With the release of Marvel’s The Avengers: Endgame, the summer movie season is off and running. This time of year always brings me back to movie music and film scores, and that always brings me back to one of the most famous practitioners of the form: John Williams. What is my favorite score of his?
At one point, that would have been the scores for Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. Star Wars was, after all, the movie that began my love of film music. Yet, things have changed. It’s not that I don’t love those scores anymore, but because of ravenous, single-minded fandom and Disney’s ability to shove product placement up every orifice, I’m burned out on these.
There are other iconic scores that could have been a contender, particularly the soundtracks from the three Indiana Jones movies. (No, YOU’RE wrong. There were only THREE Indiana Jones movies. I counted.) Subsequent generations have known the Harry Potter theme practically in utero, and yes, you cannot think of Jurassic Park without hearing that swelling blend of strings and horns. And, if for nothing else, Williams will go down in the history books for providing the music to which a man can fly and a shark can stalk. A personal favorite of mine from his output is the lovely music from A.I. Artificial Intelligence, but that isn’t THE defining John Williams score for me.
That would be the music from 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind which, unlike the movie, has aged quite well.
I’ll put that a different way. I still love the movie (which, moving forward, will be abbreviated as CE3K), but it is different now than it was back then, with the brown, orange, and mustard yellow veneer of the ’70s long cracked and fallen off. You see, it’s not a movie about a man haunted by visions of aliens. It’s a child’s fable about why a father would abandon his family.
Writer-director Steven Spielberg has said as much, going so far as to loosely frame some of his movies as a Parent-Child Tetralogy: CE3K is the departure of the parent, leaving the family behind. E.T. The Extraterrestrial finds the children coping with the one-parent dynamic by seeking out a father figure. A.I. Artificial Intelligence finds the child seeking to reunite with the parent, even after death. Finally, War of the Worlds finds the man-child parent owning up to his responsibility, becoming the protector that he previously always ran away from being.
I don’t think any of this was planned, even as thought experiments, back in 1974 when Spielberg was cooking up the idea on the set of Jaws, even as Bruce the prop shark kept breaking down, along with other props and setpieces. For all anyone there off of Martha’s Vineyard knew at that time, the big killer fish movie would be completed, come and go from theaters like so many summer monster flicks did, and that would be that. No one knew that it would be a phenomenon, and would effectively start the blockbuster summer movie season as an actual entity. Likewise, no one knew that such a success would give Spielberg a level of clout that remained unmatched for decades.
When it did come to pass, that idea of a man-child father from the Baby Boomer era, struck by how life went from freedom and exploration to being tied down to an unsatisfying day job, the wife and kids, the mortgage, for God’s sake, suddenly had weight. It could be a real thing, a tangible property to be made into a film. But Spielberg had a problem. Jaws, his second big screen outing (third if you count his TV movie Duel, which was released theatrically in Europe) had earned him a reputation for scary movies. Fortunately, Spielberg’s collaborator John Williams knew what to do.
Also from interviews, Spielberg states that fate and circumstances put him and Williams together for his first big screen feature, The Sugarland Express. From then on, it was a matter of choice, and as long as it was possible, Williams would provide Spielberg’s musical voice to the movies.
This is fortuitous. Williams, playing off the expectations audiences would have had from seeing Jaws, fills the majority of the CE3K score with unsettling sounds, dissonance, and disembodied voices not unlike those found in the music of Gyorgy Ligeti. Ligeti’s music was famously featured in Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 A Space Odyssey.
Much as Williams created that two-note stalking motif for the shark in Jaws, he fashioned a five-note “doorbell” as CE3K‘s main musical concept. If you do not know the intentions of the aliens as they are set to abducting soldiers, children, and eventually utility workers in the middle of the night, that five-note piece is absolutely creepy, in a sing-song way. It is the music of a jack-in-the-box just before it bursts open to attack you. Later in the movie, we learn it is more an invitation than a threat.
