Nearly 30 years on, the Force is still strong for the Star Wars composer John Williams
By Ian Johns
The Times, May 19, 2005
LIGHT SABRES clash. Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi are in the grip of a duel. The massed forces of the London Symphony Orchestra swell . . . and play Happy Birthday to You. It’s February at the Abbey Road Studios and the composer John Williams is celebrating his 73rd birthday while recording his latest Star Wars score, Revenge of the Sith (see review), the sixth and final instalment of George Lucas’s space saga.
“The way this final story has gone, it all forms a completed circle,” says Williams of a film series he began work on in 1976. “I must say that I’m very pleased to still be here to be able to finish it.”
His scores’ late-Romantic texture of Bruckner, Mahler and Strauss may seem incongruous next to spaceships and futuristic cityscapes on screen. But the lush sound is very comforting: how better to convey integrity and background, a feeling of roots? “George never wanted a futuristic sound,” Williams explains. “He wanted it to be very melodic, to contrast the futurism of the film with the romantic idiom of the music.”
Over the years, Williams has built on various musical themes to identify the main characters. The more their motives have transmogrified and revealed new facets of character, the more Williams’s scores have become a kind of glorious, continuing soap opera.
“When I did the original Star Wars, I didn’t know that the themes would be developed in later films. Much of the action sequences I saw were mock-ups of what eventually appeared on screen. Now, in hindsight, one can see how these themes interrelate, but it was all a happy accident.”
Of course, Williams is not famous only for Star Wars. He has provided the anthemic flypast for Superman and the magical sweep of the Harry Potter franchise. He’s conjured up the underwater menace of Jaws, the eerie extraterrestrial telegraphy of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the heroic brassy anthems following Indiana Jones, the beautifully spare accompaniment forSchindler’s List — and nearly every other film directed by Steven Spielberg.
With five Oscars, 18 Grammys and countless other awards, Williams is cinema’s most successful composer. You wouldn’t guess it when meeting this self-effacing man, who exudes the air of a genial professor. But then that’s probably the perfect temperament for his work. As he says: “Film music serves the movie, not the ego of a composer.”
Over the years he’s forged regular collaborations — with Lucas, Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Harry Potter) and Oliver Stone (Born on the Fourth of July, JFK and Nixon). But it is working with Spielberg that Williams likens to a marriage. And it sounds as if the honeymoon period still isn’t over.
“Working with Steven is like being with a family member,” says Williams. “A good working relationship with a director is vital since what seems appropriate to one of us for a scene might seem inappropriate to the other. Steven’s direction has this great rhythmic, kinetic sense. He never leans on music to support something that is deficient. He uses it because he likes it and he’s comfortable with the medium of sound and music.”
So was the New York-born Williams from an early age: “My father was a musician and so were his friends. As a kid I simply thought music was what grown-ups did. I think I learnt to read music before I learnt to read words.”
When his father got a job at 20th Century Fox in the mid-Thirties, Williams tagged along to watch the movie orchestra perform. In his early twenties, after studying at the prestigious Juilliard School, “Johnny” Williams made ends meet playing in jazz clubs.
His lucky break came at the Columbia Pictures’ Orchestra in the 1950s as the pianist working under a stream of illustrious guest conductors, including Dimitri Tiomkin (Red River) and Bernard Herrmann (Psycho, Taxi Driver). Eventually Williams’s talent and good fortune paid off, culminating in his first Oscar as musical director for Fiddler on the Roof.
A decade of scoring weekly TV series, including The Virginian andLost in Space, had also made him adept at different genres. His later film work ranged from melodrama (Valley of the Dolls) to westerns (The Reivers) and disaster movies (The Towering Inferno).
The studio system offered Williams a creative community: “Over lunch in the studio canteen, we’d sit around talking about our problems, the kind of inside stuff that puts you in touch with how things work. Every studio had that, but it’s all gone now. Every composer works at home. We are no longer connected.”
When Williams agrees to score a movie, he won’t read a script or source material (although he did read the first Harry Potter with his grandchildren). Instead, he awaits the rough cut: “I prefer to see the film like a viewer and be surprised here and shocked there, and capture those initial reactions in the music.”
He rejects the idea that his scores for Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (one of his favourite films) in 1977 re-established the orchestral film score after years of wallpaper music that added little to the drama, or compilation soundtracks: “Orchestras have always been enormously handy for emotional expressiveness. If they went out of fashion from the late 1950s to the middle 1970s, it was just that: they were out of fashion. Someone would have brought them back. They’re too useful and successful to ignore.”
Williams admits that he cannot remember any time when young composers have been as interested in writing for films as they are now: “When I was at Juilliard, no one wanted to write for movies; now it’s all they want to do.”
Not that he’s suggesting he’s ready to give up himself: “The longer one works in music, the deeper appreciation one gets. It’s not the kind of job one retires from to go fishing.”