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John Williams and Steven Spielberg: The Critics Speak, Not Always Kindly

John Williams and Steven Spielberg: The Critics Speak, Not Always Kindly

A few weeks ago, a video made the rounds of John Williams consulting director Steven Spielberg on crafting music for the climactic scene of “E.T. the Extra Terrestrial.”

That video is a representative snippet of the partnership that began in 1975, with the meteoric popularity of “Jaws” and continued through their work on “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Even with the hiccup of “1941,” as went Spielberg’s career, so did Williams’. In that clip, Williams is free-handing the soundtrack to millions of kids’ lives while Spielberg repeats the theme back to him, barely able to control his giddiness. They knew they had it. 

The soundtracks are iconic, the films are now pure nostalgia. So their reviews immediately recognized their genius, right? 

Not so much. Vincent Canby’s review in the New York Times remarked that “John Williams’s soundtrack music is beginning to sound just a tiny bit familiar, not all that different from the scores he has done for ‘Star Wars,’ ‘Close Encounters’ and ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,’ among others.” (For baseball fans, an analogy is Jesse Orosco, the relief pitcher who, in 1988, Sports Illustrated declared “over-the-hill,” only to be profiled15 years later — while he was still in the majors.) 

So, the question persists: if Williams’ craft of the early ’80s was held under that scrutiny, how has the critical world treated the composer’s efforts in the three decades since? And even if Williams is arguably the most famous writer of film music alive, has his partnership with Spielberg been as beneficial as the pair’s longevity would indicate?

Indiana Jones: “Cheerfully Martial”

Well, for one, there’s the rest of the Indiana Jones franchise. Todd McCarthy, in 1984 writing for Variety, noted that “What with John Williams’ incessant score and the library full of sound effects, there isn’t a quiet moment in the entire picture, and the filmmakers have piled one giant setpiece on top of another to the point where one never knows where it will all end.”

Five years later, another Variety critic, Joseph McBride noted that “John Williams’ score again is a major factor in the appeal and pacing” of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” With the original Indy trilogy, the music was such an intrinsic part of the films’ throwback feel, even down the “Anything Goes” number in “Temple of Doom.” The playful danger and heroic triumph simply don’t persist on mute. 

That attitude persisted through to 2008, when the perpetually divisive fourth installment, “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” came to theaters. The Washington Post’s Stephen Hunter declared that “John Williams’s music, so full of the smell of popcorn and butter and Jujubes enameled to the ceiling of old movie palaces, instructs our respiratory systems to get with the program.”

The War Films: The Sparing Effect

Watching multiple Spielberg films in succession, you start to notice that he tends to shy away from silence. Even if some moments of intense action do away with music, that’s where the sound design usually takes over.

Exhibit A: “Saving Private Ryan.” McCarthy felt Williams’ lack of presence in World War II, stating that “John Williams’ score is sparing, with music avoided entirely for long stretches but coming into its own elsewhere, notably over the final credits.” Janet Maslin went as far to say that the absence of music benefited the picture entirely, writing that “the sparing use of John Williams’s music sustains the tension in scenes, like these, that need no extra emphasis.” Among the dissenters on this front are further examples of those who see the efforts of the two men as linked. Jonathan Rosenbaum, no fan of the film outside the “Omaha Beach” sequence, declared Williams’ contributions “hokey,” likely an extension of the repetition he saw in the rest of Spielberg’s wartime storytelling. 

A war of a much different kind brought adulation for Williams’ utilization. In his review of “War of the Worlds,” A.O. Scott remarked that the “score is striking partly as a result of how sparingly it is used. For long stretches of the movie, you hear no music at all, which deepens both the realism and the dread, and immerses you more fully in what you are seeing.” Williams’ service to the story is not always a perfect match of style. Here, the underimplementation keys in on allowing the quiet moments to stay somber and unsettling, so that when the multimillion-dollar setpieces blast through everything else, the polar difference is not just one of scope or emotion, but of sound itself. 

The Vibrant Anomalies:

The times when Williams switches up his usual bag of tricks and dips into other styles is not lost on those charged with reviewing Spielberg’s work. Of “Catch Me if You Can,” David Edelstein wrote at Slate that Williams had “concocted his most brilliant pastiche in decades,” effectively blending the jazzy elements of that sublime animated opening with “suspenseful lines in the Jaws tradition, along with longer, more melancholy passages.” The literal and figurative snappiness of that opening credits sequence is a hint that neither of these fresh tactics can exist on their own. To have Jazzy John playing over a familiar, Spielberg-like introduction would be jarring, as would a Saul Bass homage featuring wistful French horn solos. The two new directions complement each other, especially in the initial few minutes.

There are times where Williams veered from his trademark level of grandiosity and and opted for something stylistically different, as the tone of different films call for. Scott’s review of “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” posited that Spielberg “tells the story slowly and films it with lucid, mesmerizing objectivity, creating a mood as layered, dissonant and strange as John Williams’s unusually restrained, modernist score.” Early in the 21st century, a break from the showy brass and soul-sweeping strings was seen as a respite. With a futuristic story more action-oriented than philosophical, Williams opted for a score more suited for the task, one that McCarthy described as “energetically supportive.”

Williams has announced that he and Spielberg “will be doing another film shortly,” likely the confirmed “Robopocalypse.” The fact that neither film fits nicely into any preconceived stylistic or sonic categories gives hope that a fresh android/sci-fi story will occupy some shade in between, if not one completely different.

Recent Years:

It’s those moments of variation that keep this working relationship from stagnating, even as an entire generation has elapsed. Yes, the two have recognizable styles: Spielberg has his trademark “Face” and Kyle Smith described Williams’ contribution to “War Horse” as a “typically yearning score.” But it’s a testament to both men that neither stayed content with resting on the iconic achievements of their younger days. Neither of them have pristine filmographies, but the idea that those imperfections have been intertwined makes their collaboration all the more compelling.

Chris Packham’s LA Weekly review of “Lincoln” concluded with this observation: “Oh, and there’s some orchestral bullshit by John Williams, too, if you’re into that kind of thing.” This time around for the partnership, it seems that audiences are. While their latest offering is not the same kind of blockbuster, this kind of response does recall one reaction to “E.T.” San Francisco Chronicle critic Mick LaSalle described as having “some frustrating faults — including a John Williams score vulgar enough for a biblical epic.” If the latest presidential biopic has anywhere close to the staying power that the children’s fable has enjoyed, “Lincoln” will be far from a minor work in future retrospectives of either man’s work.

Williams is almost assured magical nomination number #48, a mark of a film that managed to translate a century-and-a-half-old story into a financial and critical success. When word of mouth needed to be generated by the main trailer, the marketing team behind “Lincoln” opted to forego canned strings or a track from a library to score the preview, instead using the music from the film itself. Because like any great partnership, Spielberg and Williams rise and fall together.

Indiewire is taking a closer look at how the over-60 audience is served by the movies made for them as well as profiling the actors and filmmakers who are their peers. It’s part of a partnership with Heineken, which is sponsoring the Heineken 60+ Challenge that reaches out to the creative community to film, photograph or write their observations on the lifestyles and preferences of the 60+ age group. The goal is to help Heineken create innovative products to suit this golden generation.

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