The audience, expecting moon monsters, got a musical motif that fueled expectations that attacks would be exactly what you were going to get, but later in the score, the disembodied choral voices cohere. The threads tie together. It all gels into one of Williams’ most satisfying musical finales which quite literally soars, like a massive space craft ascending from behind Devil’s Tower in Wyoming.
Apparently, Spielberg set Williams to work on the score before a lot of it was shot, which gave the composer a rare opportunity to actually compose without the tyranny of the image or narrative to hold him back.
There are two typical ways scores come together. The first is that the movie is in rough-cut form and the composer fashions the music ideas from what he or she sees on-screen. This tends to work well unless there are major reshoots and reedits involved. Then the score may not suit a scene as well, requiring rewrites or a re-edit to that music cue, messing with the original intent and mood.
The second way is that the director and editor will put in temporary music, usually from other scores out in the world, but not always. This is done strictly for the editing process, but too often, they fall in love with how the music and image come together, and will instruct the composer not to duplicate the older music but…you know…maybe clone it? If you’ve ever wondered why so many music scores suffer from a stale sameness, this historically is the reason why.
A major portion of CE3K fell away in edits, particularly that of the lead character Roy Neary’s desire for escape. As portrayed by Richard Dreyfuss, Neary seeks refuge from his domestic, adventure-free life in model trains and dreams of Disneyland, of running away from adulthood. Some of these plotlines returned in 1978’s Special Edition edit of the film, at Spielberg’s request. What Columbia and EMI, the U.S. and European studios, wanted in return was a better view of the giant spacecraft at the end of the movie, inside and out. Remember that by this time, Star Wars had landed and the world now wanted more spaceships. Spielberg now disavows the spaceship additions as he feels it destroyed the mystery of the aliens. It’s more intriguing to know nothing about their culture inside the ship, but instead, we see it is a little like a massive apartment building featuring balconies where extraterrestrial life hangs out to take a look at what just moved in. Spielberg felt the concession was a step too far, and I agree.
BUT…it is the addition of these scenes which prompted the need for additional music. In that, Williams was able to thread back in the ideas Spielberg did want, including the Disney theme that was so central to Neary’s character. You can hear disjointed fragments of Pinocchio‘s “When You Wish Upon A Star” pop up from time to time, causing you to wonder if it was a mistake, an unintended cloning, or even a flat out rip-off. It isn’t until the conclusion where “When You Wish Upon A Star” is fully realized within the completely orchestrated rendition of the movie theme, expanding that five note “Hel-lo-how-are-you?” doorbell into a satisfying reverie. Yes, it tears up my eyes a bit. Shut up. You’re crying. Was it not for the much-maligned Special Edition cut, we wouldn’t have had that music and, expensive as I’m sure that endeavor was, I’m glad it exists.
The movie remains, after the mythology is washed off, a story about a man who abandons his family “to find himself,” a phrase so common to Boomers in the ’70s. I can easily see newer viewers watching this movie and not feeling a shred of sympathy for Roy Neary, and I don’t think they are wrong. He’s not a bad man, but he is a profoundly selfish man, and once you bite through the sugary glaze of his “journey,” that’s what you are left with – a very complicated narrative about a man who started a life with a unit of humans, and then abruptly sought out a different, unrelated family unit.
It is to Williams’ eternal credit that even if you don’t wind up liking the movie – and again, I do…in fact, I kind of love the movie, messed-up morality and all – there’s so much to love about the music that completes it. CE3K becomes a score that can be enjoyed out of context as much as within it. It’s not a score that, absent images, just sounds like washed down classical. I don’t think you could accuse that of any of Williams’ music, but without a doubt, definitely not this one.
It might not have the shark, or the dinosaur, or “the boy who lived,” but John Williams’ music for Close Encounters of the Third Kind does have a soul of its own, and that’s a rare feat for a movie’s musical accompaniment.