Tag Archives: Boston Pops

The Best of John Williams

14 May

Simply put, John Williams is a legend. He has won 21 Grammy Awards, four Golden Globes, and five Oscars. His 45 Oscar Nominations trail only Walt Disney for the all time record. During his career he has penned the scores to over 80 movies, and created some of the most iconic themes in history in the process. He is without a doubt one of America’s most popular composers.

Williams, the Boston Pop’s conductor from 1980 to 1993, has celebrated the orchestra’s 125th anniversary with “Hooray for Hollywood,” a compilation of classic film tunes that has played at Symphony Hall in Boston this week. Tonight is their last performance, so I figured it might be fitting to write a little tribute of sorts to my favorite film composer.

I grew up with his music. John was there to guide me as I watched Macaulay Culkin trap the bad guys in Home Alone. He was there as I began an ongoing stint as a Star Wars fanboy, and he was there as I cheered Indiana Jones’ Nazi-killing expertise. To try to pick his greatest work is impossible, but I’m going to try anyway. In honor of the great Pops Composer Laureate’s return to Boston, here is a list of my ten favorite themes from Williams’ storied career.

10. “Main Title” from Superman

If you want to talk about fanfare, just listen the theme music to Superman. It’s “Truth, Justice and the American Way” through and through. Just a quick listen to William’s triumphant score makes you want to put on the red cape and pretend you can fly. Or is that just me? Either way, it’s patriotic bliss.

9. “Hedwig’s Theme” from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

I grew up reading J.K. Rowling’s saga, but by the time the film adaptation premiered I had already grown old and cynical. I was already anticipating the worst, knowing that no one could ever do justice to old  ‘arry Pottah.Yet even before the action begins, ‘Hedwig’s Theme’ come chiming in, as if to prove to us that magic does exist. Call me a believer. The film may not have been the best, but Harry Potter’s theme music could not have been better.

8. “Somewhere in My Memory” from Home Alone

Alright, call me crazy (guilty as charged) but this theme scares the bejeezus out of me. At first listen, the main theme is a cheerful ode to the spirit of Christmas. But just a few seconds in it becomes something far more sinister. The once comforting tune switches to a music-box like jingle, one that’s about as cheerful as a demented clown is. Add in some high pitch squealing vibrato from the strings and you know that this Christmas dream is about to become a nightmare. Yet, thankfully, Williams is right there at the end to wake us up and give us some warm milk and cookies. The Christmas theme comes sweeping back, and all is well.

7. “Theme” from Schindler’s List

You see? This is what happens when Steven Spielberg and John Williams team up for a movie that isn’t for the family. Williams had a bit of challenge here. He had to craft a score to a movie about the Holocaust, that would be mournful yet would still be respectful and not fall into cliché. What he creates succeeds on practically all levels. The Schindler’s List theme is both heartbreaking and beautiful. Israeli virtuoso Itzhak Perlman provides the sobbing violin solo. It may not be as optimistic as some of the other entries, nor would you listen to it to cheer you up on a down day, but in terms of pure emotion, this theme takes the cake.

6. “Flying Theme” from E.T. The Extra Terrestrial

Coming in at number six is the family classic E.T. Just a few seconds of that strings melody and I guarantee you’ll want to outrun bad guys on your Schwinn. Here the wonder of the scene is perfectly captured; every time I hear the first section, I can hear Elliot’s triumphant “Ha-Ha!” as he cruises over the police blockade. The image of ET’s bike soaring across the moon has become iconic, but I hazard to say it was William’s work, not some alien’s powers, that really made that bike fly.

5. “Main Theme” from Star Wars

Yeah, I put Star Wars down at number five, but hear me out.  As a self-identifying Star Wars nerd, I loved those movies. I recall watching the Star Wars for the first time as a little kid in my living room. A bit of blue text fades onto a black screen: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far far-” BAM! Williams’ score comes in with a bang and literally knocks me off my feet. From that terrifying moment of revelation I was sold. Star Wars is more than just a pop phenomenon, it’s basically a cult. This is the soundtrack we worship to, and for good reason. Those brass sections are a blaring homage to the old Golden Age of Movies, and the catchy melody has stood the test of time. The Star Wars theme may not be the greatest Williams’ piece, but it’s certainly one of his most recognizable.

4. “Theme” from Jurassic Park

It takes a while to get started, but it’s worth the wait. Constantly imitated and always inimitable, Jurassic Park’s theme is grand in every sense, just like the dinosaurs who were given a new lease on life. Where the Star Wars theme has become synonymous with the movie through sheer force of popularity, it’s Jurassic Park that truly fits. That first shot of a towering brontosaurus was pure wonder. No one had pulled off special effects like those, and for a bunch of kids who adored dinosaurs, it was like a dream come true. And through it all, Williams has the perfect harmony.

3. “Theme” from Jaws

Two notes of absolute dread. His first collaboration with Spielberg (and Spielberg’s first studio hit) is arguably his most successful. No need to even describe it, Jaw’s simple theme inspired terror for generations of moviegoers. It was the perfect piece for a killer on the prowl, and has extended beyond that to represent pure unadulterated terror. Just hum the first two notes in the dark one night, and you’ll see what I mean. Both Spielberg and Williams were on the top of their game for this horror story of a shark gone rogue. So is this theme one of Williams’ greatest ever? ‘You betcha!’

2. “The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme)” from The Empire Strikes Back

I told you to hear me out. Star Wars is back with the coveted number two slot. Star Wars was great and all, but Lucas had a different idea for the second movie. The result is a far darker, much less optimistic sequel, and Williams steps up to the plate to make it a home run. The authoritative Imperial March is brilliance. The contant drums evoke the faceless Stormtroopers goose-stepping to crush the heroic rebels. Add in the overbearing horns and you can feel the evil flowing. More than just the go-to driving song for Darth Vader, the Imperial March is now used across the globe to represent the bad guys. Listen at your next sporting event or rally for Williams’ masterpiece. It’s a shame that the Imperial March is used so haphazardly, because it is, without a doubt, one of the greatest themes ever blasted onto the silver screen.

1. “The Raiders’ March” from Raiders of the Lost Ark

At number one is my favorite treasure hunter’s song of choice. I love Indiana Jones. I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who didn’t. He’s the hero we all can cheer for. Not this wishy-washy anti-hero “Dark Knight” nonsense from today’s gritty movies, Indy is totally ‘hero,’ a throwback to the adventure serials of old. And his theme follows suit…Actually, it’s even is more heroic than the character. It’s pure fun, cracking the whip and giving us a wink to come along for an adventure. The rolling music is more than just a soundtrack, it is Indiana Jones. More than that, it’s pure courage. There’s not a moment that goes by when I might think the Indy theme to myself for a bit of added inspiration. Final exam? Story to write? Going to work? Taxes due? No matter! The Raider’s Theme is always there to pick you up and dust you off. It’s the ultimate in pump up music. Indy’s theme is the cream of the crop. Just give a listen to any adventure theme since then. This is what they’re all trying and failing to be. It’s adventure incarnate. It’s straight courage. It’s heroic moments of bravery. It’s the greatest John Williams’ piece ever. And yes, it had to be snakes.

So there it is, the top 10 John Williams themes. Still, some great themes had to be left off the list, like the space age stride-swing of “Cantina Band” from Star Wars.  Or maybe a modern addition like Catch Me if You Can belongs on the list, or the five-note “Wild Signals” motif from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

What do you think?  Leave your favorite John Williams pieces in the comments section below.