Monday, April 09, 2012

My 30 Favorite John Williams Pieces (and Then Some): An Esoteric List

Two months ago, legendary composer John Williams turned 80. At the time, I was thinking of putting up a list of my favorite Williams scores or even tracks, but I wasn't sure about it. John Williams is the reason that I not only got so very interested in film scores, but in orchestral music altogether. I can trace a line from my mother's purchase of the Return of the Jedi soundtrack when I was 6 years old through my insatiable hunger for Leonard Bernstein recordings all the way to my love of art music (as my Music Appreciation 101 instructor preferred to call it back at the College of DuPage, and he was a pretty amazing guy who played us the Dame Edna-narrated version of Peter and the Wolf and even lugged in a harpsichord to play it for us, so I have no problem going by what he called it).

And not only that, but Williams is in many ways the soundtrack of a pretty wonderful childhood. I was born in 1976; I've been hearing this man's compositions for longer than I can consciously remember. So... I dunno, it seemed wrong somehow for me not to pass this milestone without some kind of acknowledgement of the man and his music. So here is my esoteric and inclusive list of my favorite John Williams... things?...with links to hear these things on YouTube and such. (And if there are ads in front of any of these, I sincerely apologize.)

30. Home Alone: "Somewhere in My Memory"
I know this one is a bit twee and cloyingly demanding of your emotions, but it always reminds me of Christmases with my Mom. My parents got divorced the year before this movie came out, and it started a tradition (not kept for the last few years, but I blame Hollywood) of going to the movies with my Mom and sister every Christmas Day. In 1990, we actually saw Dances with Wolves, but before that we'd gone to a preview of Home Alone and my Mom's always loved that movie. So Home Alone and this pretty music reminds me of Christmas with her. (If she's reading this, she's crying now, I guarantee it.)

29. The Amazing Stories Opening Theme
I guess another one that reminds me of my parents specifically. We used to gather around the TV to watch this one when it originally aired, at least for the first season. Remember how it was kind of this show versus the revival of The Twilight Zone in the ratings? I remember episodes from both series that I liked, but despite the difference in tone, there are some episodes I remember that I can't place... were they Amazing Stories or Twilight Zone? I'd like to see both shows again.

28. Catch Me If You Can: "Catch Me If You Can"
I like Williams' jazzy opening theme to this one. The one I've linked is actually the opening credits to the film; which is the best and most stylish thing about it.

27. SpaceCamp
Well, I liked this movie when I was 10, but I don't think I've seen it since then. I saw it a lot, though. Seriously, maybe 5 or 6 times at the theater. It wasn't necessarily the film itself (though Lea Thompson being in it was an immense pleasure), just the fact that when I was 10 I wanted nothing more than to be an astronaut. It's all I wanted to do in the world. I had a ring with a Space Shuttle on it and read up all I could about the whole space program and what it would be like to go to the actual space camp. I know the movie failed in theaters, not necessarily for not being very good (I need to do an 80s Revisited on this one), but because it was released only a few months after the Challenger disaster. For me, the movie actually had the effect of bolstering my hope that the Space Shuttle Program would recover and keep going on. So when I hear the soundtrack suite (linked above), it just takes me back to that 10 year-old kid who wanted to go to Space Camp and hang out with Lea Thompson and a Frank Welker-voiced robot and learn to explore the solar system.

26. Empire of the Sun: "Cadillac of the Skies"
This is actually a concert arrangement of this wonderful piece of music; the version on the soundtrack album is frustratingly the cue from the film itself, which doesn't follow through on the beautiful theme Williams develops here.

25. Lost in Space: Season 3 Main Title
I just dig this one.

24. Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Williams' score is basically a character in this film... or at least a plot device. This score seems at times to me underrated; maybe because it was overshadowed by Star Wars in the same year. I'm including the whole score as one entry here, but I especially would point to the lovely final track, "Resolution and Finale."

23. 1941: "The March from 1941"
The less said about this movie the better--although I find it more watchable than a number of the films Spielberg has made since 1993--but I've always liked this bit of silliness.

22. Star Wars: "Cantina Band"
Speaking of silliness, take it away, Figrin D'an and the Modal Nodes. (Somebody out there has a version of this that carries on for 10 hours. That's too much for this boy. But I think I'd love almost anything featuring a synthesizer and steel drums.)

21. The Phantom Menace: "Duel of the Fates"
I don't love the Prequel soundtracks the way I love the soundtracks for the Original Trilogy, but there are some tracks that really amaze me. This concert arrangement of the "Duel of the Fates" theme is one...

20. Attack of the Clones: "Across the Stars (Love Theme from Attack of the Clones)"
...and this standout track from the Episode II soundtrack is another. I like the way it begins plaintively, then develops into this full orchestral outpouring. It's big and bold and sweeping.

19. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Again, I chose the whole score because, honestly, there are too many tracks to pick just one--for example, I do love "Double Trouble" (which always ends up on my Halloween playlist), "The Knight Bus," "Buckbeak's Flight," and especially "A Window to the Past."

