Sunday, June 17, 2012

John Williams: The Most Prolific Man In Film?

Motion pictures have been with us for over a hundred years now, and  has influenced and changed our culture immensely. Movies are unique, in so much as it is the nexus by which science and art coalesce.  The intangible human element of drama blends with the latest technology creating richer and deeper canvases that  storytellers use to whisk audiences from their seats and into the heart of a story. So many components go into a movie, from directors and actors to cameramen and costume designers. Let's also give credit to editors, producers, recording engineers, special effects wizards, and the ever present best boy. If one were to ask, "who is the most influential man in film history?", naturally we would look to the disciplines of acting, directing, and screen writing to find the answer. Yet the real answer may come from a different discipline all together, the composer. Enter John Williams, musician, conductor, and  composer, who's body of work over the last 45 years has been the emotional driving force behind Hollywood's finest, and most popular films.

Surely not. If one is discussing influential people in film, certainly names like Steven Spielberg and Orson Welles instantly spring to mind. Surely their directing and storytelling techniques have shaped the industry far more than John Williams. Perhaps, but consider the Academy, an institution established to acknowledge and honor all those who have contributed to the motion picture industry. Spielberg's career has earned him six Academy Award nominations for best director, two of which he won (Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan). Orson Welles received three nominations, with one win. John Williams; a jaw-dropping forty-seven nominations, with five wins! In fact, of the AFI's top 100 films of all time, John Williams' work appears six times. 

Music connects with the listener in a way no other art form can. It stirs the emotion. Indeed, music is a legitimate art form in itself, practiced for thousands of years, and has been a part of theater for just as long. Indeed, it could be argued that theater needs music more than music needs theater. To enjoy music, one simply needs to hear. Yet while theater can tell its story without music, it's music that sets the tone and mood in a way no actor, prop, lighting, or dialogue ever could. 

While a man of contemporary times, John is not a contemporary composer. Many films use contemporary music, be it the popular expression of its day. Indeed his style is in the classical sense, often referred to as neoromanticism. Epic leitmotif scores, inspired by classic composers such as Richard Wagner keeps his music timeless. In fact, the style, fashion, and filmmaking techniques used in the films he's contributed to will date those films before his music ever would. 

John's earliest work was on the small screen, doing music for the television show Lost In Space, Land Of The Giants, and the pilot episode of Gilligan's Island. His early film works include Valley Of The Dolls and Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Both of which earned him his first nominations, but it was his score on 1971's Fiddler On The Roof where he won his first Oscar. His work on Star Wars(and its sequels), Jaws, Superman, Jurassic Park, Close Encounters, Schindler's List, Harry Potter(and sequels) E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Saving Private Ryan, and Raider's Of The Lost Ark(and sequels) are among his most recognizable works, which also happen to be among the most popular films of all time. Now, I'm not suggesting that these films broke box office records because people purchased tickets to hear his latest masterpiece. But one cannot deny that his contributions to these films gave them a distinct signature that separates them from other, more mediocre films. And there lies John's true talent. While first and foremost a musician, John has an understanding of film that is on par with notable directors and screen-writers. In the movie Immortal Beloved, Gary Oldman plays Beethoven. In one scene he explains that music is the ability to carry the listener into the mind of the composer. Indeed, any music writer is in a way, telling their own story. But John goes a step further. He is able to grasp what the filmmaker has in mind, then carries the listener into the film itself. Think about that for a moment. While many musicians struggle to carry the listener into their own mind, he carries the listener into his interpretation of the filmmakers mind. In fact, his work is so ingrained into movie audiences' subconscious,  that it instantly carries the listener to the heart of the film. Perhaps one does not have the time to sit and re-watch Raiders of the Lost Ark or Star Wars, but to listen to their iconic themes, one experiences those films. A two hour visual is summed up in a six or seven minute musical piece. 

Yet, despite so many awards and nominations, despite a lifetimes work of creating the soundtrack to the later half of the 20th Centuries' greatest films, John Williams is still largely overlooked by the casual audience member. Like College Football, making a film is a team effort. If the directors, actors, and screen-writers are the Quarterbacks and receivers, than John Williams is a talented Fullback. Fullbacks do not get the lion's share of the glory, yet they're the ones making the critical blocks, and sometimes, score some impressive yardage themselves. Maybe John is a champion of those who participate in film, but never get the glory; the engineer, designer, continuity director, and the all present best boy. 

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