backs him up with a lively score that hearkens back to his jazzy 1960s period, when he still went by Johnny Williams. The tracks are all gems; the subtle variations in “Catching the Ropes” alone nearly constitute a soundtrack within a soundtrack. But the best cue might be the opening credits music, a modern orchestral jazz suite with squiggling woodwinds and finger-snap percussion that sounds like castanets overdubbed with whip cracks. The piece is timed to Saul Bass-looking animation that shows silhouetted caricatures of Frank and his nemesis, FBI agent Frank Hanratty (Tom Hanks), scrambling through tableaux that represent the jobs of the production’s key players. Williams’ credit appears over an image of a man playing grand piano for tuxedoed men and leggy women — a nod to Williams’ roots as a jazz club pianist who got his big break working for another jazz-savvy composer, Henry Mancini.
9. Cinderella Liberty (1973)
James Caan plays a sailor on leave; Marsha Mason plays the prostitute who steals his heart. Director Mark Rydell and screenwriter Darryl Ponicsan tell their story in a familiar late ’60s/early ’70s mode reminiscent of another tale of lovable urban losers, 1969′s “Midnight Cowboy.” The movie has a flowers-in-the-dirt feel characteristic of many of the era’s romances. Williams’ Oscar-nominated score falls into that groove; it’s loose, unfussy and aggressively contemporary. There’s even a recurring harmonica part performed by Toots Thielmans, who worked similar magic for “Midnight Cowboy” (scored by John Barry) and “Sugarland Express” (Williams again).
The film’s Oscar-nominated main theme, Nice to Be Around,” is reworked throughout the movie; the song version features lyrics by Paul (no relation) Williams, who also worked with the composer on another 1973 film, “The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing.” “This poignant melody weaves in and out of the score, a sexy, sinewy tune that never outlasts its welcome, and speaks of love found, and of love that can never last,” writes Steve Saragossi at Soundtrack.net. Williams also composed the Aaron Copland-flavored scores for two earlier Rydell films, the picaresque Steve McQueen picture “The Reivers” (1969) and the John Wayne western “The Cowboys” (1972); his collaborations with Rydell are as fascinating as his work for Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Oliver Stone, and deserve more attention.
8. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’ first collaboration, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981), introduced grave-robbing professor Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) and his theme music; the latter instantly became a musical synonym for derring-do, hummed on playgrounds the world over. Spielberg, Lucas and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan set out to make a color, widescreen version of the chintzy black-and-white serials that delighted them as kids. This film and its sequels (“The Temple of Doom,” “The Last Crusade” and “The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”) sealed the deal, offering sophisticated variants of Jungle Jim and Tarzan music.
All four soundtracks are fun, but my favorite is Williams’ Oscar-nominated score for Indy’s darkest and most perverse adventure, “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984). It kicks off with Williams’ Busby Berkeley-worthy orchestration of “Anything Goes,” sung in Mandarin by Spielberg’s soon-to-be second wife Kate Capshaw. Then it gallops through an array of corny, bizarre, often politically incorrect modes: Fu Manchu menace, faux-Hindu village spiritualism, Thuggee palace decadence, child slave torture march. There’s even a screwball courtship cue that segues into hand-to-hand fight music. The bizarro highlight is Williams’ score for the heart-ripping-and-lava-dunking sequence, which features deafening kettle drums and a sinister choir chanting “Mola Ram/ Suda Ram/ Mola Ram/ Suda Ram!” (Bumm … Bommmm!)
7. The Fury (1978)
Brian DePalma’s follow-up to his 1975 telepathic teen horror film “Carrie” asked Williams to channel Bernard Herrmann, but with the sense of wonder that infused Williams’ 1970s fantasy scores. The result could be Williams’ best work in the horror genre. Like the violence wrought by psychically gifted teens Amy Irving and Andrew Stevens, his music is a blast from the id — one that gives the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s string section a “Psycho”-caliber workout.
The slow-building opening title music; the fleet-footed “Gillian’s Escape“; the creepy sonic spiral of Death on a Carousel; the spare, brutalizing “Vision on the Stairs”: This soundtrack is so rich that it’s hard to pick a favorite track. New Yorker critic Pauline Kael said Williams composed “as elegant and delicately varied a score as any horror film has ever had.” His music no doubt helped cement her praise for the film’s majestically deranged ending, in which tormented heroine Gillian Bellaver (Irving) finally accepts an offer of help from evil intelligence operative Ben Childress (John Cassavetes) so that she can lure him close and pop him like a zit. Williams’ cue could be accompanied on-screen by a cartoon fury-pump gauge that goes from empty to half-full to “Everybody duck!”
6. Jaws (1975)
As a friend remarked, this score’s main theme is so effective that it scares you even when you’re watching the original teaser — and the teaser doesn’t even show you a fin.
