My Top 10 John Williams Songs

Hey there, folks! First off, I’d like to apologize for all of us here at the MediaFile for our lengthy absence! Real life happens, and sometimes it happens too hard.

Well, I’m here to break the silence and see if I can’t get the old bellows going again!

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about movie scores and how they can help make a movie even more than it already is. You can have great acting, special effects, a good script, a legendary director…but if your score isn’t up to snuff, people will notice.

The most celebrated composer for films in the last 50 years has got to be John Williams. He’s been composing for projects since 1956 when he was only 24. People think of him when it comes to Star Wars, but he’s done MUCH more in his career than those iconic scores!

I’ve got a list of my ten person favorite pieces from his catalog. These all have some significance to me on a personal level, so I’m not saying they’re the best, but I’m saying that they resonate with me. I’m going to warn you: there are FOUR Star Wars entries on the list. What can I say…I’m a huge fan of the series and the music is iconic. Let’s get things going then, shall we?

#10 – Across the Stars from Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones

I have very little good to say about Attack of the Clones. I feel that it’s the weakest of the Star Wars films. The script is poor and as a result, the acting is poor as well. Everyone hates on Hayden Christiansen for this film, and while it’s partly his doing, he had a terrible script with some lines that sound like they were penned by a middle school student in a creative writing class.

Across the Stars to me is very, very sad. It starts of very slowly and softly with woodwinds and harps and goes into the oboe solo for the main melody. Clearly we’re looking at something breathy, ephemeral and beautiful. It’s the perfect parallel to the relationship that Anakin and Padme have. Clearly there was a tiny spark in Episode I, but he was 9 and she was 14. Nothing more than a puppy dog crush. However, when they meet in Episode II they are both 10 years older. She is a distinguished senator and he is a Jedi in training. They both have positions of great status. When they are put together for her protection, Anakin can’t help himself. He has had this vision of this perfect young woman in his mind for 10 years and he wants to act on it. She tries to be the adult and shuts it down, but it ultimately fails and they give in to temptation. The middle of the song crescendos and swells to untold heights, just as their love does. I say love, and on some level it is, but they barely know each other so to me, it’s more of an infatuation. However, it’s the will of the Force and they do both care for each other, so they roll with it. The ending of Episode II is heartbreaking. Seeing their wedding actually made me cry the first time (and many more) that I saw the film. Not because I was happy or sad, but because it was tragic. I KNEW what was coming. I KNEW it couldn’t end well. So, this to me is why this song is so good and deserves a spot on my list.

#9 – Smee’s Plan from Hook

No long, drawn out explanation for this one. I love the film Hook despite it being panned by most people. I thought it was one of Robin Williams’ most amazing roles and the entire cast was flat out fantastic. One of the best characters in the film was Bob Hoskins as Smee, Captain Hook’s second in command. At one point, Hook is stuck and needs a way to get at Peter (who isn’t The Pan yet) and Smee decides to plant an idea in his head. This music starts playing and it’s one of the best scenes in the film. Bob Hoskins being clever and sly with Dustin Hoffman as Hook is just a delight to see. I love the use of the woodwinds in this piece. Given that I’m a low brass player, that says something! It’s just a great scene from the film and one of the pieces that stuck out the most to me.

#8 – Binary Sunset from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope

What is there to say about this piece? It’s one of the most iconic pieces from the original trilogy and is used at various times and at varying speeds to great effect. It also defaults to be Luke Skywalker’s theme. For the original trilogy, Williams went out of his way to make sure all the main characters had a theme in the style of a Wagnerian opera. He set the stage early for Luke with this one and it’s become synonymous with Jedi and the Light Side. This particular scene in Episode IV when we first hear it is Luke looking upon the twin suns of his home planet of Tatooine. He’s saddened by the fact that his uncle wants to keep him around for another season and that one scene is sort of Luke’s defiant resignation of that fact. This scene is also at the end of Episode III with Owen and Beru holding newborn Luke looking at the twin suns setting as a nice way to tie the trilogies together. Side note, I thought the fact that little Luke had his eyes closed in that scene is sort of representative of his obliviousness to who he is and what he’s going to be come. Leia on the other hand is eyes wide open when she is brought home by Bail Organa as she can always see her destiny and path from a very young age.

