TIMELINES: JOHN WILLIAMS
PART THREE: HIS FIRST YEARS AS AMERICA'S COMPOSER
By Scott Bettencourt
In the previous
part of this series, I discussed Williams's projects for the year 1981
without mentioning a memorable project he was tangentially involved with.
Considering how great a part of Superman's success his score was,
it was only natural that he'd be invited to score SUPERMAN II, much
of which was filmed concurrently with the first Superman (though
Richard Lester replaced Richard Donner for the completion of the film),
but ultimately the film was scored by Lester's regular composer Ken Thorne,
basing virtually his entire score on Williams's themes and cues (effectively
if unimaginatively). One of Superman's producers has claimed that
Williams met with Lester about scoring the film but had such a negative
reaction to the director that he turned the job down. Considering how famously
easygoing both Lester and Williams are, this scenario is less than plausible
-- it's far more likely that the Superman producers simply didn't
want to pay Williams' fee (the Brando footage shot for Superman II
was deleted for similar financial reasons, while Lester has said he worked
on the Superman films mostly to get money owed to him by the producers
from their Musketeers films).
It's a pity that Williams didn't get to expand upon his original Superman
material for the uneven but superior sequel, but his first project of 1982
proved to be arguably his greatest score in a career chock full of classics.
Just like Jaws and Star Wars before it, E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL
managed (despite its unwieldy title) to become the highest grossing film
of all time (though Star Wars topped it in re-release, and Titanic
ultimately topped them both). It's hard to find a false note in Spielberg's
intimate, moving fantasy, and it's harder to imagine the film working so
beautifully without Williams's subtle, beautifully calibrated score. Though
the film was robbed of the Best Picture Oscar (Gandhi? Please),
Williams deservedly won yet another Original Score Oscar, his third in
the category and his fourth Oscar total.
Williams made a rare non-score contribution to film with his Oscar-nominated
song, "If We Were in Love" for the Luciano Pavoratti vehicle YES, GIORGIO,
directed by Franklin J. Schaffner. It was rumored that Williams was originally
set to score the film as well, but the score ended up being written by
Michael J. Lewis, who had scored Schaffner's previous film, Sphinx
(I've never heard any explanation why Sphinx wasn't scored by Goldsmith,
who'd already scored six films for the director). Lewis' score incorporated
Williams's theme as well as his own love theme.
Considering the number of failures Williams has managed to bail out
of, it's surprising that he stayed with MONSIGNOR, Frank Perry's
trashy, badly-reviewed drama with Christopher Reeve as a priest rising
to a position of power in the Catholic Church. Williams' score (released
on LP but not yet on CD) is a lush and varied work, with a brooding main
theme that sounds like a cross between The Elephant Man and The
Godfather, a lovely melody for the romantic scenes in Italy, and a
stand-alone religious cue "Gloria" for a pivotal (and laughably directed)
Perhaps it was the failure of Monsignor that inspired Williams
to become even choosier with his projects, and his only film for 1983 was
the third in the original Star Wars trilogy, RETURN OF THE JEDI.
Despite the film's high box-office, it is the least well-regarded of the
first three Wars (the omnipresent Ewoks were unimpressive both as
a fantasy creation and a creature effects), and Williams's score had its
strong points (especially the lovely, little used "Luke & Leia" theme),
but was not quite the classic its two predecessors were.
In 1984 Williams wrote the fanfare for the Los Angeles Summer Olympics,
the first of several Olympics themes he's composed (he also even wrote
a theme for the Special Olympics), ensuring his place as "America's Composer."
He had two films released in '84, both earning Original Score nominations.
Though INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM was regarded by most
(except, surprisingly, Pauline Kael), as a disappointing follow-up to the
beloved Raiders of the Lost Ark, Williams' sequel score was actually
an improvement on his Raiders, with equally thrilling action cues
but even better themes, especially the powerful "Children in Chains."
