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February 8, 2012 7:26 AM   Subscribe

John Williams turned 80 today! The American composer is best known for the themes from Star Wars, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Indiana Jones, but starting with the score adaptation for Valley of the Dolls, he's racked up 47 Oscar nominations in a 44-year span, including 5 wins.

Oscar Wins:
1971: Best Scoring Adaptation and Original Song Score, Fiddler on the Roof
1975: Best Original Dramatic Score, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E-sX2Y0W8l0
1977: Best Original Score: Star Wars
1982: Best Original Score, ET The Extra Terrestrial
1993: Best Original Score, Schindler's List

Other Scores:
1974: The Sugarland Express
1978: Superman
1987: Empire of the Sun
1989: Born on the Fourth of July
1990: Home Alone
1993: Jurassic Park
2001: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
2002: Catch Me If You Can
2011: The Adventures of Tintin
2011: War Horse


Other Works:

Olympic Fanfare
Mission Theme (NBC Nightly News)
NBC Sunday Night Football
Air and Simple Gifts (from Barack Obama's inauguration as US President)

He also composed a Fanfare for Michael Dukakis for the 1988 presidential campaign, but I can't seem to locate it.
posted by troika (52 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
John Williams At Home (Warning: Whitest Kids U Know sketch)
posted by robocop is bleeding at 7:29 AM on February 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


Only 5 out of 47? That doesn't seem like a very good average at all, does it?

(cue sweeping, dramatic swell of stringed instruments)
posted by item at 7:35 AM on February 8, 2012


troika: "He also composed a Fanfare for Michael Dukakis for the 1988 presidential campaign, but I can't seem to locate it."

From what I remember, it was very short.
posted by schmod at 7:36 AM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Can't say I've ever been a fan of Williams' scores. I mean, I recognize the talent involved, but it all just seems to be sliced from the same endless loaf of average white bread. Dependable, if completely predictable.

Then again, I'm not a fan of huge orchestral scores in movies in the first place. I've always found movies to be far more engaging without an orchestra telling me "now be tense" or "this guy is the hero".
posted by Thorzdad at 7:37 AM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Only 5 out of 47? That doesn't seem like a very good average at all, does it?

Seriously. I've won every single Oscar I've been nominated for.
posted by DU at 7:37 AM on February 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


My favorite: Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye. Almost the entire score is the same song played over and over, in different styles, including jazz, pop, muzak and marimba. Lyrics by Johnny Mercer.
posted by ubiquity at 7:38 AM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]



Seriously. I've won every single Oscar I've been nominated for.


That's nothing. I've won ten times more Oscars than I've been nominated for.
posted by ubiquity at 7:39 AM on February 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


Amazing what a Holst cover band can accomplish!
posted by Threeway Handshake at 7:43 AM on February 8, 2012 [9 favorites]


I recognize the talent involved, but it all just seems to be sliced from the same endless loaf of average white bread.

Which may be the reason he's been nominated forty zillion times and he's won five. He's really fucking good at what he does and they have recognized it, but how many times can you hand out the same award to the same guy for essentially the same work?
posted by pracowity at 7:44 AM on February 8, 2012


Does anyone else sing along to the Star Wars main theme using the lyrics 'Star Wars' ?

Star Wars
Sta-a-a-ar Wars
Sta-a-a-ar Wars
Sta-a-ar Warrrrrs
posted by GallonOfAlan at 7:44 AM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


John Williams has, of course, been saluted by the Happy Wanderers. A man has no right to expect any greater in life.
posted by Capt. Renault at 7:45 AM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Does anyone else sing along to the Star Wars main theme using the lyrics 'Star Wars' ?
No, because that's just silly. The rest of us use Nick the Lounge Singer's lyrics.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:52 AM on February 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


John Williams is the Man.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:55 AM on February 8, 2012




Thanks for putting the birthday part out front, so I didn't spend 20 seconds afraid that this was an obit thread.
posted by penduluum at 7:58 AM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Don't forget Lost in Space!
posted by Man-Thing at 8:12 AM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


I was always amused when watching MST3K's cover of Daddy-O that John Williams was the composer (his first feature movie score!) I always felt kind of bad for him, too. He had always wanted a successful pop single - he tried and failed so hard in Superman.
posted by charred husk at 8:12 AM on February 8, 2012


"Does anyone else sing along to the Star Wars main theme using the lyrics 'Star Wars' ?"


Pretty sure the correct version is:

Star Wars,
Nothing but Star Wars,
Nothing but Star Wars,
Star Warrrrrs.
posted by bz at 8:14 AM on February 8, 2012


Can't say I've ever been a fan of Williams' scores.