But Williams’ Oscar-winning score to Steven Spielberg’s first blockbuster offers a lot more than “Boo!” music. There are splashes of Americana, plus tender domestic interludes (Chief Brody making faces with his son at the dinner table) and high seas adventure music. (When Brody, Hooper and Quint start harpooning yellow barrels to the shark, Williams settles into a Horatio Hornblower vibe, and doesn’t abandon it until the Orca stops.) Williams’ score is so rich that Film Score Monthly contributor Alexandre Tylski was moved to write an extended, brilliant analysis of the film’s interplay of music and images after studying just one track, the overture. “Just as Bernard Herrmann’s music in the ‘Psycho’ shower scene was, figuratively speaking, symbolizing what Hitchcock did not show us — that is the knife’s contact with the victim’s body — Williams’ score gives a reality to what Spielberg prevents us from seeing: the shark’s jaws,” he writes. “As Jerry Goldsmith once pointed out, ‘a good composer should not illustrate what you see on the screen, but rather what you do not see, what is deep-down.’ It has never been as true as with John Williams’ ‘Jaws’ score, which shows us what is hidden in the dark.” (See also:Goldentusk.)
5. JFK (1991)
Oliver Stone’s muckraking thriller “JFK” is a purposefully schizoid work, contrasting righteous invocations of honor, justice and constitutional oversight with black ops violence plotted by shadowy conspirators: the mob, the Cubans, the CIA, even Vice President Lyndon Johnson. The film’s style evokes this schism, lurching between Norman Rockwellian nostalgia for a supposedly more innocent time and jagged modernist flash-cuts that shatter the narrative before it can solidify.
John Williams’ Oscar-nominated score amplifies the film’s conflicting tones. Retro-corny themes certify the goodness of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), a bizarre figure in real life who’s depicted by Stone as Atticus Finch by way of Frank Capra. But the movie’s major-key melodies are undermined by minor-key harmonies that suggest nagging doubt and irresolvable mystery, and pulverized by brutally percussive tracks that confirm the existence of evil and predict the triumph of chaos. Williams’ score during the daringly extended Zapruder film sequence starts out as a righteous lament, then builds and builds, peaking with multiple string-shrieks of terror, then gradually ramping down into sorrow. Williams’ score — like the film, and like Jim Garrison’s America — is a hive-mind at war with itself.
4. Superman, the Movie (1978)
Following somewhat unsteadily in the blockbuster footsteps of the Williams-scored “Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope” (1977), this superhero origin story offers more proof of Williams’ zeitgeist-channeling gifts. Directed by Richard Donner, it’s an American myth that dared to be sweet, inspiring and un-ironic at a time when the U.S. was still reeling from a decade of war, unrest and malaise. Releasing studio Warner Bros. feared viewers wouldn’t be able to respond to a movie like this unless it played Superman for laughs, but it needn’t have worried: then-newcomer Christopher Reeve’s sunbeam performance set the film’s tone, and Williams’ Oscar-nominated music — by turns mysterious, innocent, romantic and thrilling — fortified it. The critical jury will always be out on the airborne dance interlude “Can You Read My Mind,” which features voice-over doggerel read by Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane, but I dig it; if you’re going for earnestness, you might as well go for broke. The film’s main theme is one of the composer’s most memorable, as goofily rousing as his themes for the “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” movies, so beguiling that YouTube star Goldentusk wrote lyrics for it.
Williams revamped this score in “Superman II” and “Superman III.” Alexander Courage (“Star Trek: The Original Series) stepped in for “Superman IV” but based his work around Williams’ familiar themes. In 2006, Bryan Singer tried to revive the franchise with “Superman Returns,” faithfully replicating many of the 1978 film’s elements, including its set design, its Marlon Brando cameo (courtesy of digitized outtakes) and Williams’ leitmotifs. (John Ottman was the credited composer, but the main melodies were Williams’.) The credits of the upcoming reboot “Man of Steel” list Williams again, but only for “original theme.” He might as well do the whole thing; the score will be his anyway.
3. The Long Goodbye (1973)
Robert Altman’s Raymond Chandler riff “The Long Goodbye” is postmodernist to the bone, teasing and embracing noir clichés. Altman insisted that the whole soundtrack rework one bit of music, the film’s title theme. Williams rose to the challenge. His multiple-Oscar-nominated score offers vocal versions, a tango trio version, and two Latin variations. There’s even a moment when Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould) rings a doorbell and it plays the theme.
Jaime J. Weinman speculates on his blog Something Old, Nothing New that Williams’ score is “a parody of the incessant plugging of movie title songs in the late ’60s.” But he also thinks it might be “a nod to a specific movie, ‘Out of the Past’ (1946). Roy Webb’s score has more than one theme somewhere in there, but the main theme is heard a lot, and in all kinds of different forms: when Robert Mitchum goes to a nightclub, the band is playing the movie’s theme song; when Jane Greer puts on a record, there it is again. ‘The Long Goodbye’ was a film noir tribute before such tributes were cool — and it captures the messiness and freakish supporting characters of noir in a way that the tidier, more refined and humorless ‘Chinatown’ can’t do — so I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a conscious reference.”
