Certain scenes from Tintin brought a smile to my face—because the scenes were satisfying in a fun way and because of nostalgia. It just seemed me of scenes from Raiders of the Lost Ark—especially the filmmaking—especially the team of John Williams and Steven Spielberg. Their partnership seems to have been a good one, and one that has been a big part of my childhood.
In any event, I’m wondering what people think of John Williams. I’ve heard derisive remarks about his composing, specifically the way he apes other classical composers. I’m not sure if I can fairly judge his music as I have a pretty strong emotional attachment to them. Here are some other questions:
1. Do people consider Williams an auteur?
2. What exactly does being an auteur mean for a film composer?
3. I’d be interested in hearing insights from anyone who has analzyed the oeuvre of a film composer. In what way has the composer evolved over time? In what way has the composer stayed the same?
4. Like directors, can we talk about film composers are those with a distinctive style versus those who are closer to technicians without an identifiable sound?
There’s very little in the way of music stations out here, so I listen to “Abu Dhabi Classic FM” quite a bit, and this one day I was driving with my coworker when this song was playing and he and I both said, “Is this John Williams?” And the reason we asked it aloud is because they play John Williams a lot but both of us somehow knew, immediately, that no, this wasn’t John Williams. However, it was quite clearly something Williams was “influenced” by, if you don’t want to say he plagiarized it. It felt, really, like listening to someone plagiarize John Williams, but of course this was an older composition.
True to form I immediately forgot the piece and its composer (sorry, y’all), but it was an interesting experience. I like John Williams but I have gotten my fill of him over here; that same coworker LOVES Williams and plays his music all the friggin’ time (even has put it in many of the videos we’ve put together, which means I’ve had to edit to it quite a bit), Abu Dhabi Classic FM loves Williams and plays his music all the friggin’ time, and yes, the Arabs seem to love Williams too because you can find his music playing everywhere.
Anyway, not that that answers any of your questions but have a free rant!
hermann and morricone are auteurs (among others of course). williams = not
Nah uh. If we’re gonna do this you need to back up that type of statement with something that doesn’t imply that an auteur is necessarily “great”. Williams has a very distinct style, repeated themes, a recognizable dramatic quality. So does Morricone. How is one an auteur and the other not?
To me, I don’t really think the auteur theory is really necessary to translate to music composition because the composer is clearly the composer and thus “author” of the work, whereas auteur theory was developed to point out the “author” of a movie from its larger collaborative issues with producers, writers, directors, and maybe even editors, and so on.
hmm ok i will back off now :p i see what you’re saying and your point is valid
Instead of “backing off,” how about sharing some why you feel the way you do? Honestly, I haven’t really analyzed or thought much about film scores, and I’ve certainly never analyzed a film composer’s oeuvre. With Williams, while I haven’t really scrutinized his music, they’ve been in many films that I have seen and loved (especially while growing up) that I have a strong feeling for them. Whether he’s a great film composer or not, I don’t know—but I like him a lot.
I don’t know if I’d call him an “auteur” since I thought that term was specific to directors but I do think the collaboration between Williams and Spielberg is as significant to cinema as any director-composer collaboration (second only to Hitchcock and Herrmann). Spielberg always says that without John Williams’ score, Jaws would never had been the hit that it was. And I believe that is true.
I suppose it’s easy to dismiss Spielberg and his films but I think in terms of working with another artist, these two guys came together like peanut butter and jelly. Their styles fit so completely and when you think of a Spielberg film, a lot of times the first thing you think of is the score, the theme. These days most films don’t have themes the way they used to (compare Elfman’s Batman score to Zimmer’s Batman Begins score) and I think Williams was the master at creating some of the most indelible, recognizable music scores in films for the past forty years. Yes, maybe some of it sounds similar to each other and maybe he’s mimicking people before him. But man, when I hear the opening to Star Wars or the theme to Jurassic Park, it just gives me goose bumps.
One of my favorite John Williams scores is Altman’s The Long Goodbye. Very different from his later, grander work but it perfectly encapsulates the tone that Altman was going for in the film.
I find John Williams’ music completely unappealing. And Polaris isn’t the first person to notice that he “borrows” freely from other compositions. There are some parts of his music that seem like they were completely ripped from Holst. He’s pretty clever about it though, as it’s usually just short segments (and usually the most effective segments, and not by coincidence) that seem to have been lifted from other composers. The other parts of his compositions are just loud, overly dramatic, and obnoxious in my opinion. I guess he could be an auteur. I don’t really care one way or the other. As far as I’m concerned, it’s kind of analogous to wondering if Kevin Smith is an auteur.
