Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Maestro Strikes Back: The Best of JOHN WILLIAMS

Nuggets of news about pre-production of the new Star Wars trilogy continue to tiptoe in at the crawling pace of a bantha with an ingrown talon, and speculation is still rampant about the cast of characters and the overall plot arc.

But one of the most crucial elements of the Star Wars saga is officially locked in for the new movie — Lucasfilm has confirmed composer John Williams will return to score J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: Episode VII, and this is most definitely music to my ears.

Some Geeksites go further and mention Williams is committed to score the ENTIRE new trilogy, and even though the subsequent Episode VIII and Episode IX are at least 5-6 years away, the imminent return of the maestro in 2015 is cause for a major celebration.

We’ll all have to wait nearly two more years to hear what he’s conjured for Episode VII. In the meantime, here is a rundown of some of my favorite Williams scores, listed in no particular order. Inevitably, there’s a whole lot of Spielberg and Lucas in the mix, but Williams has also left his distinctive mark on the works of other filmmakers. 

Star Wars (1977)

Of COURSE Star Wars is on my list; that’s why we’re all here, right? If I were stricter with my sorting, I’d list each film separately but would end up devoting nearly half this Spasm to four of the six films in the saga.

As it is, I rank the original 1977 Star Wars above all its sequels and prequels because of the impact Williams’ exhilarating orchestral score had on audiences at the time, and the influence it still has on moviegoers and moviemakers today. It was also my very first soundtrack album, given as a Christmas present in 1977, and I can still smell the intoxicating inky aroma of the cardboard gatefold sleeve that housed the two vinyl LP records.

From the titanic “Main Title” to the tension-fraught suite for “The Battle of Yavin,” nearly every moment of the film is scored to perfection, played triumphantly by the London Symphony Orchestra.

I’d rank The Empire Strikes Back in close second place, for its ominous “Imperial March” (often and incorrectly dubbed the Darth Vader Theme), its romantic “Han Solo And The Princess” theme and its noble cue for Jedi master Yoda.

Now hear this: “Ben Kenobi's Death/Tie Fighter Attack” 

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

Here’s another close call, listing 1984’s sequel (prequel) before the original 1981 Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Despite its playful opening song-and-dance rendition of Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” (sung by Kate Capshaw in Mandarin), the Temple of Doom soundscape is darker and more complex than its predecessor. The score features multiple quotes from the “Raiders March” during the many cliffhanger set pieces, but once the action moves into the bowels of the titular temple, Williams and his orchestra take us to far more nightmarish places.

Now hear this: “The Campfire and The Route to Pankot Palace”

The Witches of Eastwick (1987)

Most of Williams' output between 1978’s Superman: The Movie and 1987’s The Witches of Eastwick was for messers Spielberg and Lucas, so it was quite a refreshing change of pace to hear the composer write a big, rousing symphonic score for somebody else.

That somebody else is George Miller of Mad Max/Road Warrior fame, directing an all-star adaptation of John Updike’s supernatural battle-of-the-sexes bestseller. Keen-eared listeners will detect the similarities between Williams’ spry theme for this film and his subsequent work for the early Harry Potter films, but the score’s whirling dervish motifs and flights of fancy rank right at the top of the maestro’s resume.

Now hear this: “The Dance Of The Witches”

Hook (1991)

Even when Spielberg swings for the fences and misses, his trusty compatriot Williams still delivers the goods.

Despite a main theme that borrows a bit too heavily from Williams' work for 1990’s Home Alone and a painfully treacly longing-to-go-home song shoehorned into the mix, the mischief and mayhem of Captain Hook and his gaggle of pirates makes for one of Williams' richest orchestral works.

Now hear this: “Presenting The Hook” 

Superman: The Movie (1978)

Best. Superhero. Soundtrack. Ever.

Now hear this: “Prelude And Main Title March” 

Monsignor (1982)

Taking a break from the cape between Superman sequels, Christopher Reeve stars in this 1982 turkey about a troubled priest who rises up in the Vatican despite his sin and scandal.

From the director of Mommie Dearest, this film is far too campy to be deemed drama yet not quite loony enough to warrant status as a cult classic. It’s B-grade all the way, though John Williams is dependably on his A-game, delivering a haunting and lyrical score heavily reminiscent of Nino Rota’s classic theme for The Godfather.

Now hear this: “Monsignor – Main Theme/Monsignor/Appoloni's Decision” 

A.I. – Artificial Intelligence (2001)

Steven Spielberg famously took over this longtime pet project of the late Stanley Kubrick, whose only specific request was that a particular motif from Richard Strauss’ opera Der Rosenkavalier should feature somewhere in the score.

Haunting, ethereal and suspenseful, Williams hits all the right notes in this misunderstood and unfairly maligned sci-fi fable about a robot child yearning to become real boy.

Now hear this: “To Rouge City”

1941 (1979)

The cinematic equivalent of a triple exclamation point, Spielberg’s zany war comedy details citizen panic in Hollywood in the days following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Perhaps justifiably criticized for its excess and slapstick bombast, there’s no denying the charm and gusto of Williams' terrific, patriotic score. Nobody writes a sure-footed march quite like him.

Now hear this: “The March From 1941” 

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

Echoes of The Witches of Eastwick notwithstanding, Williams’ magical melodies lend the first three Harry Potter adventures their heart, soul, pulse and whimsy.

All three of his scores are delightful, but his most infectiously charming symphony is for Year Three.

Now hear this: “Mischief Managed!”

E.T. - The Extra-Terrestrial  (1982)

Perhaps Williams’ finest and most indelible stand-alone score, his soaring Oscar-winning work for Spielberg’s “little” alien movie is, in turns, mysterious, spooky, mischievous, poignant and exulting.

Williams has won five Oscars so far in his prolific film-scoring career—the others are for Jaws, Star Wars, Fiddler on the Roof and Schindler’s List—but this is the one soundtrack many fans deem to be his indisputable masterpiece, including yours truly.

Now hear this: “Escape/Chase/Saying Goodbye”

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