“They’re butchering the classics! John Williams is rolling over in his grave!”
- Homer Simpson
(the last 15 minutes of ET, some of the greatest film music ever written)
I’m clearly getting older. John Williams turned 80 today, and I remember watching him conduct on TV when he was in his mid-fifties. It seems weird to think of John Williams as the last great film composer, but that just might be his epitaph. Jerry Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein, and Henry Mancini are all dead. Who else is there? Some people say that Howard Shore is in his league, but few people have much to say about his work before or after Lord of the Rings. Many people love Elliot Goldenthal’s film music, but he often waits years between film scores. Perhaps Ennio Morricone trumps them all, but most of his music is for small European films we’ll never see. In the American film industry, it’s just John Williams at the top. At 80 years old, he still turns out at least 2 feature-length scores every year, and every one of them makes its movie better than it would be without him. He probably has no equal and certainly no superior.
For over a generation, John Williams has been an unfortunate euphemism in the classical music world for selling out...in every sense of the word. Many American orchestras can’t sell out for concerts of Beethoven and Mozart, but if they can guarantee a sold-out house if they program John Williams. Ask your average American to name a living classical composer, they will not know the names John Adams or Steve Reich, and maybe they’ll have once heard the name Phillip Glass, but they won’t remember it. The average American mind will go straight to John Williams, then draw a total blank.
Film music can be a thankless job that gets little respect from other musicians. No composer begins his first compositions with dreams of being a great film composer, no instrumentalist gives up her whole childhood to practice so that she can play John Williams for the rest of her life. But it’s steady employment, a chance to utilize creativity, and a better chance for most musicians to practice their craft than they’d ever get if they reached for genres with more prestige. Within the film industry, there are probably dozens of musicians who could have been Mozarts, Heifetzes, Leonard Bernsteins (to say nothing of John Lennons). But as ever, luck determines who gets to the top rung, and the rest of the arts world has to go to work like all the rest of us. Perhaps some people dream from childhood of nothing but a wonderful career in film music, but I find it hard to believe. Who knows? Most of them are probably happier being steady professionals than they’d have ever been with the impossible demands of the concert circuit.
Is film music somehow inferior to other forms of classical music? Certainly not. But it is different and it can’t be measured by the same metrics. How do you tell a great film composer? Well, it’s difficult and it takes watching a lot of mediocre movies, a subject on which I’m as much an expert as anybody who watches whatever’s on TV. A great film composer doesn’t necessarily score great movies, but he does make the movies the movies he scores greater. Because of a great score, bad films become decent, decent films become good, and good films become great. A great film composer needn’t be a great composer of non-film music, or even an original one. In fact, it’s sometimes better that he’s not. Great film music is an indivisible part of the movie itself, and performing great film music without the film can be as non-sensical as performing an opera without singers. You might be able to take the ‘greatest hits’, but it’s hardly as effective as listening to the music in the context of the movie.
You might be able to recall the themes of the great film scores, even if you haven’t seen the movie. But that’s no different than being able to sing a verse from a song that’s part of an entire album. If you want to appreciate the whole achievement, you have to see the movie. And because you have to see the whole movie, the film composer is a prisoner to whatever director hires him. If most film buffs were asked whom the greatest film composer was, they would probably say Bernard Hermann without skipping a beat. But was Hermann really any better than Erich Korngold, Max Steiner, or Franz Waxmann? Hermann was the preferred composer of Alfred Hitchcock, and did well-known scores for Orson Welles, Francois Truffaut, Brian de Palma, and Martin Scorsese. Except perhaps for John Williams, no film composer got better jobs. Was Hermann employed by such great directors because he was more talented? Did Hermann become a greater film composer because he had better bosses? Or was Hermann just a lucky bastard? These are questions nobody can answer sufficiently, and that’s why you can’t measure Bernard Hermann against Beethoven. They were artists in two completely different artforms.
But there’s another reason that these debates are becoming ever more futile. Film music may die. Not film music as a whole, but film music as we think of it to this day. It’s been a long illness, but ever since Martin Scorsese cued up the Ronettes for the opening of Mean Streets (or Stanley Kubrick cued up Richard Strauss for 2001), the days of new music for major releases have been numbered. Why hire a 100-piece orchestra to do the job of a synthesizer? Why hire a composer when a soundtrack of existing music can do its job? Without John Williams, would there still be a film music industry? Will film music itself outlive him?