#7 – The Fanfare from all of the Star Wars films.

Starting with the 20th Century Fox intro, this is one of the most well known songs in John Williams’ catalog. It’s the first thing we hear at the beginning of all six Star Wars films and can probably be recognized in every corner of the globe. It’s heroic, it’s brash, it lets the audience know what they’re in for. Once if fades away right before the two minute mark, it changes for each of the six films, but I’ve chosen to post the one from Episode IV as it’s the film that has most likely been seen the most from the franchise and is very recognizable.

When I hear this, I instantly get goosebumps. The moments between the end of the 20th Century Fox logo and the first note of this song are most tense in all of film. The 4 seconds or so feels like an eternity, but then we’re treated to the audible buffet that is this fanfare. Accompanied by the OPENING CRAWL with each film, it perfectly gets you ready to watch a Star Wars film even if you weren’t ready 30 seconds before.

#6 – The Raiders March from Raiders of the Lost Ark

Starting very much like any good march should with some low voices, we are quickly taken into the melody by the fanfare of trumpets telling you that this is going to be some high adventure you’re about to witness. This piece is full of highs and lows, going so far as to flop between them in a matter of seconds several times. I absolutely love the key change in the middle. It literally takes the excitement to a higher level. Just that little tweak of key is enough to excite us even further than it had to that point. We’re then treated to a repeat of the melody by some woodwinds as the song begins to fade out and take us back to Earth so we can continue with our now enriched lives.

On a personal level, we always played this in marching band and it was always one of my favorite pieces. I play the tuba, so I got to be in right from the beginning. Nothing made me happier than playing this in middle school and high school. Seeing people be lifted up by the energy that this piece gives is an amazing experience and one that I won’t ever forget.

#5 – Olympic Theme and Fanfare

So, there’s a few things to say about this. First, the video I’ve posted above is what we’re all used to hearing as the Olympic theme as attributed to John Williams. Now, take a listen to this:

Does the beginning sound familiar? It should, because NBC decided to tack it onto the beginning of Williams’ fanfare for the ’96 games. It’s a piece called Bugler’s Dream by Leo Arnaud. It sounds perfect with Williams’ piece. It really does, but what we’re used to hearing is actually two pieces transcribed and rolled into one. It starts off with Arnaud’s piece and transitions into the Williams piece. This happened in the 1996 summer games in Atlanta, Georgia. What NBC still uses to this day is the amalgamation of both pieces.

I love the Olympics. I feel like nothing brings the world together quite like them. They’re a time for people to put aside petty differences and celebrate friendly competition in a constructive manner. It sounds a little hokey, and I’m ok with that. It is. But, people from all over the world tune in and watch the Olympics with delight and feel a sense of national pride when they see their teams compete. Some nations have large representation, others only have a few Olympians that compete in just a handful of events. No matter how many people you have representing your country, their nation is proud of them as they are supposed to represent the best they have to offer to the rest of the world. The Olympics (and in particular the Summer games) will always have a special place in my heart.

#4 – Main theme from Schindler’s List

There have been incidents on this planet that have been violent beyond sense or reason. Without a doubt, the Holocaust is at the top of that list. In late 1993, Spielberg once again teamed with John Williams and together they produced a film and score that told a tragic and magnificent story. With Itzhak Perlman performing the violin solos on the soundtrack, I have never heard a song that brings such sorrow through beauty as this track. If you haven’t seen this film, you must. For the sake of all who lost their lives in that horrific time, you owe it to yourself to watch this story of pain, struggle and salvation. I don’t often ever say “You NEED to see this movie!”, but this is absolutely one of those times.