I like his scores as scores, but "John Williams is my favorite composer" is one of my main indicators of people who don't really like music.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 8:24 AM on February 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


"John Williams is my favorite composer" is one of my main indicators of people who don't really like music

After MacGuyver, this Mancini masterpiece was my favorite TV theme song. Watching it now, I'm really sure why. Maybe I just associated with the hilarity that was sure to follow. (At least I hope it was hilarity. MacGuyver has turned out to be pretty damn terrible upon adult-age rewatching.)
posted by DU at 8:30 AM on February 8, 2012


I performed the Star Wars Symphony, the stage presentation of the music from all six movies, with the Seattle Symphony a bunch of years ago. I was initially really cynical about it -- the choral part is minor and not particularly inspired, and our Pops audiences are not really our most discerning audience, and I was feeling kind of meh about the whole thing.

And then in our first rehearsal, I sat on stage as they played the opening fanfare and I literally burst into tears on the spot.

That score, he stole heavily from Holst's Planets, and these days, he barely even composes -- he doodles out themes and then hands them to his assistants to orchestrate. But I have to say, the sheer emotional impact of sitting on stage as all those horns went "ba ba ba daaa DAAAAAAAA, da-da-da-DAAAAAAAAA dah!" really can't be overestimated. I go into Pops concerts now with a totally different attitude.
posted by KathrynT at 8:31 AM on February 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


I sort of lump him in with Leroy Anderson - he's good composer, with a keen sense of popular (read: inoffensive) taste for the time in which he wrote/writes. He's been an important musical figure in the movie industry for his time, but I don't know how popular and long-lived his work is going to be hundreds of years from now; his work relies on a shared cultural experience that comes from watching the movie it's associated with.
posted by LN at 8:45 AM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


I generally like/love Williams' scores. I love to whistle and often I find myself whistling the theme to Indiana Jones, Star Wars, etc.

However, I am still not over my disappointment over his Olympics piece from '96. From memory, it seemed very underwhelming and there seemed to be little in the way of a signature sound to it. It felt like a musical variant of pastel colors.
posted by Atreides at 8:49 AM on February 8, 2012


There has been exactly one time when I heard a bit from a Williams score where I was moved. Wow, I said. That's John Williams? Do I have to give him credit for coming up with one actual great melody?

That thought has stuck in my head for years. And today I got around to looking it up. He didn't write it.

It's Suo Gan, the divine choral bit from Empire of the Sun. A Welsh folk tune.

So, no. John Williams has never written an actual great melody.

As my friend sneebler used to say, the world will never be right until the last John Williams has been strangled with the guts of the last Danny Elfman.

(not a h8tor)
posted by Trochanter at 9:00 AM on February 8, 2012


I like his scores as scores, but "John Williams is my favorite composer" is one of my main indicators of people who don't really like music.

See, for me it isn't necessarily anything of the kind, partly because the person I know who probably knows most about music really loves John Williams and partly because my own fondness for movie music gives me a sense of what makes John Williams a particularly good movie music composer.

At the end of the day, different people are going to like different traditions or styles of music and that's fine. And some people will probably dismiss movie music outright. But I think at its best movie music is a legitimate, healthy, complex genre with some interesting work to do - it can be a lot more than just "feel tense now" or "feel sad now". It has a pretty interesting relationship with other popular music styles, too, absorbing the key musical developments of each decade, integrating them and turning them into a part of a language all its own.

Also, when I was a lot younger, before I'd ever actually seen the Star Wars movies, I listened to John Williams' score for all 3 over and over again. It creates a kind of aural universe in its own right. You can see all the bits where he's borrowed from Tchaikovsky or Stravinsky (as well as Holst, of course) but he definitely twists and reshapes those influences to serve his own ideas.

I think it's a real shame that he hasn't done anything that builds the same kind of musical architecture since his Star Wars score. Then again, I'm not sure of any other composer who has. Most are content with one or two themes and leave it at that. The Harry Potter movies offered an amazing opportunity for a similar edifice of leitmotifs - you could have had Snape and Lilly's themes harmonize when played together, Voldemort and Harry's themes echo or counterpoint one another, Dumbledore's be capable of being played in a minor key for some of the darker revelations about his past, a full-fledged theme for each of the Hogwarts houses that could surge when the house did something cool, a "motherly love" theme since that's so often a huge part of the story etc. etc. But sadly we just got the - admittedly very fine - main theme and some slight variations. Oh well.
posted by lucien_reeve at 9:01 AM on February 8, 2012


John Williams is a genius who absolutely owns his genre but is also capable of stuff like this from Close Encounters.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 9:01 AM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


I recognize the talent involved, but it all just seems to be sliced from the same endless loaf of average white bread.