With that out of the way, one of the first artistically relevant scorers that comes to my mind who could qualify as an “auteur” would be Zdeněk Liška. It’s pretty much impossible to talk about Czech and Slovak art cinema without talking about Liška’s contributions to that cinematic tradition. He scored everything from Vera Chytilová’s Fruit of Paradise to František Vláčil’s Marketa Lazarova and Adelheid to Jan Kadar and Elmer Klos’ The Shop on Main Street to Jan Svankmajer’s Punch and Judy along with several other masterpieces. The beauty of his music was that he could compose in several different styles—whether it be avant-garde, medieval, classical, and so on—to fit the particular ambiance and texture of the film.
Some contemporary film composers who fit the similar bill as Liska would be Philip Glass and Arvo Part.
Santino said, I suppose it’s easy to dismiss Spielberg and his films but I think in terms of working with another artist, these two guys came together like peanut butter and jelly. Their styles fit so completely and when you think of a Spielberg film, a lot of times the first thing you think of is the score, the theme.
Good points. I especially like the last one.
But man, when I hear the opening to Star Wars or the theme to Jurassic Park, it just gives me goose bumps.
Are there are any film scores from the past twenty years that have a similar effect (although I don’t think I remember Jurassic Park’s score).
I’ve been watching In the Mood for Love, and I love “Yumeji’s Theme,” which actually comes from another film, but whatever. I love that piece of music and it’s strongly linked to the film for me. Still, I’m not sure it has the same grandeur as Williams score for Star Wars or even Superman.
Howard Shore’s score for The Lord of the Rings gives me goose bumps….I love it.
In all seriousness, how does one even distinguish between the Star Wars theme and the Superman theme? The most famous climactic parts are uncannily similar… wait… maybe John Williams recycles basically the same shit over and over again kind of like Spielberg and Hollywood???!!!
Arvo Part is not a film composer though, is he Blue? I’m pretty sure directors just use his music, and badly too(in my opinion anyway).
John Williams wrote an interesting score for Images. if it’s the same Williams anyway hehe
Eleni Karaindrou is another great one.
and i’m watching Adelheid this week. can’t wait.
@OP “…can we talk about film composers are those with a distinctive style versus those who are closer to technicians without an identifiable sound?”
Can’t they be both?
Takemitsu Toru uses traditional Japanese music, objects and string orchestra to great result. His splinter-wood sound effects used on Kwaidan was on its own a physical presence in the film.
Lalo Sciffrin, Michel Legrand, Quincy Jones- their work in film can be separate from their big-band jazz recordings.
I have many film music in my collection that I enjoy listening to separately from the film, but I’d rather let you guys discuss the aesthetics of film scores.
i rarely listen to film scores. Don’t see the point. They exist to serve the images. to me they generally don’t hold up outside of that context, esp classical influenced scores. It’s not because they tend to be ‘minimal’, necessarily but for me they tend to lack the same texture and depth as ‘real’ classical music. A lot of that has to do with the way the music is recorded too. Minimal pieces are great when they emphasize things like tone and texture, but in film scores it’s the melody that is generally the centrepiece(if the score is melodic, of course, which it usually is).
If a film score holds up outside of the context of the film, that is indeed a bonus, but even if that is the case, i’d rather not tire of the music and enjoy it when i’m watching the movie.
Whether a composer can also be an auteur is dependent on whether your definition allows for more than one auteur of a film. The composer is dependent on the film that exists (in most cases), so a great composer can’t save a terrible film. But, as anyone can tell if they turn the sound down, the score (in most cases) is essential and the great ones compliment the director’s vision in an extraordinary way. The composer is at the level of the actors in importance.
John Williams is a treasure and simply one of the best we’ve ever had. Look at the bike flying scene in E.T. or the light shining through the staff in Raiders (Jesus, the number of examples I could potentially use as examples is staggering!) The music is a character. Most of us, I would guess will not remember the scores of most films we see. We’re much more likely to if its from a Herrmann, a Rota, a Morricone or a Williams. It’s no accident that many of the great directors choose to work with the same composers throughout their career.
Are there are any film scores from the past twenty years that have a similar effect
Not really. I mean, I’m sure there are but not on the level or quantity of John Williams (and nothing comes immediately to mind). I might be able to come up with one or two composers that have a score here or there that really moved me in the past twenty years. But John Williams has several scores that effected me on an emotional level. And for anyone who has seen him at the Hollywood Bowl, it’s a musical experience that is not easily forgotten.