#3 – Duel of the Fates from Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

I know that Episode I gets a lot of flack from people. Some of it is deserved, some of it isn’t. It’s not the worst of the six films ::coughAttackoftheClonescough::, but it certainly has a few redeeming qualities. The podrace was pretty cool. Darth Maul was a bonafide bad ass in every way. The ligthsaber combat was like nothing in the original trilogy. It was fast, it was brutal, it involved more than two people! When the doors of that hangar opened on Naboo and we hear the first notes of Duel of the Fates, I lose my shit. “We’ll handle this.” says Qui-Gon Jinn. The Jedi and Sith both take their robes off and it’s fucking game time. Seeing Darth Maul pop that second blade out was one of the greatest moments of my teenage years. I saw TPM 17 times in theaters. 17. Times. I don’t think you understand that. I was OBSESSED. This is what really launched me into my Star Wars obsession. I later realized that TPM wasn’t that good, but it gave me a springboard to delve deeper and deeper into the Expanded Universe and discover all of the hidden gems that it had to offer!

This song, though…it’s something special. They use it in Episodes II and III as well. In AotC, it plays as Anakin is searching for his mother. It’s about his internal struggle and having to control his anger. Clearly he loses that battle when he slaughters the Tuskens that captured and tortured his mother. In RotS, it plays at the perfect moment: just as Vader and Obi-Wan exit the control room of the lava foundry. It’s perfect for that film as it plays while Vader and Obi-Wan are fighting, but also while Palpatine and Yoda are fighting. Obi-Wan is fighting for revenge. Yoda is fighting for quite literally the Light Side. Obi-Wan was victorious, but at what cost? He left Vader to die by a lava river on Mustafar. If he had any mercy or was truly Light, he would have ended his suffering. But, Obi-Wan was so hurt and so betrayed by what Vader had done that he left him to rot. A bit Dark side, but not entirely undeserved.

This piece will always excite me. It will always flood me with memories of saber duels and time spent with friends watching Star Wars. It will always represent good versus evil. Light versus Dark. Brother versus Brother.

#2 – Main Theme from Jurassic Park

Sometimes there are moments in film when you are just taken on a journey and you don’t have any words to properly describe what’s happening. Jurassic Park came out when I was 12. I was the PERFECT age for it. To that point, dinosaurs had been done in film and tv, but they all paled in comparison to what Spielberg managed to come up with in 1993. It was revolutionary. The special effects were simply breathtaking and when Grant turns Ellies head see the dinosaurs for the first time, it’s pure magic. Then, after they hear that there’s a T-Rex, Alan almost passes out and the most iconic line from the film is uttered to a magnificent crescendo of the main theme: “Doctor Grant, my dear Doctor Stattler. Welcome…to Jurassic Park.”

I just watered up watching that clip again. It took me back to a time when things were simpler for me. When magic still existed. When these things I’ve heard about my entire life and seen cheap, silly versions of in films and television came to life on that big screen…well, life changed at that point. CGI was a new form of magic, and it’s only grown more strong over the  years and has yet to peak. I have very high hopes for Jurassic World. If the rumors are to be believed, it is a direct sequel to the original and negates The Lost World and JP3.

#1 – The Superman Theme

There are only a handful of musical pieces that truly make me feel like I’m alive. This is among the top of that list. It represents heroism, sacrafice, honesty, justice and basically every heroic trait you could think of. The song has it’s highs and lows representing Supermans strength and compassion. This is what I hear in my head when I think of a hero. It’s a piece that everyone knows even if they haven’t seen the film. It’s become synonymous with Superman and even if a particular iteration of him doesn’t use this particular theme, the one they do use is clearly inspired by this magnificent piece.

The key change in this song is very similar to the one in the Raiders March. It takes you from a point where you’re already high and excited and propels you to a new level of astonishment and wonder. I will never be able to hear this and not smile. This song is bravery. This song is heroism.

In this piece, John Williams captured what it is to be Good.

Tune in tomorrow when I throw out a few Honorable Mentions that were close to making the list, but not quite. Thanks for reading/listening!

~Bill

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