1984 saw the release of three female-centered farm stories from Hollywood
-- Robert Benton's Places in the Heart, Country (which had
a shift in directors during production) and Mark Rydell's THE RIVER
(amusingly, all three films earned Best Actress nominations for their stars,
with Sally Field's win for Places resulting in her immortal "You
like me!" speech). It was Williams's fourth project for Rydell and his
first since before Jaws and Star Wars made the composer a
household name, and though his score was uneven (at times sounding too
grand for the modest story), it had typically lovely passages, especially
the moving "The Ancestral Home," and stylistically it was a welcome harkening
back to the earlier, more eclectic Williams scores.
There were no new Williams feature scores in 1985 (the first year without
a new Williams feature score since 1971), though he did make an impressive
contribution to the lavish but unsatisfying Spielberg-produced anthology
series AMAZING STORIES, composing the main title theme as well as
scoring the two Spielberg-directed episodes, writing evocative music for
"Ghost Train" (which actually incorporated his Amazing theme in
the score) and a stirring score for the hour-long "The Mission."
Williams' break from feature scoring was especially notable since 1985
saw the release of the first of Spielberg's "Oscar-bait" projects, the
modestly budgeted but lavish looking adaptation of Alice Walker's THE
COLOR PURPLE. Composer Quincy Jones was one of the first people hired
for the film, once the Guber-Peters producing team had obtained the film
rights, and it was Jones himself who suggested Spielberg to direct. In
Spielberg's more than three decades of directing features, Purple
is still the only one without a Williams score, and Jones' score, somewhat
surprisingly, almost seems to be trying to outdo Williams -- nearly through-composed,
it takes a lushly orchestrated, leitmotific approach to the material, with
memorable themes (including a main title theme clearly inspired by Georges
Delerue's Our Mother's House), and a warm, Bernstein-Williams sound.
The score earned Jones and his many collaborators/arrangers a Best Score
nomination, though his work was widely panned by mainstream critics, who
understandably expected something more authentic sounding and less Williams-esque.
Williams's first feature score in the year and a half following The
River was, like Heartbeeps and Monsignor, a flop that
it's still surprising Williams signed on for. The juvenile adventure SPACECAMP
is today best remembered for its cast, a group of future celebrity consorts
including Kate Capshaw (aka Mrs. Spielberg), Kelly Preston (Mrs. Travolta)
and Tate Donovan (future boyfriend of Bullock and Aniston) as well as cute
child actor Leaf Phoenix, who inexplicably grew up into Joaquin Phoenix,
one of the finest actors of his generation. Williams' score was a lively,
professional effort with a rousing end title, but the reason for his involvement
(beyond the fact that 20th Century Fox apparently considered that this
and not Aliens would be their smash hit for summer 1986) is still
a mystery. The score was originally available only on LP, and has only
been released on CD as an import.
Williams rebounded in 1987 with two amazing Oscar-nominated scores for
films which earned mixed reactions at the time of their release. The George
Miller-directed adaptation of John Updike's THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK
was one of the strangest studio films of the era, beautifully crafted and
generally entertaining but tonally and narratively incoherent. The offbeat
premise and the all-star cast helped make it a hit, but the only person
who seemed to have a cohesive vision of the film was Williams, whose deft
and lively score was one of his greatest works of the '80s (arguably one
of his all-time greatest), with a spectacular main theme as well as wonderful
stand-alone cues. The score CD was out of print for much too long, and
is an essential component of any Williams collection.
Witches was followed by EMPIRE OF THE SUN, Spielberg's
second "Oscar bait" project and his first feature collaboration with Williams
since Temple of Doom three and a half years earlier. Empire
received generally positive though mixed reviews at the time of its release,
but besides some nominations in the technical categories it was ignored
at Oscar time. Which is unfortunate, since, though flawed, Empire
is one of Spielberg's most genuinely adult films (and even has a satisfying
ending, unlike Schindler and Munich), visually gorgeous (but
not distractingly pretty like Color Purple) and aided by a witty
Tom Stoppard script and especially Christian Bale's extraordinary lead
performance. Williams's score received some harsh reviews at the time of
its release -- especially since some of his choral cues seem to reinforce
Spielberg's occasionally distracting attempts to be arty rather than simply
tell the story -- but it is one of his most purely beautiful works. Two
decades later, the film's reputation is slowly but deservedly improving,
and with luck the score will be as well regarded.
