How Star Wars and Harry Potter composer John Williams became the biggest sound in Hollywood
The veteran composer has five Oscars, eight Baftas, 23 Grammys - and now an 85th birthday Prom
Any mention of John Williams, the world’s most hummable living film composer, deserves a fanfare. But which one to choose?
The imperious opener from the first chapter of Star Wars, whose massed trumpets deliberately recall a saluted entrance to the Roman Colosseum? The lively reveille of Raiders of the Lost Ark, one of action cinema’s great calls to arms?
What about the slow-building theme from Jurassic Park, told in strings rather than brass, its sense of wonder so infectious it has you craning your neck upwards as if surveying a 30ft-tall brachiosaurus? John Williams, 85 this year and still performing and composing at the top of his game, has literally created his own accompaniment.
There’s a handful of veteran film composers for whom age is no barrier: Italian maestro Ennio Morricone, touring at 88 and winner of his first Academy Award last year for The Hateful Eight; Philip Glass, 80, still contributing to film scores such as Stoker and Leviathan; and at 73 the relative whippersnapper Randy Newman, without whom Disney/Pixar animations would be very quiet.
But John Williams, native New Yorker and longtime denizen of Los Angeles, remains unimpeachable as the people’s choice. His greatest hits are cornerstones of modern cinema. He’s the Paul McCartney of symphonic orchestral music.
Even if you can’t instantly name that tune – is it the theme from ET the Extra-Terrestrial or Indiana Jones? – you know it’s a Williams, as you’re already whistling it. His insidious opening bars for Jaws – dur-dum, dur-dum – envelop you from the ankles up, and vie for moving-picture immortality only with Bernard Herrmann’s stabbing, shrieking strings from Psycho. One thing the music of Williams is not is incidental.
Expect then to be conveyed to a cinematic nirvana when up to 18 of Williams’s best-loved themes, including many of those mentioned here, are sampled in a Prom by the BBC Concert Orchestra on 20 July, broadcast live on Radio 3 and shown on BBC4 the following evening.
It’s an appropriate accolade. Williams knows his history channels the founding fathers of film music – Herrmann himself, Alfred Newman and Franz Waxman – having worked for them as an orchestrator when fresh out of New York’s Eastman School of Music in the late 50s.
When the young Steven Spielberg first heard Williams’s score for the 1969 western The Reivers, he assumed it was by a grand old man of 80 and was shocked to discover he was half that age.
But his debt to the great classical storytellers tells us all the more about his genius. You can hear the influence of Tchaikovsky’s ballets and Wagner’s operas in his work. His leitmotifs have been signposting who’s who in sagas as complex as Star Wars or Harry Potter for decades.
It’s no surprise he’s so generously medalled. The Academy’s most nominated composer and second most nominated individual of all time (after Walt Disney), Williams has racked up 50 Oscar nods since he moved from TV to film in the late 60s, winning five (best original score for Jaws, the first Star Wars, ET, and Schindler’s List; one for best adaptation and original song score for Fiddler on the Roof).
There are also the eight Baftas, four Golden Globes, three Emmys and 23 Grammys; and inductions into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame and the Hollywood Bowl Hall of Fame. In 2005, the American Film Institute named Star Wars the greatest American film score of all time.
Star Wars does well in the vast world of classical music, too. Each year the listeners of Classic FM vote for their all-time favourite classical pieces in the station’s Hall of Fame poll. The resulting Top 300 is dominated by Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, but Williams remains the most popular living composer, with a record ten pieces in the current chart.
A combined entry for his work on the Star Wars series is his highest at number 27. From that series, his score for Episode VII: the Force Awakens clinched his 50th Oscar nomination, which put him ahead of the late Alfred Newman. Don’t be surprised if his score for the next film, The Last Jedi, earns him a 51st.
I have been presenting Classic FM’s weekly show Saturday Night at the Movies for more than two years, and I estimate that JW crops up in around 75 per cent of our themed shows, from romance (Love Theme from Superman) to war movies (Hymn to the Fallen from Saving Private Ryan) via literary adaptations (Empire of the Sun) and comedy (the misfiring spoof 1941, whose rousing march is a beauty).
It’s no coincidence that Williams found a life-long ally in Spielberg, the world’s most recognised living film director, as both understand how to please a crowd.
Between them, the former US Air Force Band conductor and the ex-Boy Scout have produced some of the biggest and most decorated hits of all time, from Jaws to Lincoln via Close Encounters, ET, Indiana Jones, Schindler’s List and War Horse.
Fifteen years Spielberg’s senior, Williams remembers their first lunch meeting in 1972, telling the Los Angeles Times: “It was like going with a teenager who’d never ordered wine before... He was a little older than my children.”
This is an enduring image: the urbanely avuncular Williams, prematurely balding but warmly compensated by the constant, neat beard, 40 before he found fame and a gentleman who wears it lightly.
There’s a lovely clip of him at the piano in his office in 1981, debuting the theme for ET for Spielberg while the rushes spool noisily through a Moviola: the pair of them finesse a chord sequence before our eyes.
To mark the 85th-birthday John Williams Prom with a less obvious fanfare, try the chorale that accompanies the liberation of Shanghai in Empire of the Sun, Exsultate Justi. More trumpets, naturally, but the voices are through the roof.
Asked in an interview recently whether he had any plans to take it easier, Williams replied: “I don’t have plans to slow down. I think slowing down happens to us anyway, whether we plan to or not. So why plan it?”
Business as usual then.
John Williams Proms is on Friday 21st July at 8pm on BBC4