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TIMELINES: JOHN WILLIAMS

PART TWO: WHEN JOHN WILLIAMS BECAME JOHN WILLIAMS

By Scott Bettencourt

I suppose it's unnecessary to note that Steven Spielberg followed The Sugarland Express with his second film, an adaptation of Peter Benchley's best-selling novel JAWS. Still, until Jaws, Sugarland was the only collaboration between Spielberg and John Williams, so it was hardly a sure thing that the pair would re-team for the over-schedule, over-budget shark thriller. It is rumored that Jerry Goldsmith was also considered for the assignment, and certainly Jaws's musical requirements would be quite different from Sugarland's, though as some considered Jaws to be a kin to the disaster genre, Williams was a plausible choice, even without Spielberg's participation.

But of course, Jaws quickly became the highest grossing film of all time, and though it was a combination of elements (Spielberg's direction, Bill Butler's cinematography, Verna Fields' editing, the performances) that made Jaws that perpetual oxymoron, the instant classic, John Williams' varied and full-bodied score -- especially the repeated two notes of the shark theme -- was one of the most talked about contributors to the film's success, and quite predictably earned Williams his first Original Score Oscar.

Williams followed Jaws with another adaptation of a bestseller, though Clint Eastwood's film of THE EIGER SANCTION was hardly one of the more memorable entries in either's career. Williams' score mixed jazz and orchestral elements in a minor but pleasing effort that reflected the eclectic approach of the early part of his career.

Since the success of Jaws inspired many critics to proclaim Spielberg the new Hitchcock, it was only fitting that Hitchcock himself should hire Spielberg's composer for what would prove to be the director's final film (though he had also considered his Topaz composer Maurice Jarre for the job). FAMILY PLOT proved to be an unusually slight and light-hearted film for the director, and the underrated mystery-thriller was helped enormously by Williams' utterly delightful score, which, to the annoyance of film music devotees everywhere, has yet to receive a soundtrack release (Of course -- because who'd buy a John Williams score for a Hitchcock movie?).

Williams had two more films released in 1976, both in classic Hollywood genres that were on their last legs. MIDWAY was the second film released in "Sensurround," and as the composer of Earthquake, Williams was unofficially the Senssuround Guy. Though it proved to be a boxoffice disaster, the offbeat Western, THE MISSOURI BREAKS, was one of the highest-profile movies of the year (thanks to its teaming of Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson), and thus it was fitting that the top composer of the day should get the scoring assignment. Williams' eclectic Missouri score was more in the vein of The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing than The Cowboys, and was one of the last of his scores to demonstrate the stylistically varied sensibility of the early Williams.

The makers of BLACK SUNDAY advertised the film as if it were Jaws with a blimp, though Williams' score is arguably his most Goldsmith-ian work (its director, John Frankenheimer, had worked with Goldsmith on two earlier films, and nearly worked with him again on his final two features, Ronin and Reindeer Games), emphasizing action and momentum over melody (though the score does feature two memorable main themes), and, like Family Plot, has frustratingly never had an official soundtrack release. Around the same time, Williams was announced to score Michael Winner's Satanic horror film THE SENTINEL, but wisely backed out at the last moment -- reportedly due to illness, but probably it was simply good sense, as anyone who has seen Winner's film can attest to. It was the first of many incidents were Williams would back out on a project that turned out to be a disaster.

On Spielberg's recommendation, George Lucas had hired John Williams for STAR WARS back in 1975 -- the rest is, as they say, film music history. There's a good chance James Horner made more money off the Titanic album than Williams did on the original, best-selling two-disc Star Wars LP, but it's hard to imagine a more influential score than Star Wars -- the highest grossing film of all time until E.T. (though Titanic ultimately surpassed them both, Star Wars passed E.T. in its re-releases), it helped bring the Golden Age sensibility back to contemporary scoring, and featured one of the most popular themes of all time (not surprisingly, it was voted the greatest score of all time in AFI's 2005 poll).