FROM: "Kevin Jung"
Just a quick little correction to Part Two of the John
In the film 1941, his "Swing, Swing, Swing" piece is an homage to
Benny Goodman, not Glenn Miller. Benny Goodman did "Sing, Sing, Sing."
FROM: Mark Anders
Re: Swing Swing Swing
...as you've probably heard from eight other people, is clearly
inspired by the Benny Goodman band's brilliant arrangement of Louis Prima's
"Sing, Sing, Sing", which also includes the swing tune "Christopher Columbus"
by Chu Berry and Andy Razaf. (Glenn Miller, so far as I know, never swung
as hard as Goodman in his prime. You owe it to yourself to check out Gene
Krupa's great drum solo, if you've never heard it.) Williams captures the
feel of the Goodman band, complete with wailing clarinet solos, without
actually ripping it off -- he clearly loves the original.
FROM: "Preston Neal Jones"
Not to put too fine a point on it, but Goodman and his
aggregation were famous for PERFORMING "Sing Sing Sing," but it was COMPOSED
by Louis Prima.
FROM: "Corey C. Witte"
I'm enjoying the nostalgia of your Williams articles. Although
I occasionally watched and enjoyed the CHECKMATE series as a youngster,
I first noticed Williams' name -- and fell in love with his music -- on
a short-lived (2 seasons) anthology series in the early sixties called
ALCOA PREMIERE. This was around the same time that I was discovering and
falling in love with Morton Stevens and Jerry Goldsmith for their contributions
to another anthology program, THRILLER. I watched ALCOA because it was
hosted every week by my hero, Fred Astaire, so I also recorded the shows
on my Wollensak reel-to-reel. Every week was a different story in a different
setting and time period, with a different mood -- but every week this Johnny
Williams nailed it with his wonderfully melodic music. Americana, noir,
Irish romance, contemporary sexual intrigue, etc., etc., it was like a
different mini-movie every week, and Williams scored them all marvelously.
I often edited little suites whenever there was enough music "in the clear"
of dialogue to do so. (The source music in juke-box and dance-band scenes
was often a tune I later came to recognize as DePaul's "I'll Remember April,"
from Abbott and Costello's RIDE 'EM COWBOY. Hans J. Salter later explained
to me that Universal almost always used that song for such source cues,
because it was practically the only hit song they ever had in one of their
pictures.) I hope that Mr. Williams hung on to his manuscripts, since Universal's
preservation of the tracks is dubious. But I can't help dreaming that some
day the world will get to hear the splendid talent of the young Mr. Williams,
the weekly harbinger of the big screen wonders to come.
P.S. Just to give you an idea how ancient this history is, in one
of the ALCOA dramas, "The Voice of Charly Pont," they cast Bradford Dillman
as the sexy guy who's tempting a wife to stray from her straight-laced
spouse, and Robert Redford as the husband...
I'm amazed no one has written a book about Williams. Perhaps
you should try.
FROM: "Randall Derchan"
Also, while many people have already mentioned Williams' late wife
Barbara Ruick, I thought I'd add another bit of trivia: Williams and Ruick
were good friends with the Altmans. If you watch California Split carefully,
a number of the female bit players are named Barbara in honor of Williams'
Re: Speak for yourself
THE EIGER SANCTION was hardly one of the more memorable entries
in either's career.
I wish Eastwood movies were more like this today, minus the male
chauvinism and racial humor, but the score is one of my favorite contemporary
70's scores and one of the best pre-SW albums of John Williams.
NEXT TIME: Williams teams up with one of Hollywood's
most controversial directors, shadows Bruce Broughton, and scores his first
Best Picture winner.
of this series can be accessed on the website.