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10 best film scores by John Williams

What are the American composer John Williams's very best film scores, and what makes them so? Here’s a starter for ten, from big hitters the world knows and loves to some that might not be so familiar

top film composers of all time
Published: February 7, 2022 at 3:59 pm

If you’re a fan of the music of John Williams then you’ll know how hard this list has been collate. The 90-year-old American composer, whose career on screen began in the late 1950s, is still working – he has at least a couple of projects in the pipeline, including a fifth instalment of the Indiana Jones franchise.

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But what are his very best scores, and what makes them so? Here’s a starter for ten, from big hitters the world knows and loves to some that might not be so familiar.

John Williams best scores

Jaws (1975)

The original movie blockbuster, Steven Spielberg’s film of Peter Benchley’s best-selling novel is today the stuff of legend. And so is its music. From the deceptively simple two-note shark motif which stalks the film (and haunts many an ocean swim today) through the thrilling swash and buckle of the third act, Williams truly delivered the goods – and won an Oscar in the process. The music is a huge part of this film’s impact, Williams taking the weight of the unseen threat beneath the waves – unseen largely due to a faulty shark prop during production.

The best bit? The shark, having been shot and attached to a floating yellow barrel, is pursued in the open ocean by Chief Brody, Captain Quint and Matt Hooper. Williams music for this scene is wide-eyed and windswept, more akin to a classic swashbuckler.

The Fury (1978)

Williams didn’t dip his toe into the horror or thriller genres very often (and never really fully), but this entry directed by Brian de Palma gets pretty close. By 1978 the composer was used to painting in broad strokes and had already won three Oscars. This score has a fantastic breadth and ferocious energy with more than a nod in places to the late Bernard Herrmann. Scenes of psychokinetic powers (often with grizzly results) are underscored with great zeal by Williams, who just sounds like he’s having the best time. Though the original score was recorded in Los Angeles, Williams recorded the soundtrack album with the London Symphony Orchestra.

The best bit? Gillian has a terrifying vision of what happened to a young man with similar telekinetic powers, abducted by terrorists. Williams unleashes a battery of orchestral power here, in one of several memorable musical moments.

Superman – The Movie (1978)

Williams truly helped make us believe a man could fly with this epic score for Richard Donner’s masterpiece. From the rousing opening title sequence – our first encounter with what is now a ubiquitous fanfare and march – through cues drenched in Americana and moments of great humour, Superman really has it all. There’s romance, too, in what is one of the composer’s greatest love themes. Williams recorded the entire score in London with the LSO.

The best bit? After an interview on Lois Lane’s terrace, Superman takes the reporter on a flight she’ll never forget. Magical musical storytelling from John Williams, who captures Lane’s childlike wonder as she falls (quite literally at one point) for the Man of Steel.

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Now known as Star Wars: Episode VI – The Empire Strikes Back, this was originally the second film in the now nine-part saga created by George Lucas. Though Williams broke new ground (or perhaps raked up some old ground) with his 1977 score for the first film, this sequel saw the composer feeling very comfortable in the soundworld he had created. It afforded him the opportunity to return to existing themes and develop them, not to mention add what are now some of his very best. In his interview with BBC Music Magazine, he even cites ‘The Imperial March’ (written for this film) as the piece he is probably most happy with in his film career. Once again this massive score was recorded in London with the LSO.

The best bit? As the Rebel’s secret base on the planet Hoth is discovered, Imperial forces launch a ground assault. Williams matches the combatants move for move in what is a gripping sequence of orchestral writing. May this tour-de-force be with you…

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

The late ’70s and early ’80s really were a boom time for John Williams who was settling into a fruitful working partnership with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. The pair came together for this film, the first in the Indiana Jonesseries, envisaged to recapture the romance and adventure of the Saturday matinee serials of the golden age. Everything about this film, including the music, is a tip of the hat (a fedora, of course) to a bygone age. Williams’s main march is the result of two thematic ideas he’d had for Dr. Henry ‘Indiana’ Jones and it remains one of his most familiar themes. The wider score is a lesson in action writing, with further moments of great wonder and romance. ‘Marion’s Theme’ is another of the composer’s very greatest love themes. This was also recorded with the LSO.

The best bit? Archaeologist Indiana Jones has outwitted the Nazis and deciphered the location of an ancient Map Room buried beneath the Egyptian sands. Using a staff and pendant, and the rising sun, Indy finds the exact spot to dig for the ‘Well of Souls’ and the hallowed Ark of the Covenant. Williams music, for orchestra and choir, is perfectly paced, building to a thrilling climax as the sun’s light shines through the pendant onto the map below.

