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Feature
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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Main Theme from Jaws
First heard in: Jaws (1975)

Along with Happy Birthday To You, Williams' theme for Spielberg's man-fights-fish blockbuster may be the most recognisable piece of music in the world. Yet the simple two-note alternating pattern didn't convince the director at first — his initial reaction on hearing the theme on the piano was to laugh. "At first I thought it was a little too primitive," remembered Spielberg. "I wanted something a little more melodic for the shark and then Johnny said "What you don't have here is The L Shaped Room….you have made yourself a popcorn movie." And he was absolutely right." For Williams, the mindless primal progression of the theme mirrored "the effect of grinding away at you, just as a shark would do instinctual, relentless, unstoppable." Film score theorists have suggested that the motif represents the heart rate of the shark itself, starting slow then building to a frenzy when it attacks, as if we are tuning in to the shark's psyche. As such, we only hear the theme when the shark is present; during the red herring scenes — such as The Fake Fin Incident — the absence of the theme is signalling this is a hoax.

Given the effectiveness of the two note — actually E and F — signal, it is often easy to miss the real hero of the Jaws theme: a resonant horn motif played by tuba player Tommy Johnson. Given the melody is in such a high musical register it would seem that the theme would be better suited to the French horn rather than the low-end tuba. But Williams felt the instrument gave the theme more weight, more threat. For the movie, the music does much to make us forgive the fake shark, Spielberg suggesting it accounted for around a third of the film's $470 million box office. In the wider world, it has entered the culture as a signifier of any kind of encroaching threat, turning up in the likes of Airplane!, Caddyshack, The Secret Of My Success, Top Secret and Swingers.

Listen to an excerpt:


Preparations
First heard in: Black Sunday (1977)

John Frankheimer's thriller centres on a Palestinian terrorist plot to detonate a bomb in the midst of the Superbowl with the US president in attendance. To detail the bomber's rigorous preparations, Williams unleashes a steely, black-hearted fugue fused with an inexorable rhythmic progression. The theme shares musical DNA with other powerful multi-stringed Williams pieces — The Shark Cage Fugue from Jaws, In The Belly Of The Steel Beast from Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade — and has a seriousness and classical rigour that belies Williams' reputation as a purveyor of easily hummable themes. The score also served to mark the end of the Master Of Disaster phase of Williams career: next came Star Wars.

Listen to an excerpt:


End Title
First heard in: Presumed Innocent (1990)

It could be a pub quiz question: apart from Star Wars and Indiana Jones, what Harrison Ford movies has John Williams scored (alright, you might have to be drinking in a particularly nerdy pub)? Answer: 2. One is Sabrina and the other is this erotic thriller — Ford is the unlikely named Rusty Sabitch, a lawyer who finds himself in the frame for murdering his own mistress — that sees Williams balance themes of family, passion and murder, under-laying a lush romantic piano theme with sinister orchestral churning, unsettling timpani and the odd chilling synth effect. A definite change of pace from Williams' blockbuster mode, it became a staple of thriller trailers in the '90s such as The Juror.

Listen to an excerpt:


Theme from Family Plot
First heard in: Family Plot (1976)

It could not be more apt that Williams composed the music for Alfred Hitchcock's last movie. Often considered the natural successor to Hitchcock's composer Bernard Herrmann as the movie music master, Williams was the perfect choice to score a lighter Hitchcock flick, a dark comedy involving faux psychics, kidnappings and diamonds. Overflowing with musical wit, Williams score is full of satire — a parodic ethereal choir evokes sham séances, harpsichord to suggest deviousness — but also has lovely free-from melodies to boot. Later in his career, Williams would play homage to Herrmann in specific instances (as Han Solo opens the cargo hold of the Millennium Falcon, Williams works in a three note refrain from Psycho; in The Terminal, Williams gives us a quick blast of the Cape Fear theme) and as a general influence (the harried rhythms of Minority Report). Yet he made his own distinct mark in the Hitchcockverse with Family Plot.

