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Tag Archive: John Williams movie soundtracks


e-t-clip

Review by C.J. Bunce

I can’t hazard a guess as to how many times I have watched E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.  Probably a handful of times in 1982 and 1983, and at least once during a return to theaters in the past 35 years, plus a few times on VHS.  What stood out today, watching the film as part of the Fathom Events and Turner Classic Movies 35th anniversary re-release screenings, is how ageless the film is.  A teenager sitting behind me caught every single joke.  In a time when parents don’t think to take their kids to classic film opportunities like this, the kids are truly missing a great experience.  The film is a giant adventure story set in the backyard of a boy and his brother and sister.  It’s relatable.  Just check out Elliott’s room.  There’s a toy Star Destroyer on the table.  A TIE Fighter across the room.  He carefully explains who Greedo, Hammerhead, Walrus Man, Snaggletooth, Lando, and Boba Fett are to E.T.  And that advance LEGO builder set on the shelf.  How many kids’ homes today, after all these years, still look so similar?  And someone nearby is getting ready to dress up as Yoda, or a character from his neighborhood, in only a few weeks, much like the kid E.T. tries to run off with on Halloween.

It’s not only relatable, it’s about that subject that sci-fi does best when done right:  Communication.  Last year’s acclaimed sci-fi film Arrival was all about it, but does it reach into each of us like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial has?  We celebrated one of the best episodes of television this year here at borg.com, discussing the 25th anniversary of one of the greatest of all Star Trek episodes, Darmok from The Next Generation, a story entirely about the practical, real-world difficulty of communication.  Elliott, played so well by Henry Thomas, and later Gertie, played equally well by the younger Drew Barrymore, each use what knowledge a little kid has to try to relate to an outsider.  And we immediately see the problems–the barriers–that get in the way.  Elliott tries to convey to the very curious new alien visitor so willing to learn that this giant object is a peanut.  “You eat them, only you can’t eat this one because it’s not real.”  He’s describing a bank that was made to look like a peanut.  He then puts money in it.  And the result: E.T. next tries to eat a toy car.  Just as Dathon and Picard found, communication isn’t all that easy.  Only when Gertie gets her only one-on-one opportunity, of the three kids she is the one who helps E.T. gain his vocabulary.  The innocent and the youngest and the most awestruck.  And she’s also the first to understand he is trying to phone home.  Communication is difficult sometimes, but if kids can figure this out, what can adults do?

gertie-and-e-t

This week’s release was the original cut, as seen in theaters in 1982, not with any modifications.  This is the first time the film has screened in theaters since the death of writer Melissa Mathison in 2015 (you might not have seen the laserdisc version of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, the only version ever released to feature Mathison’s then kinda-sorta well-known boyfriend Harrison Ford in the shadows as Elliott’s principal, meeting Elliott’s mom Mary (Dee Wallace) after his frog rescue–a bad scene, justifiably deleted).  I did not recall how much we see E.T. in the film’s first scene as he and other botanists search out samples.  E.T. carefully digs up what appears to be a Redwood sapling.  But I now understand what Spielberg was thinking in his later re-cut version.  As a kid I thought the humans were the enemy and yet this time I found no evidence of the humans trying to do anything other than learn about E.T.–much like the humans in Close Encounters of the Third Kind were scientists attempting to communicate.  In Close Encounters, the presence of weapons are to scare the public from the faked quarantine area.  Maybe that was the purpose of the weapons in the original E.T. cut.  But somehow the rifles seemed out-of-place when the kids were escaping on bikes, after E.T. dies, after showing all the adults desperately try to help, to save E.T, some even in tears.  This was the differentiator of Spielberg’s alien films from those that came before–the same spirit that only a few years earlier guided scientists to launch a couple of records into space hoping to communicate with someone out there.  So swapping out car phones or walkie talkies for rifles actually is consistent with the actions of the adults in the rest of the film.  I also can understand why so many little kids look back on the film as scary.  There’s plenty to scare little kids–those same things that scare E.T. throughout the film, as well as what might be many kids’ first introduction to death.  But the scene is gracefully done, and three decades later it’s great to hear that the adults are clearly heard attempting all those real-world, life-saving techniques to save our new alien friend.  Mathison masterfully blended a science fiction, a fantasy adventure, and a coming-of-age story all in one package.

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John Williams conducting Star Wars

Few individuals have stood apart from their peers in their professional endeavors as much as maestro John Williams.  Last week the American Film Institute presented Williams with its life achievement award, the 44th awarded and first for a composer.  It’s certainly about time.  With five Academy Award wins and 50 nominations, Williams holds the record for the most Oscar nominations of any living person.  Three of his scores, for Star Wars, Jaws, and E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial, are on AFI’s list of the top 25 scores of all time.  This Wednesday night the AFI award event will be televised, and guests honoring Williams include George Lucas, Steven Spielberg–both who owe the most to Williams for their individual successes–as well as Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Morgan Freeman, Drew Barrymore, Tom Hanks, Itzhak Perlman, J.J. Abrams, Bryce Dallas Howard, Will Farrell, Steve Martin, Seth McFarlane, and Daisy Ridley.

You may not remember the first time you heard a familiar tune from Williams, but for those more than 40 years old it was no doubt the theme from television’s Lost in Space series, featuring an end credit to “Johnny” Williams.  He also provided the piano music for the Academy Award winning, and AFI recognized comedy Some Like it Hot.  For everyone since then you can define your generation by your earliest familiarity with his music, whether it’s the Main Title to Star Wars, the Jurassic Park theme, or the theme to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.  Those whose introduction to Williams was Star Wars: The Force Awakens have plenty of great music to discover.

Williams is of a rare breed of American composer whose songs stick with you forever.  He’s in an elite club with the likes of musicians Aaron Copland, John Philip Sousa, Leonard Bernstein, Irving Berlin, and George Gershwin.  For more than 60 years Williams has set the bar for–and defined worldwide for moviegoers’ ears–our expectation for modern programmatic movie music.

John Williams

Stepping aside from his success at major memorable themes, one of his greatest skills is his juxtaposition of opposites.  Just listen in the Jaws soundtrack to the busy streets of Amity in the “Montage” and the cheery adventure theme from “The Great Shark Chase” among his well-known bass horror cues.  Some of his most brilliant compositions are tucked away behind giant, epic scores, like “The Asteroid Field” from The Empire Strikes Back and “Escape from Venice” from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  And would modern audiences even know a march beyond nationalistic music if not for “The Superman March,” “The Raiders of the Lost Ark March,” “The March from 1941,” and “The Imperial March” from The Empire Strikes Back? 

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