18. "Dream Away," Frank Sinatra
Apparently derived initially from a theme Williams did for The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing, then expanded into a song and given lyrics by the great Paul Williams (no relation, of course). A lovely piece from the Chairman's 1973 album Ol' Blue Eyes Is Back. So pretty.

17. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
My favorite of the Indy flicks, yet I never had this soundtrack... Still don't, actually. Hm. Well, it's a hole in my collection, then, and one I hope to fill. I love this score, particularly "Short Round's Theme," which always makes me nostalgic, and this great concert arrangement piece "Parade of the Slave Children."

16. Superman
So many great themes at play in this score. For now I'll mention the beautiful "Love Theme from Superman," "Leaving Home," and "The Planet Krypton." I love the sweep of these tracks, and of the whole score itself. Frankly, this is still the greatest superhero movie of all time. Also, I heard a bunch of this music ripped off and laid into an old Jackie Chan movie once, but I can't remember which one... Fearless Hyena, maybe?

15. Hook
Excellent score for a very flawed, very troubled movie that somehow tries both too hard and not hard enough. I wore out this cassette in high school, though. And I saw the movie a bunch of times. 1991 was the point--at age fourteen--where I was becoming more discerning and less easily manipulated. Still, going through my parents' divorce and the uprooting to a new home and quick adjustment to a new step-family were knocking me around emotionally, and this is especially a time when I felt no one was listening to me (and no one really was; both of my parents would often just talk over me--to other people--as though I wasn't even speaking...and now they wonder why I never think to call them; maybe it's because I don't feel like anyone wants to listen to me). Those factors made this film's retreat into childhood very attractive to me for a long time. It wasn't until later that I really saw, objectively, that it's just a shoddily-made, manipulative mess. But the score is magnificent. Standout tracks, I think: "Presenting the Hook," "Remembering Childhood," and "Farewell Neverland," among many others.

14. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
This is another one of the cassettes I used to overplay when I was in junior high and high school, especially while I was reading those surprisingly wonderful Rob MacGregor novels (Indiana Jones and the Seven Veils being my particular favorite, but all the MacGregor ones were neat). This is one of the soundtrack albums that I could just put on and not get bored with or want to fast forward through. Some of Williams' best tracks: "Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra" and the sublime "Finale and End Credits." Great stuff. (Personal stuff: I'm always reminded that this was the last movie that we went to see as a family before my parents' divorce was finalized less than a month later. The next time we all saw a movie together was in 2001, when I went with both my parents, Rebecca, my sister Jayne and her fiance at the time, to see Planet of the Apes for my birthday. So this remains the last good movie we saw together as a family. In a way, the end of my childhood and the start of an overlong adolescence. Had this poster on my wall for years.)

13. Revenge of the Sith: "Anakin's Betrayal" and "The Immolation Scene"
The scenes in Episode III where Anakin turns to the Dark Side and becomes Darth Vader--and has his confrontation with Obi-Wan Kenobi--are among the best scenes in the entire Star Wars Saga. Emotional and sweeping, reaching nearly Wagnerian moods, Williams matches them perfectly with the deep strings of his score. My Grandma used to complain that John Williams was "all brass," but somewhere in the 90s he discovered the string section and the moodiness that accompanies it. What I love best about both of these pieces, which really do go together in my mind, is how they combine just a bit of the flavor of the Original Trilogy scores, with the more free-form strings of the Prequels. There are moments in "Anakin's Betrayal" especially when it seems the light will win out, where you can hear the music almost turning into that Force theme, but in the end it all turns bleak. Anakin's not coming back. Not for a long time. And the sadness of "The Immolation Scene" is palpable, the perfect accompaniment to Obi-Wan's emotional turmoil ("You were  the chosen one!") and the completeness of Anakin's rage ("I hate you!"). Powerful.

12. Schindler's List
Probably the score where Williams did discover the strings... Another great full score listen, very deep and beautiful and sad in its beauty. Standouts: "Remembrances" and "I Could Have Done More." Like Hook, the score is better than the film itself, which I think dehumanizes Schindler by idolizing him.

11. Jaws: "Out to Sea/The Shark Cage Fugue"
As good as the score to Jaws is, I LOVE this concert arrangement combining two different cues. I have this on a CD called The Spielberg/Williams Collaboration, which is actually the first CD I ever bought. Exciting stuff. I made a video in high school that used this music... I think it was just a montage from Jaws. Had to do it on a camcorder and a VCR with the scenes timed out. Came out rather nice. I made a better one about Indiana Jones, though... the kind of thing you see all over YouTube today.

10. The Witches of Eastwick: "Dance of the Witches"
I love this piece; jaunty, but building and building and building... Always ends up on my Halloween playlist, too.

