“When [AFI board chair] Sir Howard Stringer rang me about this event my first thought was, ‘I’m really much too young for a thing like this’,” 84-year-old maestro John Williams told a heavyweight industry crowd packed into the Dolby Theatre on Thursday night for the presentation of the 44th AFI Life Achievement Award ( airing on TNT June 15 and later on TCM). He accepted it anyway at the end of a very special — and uncharacteristically musical — evening for these prestigious AFI honors that began in 1973 with first recipient John Ford.
Williams, who started working in films 60 years ago, is the first composer to receive this recognition from AFI, which until now had only given it to either actors or directors. Stringer, in introducing the evening, compared Williams to Mozart. “But Mozart didn’t have Steven Spielberg or George Lucas to inspire him,” he added. Of course, Williams went on to become known for the iconic Star Wars scores he created for Lucas as well as working with Spielberg over the course of 43 years and 27 films (Williams called it like a “marriage”) including Oscar-winning music for Jaws, E.T. The Extra Terrestrial and Schindler’s List. Williams has won five Oscars overall and received an astounding 50th nomination just this year for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
In his acceptance of the award, presented by Spielberg, he indicated it was about time a composer was recognized but mentioned others who preceded him in the profession such as Alfred Newman and Bernard Herrmann who might have been more worthy. Not. The somewhat shy and self-deprecating Williams told a hilarious story about one of those Oscar-winning collaborations with Spielberg in 1993, Schindler’s List, and his reticence to do it after seeing the first cut of the landmark film in the projection room. “The lights came up and it was time for Steven and I to start our meeting about the role of music in the film. But I was so overwhelmed by the film I really could not speak and I went out and walked around the building for a few minutes to gather myself, and I said, ‘Steven, this is truly a great film and you need a better composer than I am for this film.’ And he said very sweetly, ‘I know but they’re all dead’,” Williams recalled to huge laughs from the audience. Earlier, one of the evening’s highlights came when Tom Hanks introduced Gustavo Dudamel conducting the American Youth Symphony on the beautiful and haunting theme from Schindler’s List.
I have been to countless AFI Life Achievement evenings from Gene Kelly and Billy Wilder to Gregory Peck and Clint Eastwood to those for Spielberg and Lucas too. But I have not been to a better or warmer one than this, which began with Will Ferrell (introduced as John Williams Ferrell) conducting the theme from Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, with those five iconic musical notes used to communicate with the aliens becoming cues for participation from people in the audience who sang them when Ferrell pointed his baton. They included Idina Menzel and even 90-year-old Cloris Leachman. It was a great way to start. AFI CEO and president Bob Gazzale told me at the after party that in the musical spirit of the evening they wanted a beginning that was wordless. It certainly worked, as eventually everyone in the crowd was following along with da da DA da DAAAA or something close to it.
When I talked to Spielberg during the dinner break I mentioned it was remarkable that Williams should be the first composer to get the AFI treatment since only actors and directors have been honored in the past. “Actually it makes perfect sense — none of us would have ever gotten our AFI Life Achievement Award without him (or others) when you consider what music brings to filmmaking, particularly emotion,” he told me. Spielberg was excited because he brought his father to the event, and Dad was sitting in a prime seat. “I just went down there and he’s having a blast but he’s sitting right in front of the stage watching everything on the TV screen,” he laughed.
I had just seen a double bill recently of Close Encounters and the first Spielberg-Williams movie collaboration, 1974’s The Sugarland Express, and asked the director about that first time working with Williams. “Those harmonica solos on Sugarland were from Toots Thielemans, the greatest ever,” Spielberg said, just as Lakers icon Kobe Bryant came by to say hello and wondered how someone gets a name like “Toots.”
Bryant was there to be part of the evening’s tributes and told us he contacted Williams a few years ago to learn his methods, thinking if he could understand how Williams created his music he could apply the same theories of composing to playing basketball. “You can start with certain beats in the first quarter and keep building until the fourth,” Bryant told us, noting how his meetings with Williams changed his game. Who knew? On a night that included participants like Spielberg, Lucas, Harrison Ford, Hanks, Drew Barrymore, Tom Cruise, J. J. Abrams and others, Bryant was easily the most unexpected star. But it made sense when he later hit the stage for his remarks. “It was 2013. I was coming back to the Lakers after an injury and the music I chose to bring me back on to the court at Staples Center was ‘The Imperial March’ from Star Wars. Why? Because I needed John Williams to inspire me that day. The Black Mamba was back and ‘The Imperial March’ put me in the character of a villain ready for an epic battle,” he said. “I am a passionate believer that everybody needs a muse, and John Williams was one of mine.”
Former AFI head Jean Firstenberg told me the evening was one of the best she had ever been to. “We learned a lot tonight,” she said. Indeed. Even when people were filing into the ballroom, the music playing was the lilting theme from the 1962 classic To Kill A Mockingbird. “What a mistake,” I told my table. That score was composed by Elmer Bernstein, not John Williams. Only later during the show did I learn it was Williams playing piano on Mockingbird as well as others like The Apartment, and even backing Marilyn Monroe on “Some Like It Hot.” I confess I am a film music freak — I have literally thousands of scores in both LP and CD form including all of Williams’ — but I never knew he was part of Mockingbird, one of my all time favorites. So Firstenberg is right. We all learned a lot.
It’s a remarkable career as Spielberg noted in his initial tribute acknowledging the incredible blockbuster lineup of scores Williams has done from Superman to Raiders to Star Wars to Harry Potter to Home Alone to Jurassic Park and on and on. “Without John Williams bikes don’t really fly, nor do brooms, nor do men in red capes. There is no Force. Dinosaurs do not walk the earth. We do not wonder, we do not weep, we do not believe. John, you breathe belief into every film we have ever made. You take our movies, many of them about our most impossible dreams and through your musical genius you make them real and everlasting for billions and billions of people,” Spielberg said.
Producer Frank Marshall, who first got to work with Williams on Raiders Of The Lost Ark, sat at the honoree’s table with his wife Kathleen Kennedy (now working again with Williams on the new Star Wars films), Spielberg and Lucas. But he said he has known the maestro longer than anyone: His father Jack grew up with Williams and was in the Army with him so he knew him at a very young age.
Kennedy, who produced E.T. among others, told me it never gets old when you see a clip like the highly emotional ending of that film that was shown just before Williams was brought up to receive his award. “I remember every moment of that session. My favorite part has always been the scoring sessions with Johnny,” she said. Abrams recalled how Williams kept calling him “Angel” and “Baby” and sheepishly would suggest things hoping the young director would approve. “The 50-time Oscar nominee seems to have never read his own resume,” he smiled. When Lucas got up to speak he simply asked, “Is there music in space?” Thanks to Williams everyone in the room knew the answer.
Later, Williams told a funny anecdote about creating a “torrid love theme” for Luke and Princess Lea only to discover a couple of years later they were actually brother and sister. Harrison Ford got one of the biggest laughs of the night when he came out accompanied, of course, by the theme to Raiders Of The Lost Ark. “That damn music follows me everywhere,” he complained. “They play it every time I walk on the stage, every time I walk off the stage. It was even playing in the operating room when I went in for my colonoscopy!”
It was clear from this evening that Williams’ music will never stop playing, whether Ford likes it or not. As presenter Bryce Dallas Howard said at one point last night in evoking a quote from Irving Berlin, “the movie may have ended, but the melody lingers on.”
Great night. Thanks AFI. And thank you, John Williams.