If you’re watching a movie, and the musical score is big, epic, and dramatic, there’s a pretty good chance that it’s a John Williams score. And if the movie is directed by Steven Spielberg, then it’s definitely a John Williams score. His name has become synonymous with the highest class of musical composition. He has received forty-nine Academy Award nominations, and has won five of them. He has also been nominated for a whopping sixty-five Grammy Awards, winning twenty-two.
Williams broke into the movie scene with his score for the 1971 adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof (for which he won his first Oscar), and since that time has composed some of the most recognizable film scores of all time. Star Wars Episode VII will be the last score that he composes for the series, and from the small portion that we can hear in the newest trailer, the music will undoubtedly be amazing. So today, we are paying tribute to this giant of a composer, and taking a look at fifteen of his greatest film scores and themes. This was going to be a top five, then a top ten, but honestly, even ten songs didn’t cut it. Simply put, there are too many great ones. So get ready, because these songs are going to bring back memories and emotions faster than hearing your ex’s favorite song on the radio.
15. Olympic Fanfare
What better way to start off a list of Williams’ best film scores with…not a film? This fanfare became a staple for NBC’s broadcast of the Olympics beginning in 1984, for the Summer Games in Los Angeles. The fanfare is huge and grand, and perfectly epitomizes the feelings of pride and nationalism that accompany each Olympics. I imagine that, prior to the 1984 games, two guys on the NBC Olympics committee wanted a theme song for their broadcast, and their conversation probably went something like this:
“Hey, we need a theme song for the Olympics.”
“You mean, like, a song that will be played during the biggest and most popular worldwide event in the history of the planet?”
“Well…why not John Williams?”
14. “Hymn to the Fallen” (Saving Private Ryan)
Saving Private Ryan is an amazing movie in its own right, even without the music. Take the opening half hour, for example. The film is a stark and, mostly, realistic look at the horrors of World War II and war in general. It’s tragic, brutal, and anything but glorious. In fact, perhaps the only part of the film that has any hope or optimism is this theme. That might sound like the music is out of place with the film, but it works quite well. It is almost like a ‘thank you’ to the soldiers who fought and died, and a promise to remember their sacrifice.
The superhero genre has really taken off in the last ten or fifteen years, and what a great thing that is! But despite the flood of recent superhero movies and how good some of them really are, no hero has earned an epic and memorable theme like Superman did in the 70s. Sure, by now, the film is pretty much terrible, but for the time, it was fantastic, and Williams pays homage to the first ever superhero with this awesome theme. I mean, Batman’s TV theme is pretty great, and the new Avengers score is cool, but Superman‘s theme beats them all.
12. Home Alone
We all fantasized about it. Our parents drove us crazy, and then one day, magically, they’re gone, and we’re home alone? It’s a dream come true, right? Well, Home Alone shows us that maybe it’s not everything we would want it to be. Williams provides two main pieces of music for the film. The first is the eerie opening theme that, even though we think we want to be home alone for the holidays, shows us how creepy and frightening that would really be, especially if that scary bearded neighbor doesn’t have our back.
The second piece is the main theme, titled “Somewhere in My Memory.” There are a few reasons why this theme is so good:
A) It is the most Williams-esque musical piece of the film
2) In contrast to other music in the film, especially the awesome arrangement of “Carol of the Bells,” it is comforting and positive
D) It has become a holiday classic and reminds listeners of family, home, and, most importantly, everything that rocked about the 90s.
11. “Across the Stars” (Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones)
Here’s a love theme that the represented lovers don’t deserve. Anakin and Padmé’s relationship is awkward, clunky, and moves so quickly that it could probably do the Kessel Run is eleven or ten parsecs. But that doesn’t stop Williams from doing his best to redeem the doomed couple with this amazing piece of music. It is a soaring, beautifully tragic theme that embodies what Anakin and Padmé should and could have been. I’ve never been one to think that the prequel trilogy is necessarily awful, just not perfect. But the films have their moments, thanks, in a big way, to Mr. Williams.
10. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Like the film itself, the theme from E.T. is fun and full of wonder. The opening staccato notes give off an immediate sense of adventure, and really never lets it go. From start to finish, the movie and its theme bring a smile to your face and make you want to have a little alien all for yourself. Then logic steps in and tells you that that’s a bad idea. Maybe just listen to the song and imagine it…
9. Schindler’s List
Here’s a theme that’s a bit out of the ordinary for Williams, Typically, his scores are big, loud, and rarely feature a single instrument or soloist. That whole concept gets flipped upside down in Schindler’s List. I’m hard pressed to think of a more emotional and depressing film than Schindler, and this song sums up the feel of the whole movie. It is quiet, slow, and sad to the point of being miserable. There is no hope or optimism here. Just a musical representation of the depression of the Holocaust. The film is widely considered to be one of the greatest ever made, and a theme like this one is fitting.
When I was young, I had a babysitter that would come over often and would usually watch cool movies with us. Normally, the movies we watched were family friendly and age appropriate. Then one day, she comes over and wants to watch his cool movie about a big shark with us. Young JD, being innocent and naive, was excited at the possibility of watching a movie that mom wouldn’t normally let me watch. Unfortunately, Jaws didn’t leave me with a feeling of satisfaction, it left me with a deep and long-running fear. Not of sharks, but of the ocean as a whole. I can’t even watch Blue Planet without having a panic attack.
