Debate Club: John Williams scores

Debate Club: The Top 5 John Williams movie scores

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Jun 16, 2020, 2:50 PM EDT (Updated)

Welcome to Debate Club, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, tackle the greatest arguments in pop culture.

In this week's installment, we salute one of cinema's mightiest composers: five-time Oscar-winner John Williams. Narrowing down the man's best film scores is exceedingly, excruciatingly hard. He's been working steadily since the 1960s — back then, he recorded under the name Johnny Williams — and he's been paired with some of Hollywood's biggest directors, including Robert Altman, Oliver Stone, Ron Howard, Brian De Palma, George Lucas and Richard Donner.

But, of course, it's his decades-long collaboration with Steven Spielberg that's been Williams' most fruitful, as he's provided the emotional and dramatic spine to so many of the director's finest movies. So believe us when we tell you that it killed us to leave a few of Williams' biggest scores off this list. Seriously, how could Jurassic Park and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (or, hell, even Schindler's List) not make the cut?

Because these five are even better and more iconic.

Superman, 1978

Superman (1978)

Richard Donner's 1978 film about the Man of Steel didn't just kick-start our obsession with superheroes movies — it also created a template for how important their soundtracks would be. Williams' soaring, hopeful theme to Superman captures all that's heroic and decent about our favorite Kryptonian, displaying little of the bombast and darkness that would come to inform later comic book films.

"One of the essential things about the film, to me, was the fact that it was fun and didn't take itself too seriously," Williams once said about Superman, later adding that he hoped to strike a balance in the music between "theater and sleight of hand and tongue in cheek."

There's not a speck of camp to his score, but it's among his most unabashedly joyful works, inviting the audience to embrace the idea of a guy in red and blue tights and a cape who just wants to protect the world from evildoers. The music is as innocent and earnest as Superman himself, and it remains the DC hero's defining sonic template. (Not surprisingly, director Bryan Singer brought it back for his 2006 homage Superman Returns.) Plus, the love theme is just as sweet and syrupy and perfect as you remember.

Indiana Jones Header.jpg

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

John Williams' scores are so iconic that a mere few strings of them will make you nostalgic for when you first saw the films they're in. But what's most impressive about his Raiders of the Lost Ark score is that it's supposed to evoke nostalgia, to be both stirring and remind us of similarly stirring films that we might have not actually seen in the first place.

Indiana Jones has to be a throwback character but also be something new, which makes the score uniquely difficult: how do make someone remember something they likely never knew? Williams' score is up to the challenge, exciting and timeless all at once. Frankly, every chase scene in movie history would be better with it.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

In the late 1970s and early '80s, Spielberg crafted two of the most optimistic sci-fi films ever about an alien visitation. As great as Close Encounters of the Third Kind's score is, radiating the wonder and awe of that movie's celestial beings, E.T. surpasses it because of its more varied, electrifying music. Part boy-and-his-dog story, part dysfunctional family drama, part chase picture, the 1982 Oscar winner is packed with thrills, cheers and tears, and Williams underlines every moment with gusto.

The music, while never cloying, has a childlike euphoria to it, as Williams suffuses the scenes with Elliott's unbridled emotions as he undertakes an unlikely, nerve-wracking adventure to get his new best friend home. And when Elliott and E.T. have to say goodbye at the film's end, the master composer lets fly with one of his best four-hankie songs. Just hearing the music will trigger your childhood memories — and the waterworks.


Jaws (1975)

It says all you need to know about Williams that his Jaws score — which might be the most famous score of the last 50 years — is actually No. 2 on this list. Williams was openly aping Bernard Herrman's Psycho score, but the great thing about this score is that it's all about anticipation. Can you remember the score when the shark actually attacks? What sounds it makes? All that matters is the fear of the shark attack, which makes Williams' music doubly genius: it makes you scared of things you haven’t even seen yet. Williams' score made the mere sight of a fin mortifying. You'll be humming it to yourself every time you sneak up on someone for the rest of your life.

Star Wars, A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away

Star Wars (1977)

Honestly, when you take a step back from it, what is it about Star Wars? What made this story — with the same robots and spaceships and lasers and shootouts as countless other science fiction tales — different? It's really the crawl. The crawl lets us know that we are somewhere lost in time and space, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, and then we get the crescendo: Williams' epic, this-tale-is-bigger-than-anything-you've-even-seen-and-will-go-on-forever explosion, an orchestra that instantly connects you to the most expansive story ever told. It gives the whole film, and everyone in it, an ageless, immortal quality, the sensation of permanence.

When does Star Wars take place? It takes place forever. That's the work of Williams' score. That's why it's his best.

Tell us in the comments which of his scores YOU think is Williams' best.

Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.