As I write this, Steven Spielberg is currently at work on his next film, an adaptation of the World War I-themed British play War Horse, due for a release a year from now. This means that, before long, composer John Williams will begin to write his 26th score for a Spielberg picture. The duo have been an almost immortal force in the film business for nearly 40 years, from their first collaboration, 1973’s The Sugarland Express, to next Christmas’ The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn, for which Williams is in the final stages of writing.
One could almost argue that each man made the other’s career more fruitful. When they first met, Williams, then 42, was just starting to become known as a serious composer, having scored many light, jazzy films and television shows in the 1950s and 1960s. He had won an Oscar for adapting the music to the Fiddler on the Roof film in 1971, and would become associated with the disaster movie craze starting with The Poseidon Adventure in 1972. Spielberg, meanwhile, was a 28-year-old wunderkind who’d secured steady television direction at Universal, including an iconic episode of the Rod Serling series Night Gallery, the first regular episode of Columbo and the fantastic television movie Duel (1971). Their partnership established Williams as the biggest name in blockbuster composition, earning him three of the five Oscars he’s won and turning him into an in-demand composer for George Lucas, Oliver Stone and others. (He is tied with mentor Alfred Newman for the most amount of Oscar nominations in history, with 45.) Spielberg, meanwhile, has become known as a master storyteller with a keen eye for the popular and the emotional. Critics may snub him for playing too perfectly with an audience’s emotions on film, but his ability to move the public on such a massive scale is what makes him such a formidable and influential artist.
To celebrate the fruitful collaboration of both men, we present a two-part Back Tracks looking at the many releases of Williams for Spielberg films. Join us after the jump for a look at Spielberg-Williams through 1993, and come back tomorrow for the second part of the series dealing from the late ’90s to the present.
The Sugarland Express (1973)
The first Spielberg-Williams score had a surprising amount of twang to it, thanks to a harmonica-driven theme and the director’s fascination with Williams’ score to The Reivers (1969). The theme was bouncy enough to further confuse people already expecting a comedy based on Goldie Hawn’s featured appearance. (It’s in fact a bit of a drama/heist picture, in which Hawn and William Atherton play two real-life would-be convicts who lead the law on a hostage chase in an attempt to get their young daughter back into their custody.) Shockingly, The Sugarland Express is one of the biggest Williams scores, and the only Spielberg-Williams score, to have never been released on any format. Reportedly, Williams is not a big fan of this score, and his composer clout will regrettably keep any of it from being on CD during his lifetime.
JAWS (1975 – released MCA, 1975 – reissued Decca, 2000)
The director thought it was a joke when his composer played the main theme to the adaptation of the Peter Benchley best-seller. Two notes in rapid succession, and that was more or less it. But it wasn’t just it, of course; Williams created an atmosphere of terror that, coupled with the film’s Oscar-winning editing (meant to hide a mostly-malfunctioning mechanical shark), sent audiences away from the water and into a theatre near them. Williams’ original album of concertized highlights from the adventurous and horrifying score remains one of the most essential listening experiences of all time. Although the 25th anniversary release of the complete score was a blessing as well, it doesn’t always compare to that original LP (made available on CD back in 1992), definitely the one to start with.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977 – released Arista/Varese Sarabande, 1977 – reissued Arista, 1998)
JAWS earned accolades for its two-note theme, and Close Encounters succeeded on just five. Those five tones, used by the interplanetary visitors to communicate with Earth, have been the stuff of ringtones and doorbells for some three decades and counting. But the whole score to Spielberg’s first joyous space fantasy is a wonder, incorporating choral passages and the touching use of Spielberg’s favorite song, “When You Wish Upon a Star” from the Disney classic Pinocchio. Though it wasn’t Williams’ best sci-fi score that year (that honor goes to the instant classic Star Wars, which solidified Williams as a household name), it’s a killer score that doesn’t deserve to stay in the shadow of Luke Skywalker and company. The original Arista LP (also released on Varese Sarabande) consisted of a truncated presentation of the score; the 20th anniversary reissue of the film led to a greatly expanded presentation of the music, one of many produced by longtime Spielberg documentarian Laurent Bozereau.