I used to think that, but I don't know, I changed my mind. The Schindler's List score and the main theme from Harry Potter are awesome - so Schindler's Listy and Harry Potterish, respectively.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 9:02 AM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


He's been an important musical figure in the movie industry for his time, but I don't know how popular and long-lived his work is going to be hundreds of years from now; his work relies on a shared cultural experience that comes from watching the movie it's associated with.
We don't watch movies from 100 years ago, because there were no movies from 100 years ago, but people still read Mark Twain, and lots of authors even older then that. Maybe we'll still be watching those movies 100 years from now, maybe George Lucas' frozen head will still be cranking out 100xHD full volumetric smellovision versions at that point in time.
posted by delmoi at 9:05 AM on February 8, 2012


anyone else that has memories of playing an adapted john williams movie score in concert band in school raise your hand!
posted by cristinacristinacristina at 9:09 AM on February 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


His .106 Oscar win rate (5/47) slightly betters Randy Newman's .100 (2/20).

That's 60 losses between them! They should get together and have a pity party!
posted by mazola at 9:17 AM on February 8, 2012


I forgot how much I love that Superman theme. Thanks for that.
posted by cazoo at 9:23 AM on February 8, 2012


Then again, I'm not sure of any other composer who has.

Howard Shore. The Lord of the Rings score is objectively really awesome; I also performed the symphony based on those movies, all three of them, and it's really beautiful. And clever, with the use of leitmotifs and different instruments to represent different people/groups, so you have the Ring's leitmotif played on the horns when Boromir has it, and stuff like that. (It also supplied the Q for my own personal "Alphabet of Languages I've Sung In." Only K, T, V, and X to go!)
posted by KathrynT at 9:32 AM on February 8, 2012 [6 favorites]


it all just seems to be sliced from the same endless loaf of average white bread. Dependable, if completely predictable.

Then you haven't heard his score for the obscure Robert Altman film Images. Spooky, rattling avant-garde stuff.
posted by Trurl at 9:55 AM on February 8, 2012


anyone else that has memories of playing an adapted john williams movie score in concert band in school raise your hand!

It's the stuff that grade 9 band class if made of.
posted by beau jackson at 10:10 AM on February 8, 2012


Part of the aforementioned Shmenge Tribute to composer and Leutonia's fine friend, John Williams. [3:39]
posted by Capt. Renault at 10:14 AM on February 8, 2012


I credit the Star Wars score, as derivative as it was, with being one of the things that largely saved Star Wars from Lucas's tone-deaf scriptwriting and direction. Sure, Williams was not very subtle and a bit over the top, but he manages to pull together a big mess of serial-reel dialogue and provides some much-needed continuity to a plot that shifts suddenly from Kurosawa to the Flying Leathernecks. Star Wars was epic because Williams gave it the grand sound of the 19th century Romantics. Without his theme (and some brilliant ADR work) Vader is just this guy in a fiberglass suit.

Unfortunately, it doesn't quite work with the prequels, in spite of them being a bit more advanced musically.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 10:18 AM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


The Star Wars, Jaws, Indie and Harry Potter themes will always be solid gold... but I found the music in War Horse, especially in the early scenes was just downright intrusive and irritating.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 10:25 AM on February 8, 2012


I like his theme from The Cowboys... its something about that extra "bump" in the opening phrase (repeated thoughout). What is it about that which is so weird?
posted by pjenks at 10:27 AM on February 8, 2012


The think I love about William's best scores is how character driven they are. Darth Vader, The Shark in Jaws and Indiana Jones are so defined by their musical cues that you can't imagine other music around them. In fact, in Jaws a lot of the time the shark wasn't even there and was just represented a point-of-view camera and that "Dunt, dunt, dunt" music.
posted by octothorpe at 10:48 AM on February 8, 2012


but how many times can you hand out the same award to the same guy for essentially the same work?

*** Somewhere, Phillip Glass shifts uncomfortably in his chair. ***
posted by wittgenstein at 10:54 AM on February 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


We played The Cowboys medley when I was in high school, as well as a Return of the Jedi medley. My band director called it "taxpayer music". We would usually finish our band concert with a taxpayer piece, to bring the audience back after whatever classical selection we had played.

