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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) church scene.

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 Williams Timeline...

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.
 
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...
FROM: "Corey C. Witte"
I'm amazed no one has written a book about Williams. Perhaps you should try.
 
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' late wife.
FROM: "Randall Derchan"
 
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.


Parts One and Two of this series can be accessed on the website.

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