Monday, February 8, 2016

Birthday Take: John Williams in "Superman" (1979)

Scene from Superman
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: John Williams
Born: February 8, 1932 (84 years old)
Nomination: Best Original Score - Superman (nominated)

The Take

If one were to honestly judge composers in general, there would be some obvious picks out there: Bach, Mozart, Sousa, and even Scott Joplin would come to mind. However, I do think that it is quite possible that at least in American culture (possibly world), there are few that not only fit within the echelon of great movie composers, but composers in general as well as John Williams. He is a name that doesn't need introduction and over 50 years of a career to his credit. He is the amazing composer whose ear for music rivals Walt Disney's eye for talent in terms of Oscar nominations. One can easily pick the obvious choices such as Jaws or Raiders of the Lost Ark, but that is no fun to talk about him in context of the biggies. 

Of course, Superman is arguably a biggie, too. In my humble opinion, Christopher Reeves was the only man who understood how to play Superman on screen (I don't care if it's not accurate to the comics). He played the character with a humble and goofy personality that I associate with a man who flies around in a cape and saves the day. He may be less exciting than, well, everyone else... but Reeves brought a certain identity to him that managed to be fitting without being jokey. In all fairness, to judge Superman as being too silly is to ignore the comic book culture in the mainstream from that time, especially being a mere decade out from the campy Batman series.

If one wanted to make the argument, Williams also wrote one of the most iconic superhero scores of all time. Sure, Batman has the "na na na na na na na na..." thing, but how many melodies immediately remind you of a superhero. Maybe Hans Zimmer's The Dark Knight score reminds you of contemporary Batman, but that's about it. While Williams' work on the original Superman movie is in line with his other work (bombastic), he does manage to make him fly around with the greatest of ease. You buy into it so well that you're just in awe of watching the credits go by. Sure, Zimmer tried to invent a new anthem for Man of Steel, but nobody will able to think of the cinematic Superman without thinking of Williams' pitch perfect score.

This may very well be why he continues to resonate with audiences. Considering that he's written the anthems for a lot of the most influential films between the 70's and today (even Harry Potter owes some debt), we already know those melodies like some people can recognize the slight differences between Bach and Mozart. Williams is arguably one of the best composers not only from a craft perspective, but that he manages to do it in mainstream entertainment and still earn respect. Considering how many people get flack for doing mediocre work, it's impressive to see Williams continue to do work that is above composers even a quarter of his age. He is a master, and one who will be sorely missed when he passes. Still, for him to write anthems for superhero movies is astounding, considering that very few people have managed to capture that aura otherwise. For what it's worth, nobody has made a great score in The Avengers series. 

There will never come a point when Williams is called overrated. Even if he managed to produce subpar work (which I hope never to happen), he has a lot of the greatest movie music in his catalog to cement his reputation 10 times over. He is an incredible force and one that sets the bar too high for everyone else. He may not be the only great composer in film history (Max Steiner and Bernard Hermann - among others - would like to speak with you), but it's  impossible to think of one who is as recognizable to casual movie fans as well as Williams. If you don't know his name, you know his music - and that may be the biggest sign of success.

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