1941 (1979 – released Arista, 1979 – reissued Bay Cities/Varese Sarabande, 1997)
After two back-to-back films that went over budget but became box office smashes, some were gleeful to see Spielberg fall with 1941, an ensemble farce set in the wake of Pearl Harbor. While it’s not as bad as some would remember, it’s amazing that such a talented crew (the screenwriters were Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, who’d later do Back to the Future with Spielberg as producer) and a killer cast (Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, John Candy, Slim Pickens, Christopher Lee and scores more) led to this less-than-perfect outing. Williams turned on the charm for this one, though; the march that serves as the film’s theme is simultaneously patriotic and lighthearted, and Williams borrows from some of the greatest composers of the ’40s for comedic effect (notably the Benny Goodman homage “Swing, Swing, Swing,” which scored a dance-oriented fight at a USO party).
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981 – released Columbia, 1981 – reissued DCC, 1995/Concord, 2008)
When Spielberg collaborated with longtime friend George Lucas on a tribute to serial adventures of the 1930s and 1940s, Williams was a natural to lend his pen to the film, having scored the first two entries in the Star Wars trilogy for Lucas. The adventure of daring archaeologist/professor Indiana Jones required the same sort of jaunty adventure with a rousing theme; Spielberg revealed in a 2003 interview that Williams presented two themes during early post-production, and all parties decided to use them both. Those themes became the A and B-sections of the classic “Raiders March” that’s become synonymous not only with Indy, but action-packed films as well.
Columbia released just one album’s worth of music when Raiders premiered; though it was taken from the original score, it was heavily edited and out of sequence. The DCC label did a fantastic job of expanding the soundtrack in 1995 (with a lauded remastering job by Steve Hoffman). Some say it even surpasses the second reissue by Concord in 2008, which adds more music but replaces one complete cue (the rousing set piece “Desert Chase,” where Indy pursues the Ark of the Covenant on horseback and on a truck) with its needless LP edit.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982 – released MCA, 1982 – reissued MCA, 1996/2002)
While the score to E.T. may not have the lasting cultural appeal that JAWS or Raiders enjoy, Williams’ lush, thematic compositions greatly added to the classic fantasy film about a young boy who befriends a lost alien. There may be no better sign of its power than this anecdote: when Williams had difficulty exactly cueing the 15-minute finale suite to the film, Spielberg suggested he record it as one would in a concert setting, with no film to synchronize. The director then re-edited the film to fit the parameters of the music. That musical power earned the composer his fourth Oscar.
The soundtrack itself was given a truncated LP release heavy on newly-recorded concert arrangements. The original score as heard in the film was released twice, but neither attempt was complete (although fans have easily assembled a complete score by recording the music-only track on the 1996 laserdisc box set). A more thorough presentation – one including a remaster of that original, long out-of-print LP – would be gladly welcomed.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984 – released Polydor, 1984 – reissued Concord, 2008)
Anyone expecting a retread of Raiders for the second Indy film was given quite a surprise. Temple of Doom was leaner, darker and even more densely scored. Williams experimented with Eastern instruments and arrangements to reflect the location, and the heroic sub-themes for sidekick Short Round and the slave children were notable entries into the Indy canon. There was no way a single LP could capture all the best moments of the score, and fans had to wait years for Concord to reissue the whole trilogy’s music in 2008. Unfortunately, some small bits of score still remain unreleased, including a stunning rendition of the march as heard over the end credits.
