A to Z: James, Jerry, and John

The other day SamuraiFrog paid tribute to John Williams, which gave me the inspiration for this post. I grew up listening to film music, and at that time, my three favorite composers were John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, and James Horner.

Williams was, of course, my favorite from the earliest, and he remains so to this day. His gift for melody, his orchestrations, his touch with a scene…he has an ability to get right to the heart of the emotions of a scene that has always been, for me, the key to film music.

Horner came along a few years later. I’m happy to say that I was on board with Horner very early on; his first major scoring assignment was the Corman B-movie space opera Battle Beyond the Stars, and Horner provided a nifty bit of space adventure scoring, even if I would realize in later years that it was pretty derivative of the work Jerry Goldsmith was doing at the time. Horner’s first major assignment was for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and what a score he turned in – exciting and adventurous, while at the same time elegiac and with a definite seafaring mood, as befitting the movie’s Moby Dick parallels. I’ve cooled on Horner in recent years, as I think that his compositional palette tends to be a bit limited. But I can’t deny his power in his best scores.

Goldsmith was the toughest nut for me to crack. I first experienced him via Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a score which I liked well enough but found harder to draw myself into, given long passages that were pretty free of bombast (remember, I was nine at the time, so bombast was my order of the day). I would come to love a great deal of Goldsmith’s music over the years, but my enthusiasm for him waned a bit during the last ten years or so of his career, when he seemed to eschew the wonderful complexity of his earlier work in favor of giving each film a single memorable melody or two and then leaning on those melodies, over and over and over again. But there’s no mistaking that Goldsmith composed a great deal of truly great film music.

Of course, I’d learn a great deal more over the years about other composers, some of whom could easily fit into this ‘J’ post (John Barry, Joe Hisaishi, Jan AP Kaczmarek….). But from my early days, those were the biggies for me.

Here are some musical selections. (I’ll provide links to YouTube rather than embed the videos, so as to keep this post uncluttered.)

John Williams:

1. Williams is often associated with bombast, but he can do churning suspense as well as anybody. Witness his main title to Dracula, with its haunting suggestions of lurking terror.

2. The Flying Sequence from Superman blends lyricism with magical wonder better than any music I can think of.

3. One of Williams’s most underrated scores is his music for Nixon, the Oliver Stone film about the 37th President. The 1960s: The Turbulent Years is a fascinating tone poem that suggests American idealism and paranoia in the same track, as well as Nixon’s often single-minded pursuit of his political goals. It’s Williams’s insight that allows him to musically portray these things in the same individual.

4. I don’t think I can write even a brief “What John Williams means to me” post and not include something from a Star Wars movie, so here is, for me, the musical emotional heart of the entire saga. This moment – when Luke attempts to raise his X-wing from the swamp and cannot – really drives home the mysticism of the story, and makes Luke’s failures more elemental in nature. The music is “Yoda and the Force”. (This cue, to me, also gives the lie to the notion that until a certain point, Williams was all about brassy bombast. His string writing in this cue is amazing.)

5. Well, one more from Star Wars, this time Return of the Jedi. Brother and Sister underscores the scene where Luke reveals to Leia who he is, who Vader is, and why he must confront his destiny. It’s gorgeous writing, and in three minutes, Williams employs three different themes to suggest what is going on.

Jerry Goldsmith:

1. I can’t talk in any emotionally true way about Goldsmith without talking about Star Trek, so here’s his amazing music for the Enterprise (in a live performance), from Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Lots of folks decry this long sequence of James T. Kirk undressing a starship with his eyes, but…I’m fine with it.

2. There’s another long sequence later in the same film, in which, just as we had earlier seen Kirk relating to the Enterprise, now we see the Enterprise relating to the massive ship called V’Ger. The first music was romantic and stirring; this is haunting and mysterious. It’s Vejur Flyover.

3. One of my very favorite Goldsmith scores is his stunning work for the Schwarzenegger skiffy action flick, Total Recall. Here’s the main theme. It’s just fantastic, the way Goldsmith keeps the musical momentum percussively driving forward, forward, forward, suggesting the story to come of a man on the run who can’t stop running, even though he has no real notion why he’s running.

4. Goldsmith did a lot of synthesizer work in the 1980s. Some of this stuff sounds awfully dated, but the scores still work, for the most part. He also scored one of the best sports movies ever, Hoosiers. Here’s the theme.

5. One of the greatest noir scores of all time is Goldsmith’s score to Chinatown, which he had to churn out in a very short time, which is part of what led him to compose a very minimalistic score for a very small ensemble. The main theme sets the stage for a weary, bleak story to come.

James Horner:

1. It’s been nearly thirty years since I saw the movie – and it wasn’t really all that memorable – but Horner’s score to Brainstorm is wonderful. I should probably watch it again, just to remind myself what’s going on during “Michael’s Gift to Karen.

2. Horner’s score to Titanic isn’t my favorite, but the gently simple solo piano arrangement of the love theme, heard when Jack is drawing the portrait of Rose, is a beautiful moment.

3. The finale to Legends of the Fall is a fitting conclusion to a big-skyed Western family epic melodrama. This is my favorite Horner score.

4. Re-entry and Splashdown from Apollo 13 is just a great bit of film scoring. Horner keeps the tension going, even during the parts of the scene where it seems that hope has been lost.

5. From Battle Beyond the Stars, here’s “Cowboy and the Jackers”. This bit of action music comes when our hero, a kid named Shad, encounters a guy named Cowboy whose ship is under attack. This is what Horner sounded like when he first came on the scene. He would mature a lot, and pretty quickly. (He’d also learn to orchestrate…at the end of the track, just listen to the long, slow execution of the trumpet section that Horner mounts. Ye Gods.)

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1 Response to A to Z: James, Jerry, and John

  1. Joy says:

    Don't forget Horner scoring Star Trek II. I love the titles for it. And don't forget the memorable Spock death scene sweeping heart wrenching music!

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