Sunday, July 16, 2017

Composing Greatness: #11. John Williams - "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977)

Scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Welcome to Composing Greatness: a column dedicated to exploring the work of film composers. This will specifically focus on the films that earned them Oscar nominations while exploring what makes it so special. This will be broken down into a look at the overall style, interesting moments within the composition, and what made the score worth nominating in the first place. This will also include various subcategories where I will rank the themes of each film along with any time that the composer actually wins. This is a column meant to explore a side of film that doesn't get enough credit while hopefully introducing audiences to an enriched view of more prolific composers' work. This will only cover scores/songs that are compiled in an easily accessible format (so no extended scores will be considered). Join me every Sunday as I cover these talents that if you don't know by name, you recognize by sound.

Series Composer: John Williams
Entry: Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Collaborators (If Available): N/A
Nomination: Best Music, Original Score
Did He Win: No

Other Nominees:
-Star Wars (John Williams) *Winner
-Julia (Georges Delerue)
-The Spy Who Loved Me (Marvin Hamlisch)
-Mohammad, Messenger of God (Maurice Jarre)

Additional Information

This is to help provide perspective of where each composer is in their Oscar-nominated life as it related to the current entry.

Oscar Nomination: 12
Oscar Wins: 2

Track List

1. "Main Title and Mountain Visions"
2. "Nocturnal Pursuits"
3. "The Abduction of Barry"
4. "I Can't Believe It's Real"
5. "Climbing Devil's Tower"
6. "The Arrival of Sky Harbor"
7. "Night Siege"
8. "The Conversation"
9. "The Appearance of Visitors"
10. "Resolution and End Title"

*NOTE: Listen to Score here

Exploring the Music
The area of the column where I will explore the music in as much detail as I see fit for each entry.

Theme Exploration:
"Main Title and Mountain Visions"

Jaws was the start of a legendary partnership in cinema history. What is their second act? Well, it's time to go into outer space and explore what it sounds like. For that, John Williams decided to go ethereal by updating the frantic strings of Bernard Herrmann (and in some ways his horror scores like Images) by placing it alongside majestic harmonies, ominous and drawn out tones, and an overall sense of wow. While this doesn't have the music cue that everyone remembers from the movie, it's nevertheless a perfect set up to what the feel of the movie is. It draws the listener in, feeling a joy of looking into the sky and seeing something new and exciting. Even if this isn't quite as memorable as Jaws, it's hard to not want to put it on and look into the sky, imagining what lies beyond the clouds.

Interesting Standout:
"Climbing the Devil's Tower"

There's two modes for this score. There's the majestic side that is ominous, harmonic, and full of whimsy. Then there's the action side of things, of which John Williams sounds most like he's updating Bernard Herrmann (and setting the template for Danny Elfman) by adding layers to the aggressive strings. There's horns, melodies, and an overall sense of adventure. In lesser hands, this would be a chaotic mess. Instead, it embodies chaos so beautifully that you cannot help but get wrapped up in the pulsating music. There's a heartbeat to what Williams does, and it shows in his action beats, where he's forced to find harmony in layers and excels at taking music composition to another level.

Best Moment:
 "Resolution and End Titles"

In theory, "The Conversation" should be the answer. It is the most iconic piece of music within the film. However, I've always preferred the orchestral version that takes the harmony to a more majestic height. It's beautiful and fits nicely in this medley of familiar beats. It summarizes everything about the movie beautifully and manages to have the most adventurous John Williams piece in the whole score. This is the magic that we praise him for, and nothing on here comes close. It's all wonderful, but his ability to reprise the music and make it greater is a work of genius. 

Did This Deserve an Oscar Nomination?:

After complaining about scores like Images, I am starting to understand why they were key to his evolution. He could've stayed in the jaunty composer niche and produced decent work. However, his ambitions become harder to appreciate with each passing year. His iconic tracks are always iconic, but more people borrow elements of his style to the point that he becomes too familiar. Still, it's hard not to love how he updated Bernard Herrmann here, or how you can hear traces of what Danny Elfman would do decades later. This is another example of craft excelling by adding a larger sense of wonder. You definitely want to watch the movie after sitting through any of these tracks. It's not quite on par with Jaws (and his other 1977 score that ended up winning), but it's still astounding that he was able to reinvent the grandiose feel of outer space not once but twice in a single year.

Up Next: Star Wars (1977) for Best Music, Original Score

Best Theme

A ranking of all themes composed by John Williams.

1. "Main Theme (Theme From 'Jaws')" (1975)
2. "Prologue/Tradition" - Fiddler on the Roof (1971)
3. "Main Title and Mountain Visions" - Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
4. "Main Title" - The Towering Inferno (1974)
5. "Wednesday Special (Main Theme)" - Cinderella Liberty (1973)
6. "Main Title/First Introduction/The Winton Flyer" - The Reivers (1969)
7. "River Song"- Tom Sawyer (1973)
8. "Where Did My Childhood Go?" - Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969)
9. "Theme from 'Valley of the Dolls'"/"Theme from 'Valley of the Dolls' - Reprise" - Valley of the Dolls (1967)
10. "Opening Titles" - The Poseidon Adventure (1972)
11. "In Search of Unicorns" - Images (1972)

Best Song

A ranking of all Oscar-nominated songs composed by John Williams.

1. "Nice to Be Around" - Cinderella Liberty (1973)

Best Winner

A ranking of all winners composed by John Williams.

1. Jaws (1975) for Best Music, Original Dramatic Score
2. Fiddler on the Roof (1971) for Best Music, Scoring Adaptation and Original Song Score

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