Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Jaws, Close Encounters, Indiana Jones… Put bluntly, John Williams is the man. During his 60-year career, he has composed over 150 scores for film and television, won five Oscars, been nominated for 50, and scored all but five of Steven Spielberg’s films.
With today being his 84th birthday, we decided to rummage through his back catalogue and find 12 of our favourite underrated - and often overlooked - tracks.
1. Holiday Flight from Home Alone
John Williams’ Home Alone theme is one of his best-known and well-loved away from big blockbuster fare. But Holiday Flight proves that perfection doesn’t need to be drawn out - in fact, it’s less than one minute long. Summing up the madness of the McCallister family in 58 seconds, this little bundle of Christmas chaos even finds room for echoes of The Nutcracker.
2. The Lost Boy Chase from Hook
An infectious flight of childhood fancy, grand percussion and woodwind trills battle it out as the Lost Boys aim to prove their worth to rule the roost. But as the timid, pizzicato strings towards the end strongly suggest, these Lost Boys are still - as much as they would protest - children.
3. Anderton’s Great Escape from Minority Report
Perforated with urgent brass, this is the biggest number in Spielberg’s pre-crime thriller. A score heavy on atmosphere and full of mystery, this epic escape let Williams dial it up to 11 and turn the second half into what could easily be imagined as the main escape theme had Jaws been made today - super-mega-crescendo included.
4. The Airport Scene from Catch Me If You Can
Catch Me If You Can’s title theme is one of the catchiest in Williams’ catalogue. (It’s impossible to hear it without attempting the ‘clicks’.) But things get a little more serious in The Airport Scene, reflecting the film’s movement towards Frank Abagnale Jr.’s inevitable capture. Sometimes it’s just nice to hear Williams keep things simple.
5. Jewish Town (Krakow Ghetto, Winter ‘41) from Schindler’s List
The theme from Schindler’s List will eternally exist as one of the greatest ever pieces of film music. Brought to life by Itzhak Perlman (the pair would reunite for 2005’s Memoirs Of A Geisha), Williams’ violin solos transcend any mortal duo. Painstakingly powerful the main theme may be, but Jewish Town is where the strings really bleed.
6. A Legend Is Born from The Terminal
Even Tom Hanks’ more unmemorable characters are worthy of a memorable theme (even one pilfered by The Apprentice at any given opportunity). The curious, jaunty and unique nature reflects Hanks’ Krakozhian Viktor Navorski perfectly: a character - and leitmotif - that we soon learn to love.
7. The Dance Of The Witches from The Witches Of Eastwick
Williams’ score for George Miller’s 1987 film earned the composer his 22nd Oscar nomination (he was also nominated for his work on Empire Of The Sun that year, but lost to Ryuichi Sakamoto, David Byrne and Cong Su for The Last Emperor). From the first 30 seconds alone, it’s not difficult to see where Zimmer and Elfman draw their influences.
8. Hide And Seek from A.I. Artificial Intelligence
This is an incredibly simple track, but the dissonant childlike motif that plays throughout is a slice of truly weird Williams. Your average fairytale A.I. is not...
9. The Adventures Of Tintin from The Adventures Of Tintin: The Secret Of The Unicorn
The opening to Spielberg’s mo-capped adventure boasts a walking bassline, the feel of Catch Me If You Can’s main theme, and a very bizarre noir jollity. In short, it hints at the best of what’s to come - a mishmash of glorious madness.
10. End Credits from Munich
No piece of music for Steven Spielberg’s Munich was ever going to be a jolly affair, let’s face it. But regardless of whether you know the film’s historical backdrop, the final four minutes that play over the credits are enough to make you stop in your tracks. It’s almost impossible to choose between this and A Prayer For Peace as the film’s most haunting musical offering, but the choice to strip the theme back for piano is enough to make a grown man weep.
11. Becoming A Geisha from Memoirs Of A Geisha
If Itzhak Perlman is John Williams’ violin virtuoso, Yo-Yo Ma is his cello doyen. Yes, so Williams missed out on the Oscar to Gustavo Santaolalla’s Brokeback Mountain, but Becoming A Geisha offers more breadth than the entirety of Santaolalla’s score (even if the main theme to Ang Lee’s film does admittedly float around your head for a good few days post-watch).
12. Hagrid The Professor from Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban
Make it past the first 30 seconds, and you’ll understand why we chose this. (Spoiler: it has a lot to do with the mix of woodwind and guitar making us feel like we’ve stepped into Medieval England.) The Harry Potter franchise is full of magical little moments like this that are often overlooked in favour of the series’ main themes. But, just like Hagrid, we rather like a bizarre interlude every now and again.