Listen to an excerpt:


The Main Theme
First heard in: The Fury (1978)

Fitting this in between Close Encounters and Superman The Movie, Williams' music for Brian De Palma's overblown kids-with-telekinetic-powers thrillers — it's the one where Amy Irving blows up John Cassavetes with her mind — ranks among his strongest suspense scores. It contains sustained stretches of full-on horror music employing synthesisers and Theremin for added weirdness, but at its best, delivers a theme that has the feel of an otherworldly waltz, never easy to get a handle on, bewitching in its gentle iterations, thunderous in its bolder versions. De Palma has yet to work with Williams again which is a shame: his grandiose sense of the visual pulled out compelling work from the composer.

Listen to an excerpt:

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Have Your Say
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Your Comments

21 RE: At no point...
Best on line feature you have ever done Empire, please ensure this is always available to listen too, A true master at work. More

Posted by JIm R on Friday February 10, 2012, 21:06

22 At no point...
...in my life have i come so close to orgasm just from an Empire feature. More

Posted by Swedle on Friday February 10, 2012, 18:27

23 Final Duel mistake.......
When Luke comes out of hiding, after accidentally revealing Leia's paternity to Vader, he doesn't say "Nooooooo!", he defiantly yells "NEVER!!!" before ending the climactic duel... Interestingly enough, that bit of music was also used in the final duel in the Lucasarts game Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast. More

Posted by jws1272 on Thursday February 9, 2012, 17:56

24 Missed one!
You should've added 'A Window to the Past' from 'Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban' More

Posted by dimitrifiani on Thursday February 9, 2012, 12:40

25 The Greatest
Undoubtedly the greatest movie composer of all time. My only gripe with this list is the exclusion of The Lost World's main theme. I believe this is actually Spielberg's favourite piece from all the Jurassic Park music. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eb6Xk5p9MpQ& feature=related More

Posted by Ballschin on Thursday February 9, 2012, 12:17

26 FLASHMAN
He simply has no equal; nobody else has ever treated every-single film as though it was a first assignment that needed special attention, (unless you knew, how would you know that the guy who did Heartbeeps also did Jane Eyre and, his masterpiece, Superman?) and when he is inspired by what he sees, (most recently by War Horse) we are elated. More

Posted by Frank Comiskey on Thursday February 9, 2012, 10:52

27 The force is with him...
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term 'genius' as "exceptional intellectual or creative power or other natural ability". Although used far too often these days, John Williams REALLY is a genius and I thank him for the many years of great music he has given me (man and boy). Happy Birthday John ...and many more of them. More

Posted by melverley on Thursday February 9, 2012, 09:15

28 Favorite tunes that dont appear here
Visitor in San Diego (from Jurassic Park The Lost World): Pure adrenaline!!!! Dartmoor 1912 (From War Horse) The Battle of Hoth (do I need to tell you???) Dinner With Amelia (The Terminal) Sabrina's Theme (just BEAUTIFUL) Anakin's Dark Deeds (Episode III) EPIC of epic epicness!!!!!! Where Dreams Are Born (A.I) maybe the most BEAUTIFUL track he's ever written!!! i cant helpto cry EVERYTIME) Confluence (MEmoirs of a Geisha) perfect... just perfect in allthe extent of the word THE ENTIRE MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA, for me his best album EVER!!! Exsultate Justi (Empire Of The Sun) aleluyah!!!! Homesickness (The Terminal) Am I Beautiful? (Far& Away) Aunt Marge's Waltz (Azkaban) A Window To The Past (Azkaban) Dennis Steals The Embryo (Jurassic Park) The Trek (JP: The Lost World) Rescuing Sarah (JP: The Lost World) Ludlow's Demise (JP: The Lost World) Jango's Escape (Episode II) Princess Leia's Theme Luke And Leia Battle Of The Heroes (Episode III) The Battle Of Endor SaiMore