Star Wars was enough to make any composer's career, but the release of Spielberg's CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND months later only helped to cement Williams' reputation -- the film was a deserved smash, and Spielberg's screenplay made Williams' music, particularly the classic five-note theme, an integral part of the storyline (reportedly, the success of Williams' Star Wars symphonicallly styled score encouraged the director and composer to pursue a more modernist approach for Close Encounters). Williams was understandably nominated for both scores, and without Star Wars in the running, he almost certainly would have won the Oscar for Close Encounters.

Following these back-to-back blockbusters, Williams' scores developed an impressive consistency, almost a smoothness, and the eclectic quality that produced scores as varied as Images and Cinderella Liberty was largely lost. He scored his only project for director Brian De Palma, the stylish but nonsensical THE FURY, and his lush, brooding music was one of the finest scores in the De Palma canon, and even impressed Pauline Kael (no lover of film music or of Williams). JAWS 2 was a big hit and a competent time-killer, though hardly a worthy successor to one of the greatest popular entertainments of the decade. Williams' score was, not surprisingly, its strongest element, though his smooth score was more adventurous than scary.

SUPERMAN was Williams' first post-Star Wars score in the Star Wars vein, and though many composers would have been tempted to copy themselves, Williams score was an exciting original, deservedly one of his most popular works, with a remarkable assortment of memorable melodies and set-pieces. Like Star Wars, it was graced with a two-disc soundtrack LP, but even that generous assortment of music left out some memorable cues.

1979 saw the release of two high-profile films, neither of which turned out to be hits, but which provided change-of-pace scoring opportunities for the star composer. John Badham's lavish remake of DRACULA was Williams' only attempt at Gothic horror, though the score emphasized romance and adventure over scares. 1941 was one of the very few comedies Williams' scored in his post-Jaws career, and his rousing pastiche (inspired, in part, by Bernstein's classic The Great Escape) gave the uneven but beautifully mounted slapstick epic welcome momentum. Williams' Benny Goodman homage "Swing Swing Swing," for the superb USO dance setpiece, was a stand-alone highlight.

Williams was also announced to score two science-fiction films that proved to be expensive disasters. QUINTET was a bleak post-apocalyptic drama from Robert Altman, with memorable visuals but little in the way of narrative excitement or emotional involvement. It would have been fascinating to see what Williams could have done with such dark material -- especially since Williams' previous collaborations with Altman were so musically unusual -- but Williams left the project, and the striking score was written by Tom Pierson (who was later the music director for Altman's Popeye).

METEOR was a big-budget disaster film with a George Pal flavor, but the troubled project ended up with a lengthy post-production period as the effects were redone (and still came out surprisingly cheap looking). Williams' departure may have been due to the scheduling delays, but it proved to be a commercially wise choice. Laurence Rosenthal's score had some fine passagea, especially his soaring main theme, and, ironically, unlike Dracula and 1941, his score was short-listed for the Oscar (in the last year of the Original Score shortlist) -- it was a rare year that Williams had new scores but no Oscar nominations.

Starting in 1980, Williams would begin to become less prolific, for a variety of plausible reasons -- following blockbusters like Jaws, Star Wars, Close Encounters and Superman, he could afford to be choosier with his projects; many of his new scores were unusually lengthy; and he became the Director of the Boston Pops Orchestra, a job he would keep for the next thirteen years.

Williams' only score of the year was THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, the highly acclaimed (and inevitable) first sequel to Star Wars, and Williams' score introduced one of the most popular themes from the series, "The Imperial March" (aka "Darth Vader's Theme"), and was a memorable mix of the classic style of the original score and darker, comparatively modernistic music.

Around this time, Williams bailed on two particularly infamous flops. Michael Cimino's visually staggering HEAVEN'S GATE had Williams attached at one point (and Morricone was also considered for the project), but Williams wisely departed (leaving The Missouri Breaks as his final Western score to date), and Cimino went in a markedly different direction with the young composer David Mansfield, whose folksy score proved to be one of the film's most popular elements; he went on to score three more features for the controversial director.

