2016 John Williams Tribute
The television special AFI LIFE ACHIEVEMENT AWARD: A TRIBUTE TO JOHN WILLIAMS aired on TNT on June 15, 2016. An encore presentation aired on sister network Turner Classic Movies (TCM) on September 12, 2016 during a night of programming dedicated to John Williams.
There is cinema before John Williams, and cinema after John Williams.
He is a living history of the American movie soundtrack — and of movies
themselves. For his timeless and immortal contributions to the art of storytelling,
the American Film Institute has selected Williams as the recipient of its 44th
AFI Life Achievement Award — the first composer ever to receive this highest
honor for a career in film.
Williams' iconic works make us believe in the fantastic, the terrifying, the
magical — that a monstrous leviathan awaits us in the deep; that we are
not alone in the universe; that a man can fly; that a boy on his bicycle can
soar across the moon; that dinosaurs roam the earth; that the triumphs and
tragedies of human history are alive; and that we are all bound together by
an inscrutable, mystical Force.
Behind this enormous filmography of towering achievement is a humble
artist content to live outside the limelight and let his wondrous work speak
for itself. "I live a very quiet life," Williams said. "A composer's life is similar
to a monk's, from the point of view of solitude."
Williams was born in New York on February 8, 1932. He grew up
surrounded by music. His father was a jazz drummer and symphonic
percussionist, and his brothers are still percussionists today. As a child,
"Johnny" shadowed his father in CBS Radio recording sessions, where
he recalls falling in love with "the first sounds I heard of the orchestra,
the deafening noises of the brasses, the color of the sound — it was the
single biggest turn-on."
He pursued his passion, trying a number of instruments before finally
choosing the piano. After moving with his family to California, he was
studying music at UCLA by 1950. He soon was drafted into the Korean
War, and during that time conducted and arranged music for U.S. Air
Force bands, penning his first film score for a short travel documentary
commissioned by the Canadian government.
After the war, he returned to New York where he studied piano at the
Juilliard School with the renowned Rosina Lhévinne, and where he also
played in the city's jazz clubs and commercial recording studios. But cinema
eventually called him back to Los Angeles, where he settled into a vacant
pianist chair in the Columbia Pictures orchestra. To look back on the early
years of his career is to take a musical walk through classic Hollywood
cinema. He played piano on scores for SOUTH PACIFIC (1958),
SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959), THE APARTMENT (1960), WEST SIDE STORY
(1961) and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962), to name just a few of his
By the late 1960s, he had become "John Williams," the mature composer,
writing scores for VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1967) and THE REIVERS (1969).
He won his first Academy Award® for adapting FIDDLER ON THE ROOF
(1971) to the screen before establishing himself as a "master of disaster" of
film scores, starting with the box office hit THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE
(1972) and continuing with EARTHQUAKE (1974) and THE TOWERING
As diverse as his filmography have been his collaborators, including J.J.
Abrams, Irwin Allen, Robert Altman, Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuarón,
Brian De Palma, Clint Eastwood, Alfred Hitchcock, Lawrence Kasdan,
George Lucas, Delbert Mann, George Miller, Oliver Stone and William
Wyler. But in Steven Spielberg, Williams found his most prolific artistic partner.
It was 1972, and unlike the rising school of Hollywood filmmakers for whom
the movie orchestra was out of vogue, Spielberg wanted a classical style for
his theatrical debut, THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS (1974).
"For many years there was a drought. The great old composers like
Dimitri Tiomkin and Max Steiner were no longer writing. There was a
real loss of pure symphonic film music. When I heard THE REIVERS and
THE COWBOYS (1972), I said, 'My God, this guy must be 80 years old!'"
Spielberg said, thinking that Williams embodied the musical spirit of the
Hollywood Golden Age.
"He seemed to know more about my music than I did," Williams said of their
first meeting, where he took an instant liking to this boyish rookie. Thus began
the most enduring collaboration in American film history — what Williams has
described as "more like a marriage than a working relationship."
Then came JAWS (1975).
It was a game-changer for Williams and the movies. Because the film's
mechanical shark often malfunctioned during production, Spielberg wanted
to keep it mostly off-screen. So it was up to the music to carry the thriller's
sense of approaching doom. While initially reluctant to embrace the
now-famous two-note phrase created by Williams, Spielberg said that the
score for JAWS was "clearly responsible for half the success of that movie."
Williams won his second Oscar® for the film, his first for Best Original
If JAWS was a success for its simple two-note motif, then Spielberg's
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977) can be defined
by five notes, electronically produced, and combined with Williams'
signature classical grandeur to signal the benevolent arrival of alien life on
our planet. Spielberg marveled at Williams' feat — "to have aliens and
humans communicating by what reaches us quicker than anything else,
which is the passion of music."
From an alien visitation on Earth to a galaxy far, far away, Williams' career
reached a new zenith with STAR WARS: EPISODE IV — A NEW HOPE
(1977), a cinematic collage of Westerns, samurai movies, swashbucklers,
fairy tales and FLASH GORDON serials. Just as director George Lucas
synthesized all these elements to create a dazzling space opera, Williams
conjured an operatic soundscape whose first notes thunderously ushered
audiences into the film's opening frames, a panorama of stars shimmering
against the blackness of space.