9. Star Wars
Well, of course. One of the most iconic main titles in history, and one hell of a great score and soundtrack album. The whole trilogy is what got me thinking about the idea of recurring themes and motifs in orchestral music--and probably gave me a natural predilection for the Romantic Era of art music. Of my many favorite tracks, I'd especially have to point to "Ben Kenobi's Death and TIE Fighter Attack," "Throne Room and End Title," and the lovely "Princess Leia's Theme."

8. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: "Fawkes the Phoenix"
My personal favorite of Williams' Potter cues--really, of all the Potter cues-- is this concert arrangement of my favorite theme (which I believe we only heard in this movie; still kind of a shame that they didn't try to keep a real sort of score continuity in the entire film series, but frankly after Patrick Doyle's Goblet of Fire, I didn't feel much invested in the scores, anyways). This was on my iPod for a long time, and I always liked to hear it on walks. Sometimes makes my Christmas playlist because it makes me feel sort of warm.

7. Return of the Jedi
The score that really started it all for me; that was the cover of the record we had (and still have; we never got rid of it and it's in my record collection right now). Sure, this wasn't the whole score and everything was pretty out of sequence, but it was a fantastic listen and began my love of film scores. So many favorites on this one, including "Into the Trap," "The Return of the Jedi" (now boringly called "Sail Barge Assault" on the newer expanded versions), "Parade of the Ewoks," "The Forest Battle," and of course, "Ewok Celebration and Finale," the Ewok Celebration part now one of the few things George Lucas tossed onto the fire of fan stupidity, and I hope he regrets it.

6. Raiders of the Lost Ark: "The Raiders March"
Now, as good as I think the Raiders score is, I think this just transcends it as one of the most iconic pieces in film music history. I just had to pick this over the entire score. I don't know, it's an esoteric list, remember? I hear this and all I can think of is a thousand afternoons of adventure, playing in the yard or in the woods. I once went to a carnival where they had some kind of adventure playland thing, where you had to run up and down it and get past obstacles or swing down ropes, all ending in a slide. They kept playing the Raiders score, and we all wanted to be the ones who got on it while the march was actually playing...

5. Jurassic Park: "Journey to the Island"
I have such very fond memories of the summer of 1993. The day Jurassic Park came out was actually the last day of my junior year of high school, and it was only a half-day, so Mom let me take the car (as she would many days that summer) and I actually saw Jurassic Park twice that day, once with Carl, and once with my Mom and sister. I was already so excited, having read the novel just a few months before for extra credit in science class. I saw that movie 13 or 14 times that summer. I devoured it. I read all about the making of it, as I had always been so fascinated by special effects and Industrial Light & Magic in particular. I remember that day, too, was the day I finished Jeffrey Eugenides' The Virgin Suicides, which was brand new. I was reading it in the car waiting for Carl to get out of school so we could go to the movie. Gosh, I spent so much of that summer reading Michael Crichton and collecting Jurassic Park cards, looking for those Crash McCreery concept art cards. That was really the last summer of my childhood, because the next summer I would have to work (I was working in May just before I actually graduated). Hearing this music--which is magical on its own--always puts me in mind of those warm summer days. You know, I sometimes still dress like Alan Grant without realizing it... jeans, denim shirt, the hat... that's how I always used to dress, anyway.

4. Star Wars: "The Force"
It needs its own mention. Easily the best theme in the entire set of Star Wars scores, though not quite my absolute fave (as you're about to see).

3. The Empire Strikes Back
My personal favorite of all the Star Wars scores, mainly because of the three great themes that permeate it: "Yoda's Theme," "The Imperial March," and "Han Solo and the Princess." That Han Solo music is my favorite theme from the Star Wars saga, and I love the way it flowers in the final track, "Rebel Fleet/End Title," which also brings in Yoda's theme, Vader's theme, and the Force theme in six and a half spectacular minutes. That single track is my all time favorite Star Wars music. But, really, pick a track on this one, they're all fantastic: try "The Asteroid Field" or "Yoda and the Force," which is actually my favorite scene in all of Star Wars.

2. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial: "Adventures on Earth" (Part I, Part II)
I know this is all called something different on the reissue soundtracks, but this is basically the entire great climax of one of the greatest movies ever made, and what I've recently come to realize is actually my favorite movie. I used to listen to this on my Walkman while I was riding my bike around my suburban neighborhood, but I had to be tough because the end always makes me want to cry. Kids.

1. Superman: "Main Title (Theme from Superman)"
Still the greatest superhero music ever, and I think the most stirring composition in Williams' catalog, which is really saying something. I think the music just speaks for itself, honestly, and whenever I read a comic and Superman's getting really heroic, this is what I hear in my mind.

For all this and more, thank you, John Williams.

1 comment:

Jason said...

A great list, Frog, and I totally agree with your number-one choice. Out of a lifetime of making iconic music, at the end of the day, the Superman theme is his masterpiece, the one that will forever be associated with that character no matter how many reboots, remakes, and reimaginings he may go through. Any Superman film that doesn't reference Williams' theme in some way is going to be lacking.