Film, the seventh art, the superb art of storytelling, finds itself nearing the end of one of its finest episodes; The story of a master storyteller with a language all his own. John Williams has hinted that at 90, Indiana Jones, Episode 5, might be his final film score. For filmmakers and those of us who love movies, this is a big deal. As Steven Spielberg puts it, “Without John Williams, bikes don’t really fly, we do not wonder, we do not weep, we do not believe.” True, however, rather than lament, we should rather celebrate what we have been given.
John Williams has scored more than 100 films in a career spanning seven decades, garnering 52 Oscar nominations (more than any other individual*) and winning 5 Academy Awards. A musician from the very start (his father, a percussionist in the CBS radio orchestra), he studied at both UCLA and Julliard, with renowned teacher Rosina Lhevinne, in pursuit of his dream to become a concert pianist. In an interview with NPR he confides, however, “I did hear players like John Browning and Van Cliburn around the place, who were also students of Rosina’s, and I thought to myself, ‘If that’s the competition, I think I’d better be a composer!’ ” Ultimately, that fateful choice changed the art and the experience for billions as he became the storyteller for generations of moviegoers using the language of music.
The John Williams story has a sense of the inevitable. With his musical heritage, love of the art and natural giftedness it seems natural that fate would have a young John Williams accompany his father, then a session musician at Columbia Pictures, to the studio lot. That same fateful plotline has Williams returning to Hollywood and quickly becoming a studio pianist recording scores for the likes of Henry Mancini (Peter Gunn and Leonard Bernstein (West Side Story). Once he started scoring shows himself, the result was certain. He scored and through that music, wrote half a century of Hollywood history!
A career such as that of John Williams is a remarkable story. And, like every story is comprised of shorter stories. Some of these can bring the bigger narrative into sharper focus, the subject closer and our connection more personal. Such is a story told by producer, director and cinematographer, Tippy Bushkin of her experiences with John Williams.
It was 2005 and Tippy was working for Lucasfilm on Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith. “We all thought it was going to be the very last Star Wars film,” says Tippy, adding, “I was doing the behind the scenes documentaries and marketing and was in London with George, to shoot the scoring, which was taking place at Abby Road Studios.” She was to shoot a feature on John Williams, his work with The London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) and George Lucas, with commentary from John Williams, interactions between John, George Lucas and the LSO and insight from producer Rick McCallum.
“I had not met John yet but had been warned that he usually didn’t like people filming in such close quarters (The [engineering] booth at Abby Road Studios is not large), and that he has definitely not allowed filming in the studio space with the LSO.” With those expectations set, Rick introduced Tippy to John Williams. ’John Williams, Rick McCallum says, this is Tippy Bushkin. She’s going to be covering everything with you and George for the behind the scenes.’ Adding, ‘She’ll just be in the booth.’”
Stories about the man have a recurring theme. That of a humble, gracious and likable man with a sense of humor. J.J. Abrams, said “It’s like he’s never read his own résumé. He’s the sweetest superhero of all time.” Descriptions of someone it would be good to meet. Read on for a true testimonial to that character.
“John shakes my hand,” Tippy continues, “and he said, ‘You’re not related to Joe Bushkin, Joey Bushkin are you?’ I replied, actually, I’m his daughter.” Tippy explains, “My father had just passed away.” Tippy goes on to share John William’s gracious response. “John said, ‘I’m so sorry to hear about our loss and that your father passed. I met him many, many years ago, and I have to tell you, there is no one that is as talented as he is, and as lovely, and kind of a man.’” Tippy was understandably touched, saying it was “such a beautiful thing to say to me.”
There are undoubtedly countless stories about John Williams exemplifying similar admirable characteristics. But if we pause to consider, who better than one who values connection with such authentic emotional sensitivity to orchestrate the films we love as a society? The art is better for it, as are we. But, this part of the story is only the beginning.
Tippy relates, “And then he looked at the producer and he said, ‘Tippy can cover whatever she wants.’ And then he looked at me and he said, ‘and if you’d like to join me in the studio when we’re recording, you are welcome to do that as well.’ It was like opening the pearly gates for me!” Tippy exclaims, saying, “to be in that space with the London Symphony Orchestra, kneeling down with a camera on my shoulder, next to the most extraordinary musicians, really in the world, while John is conducting the score, was a highlight for me and my career. During my first few minutes in the studio, when they started to play, I just started to weep. It was that powerful.” (Editors note: To watch Endlessly Compelling: The Music of Episode III, select the link.)
This story has a sequel as Tippy explains. “I had so much going on, with all the marketing and publicity content that had to go out for the film [Star Wars, Episode III – Revenge of the Sith]. But, Howard Rothman, Lucasfilm head of licensing, called me and said, ‘I know it’s an insane thing to ask, but John has personally requested you.’” It turns out that John had been inspired to produce a compilation of all six Star Wars films, a sort of medley of movies with the accompanying scores, telling the story through the language of music alone. A unique and compelling project and opportunity!
Tippy had a big decision to make, and fast! She said, “I think this will require about eight weeks without sleep, and for John, I am willing to do that!” Tippy assembled her team, which included editor Jeremy Stuart. “I had to have somebody that understands music and that can cut to music.” The team got busy, as Tippy recalls, “The two of us sat in a very dark room editing for long periods of time. Howard would come in and look at the cut and also work with us. We’d get the cut to John, who was in London and I ended up reviewing those edits with him in the middle of the night.”
Tippy goes on to describe what it was like to work with John Williams. “Genius,” she affirms, “very, very detailed about the actual film in relation to his music, about the way in which I was editing the film footage. He had such depth of understanding in terms of timing, of action, of everything!”
Tippy goes on to describe the effect the finished production had on her. “You realize powerful music takes you into an emotional experience and that emotion is what gives a story the depth and greater meaning personally, transcending you into another state of being through the music. For me, of cinema, books, and any form of storytelling, music is by far the most powerful. This musical journey with John Williams hearkens back to silent film.
In film school, studying the history of cinema and silent film, we learn that although there is no dialog, we see an active performance. We see action and there is a director who is directing the action. Then there is the music. Yes, there is a narrative, but you’re not going to be taken on an emotional journey without the music. Without the music, there is no story.” (Editors note: To watch Star Wars: A Musical Journey , select the link.)
John Williams tends to agree. In an interview with Bloomberg, he says, “We can reflect on how necessary music has been for humanity. I always like to speculate that music is older than language, that we were probably beating drums and blowing on reeds before we could speak. So, it’s an essential part of our humanity. It’s given me my life.” A life that has given much to many. John William’s shared with all of us his genius, his passion, and his music. His legacy as possibly the most important composer in movie history leaves those who follow a solid platform from which to forge ahead.
John Williams may be retiring from film scoring, but he remains a cinema connoisseur. “I’d love to be around in 100 years to see what people are doing with film and sound and spatial, aural and visual effects. It has a tremendous future, I think,” says Williams in an interview with the Associated Press. In that same AP interview, he said, “I’d love to come back and see and hear it all.” As a community of cinema connoisseurs, artists, designers and audiences, we should take it as an inspiration and sacred duty. One that we must not disappoint!
* Walt Disney received 59 nominations, however, John Williams’ nominations are for work he personally created.