Composer John Williams is the rare craftsman to be honored with an AFI Achievement Award, and the AFI should do it more often. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas maneuvered the AFI tribute (held June 9 at Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre) toward excellence and maximum cooperation on all fronts, and the 44th annual event proved one of the most satisfying in years.
How can you lose when the honoree composed the world’s most hummable and instantly identifiable themes —including “Star Wars,” the Richard Donner “Superman,” Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, and 27 Spielberg movies over 43 years, from “Jaws” (1975), “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977) and “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” (1982) to “Jurassic Park” (1993), “Schindler’s List” (1993) and “Saving Private Ryan” (1998). (Williams plans to score Spielberg’s Indiana Jones movie and “Ready Player One” and possibly “Star Wars 8.”) All told, the 84-year-old composer has more than 150 credits across seven decades.
“Somehow he’s composed the music of our lives,” said Sir Howard Stringer, Chair of the AFI Board of Trustees. Three of Williams’ scores landed on AFI’s 100 Years of Film Scores, including the “Star Wars” (1977) soundtrack at number one. The Dolby crowd gasped when they heard that not only has Williams won five Academy Awards, but he also holds 50 nominations in total, the record for any living person.
Over the course of the evening, we learned about how Williams was raised in New York in a musical family, moved to Los Angeles to work in television and movies, and played piano on many movie soundtracks, including Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment.” In his acceptance speech, he mentioned that two of the Hollywood greats he worked with, Alfred Newman and Bernard Herrmann, should have won this award before him. He recalled writing a bang-up love theme for Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, not knowing they would wind up being brother and sister.
“John, you’re a genius,” said a bearded Harrison Ford before Kobe Bryant took the stage to praise Williams for his Olympic theme. “He’s like the sweetest superhero all time,” said J.J. Abrams, whose “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” earned Williams his 50th Academy Award nod. “Not enough can ever be said about the importance of John Williams’ music.”
“Music is the magic dust of movies,” said George Lucas, who with Spielberg, made it clear just how much he appreciated what Williams contributed to his films.
Spielberg described the process of first showing Williams a movie, and then having a “spotting session” where they figure out “what scenes should and should not have music.” The composer sits quietly at his 100-year-old Steinway with a yellow pad and pencil figuring out themes for the likes of Darth Vader and a great white shark—which, when Spielberg first heard it, he thought was a joke. It wasn’t. Williams’ music is as complex as Debussy and as accomplished as Stravinsky, Spielberg said, describing the gigantic mathematical puzzle Williams would create when he brought a film’s orchestration to a scoring session with 100 musicians.
Spielberg showed the iconic scene from “E.T.” with the kid on the bike flying above the trees and moving across the moon—with and without the Williams score. “Without John Williams, bikes don’t really fly,” he said. “You breathe belief into every frame.”
At the start of the evening, Franklin Shaffner awardee Lesli Linka Glatter (“Homeland”), an early grad of AFI’s women’s workshop, thanked mentor Spielberg, who hired her to direct three episodes of “Amazing Stories.”
Many studio heads attended the annual American Film tribute, including Sony’s Michael Lynton and Tom Rothman, Warner Bros.’ Kevin Tsujihara, Disney’s Alan Horn and Sean Bailey, and Fox’s Jim Gianopulos.
The gala event will be aired on TNT June 15 as well as on Turner Classic Movies.