The Sound Of Movies – John Williams
- March 27, 2019
- Shane Hurlbut, ASC
Imagine being in a movie theater.
You’ve waited in line to get tickets with all of the couples, the families and the first-time-daters.
You’ve got your trough of popcorn, your bucket of soda and your “sharing size” pack of milk duds and are prepared for the onset of Type 2 diabetes.
You’ve worked your way to Row F, found your seat and set up your base camp.
There’s the raft of previews and trailers. The inevitable buzz when one trailer captures the interests of the audience and they make plans months in advance to go and watch it. The advertisement to turn your cell phone off is greeted with the sining lights of people doing final checks of their facebook/instagram.
Then… the lights dim.. It is absolutely silent.
Put yourself in that moment.
Your first experience is shaped, not by what you watch, but by what you hear. That is why this series is dedicated to the composers. The people who transport us, musically, to other parts of the world, other worlds entirely, other times, other moments that we may not have ever experienced. It’s hard to imagine Maximus and Proximo’s gladiators battling in the Colosseum without Hans Zimmer’s epic scoring as a backdrop
Jack and Rose standing on the front of the Titanic without the beautiful, sweeping music of James Horner
or even Clint Eastwood staring off for a gunfight with Leo Van Cleef without Ennio Morricone’s haunting musicbox and orchestral subtext.
Now, think of a shark… a big shark… one that requires “a bigger boat”… You’re already toying with two repeated notes, played on a cello, getting faster and faster and louder and louder. Jaws. Anyone care to guess how long into the movie, “Jaws”, it took for us to actually see Jaws? That’s right 80 minutes. 80!
John Williams’ soundtrack was so good at conveying the famous fish and building tension that we never caught sight of it until ⅔ the way through the movie! Jaws is the perfect allusion for John Williams’ music – according to a 2005 survey by the American Film Institute, the Jaws theme ranks among the top 10 most memorable scores in movie history. Spielberg was even quoted as saying “John Williams has made our movie more adventurous and gripping than I ever thought possible.”
Williams built his soundtrack from the deep, like a shark coming from deep to attack, except this time from deep within the orchestra (low strings, low brass instruments) that were also rhythmic: “so simple, insistent and driving, that it seems unstoppable, like the attack of the shark,” Williams explained. This inexorable backing allowed Spielberg to build that outright tension throughout his movie. And here’s another thing, when Spielberg heard it, he laughed at first because he thought it too simple. Let’s be honest, it goes E-F-E-F. Put yourself in the moment; the great director comes to Williams’ home or office, like in the video for ET. He lines up the film on the projector, turns down the lights and prepares to hear the music that his friend and composer has spent the past few weeks working on. Then he hears E-F…. E-F… E-F-E-F-E-F-E-F and Williams turns and looks at him. That must have taken some stones! And, as a great example of being a creative and following your own path, it worked! It didn’t just work, it’s become the most instantly recognisable them in the history of cinema!
Indeed, here’s some trivia for you. Spielberg himself can be heard playing on the soundtrack itself! Earlier in the movie, a high-school band is playing on a street parade, and Williams needed to record a terrible-sounding rendition with his orchestra. Spielberg, having played clarinet in his high-school band, joined the orchestra to record the music for that scene and helped to make it sound rather amateurish!
That’s why I love John Williams. He has consistently managed to make our movies infinitely better with his music. I haven’t even begun on “Jurassic Park” – the moment where Dr Grant first catches sight of the dinosaurs, a species that he has studied through their fossils for his whole life and now sees them in the flesh, something seemingly impossible and unimaginable. We just hear this sigh in the orchestra that is both comforting and majestic. It’s incredible.
Try playing the opening section of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” when River Phoenix plays a young “Indy” trying to get a golden cross from the clutches of tomb raiders and into a museum. Having been fortunate enough to attend a John Williams concert in which Steven Spielberg was the guest compere for the evening, the latter introduced this notion – that 10 minute sequence, although filled with action, humour and several nods to Indiana Jones hallmarks, passes incredibly slowly when played without the iconic soundtrack. That is what the music does. It takes the incredible visuals and adds tension, emotion, angst. It uses the dark foreboding of the lower strings and brass when things look bleak, the high pitched percussion and violins when funny things happen to the clumsy villains and the whole orchestra performing the famous Indiana Jones theme when our hero is on top.
There is no doubt in my mind that the final 10 minutes of “ET-The Extra Terrestrial” are probably the most spectacular pieces of cinema there have ever been.
A group of boys helping their alien friend to escape from the government confinement and lead the cops on a chase across Los Angeles to get him to the meeting spot where he can return to his home planet. With an ending that has never fails to elicit tears, never fails to wow when the bmx bikes take flight and never fails to leave people breathless, those final 10 minutes are what movies are all about – that is why WE do it. They are perfection.
Here is the greatest honor that I can do the John Williams soundtracks, I can’t imagine the greatest movies of my lifetime without them and do you know what? I don’t want to.
Hurlbut Academy works exclusively with Musicbed who provide us with all of our soundtracks for our lessons and sizzle reels. https://www.musicbed.com