In the history of cinema, there are no two careers more intertwined than Steven Spielberg and John Williams. From The Sugarland Express in 1974 to The Post in 2017, the Academy Award-winning filmmaker and composer have teamed up for some of the most important and influential films. With movies like Jurassic Park and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Saving Private Ryan and Catch Me If You Can, they are in a class above the rest.
All of these movies, while great on their own, are only made better by the legendary John Williams and his approach to scoring nearly 30 different Steven Spielberg projects, many of which are in different genres ranging from science fiction adventures like E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and somber period dramas like Schindler's List and Lincoln. Here are 10 of those excellent John Williams Scores in a Steven Spielberg movie.
Steven Spielberg's 1975 answer to the monster genre Jaws is probably remembered just as much for the great John Williams score as it is for the director's masterful way of inserting tension and fear into what is considered the first summer blockbuster. The "dun dun… dun dun… dun dun dun dunnn" of the film's main theme is one of the few pieces of music that you can hear just by reading the text, and that's just the beginning.
To illustrate how vital the score was to the movie, Richard Dreyfus once played the scene in which his Matt Hooper and Robert Shaw's Quint first attempt to catch the shark, once with no music, and a second time with Williams' instrumentation. The composition guides the audience through the scene and enhances the emotions of the characters, turning it into one of the most memorable moments in movie history.
Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977)
The 1977 science-fiction epic Close Encounters of the Third Kind helped cement Steven Spielberg as a master of the genre, and the movie's epic story of humans coming into contact with aliens was only made that more memorable thanks to soaring and sweeping score by John Williams.
Throughout the entire movie, the score pushes the plot along to the point where the humans finally begin to communicate with the alien mothership, which is another way of inserting Williams' composition into the picture. The "Play The Five Tones" scene is a miraculous piece of filmmaking and orchestration as it starts rather small and hushed before going into a back and forth between the two species before growing into a grand composition that ultimately ends with a chorus of strings growing in intensity as the aliens reveal themselves to the amazement of the humans.
Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981)
Raiders of the Lost Ark, the first Indiana Jones movie, had it all: Steven Spielberg directing Harrison Ford in a movie written by Lawrence Kasdan from a story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, and oh yeah, John Williams composing the score. Like many of the movies where Williams wrote the music, it's hard to picture Raiders without the perfectly timed triumphant horns or sweeping string arrangements as Indy runs for his life whether it be from native tribes to crazed Nazis.
Just watch the "Golden Idol" scene in the prologue of Raiders of the Lost Ark and try not to get excited when you hear the first hints of John Williams' iconic "Raiders March" as the famed archeologist narrowly escapes certain death after jumping in a plan while dodging arrows and spears. It sets the tone of the rest of the film and that has a lot to do with Williams and his uncanny ability to capture the thrill of adventure.
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Steven Spielberg went back to the science fiction genre five years after the release of Close Encounters with perhaps his most iconic movie of the 1980s with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. And who did Spielberg turn to for the film's score? None other than John Williams. Seriously, Williams signature style can be heard all throughout the movie, but nothing really comes close to the iconic "Across the Moon" scene when Elliott (Henry Thomas) and E.T. make their daring escape from a group of government scientists.
Just listen as the orchestration builds up to an epic release just as Elliott yells out in joy as he and E.T. soar past the moon in the night's sky. The music sweeps as the pair of friends soar fly through the sky and make their landing, at which point the tone changes and the song is complete. It's brief, but it leaves you wanting more, which is one of the best characteristics a piece of music can have.
Jurassic Park (1993)
It is hard to imagine a world in which Jurassic Park didn't have the classic score from John Williams. Just, for a moment, try to imagine Dr. Grant's first encounter with a living, breathing dinosaur without Williams' composition building up strength in the background. Just as the brachiosaurus lets out an almost somber and hushed bellow, the string and brass instruments start slowly before building into a triumphant and roaring crescendo.
The same can be said as the survivors escape the island on a helicopter at the end of the movie. As each character reflects on the adventure they just completed and those who didn't make it out alive, there's only a simple piano composition playing in the background before Dr. Grant (Sam Neill) sees a flock of pelicans, at which point the music soars again, and we are taken back to the real world.
Schindler's List (1993)
Released the same year as Jurassic Park, Steven Spielberg's somber Holocaust drama Schindler's List is one of those movies that is hard to watch multiple times, not because it's a bad movie, but because the subject is just so hard to digest without leaving you gutted.
The tone of the film is only heightened with the low-key score by John Williams, including the violin-heavy main theme that plays throughout the black-and-white affair. One of the hardest parts of the movie to watch is the scene that features the young girl in the red coat hiding from the Nazi forces forcing the Jewish citizens out of their homes and into concentration camps. The juxtaposition of John Williams' beautiful composition with the tragic images on the screen is one of the best examples of the composer's relationship with Steven Spielberg.
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
There are large sections of Saving Private Ryan that don't feature any music at all, and that was thanks to John Williams who thought that some sections of Steven Spielberg's World War II epic should let what's happening on the screen tell the story. Despite this, Williams wrote one of his best scores for 1998 war film, including the main theme, "Hymn To The Fallen."
With shades of Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man," the main theme of Saving Private Ryan is nuanced, emotional, and epic all at the same time, which is a feat few others could accomplish. Throughout the rest of the movie (whenever there's music), John Williams brings his trademark combination of string arrangements and horn sections to add to the tone of the film.
Catch Me If You Can (2002)
The opening credits to Steven Spielberg's 2002 crime thriller Catch Me If You Can does a perfect job of setting up the rest of the movie with its 1950s-esque the title sequence and imagery that looks like something out of a mid-century spy flick. John Williams' punchy composition, especially with the xylophone introduction and finger snaps, lets the audience know they are in for a fun throwback to the stories of yesteryear. The scoring quickly blossoms into a state of chaos, mirroring the road the movie will take shortly thereafter.
War Of The Worlds (2005)
At this point, Steven Spielberg couldn't make a great science fiction alien movie without calling on his old friend John Williams to score the picture, and that was very much the case for the 2005 War of the Worlds.
Spielberg's eye and Williams' ear for writing music that fits each of the major scenes better than a glove are both working on overdrive here, and it can best be seen in the scene in which the tripods invade earth and begin disintegrating humans in the streets. The scene starts with everyone staring up in awe as the aliens let out a mechanical roar before unleashing hell on those down below. The score drives, but doesn't overpower what is happening on the screen, a delicate balance on Williams could pull off.
And then there is John Williams' score in Steven Spielberg's 2012 drama Lincoln, specifically the flashback to the second inauguration of the 16th President of the United States which plays after he is assassinated. The scene starts with a subdued composition for the first minute or so until Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) says "With malice toward none," at which point the orchestration begins to build up to a fitting ending for such a remarkable film.
As Steven Spielberg said at the AFI 44th Life Achievement Award Gala Tribute To John Williams in 2016, bikes don't really fly, dinosaurs do not walk the earth, and we do not wonder, weep, or believe without the compositions of John Williams. These are just 10 of the scores Williams has made for Spielberg over the years, which is just a small fraction of the composer's body of work.
Philip grew up in Louisiana (not New Orleans) before moving to St. Louis after graduating from Louisiana State University-Shreveport. When he's not writing about movies or television, Philip can be found being chased by his three kids, telling his dogs to stop yelling at the mailman, or yelling about professional wrestling to his wife. If the stars properly align, he will talk about For Love Of The Game being the best baseball movie of all time.
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