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Star Wars to Superman: the essential soundtracks of John Williams

Star Wars to Superman: the essential soundtracks of John Williams

There’s a lot to look forward to with Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Episode VII celebrates the glorious return of the king of fantasy franchises, and the continuation of a universe that means so much to so many people, young and old alike. The new trilogy (and proposed anthology spin-offs like Rogue One) will also be restarted with JJ Abrams at the helm, a filmmaker with unparalleled geek cred and an established track record with huge properties (Alias, Lost, Fringe, Mission: Impossible, Star Trek, etc), who’s uniquely positioned to wash away the bitter aftertaste of the prequels. All of that is important, of course.

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But what is kind of being overlooked is that the The Force Awakens also marks the return of John Williams to one one of his most iconic scores. Few themes are as instantly recognizable as his Star Wars soundtrack, but believe it or not, Williams probably has a dozen other scores under his belt that are even more paradigmatic than his sounds from a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.

His compositions have a way cutting right to the heart of a character or a moment, stirring emotions that linger a lifetime. The second you hear those distinctive, longing French horns of ‘The Force Theme’, you’re instantly transported to well of powerful memories.

The collective consciousness of Western filmmaking is full of such defining musical moments, and chances are, the ones that you’re thinking of were composed by John Williams. He is the undisputed champion of Hollywood blockbuster music, and his seminal compositions have netted him a staggering 49 Academy Award nominations over his illustrious career. Beyond his film soundtrack career, Williams is also an accomplished jazz and classical musician who’s masterminded everything from Olympic ceremonies to the Boston Pop Orchestra. But for the purposes of this retrospective, we’re just going to focus on his film work.

Here are just 10 of John Williams’ most essential soundtracks.


JAWS (1975)

John Williams and Steven Spielberg are a match made in movie heaven. Indeed, Williams has scored all but one of Spielberg’s movies. This was just their second collaboration together, but it is arguably their most memorable. That famous two-note “baa-bum” motif still inspires terror and dread even if you’re nowhere near the sea, but if you dive deeper beyond the main theme, you’ll discover a lot of orchestral cues that are both brutal and lighthearted.

JURASSIC PARK (1993)

Wondrous, joyful and awe-inspiring. What more can you ask for from a theme that’s supposed to capture the astonishment of witnessing the resurrection of dinosaurs? And trust us, the magic and terror of seeing those majestic creatures on screen for the first time has as much to do with Williams’ score as it does with the film’s revolutionary visual effects.

SUPERMAN (1978)

There have been a number of Superman adaptations for the screen, but nothing has become as inextricably linked to the Man of Steel in pop culture as Richard Donner’s treatment and Williams’ music. The score for this film alone captured the spirit and goodness of Krypton’s last son better than Zack Snyder ever did. With Williams’ soundtrack, you will believe a man can fly.

HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE (2001)

He began his career in 1967, so it's astounding to see him going strong well into the 2000s. And Williams kicked off the 21st century by doing the same thing he did or much of the 20th - he crafted the theme for yet another beloved fantasy franchise. With The Sorcerer’s Stone, Williams successfully orchestrated the unifying sonic fabric that has carried the boy wizard over eight incredible silver screen installments.

E.T. THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL (1982)

Williams has been the best musical storyteller of the past half century, but his finest sequence might actually be the final 15 minutes of ET. The climax of this film runs us through a gamut of emotions, and the progression is so poignantly paralleled by ‘Escape/Chase/Saying Goodbye’. Williams earned an Oscar, a BAFTA, and a Golden Globe, alongside three Grammy wins, for this soundtrack alone - and that trophy haul still doesn’t do this beautiful score justice.

STAR WARS EPISODE V: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980)

While the motifs and themes explored here were already present in Williams’ original Star Wars score (which was already epic in breadth and scope), The Empire Strikes Back further develops those threads and takes them into deeper, darker, more emotionally complex territory. From chases to battles to sweeping love to ‘The Imperial March’, there are rich, monumental themes for every moment that resonate till this very day.

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981)

Few adventure films are blessed to have action cues as playful and heroic as Indiana Jones’ first escapade. Inspired by Saturday morning cartoons, Williams successfully translated that same sort of fun, humorous energy into his music here. Nothing encapsulates Indie’s rogue and puckish spirit better than his signature theme, setting the ideal tone for the future of the franchise (which Williams also scored).

SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998)

This score might have been the most challenging of the celebrated maestro's career simply due to how little room he was given to operate. The film chose to depict its lengthy war sequences without music in order heighten the scenes’ realism, meaning that Williams could only work during transitional scenes. Nevertheless, Williams weaved magic in minimalism, evoking grief and glory with restrained movements.

SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993)

As we’ve documented here, Williams can do romance, wonder and adventure with aplomb. But oh man, he may actually have done his best work with sadness. His score for Spielberg’s Holocaust drama is some of the most poignant and heartbreaking pieces to have ever been composed anywhere, let alone film. The narrative and its music perfectly captured the tragedy of one of humanity's darkest eras, and it hits you like it should.

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977)

Moving through suspense and childlike innocence, Williams’ work here might be his most spellbinding ever. The five-note tune that represented communication between humanity and the aliens may the film’s most famous sequence, but there’s wealth of lush, gorgeous symphony throughout, that can be at turns contemplative, frightening, mysterious and downright haunting.

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