Five Essential John Williams Film Scores

Revisit movie magic from 'Star Wars,' 'Harry Potter' and more

BY Exclaim! StaffPublished May 2, 2022

Even the most casual of movie-watchers can tell you that the musical score can make or break a film. Essential to facilitating any kind of mood a scene is looking to capture, scores wordlessly elevate stories being told onscreen — and oftentimes tell their own.
Recently voted the most popular living composer in a Classic FM poll, master chronicler and composer John Williams is widely considered among the greats. In celebration of his 90th birthday, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra are paying tribute to his legendary catalogue with four performances of The Best of John Williams at Roy Thomson Hall from May 10 to 13.
Dim the lights and warm up the projector — a nostalgic highlight reel of your favourite moments of movie magic from beloved franchises like Star Wars, Harry Potter, Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones, Home Alone and Superman are about to roll with TSO. In light of the occasion, we're counting down a mere five of the countless essential film scores from Williams's expansive discography that we hope will be given the orchestral treatment.

5. "Hedwig's Theme" from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001) 

While we need not discuss the Author Who Shall Not Be Named, it remains that there is an entire generation of brains in which this piece is burrowed deep. The twinkling chimes that kick off the central motif named after a wise snowy owl are imbued with the same nostalgic resonance and sense of wonder that the magic of the franchise opened our eyes to; suddenly, our 11th birthdays are tomorrow again, and we're anxiously awaiting the letter that would change it all.

4. "Flight to Neverland" from Hook (1991)

In a similar vein to "Hedwig's Theme," Williams demonstrates his incomparable ability to capture a childlike sense of curiosity with the soaring heights of his majestic arrangements a full decade earlier with the score for Hook. Again, like "Hedwig's Theme," the cascades of strings capture the insatiable human desire of being able to make like the Wright brothers and take flight. As the title would suggest, "Flight to Neverland" is a musical simulation of being airborne, the wind whooshing past your ears as a triumphant flurry of horns solidify that you're on the right side of the good versus evil nature of the protagonist/antagonist conflict (with Robin Williams obviously having been typecast for the former).

3. "Jaws Theme" from Jaws (1975)

Perhaps the most iconic two-note motif of all time, we have the foreboding "Jaws Theme." Built around the uneasy oscillation of an unresolved minor second interval, the tension gradually increases alongside the tempo and crescendoing volume. Legend has it that the villainous shark's theme wasn't initially supposed to be so prominently featured in the film, but after mechanical issues with the model, the music ended up being used in moments when the Great White wasn't actually seen on screen. The terror associated with the man-eating monster was actually more associated with Williams's score — in other words, the music was the shark.

2. "Theme from Schindler's List (Reprise)" from Schindler's List (1993)

This reprised version of the mournful theme from Schindler's List sets an entirely different tone. Led by a piano solo, it eventually expands its instrumental breadth to echo violinist Itzhak Perlman's performance of the main theme. The music for the award-winning film lacks any of the sense of wonderment of many of Williams's calling cards, eschewing the overdrawn villain-arcs to aid in telling a devastating true story and forcing us to use our imaginations in a very different way. It wrings a bit of solemn beauty out of a moment in history void of anything beautiful.

1. "Cantina Band" from Star Wars (1977)

At the behest of the nerds, we would be remiss to even consider not including any of the quintessential Star Wars scores in such a list. This particular selection from the original 1977 film has to be among the most fun of the bunch. Despite having zero effect on the actual plot, the alien band — named Figrin D'an and the Modal Nodes — steal the show with their 1930s-inspired, Benny Goodman-echoing swing music, especially when they bust out the Caribbean steel drum. The bottom end of the sound was minimized in the mix to give it its characteristic thin, Bith-y timbre. It's worth noting that, according to the lore, the Bith respiratory system makes the aliens ideal woodwind players because they can literally hold a note indefinitely — much like the impact of Williams's contributions to the intersecting worlds of music and film with an irreplaceable career spanning 60 years.
Join the TSO and Principal Pops Conductor Steven Reineke at Roy Thomson Hall as they pay tribute to Williams's incomparable catalogue of film scores from May 10 to May 13. Ticketing details are available here.

Latest Coverage