Five Classic John Williams Soundtrack Themes

John Williams at Boston Symphony Hall,
post-concert, May 2006.
(Photo credit: Scott/Nationalparks.)

No composer had greater influence over my youth than John Williams. A frequent collaborator of directors Steven Spielberg and George Lucas during my childhood, the esteemed film composer created some of the most beloved cinematic themes of the mid-1970s through the mid-1980s, and I spent countless hours absorbing them in front of my turntable. The number of famous blockbuster genre films he worked on is beyond impressive, and his ability to create scores with as much character as the people onscreen not only distinguished him but also the films he worked on.

Here are five great John Williams soundtrack compositions from that period that have never left my consciousness. If you’re not familiar with them, hopefully you’ll quickly figure out why they possess an indelible charm.

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK “Desert Chase” (1981) — Once Dr. René Belloq and the Nazis kidnap Marion and steal away with the Ark Of Covenant, intrepid adventurer/archaelogist Indiana Jones follows hot on their heels and attempts to commandeer a Nazi truck to save her and retrieve the Ark. The action-packed chase features Williams’ exciting and often punchy musical accompaniment.

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK “The Asteroid Field” (1980) — The stirring Star Wars fanfare is ingrained in film history, but there is plenty of other great music that came out of the original trilogy. This composition from Star Wars Episode V features some of my favorite brass sounds ever as they boldly accompany the Millennium Falcon whirling through a dangerous asteroid field with Imperial TIE fighters in relentless pursuit. The dogfight is prefaced by Darth Vader’s sinister fanfare signalling the coming attack, and after our heroes survive the asteroid onslaught, we are soothed by the gentle sounds of Han Solo and Princess Leia’s love theme. This is a wonderful piece of music that traverses aggression to anxiety through to euphoria and stays stuck in your head.

SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE “The Planet Krypton” (1978) — While the main theme to Superman is certainly rousing and iconic, this brooding composition is impressive in its right. It slowly builds from a quiet droning when we first see the planet Krypton to a majestic fanfare upon a greater revelation of its fantastic landscape. The latter part of this opening sequence, with Jor-El and the Ruling Council banishing three traitorous citizens (who later surface as superpowered villains on Earth in the sequel), is appropriately ominous with sinister percussive punctuation.

JAWS “Main Title” (1975) — When director Steven Spielberg and his crew realized that their mechanical shark in Jaws would not be able to do what they wanted to nor look that scary with repeated surfacings, they opted to hide it more. Spielberg employed shark point-of-view shots and images of its fin slicing menacingly through the water to preface attacks and death scenes. It was a brilliant strategy that also included John Williams’ staccato sounds, which focused on a violent, two-note bass attack, unnerving crescendos and intense string squeals. The entire score helped make Jaws a hit and effectively launched Williams’ Hollywood career, while the shark theme was regurgitated in various forms in numerous horror and suspense films that followed.

E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL “Flying Theme” (1982) — For younger generations that have no clue about the popularity of this movie, E.T. was a monster hit back in the day and is the last time I recall seeing large audiences openly weeping. In this case, it happened during a particularly traumatic moment for the main characters. The soaring strings of the “Flying Theme” add to the emotion of the famous sequence where the child protagonists try to help E.T. rendezvous with his spaceship. The little guy levitates them and their bikes into the sky in order to escape the authorities pursuing them. Moviegoers everywhere were elated by this fantastic turn of events.

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