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John Williams Obscurata...

by Jeff Bond

Since every human's favorite composer is John Williams, there couldn't be any music written by this man that we're unaware of, could there be? Sure there could. Despite GNP/Crescendo's release of The Fantasy World of Irwin Allen (or perhaps because of its $80 price tag), most people refuse to accept that Williams got his start in television in the late '50s and early '60s, scoring anthology series like Suspense and Checkmate before raising his profile with baby boomers by providing themes and scores to Irwin Allen's lovably ridiculous sci fi shows like Lost in Space, The Time Tunnel and Land of the Giants. Ignominious as this work may seem, it still inspires happy memories among the infirm and paved the way for Williams's work in Allen's wildly successful disaster epics The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, which introduced the composer to the kind of mass audiences he would become accustomed to while toiling on films for director Steven Spielberg.

Along the way Williams scored his share of movies that did not exactly acquire blockbuster status.

The Paper Chase (1973): A charming little movie from writer/director James Bridges, this film is primarily remembered for launching the acting career of the late John Houseman, who starred in the film and a later, schmaltzy television series as the tyrannical law professor Charles Kingsfield. The film concerned law student Timothy Bottoms (currently trying to look sober in episodes of Nickleodeon's update of The Land of the Lost) and his attempts to make it through Kingsfield's class while inadvertently seducing the professor's daughter. Williams's never-released score mixed some nice arrangements of baroque classical pieces by Bach and Teleman with his own evocative scoring. Williams's pretty love theme can be heard being phonetically performed by a Japanese crooner on the peculiar compilation John Williams' Works from the Land of the Rising Sun. Another feature of the score was some otherworldly atmospheric cues for a sequence in which Bottoms and some cohorts discover a previously-unexplored section of the law library; Williams' dipping and gliding strings and harp for these scenes recalls the delicate suspense music for the discovery of Ben Gardner's wrecked fishing boat in Jaws.

The Missouri Breaks (1976): Director Arthur Penn has given us American film classics like Bonnie and Clyde and Little Big Man, but he launched the biggest bomb of his career with the high-profile teaming of Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson for this sloppy, pretentious and meandering western. Williams was apparently just as confused by this effort as audiences were, and his banjo-happy score is a one-of-a-kind missfire for the composer: it literally doesn't have a single redeeming cue, just a lot of pickin' and a-grinnin' highjinks that are among the most annoying things Williams has ever produced. Penn has never been a score-friendly guy: his tampering with Fred Steiner's work on his Playhouse 90 production of "The Miracle Worker" (the first original score produced for that show) caused Steiner to threaten to walk off the show (a ploy that carried a lot of weight when scores were performed live), he despised Alexander Courage's music for his Paul Newman revisionist western The Left-Handed Gun, and his most notable films (Bonnie & Clyde and Little Big Man) featured mostly banjo solos and source cues.

The River (1984): Mark Rydell's entry in the short-lived dueling "farm issues" flicks of 1984 (the other was the Jessica Lange vehicle Country) was a glossy flooding epic that sported this uneven Williams score. The primary theme is forgettable (and with its pop beat bears more than a passing resemblance to Williams's attempt to pre-empt Meco with his "Theme from Close Encounters" single in 1977), but Williams's full-blooded Americana cue for Mel Gibson's farm bears comparison to his Kansas music in Superman, and the album's final piece for guitar and orchestra is a concert-worthy monument of subtlety and restraint.

Black Sunday (1976): In the wake of Jaws came this John Frankenheimer entry in the terrorist caper sweepstakes that attained short-lived popularity in the early-to-mid 70s (and produced one great movie, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three). Williams's score shifts rather uncomfortably between the gritty, percussive sound that the story required and the self-conscious mock-classical style that America was just beginning to require of him after his wildly popular Jaws score hit the record shelves.

Midway (1976): Williams became the king of Sensurround between 1974 and 1975, after scoring the first great Sensurround epic, Earthquake, in '74. Sensurround basically involved the installation of the sort of tremendous woofers currently in vogue on urban convertibles in theaters, where their enormous bass response was supposed to make you really feel like you were in an earthquake or on the deck of an aircraft carrier while dozens of WWII fighter planes started their engines. Williams's patriotic score, again following the lead established by Jaws, boasted a perky little march, but the rest of the film's music has rarely seen the light of day outside of the video release.


Past Film Score Daily Articles

Film Score Monthly Home Page
© 1997-2017 Lukas Kendall. All rights reserved.