John Williams’s Film Music: Jaws, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the Return of the Classical Hollywood Music Style by Emilio Audissino

I think everyone here (at least the ones who’ve been following me for a while) knows what a diehard geek I am when it comes Star Wars, film scores, and music in general.  Is it any wonder that the name among names for me is John Williams?  Of course not.  He is the first name in film scores for the past generation and then some.

So imagine my surprise to learn just how few books there are on the man and his music.  At the time of this book’s writing (in 2014!), there are 5… and this is the only one of them in English.  The only one.  When you consider that he’s won 5 Oscars and has 50 Oscar nominations as of right now (thanks to The Force Awakens), with only Walt Disney beating him out for sheer numbers, that’s just criminal.  To make matters more bizarre, this started life as the author’s Ph.D. thesis paper, translated from Italian so that the maestro himself could read it.  The author then extrapolated that down and reworked it for general audiences because he made the same discovery himself, that books on the subject are few and far between.

I’ll just come right out and say it.  This book is an answered prayer.  But then, I’m clearly biased, and I’ve been chomping at the bit for a book like this long before I worked my way through Doug Adams’ incredible book on Howard Shore’s film scores for The Lord of the Rings.

What Audissino does with this is to put John Williams into context by charting the rise and transition of film score composition from the advent of “talkies.”  Music in film started as accompanying and often varying tunes for silent films, sometimes with a recording, sometimes with a small orchestra in the larger movie houses, and sometimes with a  single piano player struggling to do whatever he could.  This is where Shostakovich got his start, for example.  Once the Vaudevillian gimmick died after soundtracks were introduced to the film reel itself, Max Steiner’s score for King Kong made both audiences and film crews realize that music could help to bring a new level of emotion to the narrative.  From there, it became a realization that films were a great way introduce “a higher class of music” to the general audiences while creating that atmosphere.  From the swashbuckling scores from Erich Korngold to Max Steiner’s scores for Gone With the Wind or Casablanca, styles differed, but the classic sound set the standard for everything of that era.  And then the jazz era hit, and music became a gimmick again.  It’s not to say that it was bad, because it wasn’t, but the Classic Hollywood Sound disappeared.  Think of Henry Mancini’s The Pink Panther, Bernard Hermann’s Taxi Driver, or Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story.  Think of the James Bond scores of John Barry or the sounds of the spaghetti westerns of Ennio Morricone.  These are all very different animals from each other and from the original generation of Hollywood.  What do they have in common?  They all wrote character themes, but they were closed themes.  The leitmotif style was largely undeveloped when compared to the likes of Richard Wagner or Erich Korngold.  Enter John Williams.

Williams was trained as a jazz pianist, and he cut his teeth in the scoring industry on TV shows like The Land of the Giants and Lost in Space.  The theme for Gilligan’s Island?  That’s his.  Go ahead and try to get that out of your head now.  Combine that with a little experimental work here and there, and you’ve got a career that’s starting solid, but somehow unremarkable.  And then came a little film called Jaws.  Fledgling director Steven Spielberg was so impressed that, to date, Williams has done all but two of his films, and that was due to scheduling conflicts.  Spielberg introduced Williams to his friend, a young maverick director named George Lucas, who was going to create a classical soundtrack for his sci-fi film in the pattern of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but John Williams changed his mind.  The rest is, as they say, history.  The era of Star Wars changed absolutely everything in pop culture, and that included film score.  In an age where disco was quite literally burning up the charts, the work of John Williams was a risky venture at best, and it paid off.  So it is that Williams is credited as ushering in the age of the neo-classical Hollywood style.  He wasn’t alone, but he certainly spearheaded it.

Along with the history, the largest part of this book (as the title suggests) offers a musical analysis and breakdown of the three scores that arguably define the transition into the neo-classical Hollywood style: Jaws, Star Wars, and Raiders of the Lost Ark.  You could easily add in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, and Superman: The Movie, but the author was keeping it simple and used these three as the exemplars of Williams’ development.  All in all, it’s difficult to argue with the choices.  The various tracks are picked apart and compared to the classical and film classical pieces that inspired them, from works by Korngold and Wagner to Stravinsky and Copland.  More importantly, the pieces are put into perspective with their roles as part of the storytelling process.  Backed by notes and quotes from the maestro and his collaborators, this book is filled with enough trivia and scholastic geekery to make your head explode.  What’s best is that it’s pretty much encouraged to listen to the music as you read, which makes this book a multimedia experience that will raise your appreciation of the music, the composer, the film, and the genre of film score as a whole.

5 stars

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