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Star Wars and other Sci-Fi Classics

The Music of John Williams and other Great Film Composers


Since time immemorial mankind has sought the unattainable, and from the earliest days of cinema the onscreen depiction of space exploration and prophecy has provided an inexhaustible source of fascination and challenge to the moving picture industry. Around the turn of the twentieth century the pioneering Méliès oversaw the first experiments in marrying these mystical elements, and by the late 1920s space-travel had further evolved by way of Fritz Lang's Woman in the Moon, before sound-on-film laid the foundations for more full-scale exploitation. From that time onwards variations on original themes, and re-workings of Wellsian themes of the War of the Worlds kind, some serious others less than serious in intention, have poured onto the screens of both cinema and television. For many, Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (MGM, 1968) remains the standard allegory upon the space genre as a whole. Variously rated as 'hypnotic', 'tepid' and 'a trip without LSD', this monumental satire won an Oscar for its visual effects. A composite drawn from various classics, its score is best remembered for its borrowings from Richard Strauss's 1896 tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra.

Since 1974, when he was first associated with the lush, state-of-the-art cinematic displays of Spielberg to which movie-goers are now long accustomed, John Williams (born 1937) has been rated the genre's prime practitioner. Williams's eighty-odd scores have earned him more than 35 Academy Award nominations, five Oscars and six British Film Awards, but more than this they have provided musical impetus to a legion of television and wide-screen clones, mirroring an unflagging cinema and home entertainment thirst for intergalactic fantasy and conflict and space-age Supermen.

The son of a film studio session musician, the New York-born John Towner Williams grew up in a musical environment. In his youth he learned to play the piano, trombone, trumpet and clarinet, and following his family's move in 1948 to Los Angeles he mastered orchestration (at University College, under Robert van Epps) and composition (privately, with Castelnuovo-Tedesco). Later, he studied the piano in New York (at Juilliard, with Rosina Lhévinne) and during the early 1950s, as Johnny Williams, found regular work in the jazz idiom, as a session pianist for a variety of record labels, including Bethlehem, Kapp, Dot and RCA. Johnny Williams's earliest experience as a composer, arranger and conductor was in television (in such series as M-Squad and Wagon Train), but by the decade's end he had transferred to the big screen, beginning, for United Artists, with I Passed For White (1960) and The Secret Ways (1961).

During the ensuing decades the enterprising Williams applied his creative imagination and entrepreneurial flair to a diverse range of musical styles. Among the most admired of his early scores were The Killers (United Artists, 1964), None But The Brave (Warner, 1965), How To Steal A Million (TCF, 1966), Valley of the Dolls (Oscar nomination; 20th Century Fox, 1967) and Goodbye, Mr Chips (Williams Oscar-nominated for musical direction only; for MGM, 1970). It was Williams's Oscar-winning orchestration and direction of Fiddler on the Roof (United Artists, 1971), however, which placed him in the forefront of the big-budget film-score league. Williams's next successes included a series of 'disaster' spectaculars, notably The Poseidon Adventure (Oscar Nomination; TCF, 1972) and, during 1974, Earthquake (Universal) and Towering Inferno (Oscar nomination and British Film Award; TCF), albeit real superstardom eluded him until his own MCA recording of the opening theme of Jaws ('best score' Oscar-winner and British Film Award; Universal, 1975) brought him US chart status as a composer-conductor.

John Williams's greatest accolades, however, were yet to come in the wake of the unparallelled box office, and subsequent album success of Star Wars (Oscar and British Film Award; TCF, 1977) and its various sequels. With its Main Title march paying open homage to Holst's Mars, and other themes echoing the traditions of Bliss, Walton and other forerunners in the genre, this score (by virtue of which Williams also topped the US charts around this time with the 20th Century Fox soundtrack album), has kept its place among the most enduringly familiar landmarks of film-score history. Its almost simultaneous counterpart, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Oscar nomination, Columbia, 1977) proved another Williams blockbuster, and indeed Williams's own 1978 recording of the Main Theme provided the composer with another chart hit.

Several subsequent Williams scores have also acquired cult status, notably (from 1978) Jaws 2 and Superman (Oscar nomination) and The Stud and Dracula (both 1979); Airplane, Superman II and the Star Wars sequel The Empire Strikes Back (Oscar Nomination, British Film Award) - all 1980; Raiders of the Lost Ark (Oscar nomination; 1981); E.T - The Extra-Terrestrial (Oscar and British Film Award; 1982); Jaws 3 and the third Star Wars extravaganza Return of the Jedi (Oscar nomination - both 1983; Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Oscar nomination; 1984); The Witches of Eastwick (Oscar nomination; 1987); Empire of the Sun (Oscar nomination and British Film Award; 1988) and Home Alone (two Oscar nominations - score and best song; 1990).