2. Star Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)
Why this installment and not any of the others? Two reasons. First, I don’t want to give six slots on this list to John Williams’ “Star Wars” scores, no matter how much I like them. Second, Williams’ work on “Revenge of the Sith” best illustrates his pivotal role in the films’ success. In every chapter, Williams’ individual cues and leitmotifs go way beyond underscoring. The music shapes characters and clarifies themes so deftly that I consider Williams an uncredited co-director of the saga.
The “Star Wars” prequels are ambitious messes, retroactively trying to add depth to a simple story. (Midichlorians? What?) But where Lucas fails, Williams almost always succeeds. The composer’s bigger, busier prequel cues clarify Lucas’ ambitions — especially Williams’ use of Carl Orff and Erik Satie-sounding choral chants, which invest the cluttered, often tiresome starship battles, infantry clashes and light-saber duels with mythic vigor.
Williams’ deployment of cues from the original trilogy sells the notion of past and the present speaking to each other more effectively than Lucas’ scripts. He often segues out of prequel cues and into cues lifted from the original movies. Sometimes it’s just a faint trace of a callback. Other times it’s a full-blown editorial statement, as in that scene at the end of “Sith” when the newly constructed Darth Vader, formerly Anakin Skywalker, stands on the bridge of his super star destroyer and regards the embryonic Death Star; we hear a mournful, exhausted quote from “The Imperial March” from “The Empire Strikes Back,” which showcased Vader at the height of his power. Greater still is the moment where Anakin becomes a hero (and the Sith lord Palpatine’s latest catch) by piloting the emperor’s crumbling starship back to Coruscant. Williams superimposes “Duel of the Fates” — the prequel cue that expresses the tension between the dark and light sides of the Force — over the optimistic “The Force Theme,” which we associate with Luke in chapters IV-VI; this cue foreshadows both Anakin’s moral failure in the second half of “Sith” and his belated redemption in the “Return of the Jedi.”
John Williams is the Force of the “Star Wars” saga; he surrounds it, binds it, and holds George Lucas’ galaxy together.
1. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Still my favorite of his Steven Spielberg scores, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” showcases John Williams’ encyclopedic knowledge of music history. It’s a tour of 19th and 20th century classical styles, yoked to an epic story of revelation, obsession and transformation. The atonal curtain-raiser — which at first suggests György Ligeti music used in “2001: A Space Odyssey” — summarizes the film’s storytelling strategy, evolving from darkness to illumination, from eerie menace to joyous release. The rest of Williams’ score is varied, adventurous, and referential without crossing the line into cuteness.
The most brass-and-percussion-heavy cues are reserved for scenes in which the military-industrial complex interferes with the heroes’ journey to Devil’s Tower. During the climactic ascent up the mountain’s face, the score slyly invokes Bernard Herrmann’s Mount Rushmore cue in Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest.” When UFOs form the Big Dipper in the sky and the chandelier-like mothership ascends, Williams shifts into full-blown slack-jawed wonder, highlighting the Walt Disneyfied awe that was always the flip side of Spielberg’s Hitchcockian ruthlessness. He even works “When You Wish Upon a Star” from “Pinocchio” into the quasi-religious finale. As Christian Clemmensen writes on his website Filmtracks, the movie’s signature five-note melody — which syncs up with the Kodály Method hand signs exchanged by Lacombe (François Truffaut) and the spindly-limbed alien ambassador — was the director’s idea: “Despite Williams’ request to be able to use seven or eight notes to form the greeting, Spielberg was steadfast in placing the five-note limit.”
The score’s aesthetic peak is “Wild Signals,” a rare sequence in a Hollywood blockbuster that lets the composer take a solo. The necessity of communication between cultures and species has been a motif throughout Spielberg’s career; it takes center stage in “Close Encounters” when the Devil’s Tower ground crew speaks to the more evolved visitors through mathematical-musical phrases. The cautious bleats of the earthlings’ oboe-like synthesizer are answered by the mothership’s swaggering celestial tubas. After a few minutes the aliens speed up the tutorial, taking over the synthesizer, merging it with their orchestra and unleashing a symphony of sound and light. “What are they saying to each other?” asks a scientist. “It seems they’re trying to teach us a basic tonal vocabulary,” says another. “It’s the first day of school, fellas,” quips a third. John Williams schools everybody.
Every Friday, Salon writer Matt Zoller Seitz sifts through beloved classics and obscure indies for a slide show that sheds light on the hidden connections and most fascinating moments in film and TV history.