In talking about the success of Spielberg’s films, it’s impossible not to mention his career-long partnership with John Williams, who scored all but two of Spielberg’s movies to date. Their collaboration produced such memorable themes as Jaws, Indiana Jones, and Jurassic Park, which most of us can call to mind on command. However, there are other, equally memorable scores that, for whatever reason, haven’t made the same imprint on the collective unconscious. Perhaps it’s because the films were less successful than blockbusters like Indiana Jones, or less thrilling than Jurassic Park. It’s impossible to say, but lest you miss out on these scores, I’ve taken it upon myself to draw your attention to a few of my favorites.
1. The Terminal (2004)
Premise: Following a coup in his native country, a man is stuck living in the terminal of JFK airport.
What makes this score special: So, even if you don’t remember the movie, you will probably recognize the title theme. The conversation between the woodwinds is reminiscent of Tchaikovsky or Prokofiev—that is, distinctly Eastern European. Given that the main character, Viktor Navorski, is from a fictional but obviously Eastern European country, the music is perfect, and lends an atmosphere of playful mystery—think Peter and the Wolf. The score to this film blends familiar styles in such a way that you’ll swear you know the music from somewhere else, even if you’ve never heard it before.
2. Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Premise: A young con artist, Frank Abagnale, successfully fakes several professions and becomes a master at check fraud.
What makes this score special: Time signature trickery. I love love love this soundtrack above others for one reason: John Williams repeatedly tricks your ear into hearing triplets where there are none. He disguises a straight rhythm as a series of triplets and vice versa—so that as Frank Abagnale is disguising himself and misleading people, the music’s theme is disguising itself and misleading the ear. How cool and clever is that?
3. Schindler’s List (1993)
Premise: The true story of Oskar Schindler and the Schindlerjuden—the Jewish people he saved from going to Auschwitz.
What makes this score special: Itzhak Perlman. Not only is he a world famous violinist, he is himself the child of relocated Polish Jews. Perlman performs the theme to Schindler’s List, which is a haunting violin solo with spare orchestral accompaniment. This is one of those scores where the muses, or whatever divinity you choose, seem to be working through John Williams to tell the story of Oskar Schindler, and Perlman is the instrument of its telling. It’s unsurprising that this score won an academy award—yet, this is not one of those scores whose themes get stuck in your head. The music doesn’t lend itself to that, but serves a higher purpose in its support of the film. We don’t need to remember a specific motif to remember the music of Schindler’s List.
4. Empire of the Sun (1987)
Premise: A British schoolboy is separated from his parents during the Japanese invasion of China during WWII.
What makes this score special: Suo Gan and the youth choir. When I first saw this movie, years and years ago, I was captivated by the title song—an arrangement of the Welsh lullaby Suo Gan. I looked it up when I had finished the film, and made a point of memorizing the tune to hum to my child, should I ever have one. Years later, I still hum this tune to my daughter occasionally. To use it in Empire of the Sun was a stroke of genius… what better for a movie about loss of innocence than a lullaby in a language we can’t understand, sung by children? It’s absolutely beautiful, and one of the most memorable movie scores for me, personally, because of how much the music added to my experience of the film.
Four great films—four great scores. The partnership between Spielberg and Williams has given us a wealth of art that would not have existed otherwise. Together, they have made us fear ancient predators, thrill with the adventure of archeology, but also feel the dark truth of our own history and the triumph of the human spirit through storytelling and music. The two notes of Jaws may have become a cultural reference instantly recognizable, but these four soundtracks, while less ubiquitous, show true partnership between score and content.