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.
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?