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Film Studies 101
80 Reasons Why John Williams Is The Man
We mark the movie maestro's 80th birthday with a celebration of his classic pieces

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The Force Theme
First heard in: Star Wars Episode IV A New Hope (1977)

A huge part of Williams' genius is his ability to add different colours and moods to his basic motifs to express different parts of the story. For New Hope, Williams created a theme that seems to stand in for Kenobi but is also utilised to suggest both the Old Republic and the Force itself and is amongst the most malleable, versatile themes Williams has ever created. We get a noble, mysterious take (the arrival of Kenobi), an urgent dramatic take (Luke speeds to the burning homestead), a mournful iteration (Leia comforts Luke after Ben's death), an untethered mystical version (as Luke hears Ben tell him to use the Force) and a stately regal version (our heroes collect their medals) that is perhaps a reminder of the values Kenobi represented.

Listen to an excerpt:

Yet its most famous iteration has nothing to with Obi-Wan at all. Williams had originally scored Luke staring out into Tatooine’s twin suns with Luke’s theme yet Lucas asked the composer to switch it for Ben’s music. The result is perhaps the most reflective, moving moment in the whole saga.

Listen to an excerpt:

The Banquet
First heard in: Hook (1991)

The Lost Boys are the Jar Jar Binks of Hook, often pointed to as indicative of all that is wrong with the film, day-glo ruffians on skateboards that are the antithesis of what J.M. Barrie envisaged. Still if there is an organized campaign against Rufio and co., John Williams didn't get the memo. For not only did Williams write them an enjoyably boisterous theme to cover their pursuit of Peter in Neverland, he also gifted them a glorious theme for their Neverfeast — it may be music for a food fight but it sounds like something composed for an English costume drama, formal, majestic and splendid.

Listen to an excerpt:

Desert Chase
First heard in: Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981)

Over the eight minutes of screen time it takes Indiana Jones to steal a horse, pick off the Nazis one by one, get thrown through the windscreen and under the truck, climb back in the side window to take control of the steering wheel and then, after all that, hold his arm while wincing in pain, Williams is there every step off the way, providing propulsive rhythms to create a tempo that never flags and a tapestry of themes to plot the rise and fall of Indy's fortunes. Spielberg pays tribute to the cue here, this remains his greatest chase music a classic example of what the director calls "120ccs of John Williams adrenaline."

Listen to an excerpt:

Saying Goodbye
First heard in: E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

"I've always felt that John Williams was my musical rewrite artist," says Spielberg. "He comes in, sees my movie, rewrites the whole thing musically and makes it much better than I did. He can take a moment and just uplift it. He can take a tear that's just forming in your eye and cause it to drip."

Nowhere is this ability more prevalent than at the climax of E.T. From the point where Elliott and Michael steal E.T. away in a van, through to the BMX chase and flight, the tearful goodbye to the spaceship leaving a rainbow trail, E.T. is pretty much just images and music with dialogue kept to the barest minimum. In theory, it should be a composer's dream but….

"I was having a very difficult time with the orchestra," said Williams. "I would make a good take for the first five but then be off for the next two cues. I remember it so well. Steven coming up to the podium and saying 'I will take the movie off the screen so you can just play the music with the orchestra with it's natural phrasing, the way it ebbs and flows and then conform the film to what is the best musical performance'. That is very unusual. So when we had the music that had the most lift and exultation at the end of the film, Steven laid the music track against the film and made a few editorial adjustments. I think part of the reason the film has such an operatic sense of completion, a real emotional satisfaction maybe the result of the wedding of these musical accents with Steven's film editing."

Be it the brass statement that accompanies "I'll be right here" to the return to the Flying theme as the door closes on E.T.'s spacecraft, Williams' music is a major reason why the goodbye between a boy and alien brings a lump the size of an orange to the throat. This score as a whole is a strong contender for his greatest overall work and deservedly earned him his fourth Oscar.

Listen to an excerpt:


There is only one way to conclude the 80th birthday celebrations of the world's greatest movie music composer — with a party. Happy birthday, maestro!

Listen to an excerpt:

 For more music celebrating John Williams’ 80th birthday:

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Have Your Say
Register or login now to let us know what you think.

Your Comments

41 Great tribute...
...but I have to correct you on the Sugarland Express theme and Thielemans contribution; he's Belgian, not Dutch ;) Here's hoping Mr. Williams has a lot more still in store for us!!! More

Posted by Stanley Mann on Tuesday February 7, 2012, 22:57

42 Wrong
Born on the 4th July wasn't released in 1982. it was released in 1989. thought you guys were movie geeks? More

Posted by chimbers22 on Tuesday February 7, 2012, 22:14

43 Yub Nub!
Great tune to finish on. Far better than the one that replaced it. So many great pieces here but you could easily come up with another 80. Leia's theme would need to be on that one. More

Posted by Scruffybobby on Tuesday February 7, 2012, 22:00

44 The Raiders March
Anyone who can compose the iconic themes for Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Superman, Close Encounters and Jaws is clearly a legend. The Raiders March is personally important to me. My wife, without discussing it with me, chose this piece for when we were walking down the aisle after we got married. Her brother even presented me with a fedora :) More

Posted by cathalomiochain on Tuesday February 7, 2012, 21:41

total legend. More

Posted by Moviegeek1976 on Tuesday February 7, 2012, 20:46

46 Catch Me If You Can?
Perhaps the opening credits were more memorable from a visual perspective but the theme is still worthy of inclusion here. More

Posted by MartinHeron on Tuesday February 7, 2012, 17:26

Jurassic Park (1993). 8 minutes 51 seconds of true movie magic. I get goosebumps everytime during that part of the film, and I have it full volume when I'm walking home from work. Happy 80th Birthday John! You frickin' genius! More

Posted by LaughingNabashin on Tuesday February 7, 2012, 16:41

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