Posted by John Mulder Simpson on Thursday February 9, 2012, 08:36

29 RE: The Best Feature of 2012 so far!
It's been a long time since I posted here. but this feature is so good!!! I can't start to describe how much I love and admire John Williams, how grateful I am to live in his era (although he is 50 years older than me!!) For me it all began when i was 11 and watched Jurassic Park, now i have more than 40 albums and he never fails to surprise and move me. I owe him SO much! and this year he gave us War Horse, a magnificent and perfect album that is 100% Williams, god how I love that soundtrack!!!! I just can't pick a favorite of his, everything he's done is so close to perfection. man, to think of everything he's done and everything i haven't heard.... I posted a link to this feature on facebook, and i recommended it to everyone, let's all do the same so the whole world knows how lucky we are to have him!!!!!!! finally: OU VERY MUCH, MAESTRO, FOR YOUR ENDLESS AND RESTLESS TALENT, I LOVE YOU WITH ALL MY HEART!!!!!!!!!!!! More

Posted by John Mulder Simpson on Thursday February 9, 2012, 08:02

30 The Best Feature of 2012 so far!
Kudos Empire - this truly is a fitting feature for one of Cinema's most important figures. A film is nothing without it's music and it's Williams who fills that void so beautifully, so emotionally and so wonderfully. Rarely do pictures move me to tears, but a Williams score can have me sobbing like a 15 year-old girl watching The Notebook. More

Posted by haydonsmovies on Wednesday February 8, 2012, 12:10

31 Floods of Tears
Having sat and listened to all the excerpts and read this whole blog I am a total mess tears of joy and emotion on my face. The word genius is vastly overused about people with little more than mediocre talent at best, but in John William's case I think it doesn't even come close to describing him. He simply is the one of the greatest musicians and composers alive. More

Posted by mcmikeyboy on Wednesday February 8, 2012, 12:00

32 Great selection
The Witches of Eastwick, The Fury, Amazing Stories AND The Mission ? Dear Empire ... I'm impressed ! More

Posted by Dropje on Wednesday February 8, 2012, 11:58

33 Hook
One of my favorites must be "The Face of Pan", from the Hook soundtrack. Not very famous but still, simply beautiful. More

Posted by buffy_1008 on Wednesday February 8, 2012, 11:28

34 Great Feature
This has to be one of the best features you have ever done Empire, congratulations! Although justifiably, it could just be Williams' music that makes it so great! Happy birthday to one of the greatest composers we'll ever know. More

Posted by magikdethmonkey on Wednesday February 8, 2012, 11:24

35 A true poet and a genius
John WIlliams means more to me than any figure in either movies or music. Good feature Empire! More

Posted by mattpbrown on Wednesday February 8, 2012, 10:17

36 Wonderful Piece Empire
Written with real heart and knowledge. Big salute to Sir John! More

Posted by Blyman on Wednesday February 8, 2012, 10:10

37 Brings tear to the eye
What wonderful nostalgia. Skipping through decades of my emotional development through movies and Williams' music! So glad you mentioned the importance of Home Alone (it's our family's staple Xmas album). By the time we got to War Horse, that's it - I'm in pieces! Only snag is the general oversight of AI. Stored Memories/Monica's Theme is the most beautiful piece he wrote IMO (the slow beginning builds up to hauntingly beautiful & understated climax). And Catch Me If You Can, which has many great cues. But thanks Empire fo collating this for us. Made my day :-) More

Posted by oliraceking on Wednesday February 8, 2012, 10:04

38 Soundtrack of us
The importance of Williams as a greatest composer of our times - and I mean OUR - is confirmed simply by the grounds of those tracks. Just close your eyes and listen to them. And you can see the movies right there in your head. It's all you need. More

Posted by Pelle on Wednesday February 8, 2012, 09:24

39
that was amazing. thank you empire More

Posted by artaylor on Wednesday February 8, 2012, 05:43

40 Here's to another 80 years
Two disappointments were omissions of the last twenty minutes worth of empire strikes back. The reason that film is regarded as the best in the star wars franchise is its finale. The other is the prisoner of Azkaban there are at least twelve tracks worth mentioning. If you ever buy a Williams soundtrack buy these two I promise you its the best things he's done as an entire soundtrack since the first star wars a new hope 35 years ago. More

Posted by GrassyNol on Wednesday February 8, 2012, 00:49

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