Recommended recording: Raiders of the Lost Ark – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

This might be Steven Spielberg’s greatest cinematic achievement… until Schindler’s List. It’s certainly one of the most popular films he has given the world, with its heartrending tale of the unique bond formed by a human boy and a stranded alien. John Williams’s mission was to convince the audience to care about ‘E.T.’, though the composer allows us to feel some trepidation at the start with moments of disquiet and unease. The pair’s bond is underscored with what is for all tense and purposes a love theme, and Williams hints at a more pivotal theme which quite literally takes flight.

The best bit? Having rescued E.T., a small band of plucky kids on bikes is pursued by government officials. The young alien helps them evade capture by lifting their bikes off the ground and flying them to the forest, where his family is waiting to take him home. This grandest of finales is probably one of cinema’s most memorable moments. The pacing of these scenes was so crucial, musically, that Steven Spielberg ended up cutting his film to Williams’s music.

Schindler’s List (1993)

Williams often tells a story about his being commissioned to score Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winner. Upon seeing a cut of the film for the first time, Williams said to his long-time friend and collaborator ‘Steven, you need a better composer than I for this film.’ Spielberg’s response was, ‘I know, but they’re all dead.’ What the composer created for the film was subtle and beautiful, and earned him a fifth Oscar. Williams recorded the score with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, with violin solos by Itzhak Perlman. His main theme has since become part of many a violinist’s repertoire.

The best bit? The Epilogue to the film sees the surviving ‘Schindler Jews’ file past his grave in Israel, accompanied by the actors who played them. Each leaves a stone on the grave, as Williams’s main theme plays out. A simple and moving ending.

We named the theme from Schindler’s List one of the best pieces of violin music as well as one of the saddest pieces of classical music ever

Recommended recording: Schindler’s List – Music from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

Stepmom (1998)

This intimate, contemporary family drama may seem a surpising entry in the Williams filmography, but the composer has proven he has more in him than big-boned blockbusters a number of times over the years. In many ways this score is a breath of fresh air, as the composer focuses on warm strings, woodwind, solo guitar (performed by Christopher Parkening), electronics and just a touch of sparkle. The film was directed by Chris Columbus, with whom Williams had worked on Home Alone (1990) and would return to for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001).

The best bit? Isobel steals her young daughter away from her slumber for a late-night horseride through the snow. It’s a special moment for the dying mother and one her daughter won’e forget. Williams gently underscores with fluttering strings, keyboard and a plaintive theme for Isboel on the oboe.

Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)

It’s not often a composer of Williams’ status seeks out a project, but that was apparently the case with this film. The composer had read Arthur Golden’s novel and when he heard it was being adapted for the screen he sought out director Rob Marshall to see if he might score it. How could Marshall refuse? Williams’s music for the film is rich and intoxicating, the composer utilising Japanese instruments and musical forms within his more familiar western palette of orchestral sounds. It’s not at all pastiche, but well-researched and beautifully applied. The violin solos were once again performed by Itzhak Perlamn and the cello solos by Yo-Yo Ma.

The best bit? Sayuri’s Geisha training is shown in montage, and Williams creates a captivating musical accompaniment. Koto, cello, shimmering strings, oboe and percussion intertwine and tell their own story, with Sayuri’s theme at its heart. The percussion sections are particularly impressive.

Recommended recording: Memoirs of a Geisha – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

The Book Thief (2013)

It’s true to say that John Williams considers very carefully the projects he takes on these days. A look at his last decade or so on screen shows he has only scored films directed by Steven Spielberg and the final trilogy of Star Wars films. One entry sticks out, though, and The Book Thief (directed by Brian Percival) has a treasurable score. Like Memoirs of a Geisha, it’s a project Williams really wanted to undertake and once again he dug deep, composing music rich in pathos, colour and with a clutch of hummable themes. The piano is the central voice in the score, and Williams surrounds it with harp, strings and woodwinds to sumptuous effect.

The best bit? After surviving a terrible bombing raid, Liesel steps out of the rubble on Himmel Street and sees her best friend Rudy being pulled from what remains of his home. Distraught at seeing his lifeless body, she gives him the kiss he so longed for, before collapsing. Williams’s thick layers of strings fall just short of melodrama, perfectly judged, as Liesel is carried away to safety, cheating death.

We named John Williams one of the best film composers ever

Our favourite John Williams recordings

John Williams – The Berlin Concert

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John Williams in Vienna

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Authors

Michael BeekReviews Editor, BBC Music Magazine

Michael is the Reviews Editor of BBC Music Magazine. He was previously a freelance film music journalist and spent 15 years at St George's Bristol. Michael specialises in film and television music and was the Editor of MusicfromtheMovies.com. He has written for the BBC Proms, BBC Concert Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall, Hollywood in Vienna and Silva Screen Records.

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