Williams' music helped to drive STAR WARS, one of the biggest blockbuster
franchises of all time, to become an unmatched cultural phenomenon,
spawning sequels and prequels — and topping AFI's list of the greatest
American film scores of all time. "Every fan of STAR WARS — and of great
music — is in his debt," said Lucas of the composer.
Williams achieved another milestone with SUPERMAN
(1978): he gave flight to a superhero lifted from the pages
of a comic book. Not only did Williams elevate the title
character — he resurrected the comic book as an art form,
and as a film genre with a massive global audience to this
day. Director Richard Donner said he was "thunderstruck"
when he first heard Williams' main theme for the opening
titles. "When the word 'Superman' came up on the screen,
he orchestrated the word," Donner said. "If you listen, the
music literally says SU-PER-MAN. He's a genius."
In 1980, a new opportunity arose when the Boston Pops
Orchestra sought a successor to incomparable conductor
Arthur Fiedler. Despite having led only a few concerts
previously, Williams felt, "I had nothing to lose, and I could
gain the joy of experiencing a live audience." In his 14
seasons in Boston, and through the nationally televised
PBS series EVENING AT POPS, Williams helped bring film
music as a vital American art form from the big screen to
the concert hall. While conducting the Pops and scoring
films, he took another gigantic leap with his official theme
for the 1984 Summer Olympics, going beyond the screen
to compose music for the most significant competition in
human history, dating back to ancient Greece.
Among his many notable film scores during his tenure at the Pops, which
lasted until 1993, was RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981). Williams
brought to life one of cinema's greatest heroes for this 1930s serial–
inspired adventure, creating a score that remains rousing, raucous and
romantic — a musical sidekick for Indiana Jones that immortalized the
character in movie history.
Williams and Spielberg summoned childlike wonder and fairy-tale awe for
E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982), a movie that soared into the hearts
and imaginations of movie-goers the world over. Spielberg gave Williams
unusual creative breadth by re-editing the final sequence of the film to fit the
rapturous music, lifting Elliott, E.T. and audiences up into the night sky and
off into the stars.
In 1993, in a testament to Williams' immeasurable range, he composed
music for both SCHINDLER'S LIST and JURASSIC PARK. A historic elegy
for lives lost in the Holocaust, SCHINDLER'S LIST presented Williams
with a daunting challenge. It was the first time he hesitated to score
a Spielberg film. "Nothing could be good enough for a story like this,"
he told Spielberg. "You need a better composer than I am for this film."
Spielberg replied, "I know, but they're all dead," nonetheless confident that
his friend stood alongside history's greatest composers. Their reverence for
the material allowed Williams to create a singular musical achievement
that lives outside the cinematic masterpiece. Even today, music from the
score is performed in concert halls worldwide.
Spielberg has called his friend "this nation's greatest composer. He has
given movies a musical language that can be understood in every country
on this planet." His triumphs, charting human history and imagination,
are too many to count: EMPIRE OF THE SUN (1987), BORN ON
THE FOURTH OF JULY (1989), HOME ALONE (1990), JFK (1991), FAR
AND AWAY (1992), SEVEN YEARS IN TIBET (1997), SAVING PRIVATE
RYAN (1998), three HARRY POTTER films (2001–2004), CATCH ME IF
YOU CAN (2002), LINCOLN (2012), THE BFG (2016) and so many
more. In addition to his five Academy Awards®, Williams has received
the Olympic Order (2003), the Kennedy Center Honor (2004) and the
National Medal of Arts (2009). This year, Williams received his 50th
Oscar® nomination — more than any living person, and second only
to Walt Disney in the history of the Academy — for STAR WARS:
EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015).
Aside from his achievements in film music, Williams has composed
numerous works for the concert stage, among them two symphonies, as
well as concertos for cello, flute, violin, clarinet, viola, harp, oboe and
tuba. He has received commissions from some of the world's leading
symphony orchestras, including the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the
Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Los Angeles
Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic. A longtime supporter of
American orchestras, Williams also has conducted dozens of concerts
with orchestras nationwide, often hosted by Spielberg, in support of their
musicians' pension funds. An eloquent spokesman for the importance
of education, and in particular music education, Williams himself holds
honorary degrees from 21 American universities.
And still, he works nearly seven days a week, writing notes by hand and
arranging them on a nearly 100-year-old Steinway grand piano — as
he always has. With his trusty stopwatch, he sets sound to image, and
continues to redefine how we all see and hear the movies.
"It isn't my personality to be particularly proud of what I do," Williams
said, in the gently demurring manner that belies the scope and scale of
his vast body of work. "So much of what we do is ephemeral and quickly
forgotten, even by ourselves. It's gratifying to have something you have
done linger in people's memories."
The American Film Institute is proud to honor
John Williams with the AFI Life Achievement Award,
for his storytelling genius forever lives in our
collective movie memories.
NOTE: Due to licensing restrictions, the telecasts of the AFI Life Achievement Award Tribute are currently not available for distribution or purchase.