Much admired as a composer of other, non-film music (including two symphonies, chamber pieces and various concerti), Williams was a guest conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and in 1980 he succeeded the late Arthur Fiedler as conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra, whose programmes afterwards (until Williams's departure in 1993) regularly featured Williams's compositions of the Pops In Space variety. Throughout the 1990s Williams maintained his lead through a succession of best-selling scores, including Schindler's List (Oscar and British Film Award, 1993); Nixon (Oscar nomination) and Sabrina (two Oscar nominations - best score and best song), both 1995; Saving Private Ryan (Oscar nomination, 1998); Angela's Ashes (Oscar nomination, 1999); The Patriot (Oscar nomination, 2000) and Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (Oscar nomination, 2001). As if further proof were needed, the continuing interest in the tried and trusted intergalactic Williams formula was reaffirmed in 1999 by the Star Wars prequel, Episode I - The Phantom Menace, which netted a record $28.5m at the US box-office on its first day, later grossing $430.4m in the United States and $920m worldwide.

Inspired by the burgeoning demand for space-music, a number of John Williams's near-contemporaries have also been attracted to a greater or lesser extent towards the genre, winning recognition (and even in some cases notoriety) in the process. A select group of the best known of these, all Americans by birth, includes Laurence Rosenthal (born 1926), Jerry (Jerrald) Goldsmith (born 1929) and writer-producer Glen A. Larson (born 1937), in collaboration with composer-producer Stu Phillips (born 1929). A native of Detroit, conductor-composer Laurence 'Larry' Rosenthal received his musical training in Europe. Following a five-year commission as a composer in the US Air Force, he first came to prominence in the cinema in the mid-1950s. With a ballet and various chamber and orchestral works to his credit, he also composed for Broadway, but latterly devoted himself to scoring mini-series for television productions. Rosenthal's works for the big screen include A Raisin in the Sun (Columbia, 1961), The Miracle Worker (United Artists) and Requiem for a Heavyweight (Columbia), both 1962, Becket (Oscar nomination, Paramount, 1964), Hotel Paradiso (MGM, 1966), A Gunfight (Harvest, 1970), Man of La Mancha (Oscar nomination, United Artists, 1972), The Wild Party (Associated, 1975), The Island of Doctor Moreau (Associated, 1977) and Brass Target (MGM, 1978). His cinematic forays into space and sci-fi include scores for the 1979 'disaster movie' Meteor (for Palladium) and the mythological Clash of the Titans (MGM, 1981).

A driving force in numerous primetime American shows, television writer and producer Glen A. Larson's earliest claim to fame was as a vocalist in the 1950s in The Four Preps (the group's three Capitol Gold Discs were all of songs by Larson). A graduate of Hollywood High School, Larson later earned a high reputation in American television as the executive producer of high-class 'family entertainment'. In the early 1970s, following a stint with Quinn Martin, he signed with Universal Studios, where his productions included the television hit series Alias Smith And Jones and The Six Million Dollar Man. His other good-humoured and highly lucrative productions for the small screen have included Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979), The Fall Guy (1981), Knight Rider (1982) and One West Waikiki (1994). However, his most successful, and most controversial, television production, with main themes and musical realisation by Stu Phillips (from 1974 his regular Universal Studios co-producer) was Battlestar Galactica (1978).

Riding on the popularity of Star Wars and 'cobbled together' from the original television series, Battlestar Galactica the movie (Universal, 1979) and its TV sequels followed too soon after their model to avoid accusations of plagiarism. Star Wars writer-producer (and computer games entrepreneur) George Lucas famously sued - and lost - his claim for copyright infringement, and notwithstanding this and other, more recent, financial vicissitudes, the Battlestar Galactica concept, and its derivatives (of the on- and off-screen varieties) have survived the intervening decades. In 2003, with Larson credited as 'consulting producer', it was successfully recreated as a television mini-series and first screened on the American Sci Fi Channel and the ongoing TV series which it spawned was first shown in Britain on Sky One (October 2004) and in the United States, via Sci Fi, in January 2005. An even more tangible, more visual offshoot of this 're-imagining', in the form of a comic book series, was released by Dynamite Entertainment in 2006.

Peter Dempsey

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