OK, this is an admittedly perverse inaugural choice for a series about the undersung. Williams, Mr 45 Oscar nominations and counting, is not exactly wasting away in his need for mainstream validation, in a field where as ripely innovative a talent as Alexandre Desplat (Birth, The Beat That My Heart Skipped, Syriana) has yet to score his first nod. But I’m starting as I mean to go on, in another sense, because I want to make the point that Williams is both over- and under-rated, to fend off the perpetual backlash, and give him his due. The Academy might lap up his stodgiest work on the stodgiest movies (The Patriot, Amistad, you know the drill) with a maddening lack of discrimination, but Williams-bashers — and there are plenty out there — are all too often guilty of the same misjudgement: quick to lump his scores together when they least deserve to be, and too slow, I think, to appreciate his quicksilver versatility and experimental verve on the right project.
Williams has been both helped and harmed by his career-long association with Spielberg. Harmed, because (a) he’s the go-to man for a samey, funereal low-brass worthiness à la James Horner when Spielberg’s tackling his Big Subjects (Saving Private Ryan, Munich) and (b) his inexhaustible melodic fanfare on the fun stuff (Jurassic Park, say) can get a little… exhausting. But he’s been helped along the way by Spielberg’s own peculiarly neurotic attempts at genre-hopping, since it’s when the director’s been somehow least in control of his own movies — as a couple of the choices below attest — that Williams has often jumped up and most radically surprised us.
Five of the best:
1. AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001). Bubbling up with a genuinely weird fusion of techno-creepy, ambient and plangent sound, Williams’s score guides the movie through long passages of crawly ambiguity, and then pushes us into florid but equally untrustworthy realms of persecution and moist-eyed fantasy. Even when the film seems to break free of Spielberg’s grasp entirely, plumbing terrain more compellingly unresolved than anything he’s consciously alighted upon in his career, the score — perhaps its composer’s most virtuosic ever, in showcasing his underappreciated magpie fluency in all manner of seemingly batshit-incompatible idioms — comes along exhilaratingly for the ride.
2. Jaws (1975). Instantly reinventing what film music could achieve as a motor for suspense, synchronising itself ingeniously with Verna Fields's editing rhythms, and giving sharks a soundtrack for ever, this borrowed its throbbing semitonal attack from Stravinsky and probably gets more concert-play these days than The Rite of Spring.
3. The Empire Strikes Back (1980). A score that stands in the same relationship to Star Wars as its movie: more bristling, more fervent, tinged with doom, dread, loneliness, the prospect of the abyss. And the classic “Imperial March”, first heard here, is a black-booted fascist stomp like no other.
4. Catch Me If You Can (2002). The film’s hardly essential. But, if few knew Williams could revive the spirit of Henry Mancini so jauntily, even fewer could have expected this score’s curiously sinister, pensive undertow, its sad and petering hesitancy. It’s light jazz with daddy issues.
5. Nixon (1995). The third and best of Williams’ three collaborations to date with Oliver Stone, this uses ruminative nostalgia to hoist Nixon on to his own wobbly tragic platform, getting misty-eyed about his childhood, surveying where he could have gone, mourning his own epic failures. It digs open a necessary soft centre for the film’s self-aggrandising, self-analysing subject.
And one of the worst:
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)
Williams as self-plagiarist for hire, barely reorchestrating the first film’s sticky bouquet of themes and adding limp and dreary little doodles for the new characters. Someone gave him a shot in the arm for The Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), which had a fresh feel of Hallowe’en gamesmanship and a thoroughly amusing, tick-tock urgency. As opposed to this, which made the titular chamber about as mysterious and enticing an aural environment as a smelly old gents.