How some people feel about Williams is how I feel about Hans Zimmer. The complaints of recycled material and over the top melodrama is the problems I have with Zimmer. The difference for me though is that Williams music hits me on an emotional level and I don’t think Hans Zimmer has ever done that for me. And that’s what makes Williams stand out to me as a composer. There are a lot of films scores I like, a lot of composers I like (Mark Isham comes to mind, I liked a lot of Elfman’s earlier work, Reznor has been very effective with Fincher, Greenwood on There Will Be Blood) but many have consistently hit me on an emotional level. Part of that is Williams but it’s also the collaboration with the filmmakers he’s working with, whether it’s Spielberg, Zemeckis, Chris Columbus, etc.
Brad mentioned Herrmann, Rota, Morricone, and Williams. Those are probably my favorite composers of all time, with Rota’s Godfather theme reason enough for me to nominate him for sainthood.
Hmm, I can’t conjure up the score for LOTR in my head. (I’m sure I’ll recognize it when I hear it.) Would you put it on the same level as the scores for films like Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark or Star Wars?
What I meant is that there are some film composers with an indentifiable sound and style, while others may not have this identifiable style, but they do have good technical ability and try to create whatever music is appropriate for the film—while not having a personal “sound.” See what I mean? (Think of how some directors are considered more as craftsman than artists/auteurs.)
In all seriousness, how does one even distinguish between the Star Wars theme and the Superman theme?
If we were in person I could “sing” both themes and you’d hear the difference. Then again, with my singing, maybe not. :) But are there similarities? I guess, but couldn’t those be the qualities that make him an individual. It’s like Thelonious Monk’s compositions. They sound very similar, but they’re not indistinguishable.
i rarely listen to film scores. Don’t see the point. They exist to serve the images. to me they generally don’t hold up outside of that context, esp classical influenced scores.
FWIW, I’m not suggesting that the music needs to hold up outside of the film. I do think that analyzing the way the score works within the context of the film is worthwhile, though—like analyzing any specific part of the filmmaking of a movie. (I have rarely done this, though.)
I think I basically agree that the composer is on the same level as an actor, in terms of the contribution and control they have over a film. In calling them auteurs, I’m thinking of the way they may have a personal sound or style—and when they create music for a film they’re leave a personal stamp on the film.
Your comments of Williams and Spielberg made me think of something—namely, the fact that he has a lot of iconic moments. Indeed, if I think of iconic moments involving music or sound in film, he’d be on a lot of them. (I’d be interested in hearing more iconic moments in film involving music or sound.)
I agree with Joks about listening to film scores outside of the film, but a great score can elevate a film one or two stars for me!
And I agree with Santino completely about Hans Zimmer – I don’t particularly like John Williams, but I find Hans Zimmer even worse, although I read a New Yorker article about his Lost score that made me want to reconsider him… but then I heard Inception’s score.
Lastly, I want to single out David Lynch as a great film composer – at least, for both of his masterpieces Eraserhead and Inland Empire. The entire soundtrack to Eraserhead, conversations and all, would hold up really well as a drone album – I love it! Same for sections of Inland Empire, although not the entire film in that case. I have no idea why David Lynch works with Angelo Badalamenti so much when Lynch is, IMO, a faaaaaar better composer.
And Toru Takemitsu’s score for Pale Flower is incredible – particularly the card playing scenes with the guy repeating whatever it is he keeps repeating. Those sections move that film from four stars up to five for me.
“I agree with Joks about listening to film scores outside of the film, but a great score can elevate a film one or two stars for me!”
Definitely, i would never even attempt to refute that. Film scores are incredibly important to me as part of the whole experience.
JAZZ: agree. i’m constantly thinking of how film scores serve the images, and contribute to the ‘meaning’ of particular scenes or gestures.
I can take or leave Zimmer, although i loved his score for Thin Red Line(the moody orchestral stuff anyway).
Also, just for fun:
Indiana Jones Theme:
And everybody knows about the Imperial March being a ripoff, but I don’t think that one’s quite as blatant as some of the others.
And the Harry Potter theme is almost directly taken from a leitmotif somewhere in the middle of Strauss’ Salome, but I can’t remember exactly where and don’t feel like digging throught the whole opera.
Finally, has anybody else noticed that airplanes always play the first four notes of Home Alone‘s main theme when the lights come up right after landing? I don’t know who’s ripping off who there, but it’s actually kind of awesome if Williams took his inspiration from airplane sounds.
EDIT: I don’t want to come across as too much of an asshole, so I’ll express my appreciation of the Jaws score – It’s a brilliantly simplistic main theme and the rest of the score is pretty good too. Most of his other scores I can take or leave though… and he usually scores movies I’m not really interested in.
