But Who’s Keeping Score? Film Composer John Williams Wins 2016 AFI Life Achievement Award

Never has a film composer won American Film Institute’s esteemed Life Achievement Award. Until now.

When you live in Florida, you spend a lot of time on boats. At beaches. It’s challenging to float along in the peaceful lull of Gulf tides and not, at some point, hear it.

Da dum.
Da dum dum.

The first chilling, paralyzing, swim-ruining notes of Jaws.


We feel certain people in water everywhere feel the same, even if that water is a man-made lake in Michigan. You don’t need salt water or sharks, you just have to have seen the movie at some point in your life. Or, at the very least, to have heard the music.

Such is the genius of John Williams, the composer whose first collaboration with then-unknown director Steven Spielberg redefined the suspense thriller, thanks largely to the fact that the real threat in the film isn’t the shark at all — it’s the feeling we get when we hear the music. You can watch the movie without the sound and the effect is meh.

But, listen to the first :38 of the theme song on YouTube and see if you don’t get a little case of the willies.

On June 9, 2016, American Film Institute (AFI) awarded Williams their Lifetime Achievement Award, the highest honor for a career in film. This was the first year — out of 44 — the accolade fell around the shoulders of a composer.

Composer John Williams
Composer John Williams

Williams, who turned 84 this year, raised most of us, giving us the emotional landscape of the most visible, commercially successful, culturally imprinted films of the past 40 years: Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., Superman, the Star Wars franchise, Schindler’s List, the Indiana Jones franchise, Jurassic Park and three Harry Potter films. In sum — there’s a great chance any given working-age person in America can hear the first strains of “Indiana’s Theme,”  “Harry’s Wondrous World” or the “Imperial March” and feel some inscrutable stirring of the soul.

Williams, despite his 50 Oscar® nominations, five Academy Awards®, 22 Grammys® and 21 honorary degrees, still works in relative obscurity, seven days a week, on a 91-year-old Steinway piano. As of right now, he’s booked solid into 2019, when Spielberg’s fifth installment of Indiana Jones is set for release.

An intuitive composer, Williams typically talks with directors to get a sense of the film though sometimes he works from a book or script. He begins to tinker with note motifs — think the 2-note motif of Jaws or the five-notes of Close Encounters — working and re-working the tonality until he feels as if the notes speak the theme. In interviews, Williams describes his work as the “musical grammar” of a film, and these early, simple themes develop into massive forces of character every bit as integral to the success of a film as the human actors. Both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg credit Williams with the success of Star Wars and Indiana Jones because the vitality and connectivity of the music imprinted a generation and bound it to the films.

Composer John Williams with Director Steven Spielberg
Composer John Williams with Director Steven Spielberg

Orchestrations follow the initial note themes, once directors accept where Williams is taking the scenes emotionally. In “spotting sessions,” Williams and the director watch a rough cut of the film, determining where music goes and what the music — like any other character — does in the scene. Eventually, an orchestra performs the music on a scoring stage while a cut of the film rolls on a regulation movie screen so the musicians, Williams, the director and producer can follow the synching of the music to the film. After that, Williams is usually nominated for an Oscar®.

John Williams bow
John Williams takes a bow.

Williams’s innate, operatic ear for transcribing the sensation of human emotion into music creates, from a sensory perspective, a three-dimensional experience of a two-dimensional art form. In fact, we tried to listen to John Williams music to write this blog (a playlist that began with “Hedwig’s Theme” from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone), but the music rendered us unable to do anything but conjure a mental mash up of every HP we’d seen (*cough* all of them). The instrument he chose to simulate the flight of an owl is a miniature upright piano of sorts called a celesta, whose sustain pedal blurs the tinkling notes until the listener feels a sense of swirling down, like a bird feather floating to the ground.

Sir Howard Stringer, chair, AFI board of trustees, explained in a press release that “John Williams has written the soundtrack to our lives. Note by note, through chord and chorus, his genius for marrying music with movies has elevated the art form to symphonic levels and inspired generations of audiences to be enriched by the magic of the movies.”

John Williams with the AFI Life Achievement Award
John Williams with the AFI Life Achievement Award

If you missed AFI’s broadcast of AFI LIFE ACHIEVEMENT AWARD: A TRIBUTE TO JOHN WILLIAMS, an encore presentation will run on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) on Monday, Sept. 12, 2016, at 8 p.m.

You can listen to AFI’s Williams playlist on Spotify at https://open.spotify.com/artist/3dRfiJ2650SZu6GbydcHNb.

Comments are closed.

Up ↑