Empire of the Sun (1987 – released Warner Bros., 1987)
Spielberg’s second foray into “serious” territory (the first, a 1985 adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple, is the only major Spielberg picture not scored by Williams) was also the director’s first serious look at World War II, based on J.G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical account of living in Shanghai during the war. It’s an underrated entry in both mens’ canons, with Spielberg telling a great story with a fine cast (including John Malkovich and a young Christian Bale) and less sentimentality than one would expect. Williams adds many flourishes to the score, including interpretations of Chopin and Welsh folk songs (“Suo Gan”) as well as his own chorus-and-orchestra arrangements.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989 – released Warner Bros., 1989 – reissued Concord, 2008)
Another slight departure for the Indy series, taking the trilogy into more openly funny places (with the unlikely aid of Sean Connery as Indy’s dad), Williams was again in peak form, adding adventurous cues like “Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra” and regal themes like that which was written for the elder Dr. Jones lifelong quest for The Holy Grail. Like all Indy scores, the soundtrack was generous but the music was too bountiful to have been done justice on one LP or CD. Concord stepped in admirably in 2008 to remaster and expand the film score, adding extra nuggets from the tank chase and the complete music to the fascinating opening sequence, when a teenage Indy goes on his first adventure.
Always (1989 – released MCA, 1990)
It’s one of the dopier Spielberg films – a ham-fisted romantic comedy (based on the Spencer Tracy film A Guy Named Joe) in which Richard Dreyfuss serves as a guardian angel to his ex-girlfriend and a new would-be paramour – but Williams’ score was at times lushly romantic and spirited too. Not much to say about it past that, honestly.
The Spielberg/Williams Collaboration (Sony Classical, 1990)
One of the best anthologies of the collaboration between director and composer was this disc, recorded by The Boston Pops under the direction of Williams himself. Sparkling arrangements of cues from every one of their films to that point are included herein. The arrangements for JAWS, Close Encounters and the Indy sequels, in particular, can’t be beat. Two decades later, it’s harder to find on CD but entirely worth it if you can.
Hook (1991 – released Epic/Sony Music Soundtrax, 1991)
The scoring of Hook provided Williams with one of his most unusual challenges: production was behind schedule when Williams was ready to write, and as a result he composed the music for the film having only seen approximately 47 minutes of the two-hours-plus flick. And yet Williams produced a triumph (arguably stronger than the overblown film itself) which was heavy on those Williams standards of soaring themes, fantasy-filled cues and stirring action. If nobody realized its power in 1991, they certainly did a decade later, when Williams bought a similar approach to the Harry Potter films.
The hour-long album – one of Williams’ first soundtracks designed with CDs in mind – culled the best of the score with some alternate arrangements thrown in here and there. Fans have been clamoring for an expanded edition for years, and rumors persist that one of the indie labels out there (La La Land, it’s often bandied about) will do just that by the end of the year.
Jurassic Park (1993 – released MCA, 1993)
In the liner notes that accompany the film’s soundtrack, Spielberg is quick to draw parallels between the visceral music of JAWS and the score to Jurassic Park. But while both are in the same vein (fantastical monster tales adapted from bestselling novels), the theme and tone of JP owes almost as much to E.T. as JAWS, with the gentle main theme played on those trademark high strings and the secondary theme serving as less a motif of danger and more of a regal fanfare, signifying the adventurous qualities of the dinosaur theme park. The action cues are wound tightly in this score, and retain much of the thematic content while packing a lot of non-thematic punch, too. The only gripe about the generous soundtrack is that many of the cues are presented out of sequence; a reissue would do well to rectify that and add what little extra music remains unreleased.
Schindler’s List (1993 – released MCA, 1993)
In 1993, two Spielberg-Williams scores was almost unthinkable. (By 2002, when the duo collaborated twice in a year, or 2005, when Williams penned not only two Spielberg film scores but the music to the final Star Wars film and the drama Memoirs of a Geisha, it was a walk in the park.) But Schindler’s List was the polar opposite of Jurassic Park – the true story of a businessman and Nazi sympathizer who eventually saved over a thousand Jews from the Holocaust – and had one of the most haunting scores of Williams’ career, thanks to the heartrending violin work of Itzhak Perlman. Schindler was a major departure for a director known (someone falsely) for popcorn flicks and fantasy fare, and the film’s resonating power not only resulted in a long-overdue Best Director Oscar for Spielberg but the fifth (and, as of this writing, most recent) Oscar for Williams.