There is footage of Steven Spielberg and John Williams in the middle of a recording session for the soundtrack to E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, and one of the most striking things about these images is the difference between the two men’s styles, accentuated by a fourteen-year age difference: a soft, smooth voice, a tidy little white beard, old-fashioned clothes, John Williams could easily pass for the father, or even the grandfather of the director whose attitude was very much that of a young adult. It’s also with an almost childlike attitude that Spielberg takes out his camera to film John Williams conducting the orchestra. Knowing the family issues of Spielberg’s filmmaking, as well as his close ties to François Truffaut (himself perpetually in search of father figures like Alfred Hitchcock and Jean Renoir), the core of their tandem becomes apparent: John Williams tells stories with his music, and Steven Spielberg listens to him in awe, like a little boy fascinated by the magical powers of the notes. When the term “storytelling” is used in reference to John Williams’ music, it’s not to be taken lightly.
The composer is adept at expansive and generous phrasing, as if his scores were truly like fairy tales, told by the maestro at the fireside. E.T., Jurassic Park, and Indiana Jones are now a part of our collective memory, thanks not only to certain iconic scenes, but also to theme music that is majestic, lyrical, and perfectly tonal. In a word: comfortable. This characteristic of Williams’ music is also found in Spielberg’s historical films, the ones that serve an almost educational purpose (Lincoln, Amistad, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, etc.). For the two comrades, History with a capital ‘H’ unites with the desire to tell individual stories. It goes without saying that “comfortable” is not the most appropriate word to describe Schindler’s List, but the poignant theme, performed by violinist Itzhak Perlman, personifying Oskar Schindler, “the Righteous”, allows the viewer to be further immersed in the story. Upon the film’s release, a number of voices were raised in opposition to aspects of the film considered too emotional and theatrical. Undoubtedly, the Holocaust may not have been the ideal subject for these two storytellers, but given their personalities, would they have been able to go about things in any other way?
The reason John Williams has mastered the art of “musical storytelling” is because his creations have a power that is both emotional and archetypal. In the spirit of uniting with the moving image, the composer knows how to fit the mould of the stereotypes associated with film music – which he does with undeniable finesse. To portray the threat represented by the sharks in Jaws, he calls upon the cello and bass to perform his famous ostinato comprised of the two notes E and F (loosely inspired by Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring). It’s true that he utilises a cliché (bass instruments) in order to illustrate danger, but the minimalist repetition of a single motif of two notes demonstrates a certain audacity within the framework of Hollywood cinema. John Williams abides by clichés, but he does so efficiently and, above all, with elegance, culture, and creativity. The story goes that the first time the composer played the theme for Spielberg on the piano, the director asked him, a bit surprised, “That’s it?” There are many other examples of music with rather “archetypal” orchestration: the epic brass predominant in the saga of Indiana Jones adventures, Belgian jazz musician Toots Thielemans’ harmonica in the outstanding road movie Sugarland Express (Spielberg’s first feature-length film), as well as the four heady notes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, played on a modular ARP 2500 synthesiser.
Williams’ music thus comes down to grandiose (or at least catchy) themes that entwine with images in an idyllic way that appears utterly seamless at first glance. Yet upon closer listen, one is often surprised to discover writing that is more complicated than it may seem, as well as an irony that is not necessarily characteristic of this kind of filmmaking which is otherwise brimming with positivity, even verging on the naive. Complexity is found in the dissonances clearly present in the attack scenes in Jaws, as well as in certain sequences of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, especially in “Barry’s Kidnapping”, a surprising, atonal track, six minutes in length, and probably one of the darkest pieces the composer has ever written (keeping in mind his magnificent score for Robert Altman’s Images).
As far as humour is concerned, its presence is undeniable in Spielberg’s more lighthearted films: for The Adventures of Tintin, John Williams composed a particularly cheerful and incongruous theme song, in which he mixes baroque harpsichord, jazz sax and accordion, all within a harmonic complexity symbolising the paper chases integral to the adventures of Hergé's imaginary young reporter. The same spirit is found in the remarkable Catch Me If You Can, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks. This lesser-known side of John Williams’ work is rooted in the first films he scored in the 60s, a decade during which he was confined to the realm of comedic music.
Yet the subtlety of humour and high spirits could still be taken up a notch. Indeed, in his film The Pentagon Papers, Spielberg defends the idea of freedom of the press in the United States, faced with the lies and manipulation of public opinion committed by those in power. The message is a touch naive, but the director at least deserves recognition for his exemplary command of form, and in fact he often depicts this war between politicians and the media with surprising humour. In some shots, he even goes as far as parodying himself, referencing Jurassic Park for example, in order to depict a merciless administration (namely Nixon’s), while John Williams’ music also revisits accents of pieces he had previously composed for his faithful director’s monster movies. Even if John Williams appears to be the doting grandfather telling tales by candlelight in a recording studio that looks more like a typical American house, don’t judge a book by its cover: this grandad also knows how to occasionally embellish his stories with hints of mischief and fright.
For Spielberg’s latest film to date, The Fabelmans, which tells the story of his youth, John Williams came out of retirement to compose a restrained, austere score, getting him back in the saddle. At 91 years old, the composer has declared himself to still be open to collaborations!