INCHON was an epic about a pivotal battle of the Korean War, financed by Reverend Sun Yung Moon, with Terence Young (From Russia with Love, Wait Until Dark) directing an all-star cast headed by Laurence Olivier as General MacArthur (no, really). The film's U.S. opening was delayed, as major subplots and characters were cut out completely, and it was released very briefly in the fall of 1982 before disappearing completely (as far as I know, it has never been released on video or cable). Jerry Goldsmith ultimately provided the score (which gave him the rare opportunity to write a second theme for MacArthur), a lively work which is practically the only thing about the movie that has survived.

1981 saw two new Williams' projects, at opposite ends of the success spectrum. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK was the first joint project for Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, who were also Williams' most popular collaborators, and proved to be an enormous commercial and critical success (it's rare that a popcorn entertainment earns a Best Picture nomination, but Spielberg and Lucas managed the feat with impressive regularity). Though Williams' "Raiders March" was a little on the goofy side (with a distracting resemblance to Yale's "Boola Boola" march), it's one of his most popular and recognizable themes, and the score overall was typically expert (though the annoyingly sequenced soundtrack LP overused the March while ignoring the memorable, stand-alone main title cue).

Since Williams had been shrewd enough to bail on flops like Meteor and Inchon, it was surprising that he stayed with a film like HEARTBEEPS, which came and went quickly during the Christmas season of 1981. The only major starring vehicle for groundbreaking comedian Andy Kaufman (buried under Stan Winston's Oscar-nominated makeup), this kid-friendly robot comedy benefited from Williams' effervescent score, one of the rare works in his canon to make extensive use of electronics. The soundtrack LP was announced by MCA but then canceled (a fate shared with the same year's Raggedy Man, scored by Goldsmith), but fortunately the Varese Sarabande CD Club resurrected the score decades later, where it can be enjoyed without the movie.

NEXT TIME: Another Williams masterpiece, as the composer scored his third all-time highest-grosser, and becomes "America's composer."


FROM: "Kirk Henderson"
Speaking of timelines, a particularly noteworthy historical fact seems to have eluded most of the material written about John Williams in the various film music publications and sites: His marriage to and ultimate loss of his wife, Barbara Ruick. I, myself, had not known of this until listening to the commentary track on the DVD of the 1956 musical "Carousel," the film in which Ruick starred and sang as Shirley Jones best friend. Ruick, who was a sparkling personality on screen throughout the 1950s and into the 1970s, and performed with great comic timing, died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1974 at the age of 54. She and Williams had been happily married since 1956.According to the "Carousel" commentary track, Williams, as could be expected, was devastated. His close friends said he was never the same afterwards. He apparently became more withdrawn, introspective, and focused on his work. The death occurred only 3 years before the release of "Star Wars," the event that is always touted as the major turning point in Williams' life (by film music aficionados). This may well be the case in Williams' professional career, but in terms of his personal life, I doubt the immense popularity of the score to "Star Wars" was seen by Williams in quite the same way. I know it's difficult to believe sometimes, but all life does not revolve around film music.
FROM: "Jonathan Erman"
One little correction for the article about Williams' early career -- TREESONG is not the violin concerto, it's a separate and unrelated piece. This misunderstanding shows up from time to time, and should be stamped out whenever it appears.

Other than that, though, great article! It's rare to find such a clear and factual discussion of Williams' early days in the field. I was especially interested to read that he was originally going to score CALIFORNIA SPLIT; I'd never heard that before.

Funny that you mentioned PETER GUNN without mentioning Williams' connection as the original pianist, but perhaps everyone knows about that these days (an interesting sidelight -- THE MUSIC FROM PETER GUNN album, with Williams on piano, won "best album of the year" at the very first Grammy Awards in 1959. So Williams' track record of Grammy successes covers the entire history of the awards!)

P.S. Ah, MONSIGNOR! I actually picked that up on VHS a few years ago, though I've yet to watch it. One of these daysÍ


FROM: "Miguel Andrade"

Just a quick note, since the work that was suggested by the late Barbara Ruick, and eventually dedicated to her memory, was the Violin Concerto (1974/76). TreeSong, for Violin and Orchestra (2001), while I guess could be called a violin concerto as well, was inspired by a Dawn Redwood tree from the Boston Public Garden.

Part One of this series can be accessed on the website.

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