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The Essential Geek #25: John Williams

The Essential Geek #25: John Williams

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It was a perfect night.

Since I've moved to Los Angeles a few months ago, I've had many of them. Most of the nights, in fact, have been perfect...from a weather standpoint, that is. The night we first arrived after 19 straight hours of driving to discover our electricity hadn't been connected, leaving us unable to inflate the Aerobed we'd planned to sleep upon? Bad night...but man, still gorgeous weather.

The night of which I will speak on this, the occasion of my Silver Anniversary as a JHM columnist, was especially perfect. The haze of LA smog had receded to the outermost edges of the horizon, leaving a blanket of black above. It was pierced at intervals by the shiny pinpricks of stars...which proved to be all-too-appropriate for the events of this evening. Once your eyes adjusted to the darkness, you could just make out the white letters of the Hollywood sign nestled in the hilltops.

We lucky few on this perfect night were gathered at the Hollywood Bowl, with sky as ceiling and mountains as walls for the ideal conert venue, to enjoy the bounteous gifts of a man referred to throughout the evening as simply "Maestro," the great composer John Williams.

If perhaps Williams' name doesn't ring any bells, it doesn't matter much. Anyone who has been to the movies in the last twenty-five years knows the Maestro's work. And anyone who hasn't been to the movies in the last twenty-five years...what's your problem? Are you afraid of the big scary outside?

Think about any of the huge great films in recent history and they inevitably bear Williams' masterful touch. "E.T." with its soaring theme, the one that fills your heart with such hope you expect it to burst? Check. "Superman," where FX made you believe a man could fly, but the music made you care about the man? Check. The "Star Wars" films, which bounce from pulp silliness to thick melodrama from film to film and have required some of the movies' most memorable tunes to match their leaps? BIG check.

Williams' music has been there for all of these and more. He's handled the soaring, epic orchestral blast of the closing scenes of "Star Wars" and the sinewy cat-and-mouse chases of "Catch Me If You Can." He's conjured sorrow and deep wells of regret for "Schindler's List" and the racing adventure of "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Through it all, and oddly enough, he's endured because he realizes his music doesn't really matter. As a matter of fact, he knows maybe better than anyone else on the planet that for the most part, movies aren't about music...they're about feeling. And when the music can match the feeling, even uplift it and send it spinning to the next dimension, the movie rises along with it. It's a tricky, delicate marriage, one that's often born of convenience or frequently disintegrates under the strain of constant clashing.

When Williams marries music to the images of a director, whether they spring from the mind of a blockbuster maven like Steven Spielberg or an indie darling like Alfonso Cuaron, it's almost always a marriage made in heaven. The proof is in the inescapable unity, something you sense each time you hear these tunes. Can you listen to "The Imperial March" without picturing Darth Vader stalking the bridge of his command ship? When you hear the theme from "Jurassic Park," do you not picture CG dinosaurs munching calmly on a tree? The music and the image are inseparable.

And yet, amazingly, the music still stands on its own. The Hollywood Bowl concert hammered that point home each time the thousands of movie fans screamed with excitement at the opening bars of "The Raiders March" or the "Star Wars" main titles music. It was less a wine-and-cheese night and more a rock concert. Were there words to sing, they would have been sung; as it were, you could occasionally catch snatches of a particularly well-loved tune being hummed by your fellow concertgoers. All of Williams' truly great compositions are as memorable and catchy as a Beatles tune. One listen, and they're in your brain to stay...which is a good thing.

Try to be there if you can...sitting on that perfect night in a perfect spot, hearing familiar tunes that send your mind wandering over some of the greatest moments in movie (and geek) history, your mind drifting up to join the stars in a galaxy far, far away...transported by the music of a Maestro whose talent knows no bounds.

Not a bad way to spend a Friday evening, I tells ya.

The best collection out there right now to get all of Williams' greatest hits is the aptly-titled "John Williams - Greatest Hits 1969-1999." He conducts all the pieces, and it's mostly material that's packaged in a very easily-listenable fashion. There's also "By Request: The Best of John Williams and the Boston Pops Orchestra," which a young Matt Springer checked out of the South Holland Public Library and dubbed to audio cassette way back in the day. Or if your tastes run toward the Spielbergian, you might prefer "The Spielberg/Williams Collaboration," which focuses entirely on music Williams composed for Spielberg films.

The only rule of thumb you shouldn't forget is this: If it ain't the Maestro conducted BY the Maestro, I suggest you pass. It seems as though any number of two-bit orchestras and conductors have churned out cutrate titles that contain lackluster and limp versions of Williams' best works. Avoid these like the plague. Also remember that is body of film scores on CD is filled with classic titles, but listening to a movie score isn't always the best experience, unless you're either a stark raving obsessive of said film or a diehard movie music buff.

Come to think of it, your best bet might be to set aside a few hours sometime and rent a couple of movies that bear the imprint of John Williams' genius. Enjoy the marriage of his melodies and arrangements to the classics of modern cinema, and have a perfect night of your own, right there in your living room.

Matt Springer has been writing professionally about genre entertainment for the past five years and has worked full-time for such publications as the Official Buffy the Vampire Slayer Magazine, Cinescape, and Total Movie. He co-edits the genre criticism website Entertainment Geekly (http://www.entertainment-geekly.com). His first novel, Unconventional, is the tale of three geeks who spend a life-altering weekend at a convention; buy it online at South Side Press (http://www.southsidepress.net). He's currently working to become a sitcom writer.

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