Updated: Feb 9, 2022
John Williams turns 90 today—wow! Check out this photo I have with the Great Man himself circa March 2006 (more on this below). Gee, we look like such equals!
Here is a piece for Variety by Jon Burlingame on J.W.’s 90th B.D. I’m not sure I can say anything about the Maestro that others haven’t said elsewhere, and far better.
Curiously, that’s the kind of thing J.W. would say himself! We’ve all noticed how in interviews he’s as pitch-perfect as he is in his scores: always humble, ultra-articulate, never says a bad word about anything or anyone. A little dull, even.
When I interviewed him for the 1995 Raiders of the Lost Ark CD booklet—oh my God, this was the highlight of my young life. The call was set up through his publicist, I prepped the tape recorder in my dorm room and anxiously awaited the moment, which I seem to remember was 7pm Eastern. Maybe?
And...he forgot! I called the publicist, who apologized, and maybe 5–10 minutes later, he called, asking for “Mr. Kendall.”
I asked my questions about Raiders and his answers were polite and articulate, but pretty vague. I suggested we use them as pull quotes in the booklet to disguise the fact that he really didn’t say much.
At the end of the interview, which was probably all of 20 minutes, I asked a single off-topic question, begging his indulgence, which was why in The Empire Strikes Back were there a number of unused or rewritten cues? And he said broadly something to the effect that it’s just the process when you do a movie, sometimes things like that happen. I was disappointed, but I should have known better.
It’s not like he spends his days thinking about old projects—which is probably one of the secrets to his success. He lives a monk-like existence where he’s just writing one score after another, with pencil and paper, be it for film or the concert hall.
Here’s some amazing behind-the-scenes footage of scoring Empire from a 1980 documentary—it’s been passed around by film music fans, so forgive me if this is old news:
I particularly love J.W.’s reaction to the first time he sees the Han and Leia “I love you”—“I know” exchange in the carbon freezing chamber: he smiles and makes a very approving gesture (at 5:30). He’s clearly into it.
I’ve always wondered...who is he, really?
There’s no way you get to be the world’s most famous film composer—and arguably the world’s most famous living composer—without being incredibly passionate about your work. And really wanting and enjoying being famous, I would think.
And yet he’s been vocal about explaining that Star Wars, when he did it, was something he and his colleagues expected to be an entertaining yet probably forgotten children’s film.
Which is to say, he is definitely a huge musical scholar—he sounds the most engaged when discussing musical history and performance theory—but not really a cinema scholar.
It’s just a fascinating contradiction. He is the G.O.A.T.—and for you non-sports fans, that means the Greatest Of All Time.
Melodies, orchestration, pacing, originality, familiarity, simplicity yet also deep complexity—nobody does it better. He doesn’t dabble in pop music idioms—anymore, at least—but back when he did (like for 1970s source cues) he did those brilliantly, too.
He’s never written a bad score. He’s never had a score thrown out.
He’s most famous for Star Wars, E.T., Jurassic Park, et al.—but he’s a wizard at avant garde scores, intimate scores, chamber scores, weird scores, sex-comedy scores, television themes, Olympic themes, jazz scores, westerns...everything!
What’s most amazing to me is that he’s a perfect mood ring for the movie. You notice this on the franchise pictures. When the films get moodier and more sophisticated, the scores get even better: The Empire Strikes Back and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. And when the films get broader and sillier, the scores do too. But they’re always pitch-perfect—all of them, always! Even Always!
So what can you say? I am, like probably most people reading this, a huge fan. My life has been hugely enriched by his music and, it logically follows, his existence. So bless you, you aloof old W.A.S.P. genius, you.
But I’m still drawn to the mystery: for him to operate at such a high level—for, what sixty to seventy years?—he has to understand human emotion and communication at an extremely deep and profound level.
Because that’s what his work is truly about: processing the emotions of the storytelling and connecting them to the emotions of the audience, via the extremely byzantine and arcane and mercurial process of creating musical notation.
There’s probably nothing in the world so difficult as an art form. And he does it not only so triumphantly, every single time, but on two parallel tracks: his scores work for the most sophisticated audience members, as well as the least (i.e., dummies).
That’s completely amazing. So he possesses the most advanced mind not only for musical detail but human emotion...he truly understands the sensation of flying, of joy, of loss...how human beings understand them...and how to create those feelings in music. I mean, wow!
So I’ve always been fascinated by the wall of courtesy that he puts up in his public appearances.
What’s really going on underneath?!?
Now I’ll tell you a story in which, for a brief instant, I discovered the truth: he doesn’t suffer fools.
How do I know? Because I was the fool!
This is the story...of when JOHN WILLIAMS DUNKED ON MY FACE!
Folks, you won’t get stuff like this anywhere else!
In the early months of 2006, FSM released a 3CD set of Goodbye Mr. Chips, and Mike Matessino, our illustrious album producer, arranged a reunion for Williams, Petula Clark, Leslie Bricusse and Ian Fraser at meeting room in a fine Sunset Strip hotel.
Oh my God, I was so excited. This was a chance to be in the company of the Great Man, who would be relaxing with his old pals, he might actually let his guard down!
J.W. was little late, but walked in, turtleneck and greenish sports coat (I seem to remember)—for me, it was like, holy cow, that’s him!
As it so happened...were were asking our reunion attendees to sign a bunch of CD booklets! And I’m not sure that had been communicated to him.
He seemed a little ambushed, sort of mumbled, “Oh, I don’t do that sort of thing”—but nonetheless lingered, because he wanted to see his old friends.
I should add that Mike (who I am sure will see this) maintains an excellent relationship with the Maestro, and has been consistently producing collector’s edition CDs of his work—pretty much the only album producer from our boutique world to have his explicit approval.
So hopefully Mike won’t mind my telling this story, because the only person who really looks bad—is ME!
Eventually, J.W. sat down and gracefully did sign a bunch of booklets. (I mean, we sold these for a bunch of money. Commerce!)
During that time, the Mr. Chips gang chatted and we geeks (the handful of us young people who were also there, names redacted to protect the innocent) were in heaven, with our heroes!
At one point, one of them tried to recall a movie title or year or something, and we “kids” were like human IMDB machines who immediately jumped in with the answer (like in Jeopardy! where they’re racing to hit the plunger).
Williams dryly remarked, “Isn’t it remarkable how much these young people know all these things...?”
To me it sounded a little bit like a dig. So I interrupted—and, you know, made eye contact. (I’m many things, but I’m not a chicken.)
I said, “Aw, come on, when you were young, you must have been into something? Like baseball, or reading...?”
I was genuinely interested in the answer.
And he looked at me with such withering contempt, right back in the eyes, perfect deadpan delivery—except I’m pretty sure he meant it. And he said...
BAM!!!! The G.O.A.T POSTERIZED ME!
True story! Swear to God!
Happy birthday to the Maestro, the G.O.A.T.!