On John Williams’ 85th Birthday, We Look At His 10 Most Iconic Soundtracks

The most Oscar-nominated person alive has just turned 85. The world’s favorite composer, John Williams, has been writing movie scores and earning Academy nominations for six decades, and he doesn’t even like films that much. In 2012, he told the Financial Times that he couldn’t remember the last time he went to the movie theater. Even so, working in movies was written into his destiny from an early age and he shows no signs of slowing down.

Williams is responsible for providing film fans everywhere with soundtracks to live by but he remains a humble man to the core. He doesn’t employ anyone, not even an assistant, and he still works with just a pencil and manuscript paper. His profession is defined by a passion of the purest kind.

In honor of his birthday, let’s take a look back at ten of his most iconic soundtracks:

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Saving Private Ryan

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Despite the context, Saving Private Ryan is one of John Williams’ more peaceful scores. The film united the age-old partnership of Spielberg and Williams, starred Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Vin Diesel, introduced Matt Damon and won five Oscars including Best Director. The war epic stands to this day as one of the most raw and accurate depictions of combat that cinema has ever seen. The unforgettable story, a heart-warming tale of blind sacrifice, is reflected beautifully in the soaring soundtrack that is all at once melancholic and optimistic.

Home Alone (1990)

Home Alone

For a generation or two, the soundtrack of the holidays was provided by Home Alone which for many is still the one film which heralds the approach of Christmas. Written by John Hughes and directed by Chris Columbus, another with whom Williams has worked with regularly throughout his career, Home Alone is the definitive Christmas movie. The flick centers on an obnoxious and highly resourceful eight year old (Macauley Culkin) who must attempt to protect his home from two alarmingly stupid burglars when his family accidentally leave him at home during the Christmas vacation. The score is appropriately energetic and suspenseful with a sprinkling of holiday music frills thrown in.

Schindler’s List (1993)

Schindler's List

The second Spielberg/Williams collaboration on this list is found in the heartbreakingly restrained Schindler’s List soundtrack. The movie follows the true story of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a German industrialist who saved the lives of 1200 Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland during the Holocaust. The film stunned the world upon its release and won seven Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Music. The raw, tear-jerking simplicity of the violin solo, immortalised by Itzhak Perlman, is one of the most iconic tunes in recent cinema history.

Superman (1978)

Superman

While Christopher Reeve’s Superman may have slipped out of the collective consciousness in recent years, the theme tune is still widely recognised. Straying only a little from the awe-inspiring, fantasy epic scores Williams’ had turned out for Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, his Superman soundtrack added a taste of comic book adventure to his now recognisable sound. The building, foot-stamping brass that swells into the main theme, reminiscent of Jaws and Star Wars, builds the anticipation and then gives way to the purring majesty of strings in a way that is characteristic of John Williams’ definitive works.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Raiders of the Lost Ark

There is a carefree theme to the Indiana Jones music that is unique from Williams’ other work. Once again directed by Steven Spielberg, and written by George Lucas, the film is a warm, feel-good story of the triumph of good over evil. The score’s divergent staccato energy and resolute determination screams adventure and a cocksure personality, which resonates in the character of Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), and echoes the sincerity and heart of the story.

Jurassic Park (1993)

Jurassic Park

The miracle of modern movie-making that was Jurassic Park required only the most astonishing and breathtaking soundtrack, and John Williams certainly delivered on that front. For a film in which enormous dinosaurs run amok, causing havoc at a theme park (and showing off pioneering special effects), the score is threatening, tense, terrifying and wondrous in equal measures, and the main theme has stood the test of time arguably better than the visuals that made it famous.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

E.T. The Extra Terrestrial

Who would have thought that one of the most cherished movies of modern cinema would tell the story of an unlikely friendship between boy and alien? Well, it happened, and a single image accompanied by one awe-inspiring track is lodged firmly in the frontal lobe of film buffs the world over. Probably my personal favorite of his soundtracks, for E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Williams chose to focus on imagination, friendship and hope instead of the other-worldly sounds one might associate with an alien race, and the result is one of the most joyous pieces of music ever created (IMHO).

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

By then the world’s most respected composer of fantasy epics, director Chris Columbus called on John Williams to write Harry Potter’s iconic score that would become the soundtrack for an entire generation. The quiet optimism and magical simplicity of those first tracks perfectly introduced one of the most important pop culture events of the 21st century, with a thrilling mix of danger, wonder and spell-binding suspense.

Jaws (1975)

Jaws

The film which would become Spielberg’s definitive blockbuster featured one of the most recognisable (and most parodied) soundtracks in the history of cinema. Spielberg once said that Jaws would be nothing without that famous two-tone musical motif, and it’s true. That nervy and menacing sound has come to define not only the movie but a whole genre of film. In fact, the number of people who have heard the soundtrack but not seen the film probably outweighs those who have gifted their eyes with the singular experience.

Star Wars (1977)

Star Wars Battle of Yavin

If we were to pinpoint one movie which introduced a new era of cinema, few would argue against Star Wars, later retitled Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. In the most unlikely of movie genre mashups, what Star Wars offered was a combination of wild west adventure and space odyssey unlike anything we had seen before. And who could ever forget that soundtrack? First there’s that epic Gustav Holst-esque title theme, then the unforgettable Imperial March, the hilarity of the Cantina Band jazz rag and the romantically soaring strings when Han and Leia kiss. The sum of all these parts create a score bursting with excitement and childlike wonder.

There we have it. Clearly there are dozens which could have made this list but do you think there are any glaring absences? Let us know in the comments.

And finally, Happy Birthday to the great man!

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Emma Nicholson
A UK based film nut who got lost on the way home from a Product Design degree in Wales and leapt into postgrad study of the media industries in London. Obsessed with road cycling, Sherlock Holmes (the books too), neo-noir, historical epics and bored of formulaic spectacle. Still waiting for a Hogwarts letter...

3 COMMENTS

  1. For my money, the fugue from Close Encounters, a musical conversation between humans and an alien species, is the best thing Mr. Williams has written. And yet, it doesn’t even make the top ten. There’s no accounting for taste!

    • I do agree that for Close Encounters he wrote some of his most eerie and engaging music, but for this list it came down to a question of longevity. Home Alone is a questionable addition, but it made it because of it’s familiarity for so many people and its transcendence of generations. By comparison, it could be said that Close Encounters has turned into something of a cult classic. I could have kept going to 25 with this list and I enjoyed looking back at the classics very much!

  2. I think the STAR WARS score owe more to Hadyn, shot through with Wagnerian leitmotifs… and John Williams’ music for 1941 is his first take for the later RAIDERS music. The jaunty, madcap score for this earlier Spielberg just became more “pulpy” for those films, but it’s the musical mirror to it.

    Interesting list. Personally, I’d rank his CLOSE ENCOUNTERS as a representative Williams, just touching the sentimentality of later Spielbergs, IMO. His score for STAR WARS made me get into soundtracks AND Orchestral music when I listened to it as a kid— nothing made me ‘decipher’ Classical Music as Williams’ motifs that fit perfectly as Symhonic Allegro – Adagio – Scherzo – Allegro/Andante of “Main Title” – “Princess Leia’s Theme” – “The Little People” – “Throne Room/ Main Title Reprise”: Classical WAS understandable!

    True, his music isn’t as ‘chunky’, memorable in recognizable motifs to catch the ears, as his late ’70s/’80s heyday works— but he’s still scoring films today with that more ‘mature’ sound. As I’ve always analogised: some people prefer “Symphony No. 9 ” over the “Eroica”….

    Happy Birthday, Mr. Williams!

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