Drunk, I think you must be thinking of the New Yorker’s piece about Michael Giacchino, composer for LOST. Great article for anyone who has on online New Yorker subscription, you can still read it in the archives.
I am going to put aside the Star Wars score as an exception. But in general, I would say that Williams ability as a theme composer is clearly excellent, but once his job is to support narrative he is quite a maudlin artist, completely devoid of subtlety. One gets the sense with Hermann that he is almost trying to express a certain complexity, whereas Williams is almost always trying to state the obvious. (which is why Speilberg/Williams can together create such didactic -almost propagandistic – sequences)
I think an auteur in general has “something to say” which in music can be quite abstract. With the way Williams borrows, and the way he over-serves the scene, I would say he does not have much to say, and is therefore not some kind of auteur. His talent is clear from some of his opening themes. If he had stuck to working on only adventure films with big splashy themes, one would probably get the sense of the “real Williams” maybe.
Ben – haha whoops! Why did I think Zimmer scored Lost??
For me the most interesting composers are the truly innovative ones who look for new functions and explore the boundaries between music and sound design. Takemitsu’s work for Pale Flower, Kaidan and Ran make him stand out far above anyone else. The only composer that might get even close is Bernard Herrmann.
As for more thematic composers like Williams, he’s completely worthless and boring when compared to giants like Morricone, Hayasaka, Delerue or Rota.
As for memorable scores in the last 20 years think of the works of Hisaishi for Miyazaki and Kitano (nobody can watch Kikujiro and not remember that theme for weeks after watching it), Badalamenti’s works for Lynch, Nyman’s works for Greenaway, Sakamoto’s works for Bertolucci and ’’Babel’’ and there’s plenty more to name. These are all scores that are enjoyable enough to listen to without watching the film as well and I’d go even further and say some directors are almost completely dependent of their composers. I mean what ever happened to Kitano after that break-up with Hisaishi? I’m sure there’s more examples of that as well.
While we’re at it, here is a list of some of my favorite film composers and scores: http://mubi.com/lists/film-composers-and-their-best-scores
Boo for Badalamenti’s works for Lynch… You have to admit that Mulholland Drive’s score is terribly cheesy… intentionally, of course, but still…
“What exactly does being an auteur mean for a film composer?”
This would be sort of a problematic concept for me (moreso even than the normal defining of “auteur”). Would we be arguing that the the music, when applied to the film, somehow transforms the film into being “about” the composer’s personal vision?
If Williams is auteur of ET is he also the auteur of The Patriot, SpaceCamp, and Heartbeeps?
I don’t know, I think using auteur theory for composer’s is a bit redundant, but I do think John Williams is one of the masters of the craft. Even if you take themes which might be tonally similar at a glance for 2 different films. it’s what he does with those themes in development over the film span which sets him apart from a lot of composers coming out of “composer factories” today.
It’s the same on the level talking about Beethoven’s 5th. The beginning notes taken at face value, are hardly complex. It’s what he does with them where the magic happens.
LOL @ comparing John Williams to Beethoven.
Film music will never be as good as so-called “classical” music. Intention matters in art. The intention of music in film is to “support”. That negates any “auteur-ship” before the work is even begun. Is a make-up artist an “auteur”? How about the grip? In defense of Williams- It is completely common to be given footage with “temp scores” that a scene was edited to. Composers of all levels are asked to imitate. And if not to imitate, they are asked to produce something within in days so they often just go to their own “bag of tricks” . In the case of the great Star Wars score—- Are we sure Lucas did not hand Williams a copy of Holst and a copy of King’s Row and say “Williams, I want something like these two things combined. Oh, keep in mind, you have two weeks. Thanks” This is not how “art” is produced. Other things to keep in mind- film composers aren’t allowed to change keys because the music editor needs to be able to chop up the recorded score and move bits around and so they all need to be in the same key. So no key changes (Sorry Bach, you’re out of a job) Key changes are not essential, but I am just suggesting that composers are asked to limit themselves severely right off the bat. Where composers are allowed to thrive often is in main title themes. There have been many great themes. This is more akin to Pop music. But then again, composers are usually asked to convey a single emotional message, or clarify the genre, Not exactly “freedom”. Finally, since I mentioned film themes are like pop music- a good deal of pop music is usually much more interesting, because of the individuality of the performers and songwriters, whereas film composer are asked to strive toward a “universality”. I don’t think film composing is an “art.” Occasionally an individual artistic voice pushes through- like Moricone’s westerns ( but not his other work) – But that is rare.