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September 7, 2016
John Williams Cheered at Bowl, Celebrated on TCM
Composer honored with AFI tributes, classic films by Jon Burlingame
HOLLYWOOD—How does one measure an artist's impact on popular culture?
In the case of composer John Williams, consider this: Fifty thousand people saw him over the weekend at the Hollywood Bowl, cheering him like a rock star, with thousands of them waving red, green and blue "lightsabers" in time to the music.
Williams conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic in nearly 40 minutes of music from the Star Wars films, including "Jedi Steps and Finale" (accompanied by film clips) and "Rey's Theme" from The Force Awakens; "Princess Leia's Theme" and "Throne Room and Finale" (again with clips) from Star Wars; and "The Asteroid Field" and "The Imperial March" from The Empire Strikes Back.
On Sunday night, the 84-year-old composer drew laughter from the crowd when, referring to The Force Awakens, he quipped, "Some of you may have seen the movie," and then confirmed that he would score the next Star Wars film -- his eighth -- because he said he was "completely smitten" with actress Daisy Ridley and "I didn't want anyone else to write music for Rey."
He also played music from two Steven Spielberg films, "Flight to Neverland" from Hook and a nine-minute suite from this past summer's The BFG.
Standing ovations brought him back to the stage for no less than three encores ("Hedwig's Theme" from the Harry Potter films, the march from Superman and the flying sequence from E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial). Earlier in the program, David Newman conducted Williams' love theme for the 1995 remake of Sabrina, with its expansive piano solo performed by Philharmonic pianist Joanne Pearce Martin.
But that's not all. On Monday, Sept. 12, Turner Classic Movies will devote an evening of programming, including two unique special events, focusing on the five-time Oscar winner. TCM will show two of his Spielberg collaborations: Jaws (9:15 p.m. Eastern) and their first film together, The Sugarland Express (12:30 a.m. Eastern); one with director Mark Rydell, The Cowboys (3:45 a.m. Eastern); and his adaptation of the musical Goodbye, Mr. Chips (6 a.m. Eastern Tuesday, Sept. 13).
The special programs are the AFI Life Achievement Award: A Tribute to John Williams, which originally aired on TNT June 15 but will air commercial-free on TCM (8 p.m. Eastern, repeated at 2:30 a.m. Eastern) and AFI's Master Class – The Art of Collaboration: Spielberg-Williams (11:30 p.m. Eastern), a one-hour chat between the director and composer.
The Master Class, originally aired in November 2011, is a fascinating, hour-long discussion between the director and composer about their long working relationship, and about the use of music in films generally. Says Williams: "He's never once said to me, 'I don't like that' or 'this won't work.' He's enjoyed everything, even the mistakes." Adds Spielberg: "I have absolute trust and faith that John is right. John's first impressions of my films are the impressions that I listen to. He musically enhances and takes [them] to an entirely different level."
They play excerpts from, and discuss, favorite scores including Vertigo, Spartacus, On the Waterfront, Amadeus and their own work together on Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Schindler's List, Catch Me If You Can, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
Williams received the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award on June 9. He is the first composer in its 44-year history to receive that honor. It was a star-studded event at Los Angeles' Dolby Theatre, and the 75-minute condensation of highlights is well worth watching.
"Without John Williams, bikes don't really fly," Spielberg said that evening. "Nor do brooms in Quidditch matches. Nor do men in red capes. There is no Force. Dinosaurs do not walk the earth. We do not wonder, we do not weep, we do not believe. John, you breathe 'belief' into every film we have made." The director also unveiled his own grainy, out-of-focus Super-8 footage of Williams' 1982 recording session for E.T.
"This 50-time Oscar nominee seems to have never read his own resume," quipped J.J. Abrams, who had the black-tie crowd in stitches, quoting the composer's pet names for him ("angel" and "baby") during the scoring of The Force Awakens.
About Star Wars, George Lucas said, "John wrote the music and he raised it to a level of popular art that would stand the test of time." Introduced with the Raiders theme, a bearded Harrison Ford at first complained that "that music follows me everywhere" but went on to explain that Williams' music "invites the viewers' emotional involvement" and concluded by saying, "John, you're a genius."
The Life Achievement Award telecast is filled with insightful bits of Williams talking about his career and a collection of greatest-hits clips (from Jaws to Jurassic Park and beyond). And it's capped by Williams' gracious acceptance speech, in which he talks about film as providing composers with "the broadest possible audience worldwide that any composer has ever enjoyed. I'm certain that Beethoven would have shunned it, but Wagner would have had his own studio in Burbank." "Tomorrow morning, when I am back at work," Williams added, with typical self-deprecation, "I will try to deserve all of this." And, of course, he does.
©2016 Jon Burlingame