It wasn’t the thunder of the boulder bearing down on Indiana Jones that made me hug my popcorn, it was the slicing strings and the brassy march of our hero’s theme. When an older Private Ryan headed across a field of tombstones, my tears joined his because of the melodic hymn that opened my heart. And when Kal-El of Krypton, donning blue suit and red cape, hauls Lois Lane and a crushed helicopter up the side of a Metropolis skyscraper, my mouth was open in awe — not because director Richard Donner and Christopher Reeve made me believe Superman could fly . . .
. . . but because John Williams did.
This same man, whose sweeping symphonic scores conveyed the loneliness and courage of Luke Skywalker, captured the relentless primeval drive of a Great White shark and featured the aching violin that spoke for millions of tortured Jews, also befriended a young boy in a small town in Western Oregon . . . without even knowing how crucial that friendship would be.
I’ve never met John Williams. I have seen him live in performance twice, and I’ve watched him often on television with the Boston Pops. But I’ve only had his music as companion. His music has been a balm, a motivator, a comforter and, always, faithfully there when I needed it.
Growing up in the 1970s I listened to rock music but never bought an album by Styx or KISS or Boston or Led Zeppelin. But I did collect albums by John Williams. I remember first being aware of his music when seeing The Poseidon Adventure. I remember thinking how dramatic the movie was, with Gene Hackman and Roddy McDowell all covered in oil, crawling through the upside-down cruise liner. And I recall mentally stepping outside the movie for a moment, thinking, Hey, the music is really making this scene tense.
Then I saw Towering Inferno, whose opening credits feature a helicopter flying across the San Francisco skyline, and was swept up by that marvelous theme. From that point on, whenever I saw John Williams’ name come over the credits, I knew the music would be good and the movie that much better because of it.
The first album I bought was Jaws. And I don’t know why, because the music scared the hell out of me. I loved the seafaring music with its nautical, upbeat and hopeful air. But when the main theme came over (Da-dum. Da-dum. DadumDadumDadumDadum), all bets were off. And one track, “Night Search,” I would never play. It was the horrific music with screaming strings that accompanies Hooper as he confronts the dead fisherman’s head in the bottom of the boat.
Then came the Star Wars soundtrack, Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET, and on and on. As I got savvier about his catalog, I went back and bought The Reivers and The Cowboys. The scores were numerous, but Williams kept pouring out musical heart and soul, infusing an intrinsic character into the films he scored. How could one man bring so much diversity, so much intricacy, so much melody to the silver screen, over and over and over again? This isn’t just talent. This is genius. I felt (and still do) like an unmerited benefactor of such wonderful gifts.
John Williams became my friend, too. Here’s how. Go back to 1977, a big year for him. He’d just come off from the tremendous success of Jaws, winning an Oscar for his efforts. Then came Star Wars and another Oscar. That same year he also composed the score for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, in which his music literally became the language bridge between two cultures spanned by space and time.
This film had a profound impact on me — wondrous and incredibly personal all at once. The story of Roy Neary, his encounter with the benevolent unknown, his breakdown and subsequent revelation, transported me like no other film ever had. I had hardly left the theater before I raced to the nearest record store and purchased its magnificent score.
I played the music a lot during that gray, rainy November-December of Western Oregon — because in October I had lost my father to a swift and wrenching battle with cancer. His death not only cut the legs out from under my 16-year-old body, but it left me emotionally reeling, trying to find equilibrium and flailing in the process.
I did have a lot of support at the time: a faith that was viscerally real, friends who drew close. But the music from Close Encounters did something different. It lifted and sustained me in its lyricism. When the ache of grief would overwhelm me, I would put on the score of Close Encounters, move the needle to the last track, “Bye & End Titles,” then lie down on the floor with my head next to one of the speakers. The music would carry me away.
It buoyed me, easing the pain of missing my dad, somehow reassuring me it wouldn’t last forever. And as the last strains of the inspiring music floated away, much as the Mothership disappeared into the eternity of space, I always found myself more rested, more at peace. And more hopeful.
Originally from the Pacific Northwest, John Kelly now lives in East Texas, where he writes full time.