Jaws is another Spielberg classic that is thought of as one of the best films ever made, and Williams’ minimalistic theme is a terrifying companion to the film. The low, opening notes are some of the most famous measures of all time, and have become the perfect example of instilling fear of something you can’t even see. Films like Jaws show how talented John Williams really is, and after scoring a movie like this one, I can imagine him telling Spielberg, “I’m gonna need a bigger paycheck.”
7. “Hedwig’s Theme” (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone)
This is a very different type of score for Williams. So much so, that for a long time, I didn’t even know it was his. It doesn’t have that epic, in your face, fanfare-ish feel that most of his scores do. At least, not until late in the film, and even then, his trademark sound is only in a few brief scenes. Instead of loud horns and who knows how many strings, “Hedwig’s Theme” uses soft, gentle bells that set the tone for the mystery and magic that will continue throughout all eight films, even after Williams departs from the series.
6. Jurassic Park
“Welcome to Jurassic Park!” (cue theme song).
Jurassic Park is the dream of every young kid, and many adults, for that matter. Just imagine going to an island and having the opportunity to interact with real, living dinosaurs. You can see them, hear them, touch them, and feed them. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that? As for raptors being all up in the kitchen, maybe not so much. But either way, a real-life dinosaur adventure would be at the top of any normal person’s to-do list, and the two themes from Jurassic Park are the perfect representation of the feelings that anyone would have on said adventure.
5. Star Wars
Instantly recognizable, profoundly bold, and dripping in adventure, the theme from Star Wars is about as perfect as a movie theme can get. The American Film Institute ranked it as the greatest film theme of all time, and it certainly deserves that distinction. “Then how come it’s not number one on your list?” Well, let me tell you.
As awesome as the theme is, and it is undeniably awesome, what it doesn’t have is a specific scene, character, or emotion attached to it. It bookends each Star Wars film, but rarely, if ever, appears throughout the narrative. So, while it is a perfect theme song, it doesn’t evoke the same feelings as other Star Wars songs do. But don’t worry, we’re just getting to the really good stuff now.
4. “Duel of the Fates” (Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace)
Here’s one that my wife hates. Not because of the actual song, but because I am always singing it. Always.
You could call “Duel of the Fates” the unofficial theme of the prequel trilogy, as it appears in all three of the films. But its most prominent and memorable appearance for me is its first appearance, during the duel between Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon, and Darth Maul. For many of us, Episode I was the first Star Wars film we saw in the theater, and the reveal of the Sith apprentice is one of my favorite moments in all six Star Wars films. This song brings back so many memories. Why, Qui-Gon? Why?!
A different version of the song also accompanies the ultimate battle between Vader and Obi-Wan on Mustafar. So even if you didn’t like the Darth Maul duel for some insane reason, you can’t deny the greatness of the Episode III battle and the theme that plays during both.
3. “The Imperial March” (Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back)
This is perfect theme song to represent the evil and menace of the Galactic Empire. The sense of dread that comes with this song is enough to send anyone away with a real fear of getting Force choked. A villain as iconic as Darth Vader deserves a theme song to suit, and John Williams hits the nail on the head with “The Imperial March.”
This song is absolutely shiver-inducing, and never more so than in Episode III. Immediately after Anakin attacks Mace Windu and fully turns to the Dark Side, Emperor Palpatine rebrands him as Darth Vader, and “Imperial March” slowly fades into the background. It is the dark and brooding scene that audiences had waited years for, and in this at least, Lucas did not disappoint.
2. “The Raider’s March” (Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark)
Let’s lighten the mood a little bit, shall we? If you ever find yourself in a situation where you need to confront some Nazis or evil cult followers, this song should get you through just fine.
I can’t even imagine the challenge that a theme like this presented to John Williams. Seriously, think about it. Lucas and Spielberg come to him, in the middle of composing for The Empire Strikes Back, and they tell him, “So look. You’ve done an awesome job with Star Wars, and now we’re filming another movie starring Harrison Ford. But it’s not in space, and it has to be like real life. But it also has to be epic. But it also can’t feel anything like Star Wars. Oh, and did we mention we also want you to finish up with Episodes V and VI while you’re working on this one too?”
Even with all that going on, Williams composed one of the greatest feel-good themes the world has ever known.
1. “The Force Theme” (Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope)
First off, take three minutes and just listen to the song. After that, I really shouldn’t have to say anything about it, but I will.
This theme has five or six different titles, and appears in all six Star Wars movies, more than any other piece of music. The most famous example is as Luke looks dramatically into Tatooine’s setting suns, contemplating his future. Like the movies it is featured in, it is sad but hopeful. Considering the fact that it appears so early and so often in the most influential film series of all time, how could this not be number one on the list? It truly is John Williams’ finest masterpiece and his greatest composition.
What are your favorite film scores? Did we miss any from John Williams that you think are truly great? Make sure to tell us your thoughts in the comments!
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