The Cowboys actually has some really beautiful themes that sound gorgeous if you have a good French horn section. Which is even more powerful if you're seated behind the row of French horns in the band.
posted by Fleebnork at 10:55 AM on February 8, 2012


*** Somewhere, Phillip Glass shifts uncomfortably in his chair. ***

Give him some credit, at least Glass has the decency to add in a 3rd (both major AND minor) instead of falling back on the crutch of perfect 5ths.
posted by Threeway Handshake at 11:01 AM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Jokes aside, I think the biggest problem with John Williams is that he just came around at the most perfect time for him to hit it big. He got his start right as the classic Hollywood blockbusters started going hifi with both visuals and audio fidelity. You could really hear the score, and it was augmented by otherworldly special effects. (Also further propped up by the indisputible amazing sound effects of Star Wars)

Since he got attached to major films like SW, Superman, ET, etc., lifting heavily from things like Planets, so everything immediately sounded "familiar" and gave everybody a reference point, pretty soon all movies had to follow. Blaring brass fanfares and soaring strings became "how a movie is supposed to sound."

Which, sure, I can't imagine Star Wars any differently, but it really set back film scores and shoehorned them into a particular "Movie Score Genre."

it is getting better though, things like Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross in The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (I personally don't like NIN music, but their scores are a whole different thing) and Johnny Greenwood's score for There Will Be Blood are fucking great. And different. More of this please! You don't even need cross-genre people plucked out of alterna-90s bands, just give us some variety.
posted by Threeway Handshake at 11:17 AM on February 8, 2012


I think it's a real shame that he hasn't done anything that builds the same kind of musical architecture since his Star Wars score. Then again, I'm not sure of any other composer who has. Most are content with one or two themes and leave it at that.

Thomas Newman?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:17 AM on February 8, 2012


I was listening to Dizzy Gillespie's 1955 album Afro a couple years ago and there's a short passage in the song Jungla that sound exactly like a proto-Imperial March. I couldn't find the full song anywhere online but the short "Listen Now!" sample of Jungla excerpted on this AllMusic review of the album does contain the Imperial March riff. It's uncanny.
posted by Mendl at 11:24 AM on February 8, 2012


Well, maybe Williams is preemptively rolling in his grave, but I certainly know that the Star Wars medley, as played on handbells by a bunch of gals, goes over pretty well at nerd-themed burlesque...so, thanks, Mr. Williams!
posted by ilana at 12:54 PM on February 8, 2012


Mendl: there's a short passage in the song Jungla that sound exactly like a proto-Imperial March

Nope, I think it's the Dragnet Theme Song (also from the early 1950's).
posted by pjenks at 12:57 PM on February 8, 2012


Actually, I went to a conference a few years ago and the guy who played Darth Vader (the suit not the voice) sang us the lyrics to the Star Wars song that he and other cast members used to sing:

Staaar Wars
Made lots of mo-ney
Paid for my mort-gage
Bought me a car!
posted by grog at 1:31 PM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


I mean, I recognize the talent involved, but it all just seems to be sliced from the same endless loaf of average white bread.

Yeah, that's not actually true. The Close Encounters soundtrack is VERY much not from the same universe as the Star Wars soundtrack. Dissonant, harsh, and abstract.

I recently found a modern surround transfer of the quadraphonic release of the Jaws soundtrack. Holy shit! I didn't think that music could get more intense, but it was. Truly a great find.
posted by hippybear at 2:47 PM on February 8, 2012


Which, sure, I can't imagine Star Wars any differently, but it really set back film scores and shoehorned them into a particular "Movie Score Genre."

It's hard to equate John Williams with a figure who 'set back film scores'. What Williams did, primarily I suppose through his work on Jaws and Star Wars, was help make cinema thrive and be a viable medium again, thus paving the way for an entire industry. This industry later produced films like The Social Network which you enjoyed so much. Without Star Wars there would not have been an Alien: without Alien there would not have been an Alien 3, and without Alien 3 maybe Fincher wouldn't be enjoying the career he has today.

Additionally, Williams is indeed rather more than 'blaring brass fanfares and soaring strings', as other posters here have pointed out.
posted by specialbrew at 3:49 PM on February 8, 2012


We used to play the John Williams drinking game in music school. A shot for every melodic octave. Spoiler: you get wasted.
posted by Lutoslawski at 4:54 PM on February 8, 2012


Which may be the reason he's been nominated forty zillion times and he's won five. He's really fucking good at what he does and they have recognized it, but how many times can you hand out the same award to the same guy for essentially the same work?

I know, just ask Randy Newman. And Michael Cain.
posted by Chuffy at 5:48 PM on February 8, 2012


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