With just the right bells and whistles, stomps and fanfare, violins and flutes, New York born composer John Williams is notorious for saving films left and right. What would the opening credits to Star Wars be like without the rushing theme to keep us interested? How else would we know Jurassic Park was supposed to be both magnificent and mysterious at the same time? Would Elliot’s flight into the stars with E.T. be very memorable? Hell, would either George Lucas or Steven Spielberg have a career? Don’t answer. These are all rhetorical. In fact, all these questions are unimportant, irrelevant, and hogwash, simply because Williams is always going to be there for the two moneymakers. The point is, he’s an integral establishment of modern filmmaking and the aforementioned directors should be kissing his feet.
While his recent work has been less inspiring (e.g. the phoned in compositions of the equally phoned in film, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), no one can discredit his past endeavors — and let’s stick outside former mainstream arbitration like Star Wars or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, please. Fiddler on the Roof? The Poseidon Adventure? Black Sunday? Any of those ring any bells? It’d be a tragedy if they didn’t. The thing is, there’s more to Williams than just blockbuster popcorn mentality. Since the early ’60s, Williams has been a flaring artist, rivaling even the likes of GyÃ¶rgy Ligeti (which is damn near impossible). It hasn’t been easy. Earlier critics pegged the composer as a stale imitator of Bernard Hermann, which is quite unfair, because if one would take a look at his work in the ’70s (outside the film school slackers like Lucas and Spielberg), his compositions were fully realized and quite mature. His work alongside Robert and Richard M. Sherman in 1973’s Tom Sawyer was, simply put, a cinematic hallmark, and the fact that it lost in the Oscar race just goes to show how little the Academy knows about anything, especially music.
There are detractors, however. Some may argue the minimalistic chord progressions of his ominous score for Jaws is just a blatant rip off of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (think the opening of “The Adoration of the Earth”), and they would be right. But replace “rip off” with “throw back” and you have yourself a very honest tribute. Then there’s the whole fiasco that Williams has been Lucas and Spielberg’s “monkey boy” for over three decades. You can’t argue with them there, but you can come to an agreement. In each of Williams’ compositions, there lies pure, unadulterated genius, and such is the case with the anthemic, adventurous, and awe-inspiring scores of the equally great Indiana Jones series.
In celebration (or to apologize?) for the new film, Concord Records has gone on to remaster and reissue the series’ applauded soundtracks. This is a rare treat, not only because the genius of Williams is back for the family to enjoy, but because the highly underrated 1984 hit Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was previously out of print on soundtrack. Collectors had to hit up vinyl stores with crossed fingers and high hopes that they’d have it (this writer included). So to enjoy the sounds digitally remastered is, well let’s just say, a big deal.
Any Williams-connoisseur will tell you right off the bat that the work in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is both dull and flat. There are moments of interest (“The Adventures of Mutt”), but the remainder of the soundtrack is pure filler, as if the likes of Marco Beltrami were involved (spare us). Clearly, the real gem, or archaelogical find if you want to keep this thematic, is what lies in Raiders, Temple, and Last Crusade. With Raiders, classic themes such as the flute-led “The Map Room: Dawn” and the blend of strings in “Marion’s Theme/The Crate” bring chills to the spine in high-definition audio, and that’s before you even touch upon the engaging finale of “The Miracle of the Ark”. Of course, who could forget the darkness and the macabre of Temple, easily the darkest of the four films. Between the cult-like chanting of the titular track and the downward march of “Slave Children’s Crusade”, this is one heavy baby to carry. There are light moments, however, they just come in small doses. The brass infused “Short Round’s Theme” or the dance-y number “Anything Goes” (the only track featuring vocals) are breaths of fresh air, but all of this campy magic is unnecessary, especially if you’re to follow it up with The Last Crusade.
This is where Williams comes into his own again, reinventing himself just in time for the ’90s, which would soon follow after the 1989 film. The lighthearted jubilation in the third adventure is refined, admired, and fully envisioned. In the opening track, “Indy’s Very First Adventure”, it’s a paint by numbers Williams lesson in how to make movie magic real and authentic. By the time “No Ticket” rolls around, you hardly need the corresponding images to see the voyages and action that Dr. Jones does. “The Canyon of the Crescent Moon” is an amalgamation of Middle Eastern tunes and Roman-like bombast, it’s truly supreme. There’s also something paternal to the sounds too, an inclusion that makes sense given the father and son storyline here. In both “The Penitent Man Will Pass” and “Finale & End Credits”, there’s a nostalgic line of instrumentation that’s very fitting and just downright beautiful.
Say what you will about the man, but John Williams is a slick bookmark in all things modern film. The carefree expressions behind his tiny bifocals should not fool you. He’s a heavy minded genius with a sleight of hand. True admirers of passion will no doubt find his work here to be timeless. True believers of classical manifestation will devour the three of these four albums with the utmost sincerity and delicacy. There’s no time to be lost but your own, and with these cinematic joys nuzzling those ear buds of yours, it won’t take a bloated Hollywood budget nor a sleazy, piggish director to bring adventure to your own eyes.
If adventure has a name, then it must be John Williams.
(Editor’s Note: April Fool’s!)