The Top 10 John Williams Scores of All Time
[Note: This article was initially published at a prior date, but has been bumped up to the front page to celebrate the great John Williams’ 85th birthday.]
John Williams is quite possibly the most famous film composer of all time, and undoubtedly the one responsible for the medium’s greatest quantity of iconic themes. The man is a legend, who essentially stumbled onto the profession of film composition after humble beginnings as a jazz pianist, and since his debut in 1960 has been responsible for creating many of the most iconic pieces of music of all time. Seriously, it’s astounding just how many now-classic themes Williams is responsible for, and his body of work is as rich as it is extensive. Which makes whittling it down to a simple Top 10 a near impossible task.
I say near impossible because, perhaps foolishly, below we’ve curated a list of the Top 10 John Williams scores of all time. This is by no means a be-all, end-all list—one could just as easily put together a Top 20 and never want for entries. But as Williams was recently honored with the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award, now seems as good a time as any to look back and appreciate some of his best work.
10.) Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Okay, this one’s cheating a bit. Technically the central themes that Williams cooked up for Raiders of the Lost Ark permeate throughout Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but the score for this third installment of the Indiana Jones franchise stands above the rest for its additional cues, specifically Williams’ glorious work during the movie’s opening flashback prelude. The Indiana Jones series is as close to a James Bond score as we’re going to get from Williams, with the films marking the composer’s most action-heavy works, and boy does he fit the genre like a glove.
This entry may surprise some folks. While Hook has the distinction of being one of Steven Spielberg’s biggest critical failures—despite a devoted, nostalgia-fueled millennial fanbase—it also features one of Williams’ best scores. In playing off the concept of a Peter Pan sequel, Williams’ work here draws upon the iconography of Peter Pan while infusing the score with the playfulness of Spielberg’s film. His theme for Dustin Hoffman’s Captain Hook is particularly menacing and at times downright scary, but it’s hard to listen to the main theme and not feel like you’re ready to fly.
8.) E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
Get used to seeing a lot of Steven Spielberg films on this list. As Williams’ closest and most frequent collaborator, the fruit of this partnership is beyond bountiful, and one of Spielberg’s absolute best films—E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial—also happens to boast one of Williams’ best scores. Uplifting fantasy/sci-fi is a genre Williams would become quite familiar with over the course of his career, but his work on E.T. does an absolutely phenomenal job of teasing out the unseen “adult” menace throughout the film, all while maintaining the movie’s child-centric point of view. It’s at once uplifting, funny, and heartbreaking, which is right in line with one of Spielberg’s greatest triumphs. Go ahead, try listening to the main theme without crying.
Director Richard Donner’s original Superman is the film that proved Williams was no one trick pony. By 1978, he had already crafted the iconic themes for Jaws and Star Wars, as well as one of his more sinister/experimental works with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but with Superman Williams proved that he could tackle one of the most iconic characters in American fiction and create an equally iconic main theme. Donner’s biggest obstacle with Superman was making audiences believe a man could fly, and while the extensive work that went into bringing those practical effects to life helped to sell Christopher Reeve as Superman, the illusion wasn’t complete until Williams’ magnificent score and main theme came into the mix.
6.) Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Williams is no stranger to the fantasy/sci-fi realm (you can thank Spielberg for that), but his work on Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone stands right alongside Star Wars and Superman as instantly iconic and tremendously influential. Just as with those other properties, Williams’ score here is integral to immersing audiences into this fantasy-laden story, and not only does it succeed on that level, it’s also wonderfully dynamic. Williams captures the loneliness of Harry Potter throughout the first half of the film, and the score grows more optimistic as Harry begins to make connections. His work here would serve as the launching pad for the entire franchise, with the iconic “Hedwig’s Theme” permeating throughout the other seven films and furthermore has become an integral part of the franchise expansion, from theme parks to studio tours. This is undoubtedly one of Williams’ best works of his career, and has no doubt solidified its place in history as one of his most memorable. Simply put: it’s impossible to think about Harry Potter in any context without also getting Williams’ theme stuck in your head.
5.) Schindler’s List
Schindler’s List marked a serious departure for both Williams and Steven Spielberg, and as such, the composer’s experimentation and thoughtfulness result in one of his most moving works. The main theme here is hauntingly beautiful, with an underlying feeling of sadness running throughout, which is most appropriate given the subject matter and Spielberg’s visual approach to bringing this striking Holocaust story to life. Eschewing the large orchestras of much of his prior work, Williams goes simple, with a single violin conjuring a vast array of emotions at once. The theme isn’t catchy or overly melodic, but is tremendously effective nonetheless, and the stark contrast of Williams work on this score compared to the rest of his work speaks volumes about his talent.
4.) Catch Me If You Can
It’s kind of insane that it took 40 years for Williams to finally tackle a jazz score given that’s the realm of music in which he got his start, but with Catch Me If You Can it was well worth the wait. In fact, Steven Spielberg loved the score so much he decided to craft an entire opening credits sequence just so audiences could bask in Williams’ work. Like the film’s protagonist Frank Abagnale, the score is smooth, playful, and almost feels like it’s getting in over its head. But Williams nails the sadness at the heart of the story as well, with some of Leonardo DiCaprio’s quieter scenes resulting in some of the most effective use of score. Catch Me If You Can is unlike anything Williams had tackled in the realm of film before or since, and it remains one of his most dynamically impressive works.
Two notes. That’s it. And you’re scared to go in the water for the rest of your life. Jaws is a miracle of filmmaking, at once a series of lucky breaks for director Steven Spielberg and his crew as well as fantastic display of the director’s inherent talent behind the camera. But the horror of the picture is nowhere near as effective without Williams’ score, which builds and builds without the audience ever really knowing when it’s going to pitch up next. It still sends a chill up my spine to this day, and there’s a reason it’s one of the most famous pieces of music in history.
2.) Jurassic Park
Okay, this is getting ridiculous. Just how many iconic themes can one guy have in his back pocket? And yet, with 1993’s Jurassic Park, Williams does it again, this time making audiences believe that dinosaurs are walking the Earth alongside humans. The key to Williams’ Jurassic Park is that he plays everything as majestic until it isn’t. When the characters first enter the park and see dinosaurs for the first time, it’s almost a religious experience, and the score mimics that feeling. But when things turn hairy, so does Williams’ music—and coming from the guy who did Jaws, he certainly knows how to scare the living daylights out of audiences. And he does. The dichotomy of the Jurassic Park score is one of the reasons it’s so damn impressive, but when it comes down to it, it’s just out-and-out unforgettable.
1.) Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope
If all John Williams had ever done in his career was create the main theme for Star Wars, that’d be enough to solidify his place in film history forever. That this is simply one of many, many such iconic themes is a testament to the pure genius of John Williams, and it remains one of the most influential pieces of film music ever created. It’s hard to remove oneself from the iconography surrounding this franchise, but George Lucas’ initial installment is a weird movie. Try and put yourself in the shoes of an average moviegoer in 1977. No one had ever seen anything remotely like this on screen at the time, but as soon as those opening titles begin, Williams’ theme tells you this is important. This is big. This means something. In the following scene, when Darth Vader walks onto the screen, perhaps it comes off as silly or cheap without those opening titles. But with them, with John Williams’ score, it works. That’s movie magic, folks.