The composer John Williams turns 90 next year, so seeing his name trend on Twitter — as it did this past weekend — may give you a hiccup of alarm. But, at least this time, there was no sad news, nor any news at all, really. A video of Williams conducting the orchestral music he’d written for Jurassic Park was making the rounds, and people were marveling at how good it is. That’s all!
I, too, couldn’t resist watching the full six-minute clip, remembering how much I loved the movie as a kid, and more than that, how Williams’ sweeping score made it a movie I loved. I even owned the soundtrack on CD, a level of devotion I showed to no other film composer. It would be an understatement of galactic proportions to say that Williams is peerless — only Walt Disney has been nominated for more Academy Awards — and yet the symphonies themselves have a way of repeatedly unlocking this insight: He goes hard, and he does not miss.
It’s tempting to say that over his long career, Williams has defined the cinematic theme song as we know it. From Jaws to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman to Indiana Jones, we’ve come to expect his rousing melodies when called to adventure, and his delicate leitmotifs at moments of great fragility. The big blockbusters of today often feel sonically anemic by comparison, reliant as they are on skull-rattling blasts of sound and attempts at triumphant brass that remind you it’s someone else waving the baton. If you replaced the individual soundtracks from Marvel movies with the same two hours of music over and over, it’s not clear that anyone would notice. But Williams, even working in extended franchises, gives each entry a thrilling signature. In the case of dreck like the Star Wars prequels, it’s always the best element of the film, as fans of “Duel of the Fates” from The Phantom Menace will gladly remind you.
I’ll leave it to the scholars and critics to decide whether Williams deserves a place in the canon that includes Mozart and Vivaldi — though there can be no question that his genius has been transformative. It’s through his work that millions of ordinary people, without classical training or temperament for the style, came to understand that what you hear in the theater should be as crucial to the story as what’s on the screen. Some passages are so indelible, and so synonymous with the mood of a scene, that a deliberately mangled version still mesmerizes.
So, for no reason other than his deserving a spontaneous show of gratitude now and then — thank you, John, for cracking the code that allows you to play our emotional spectrum like an instrument. You didn’t have to go that hard, but we, and quite a few directors and screenwriters, are very fortunate that you did. I’m sure people using your music at their weddings is a fine consolation for “Fanfare for Michael Dukakis” not swaying the 1988 election. And having overzealous young trumpeters busk outside your house seems a small price to pay for cultural immortality. Until the next time you trend out of sheer awesomeness, we’ll be listening.