What do E.T., Superman, Harry Potter, Darth Vader, and Abraham Lincoln all have in common? If you guessed composer John Williams, give yourself a handful of Reese's Pieces.
Williams, a five-time Oscar winner, has composed the scores for close to 150 films, many of them directed by Steven Spielberg. His partnership with Spielberg dates back to 1974 with the director's very first feature film, The Sugarland Express.
According to The Guardian, "the central relationship of [Williams'] working life is with Steven Spielberg. He has written the score of every Spielberg film except The Color Purple; his spine-tingling music for Jaws in 1975 took him into the big league after 20 years of solid film and TV work; and three of his Oscars were for Spielberg movies—Jaws, E.T., and Schindler's List." In other words, Williams and Spielberg are tight. Their creative partnership is one of Hollywood's most enduring.
And oh yeah, did you catch that? We just casually mentioned that Williams' score for E.T. won an Oscar. No biggie. Except that it is a biggie because (a) it's an Oscar, man! and (b) the score for E.T. is characteristic of Williams' overall style as a composer. In fact, Williams' scores themselves are just plain big—often using thundering brass or billowing strings to heighten the action on screen.
The most outstanding example of this in E.T. happens the first time that E.T. and Elliott soar into the night sky on Elliott's bike. The string music swells like a thumb slammed in a trunk (you know, except way more magical), underlining the exhilaration and astonishment of flying past the moon. Variations of this iconic theme are used all throughout the film, including in the climactic chase scene.
But it's not all blazin' cellos. Williams' score is also used to enhance quieter moments of wonder and awe, like when Elliott first introduces Michael and Gertie to E.T., or when Elliott and E.T. stand in the closet, listening to Mom read Peter Pan to Gertie. In each of these scenes, the score takes on a dreamy quality and embraces sparser instrumentation and flourishes like ascending harps. In contrast, whenever Keys and his goons show up, the score features inquisitive, yet ominous horns. Williams uses the music to accentuate the on-screen action.
One more thing: leitmotifs. A Williams joint is also marked by the frequent use of leitmotifs. What the heck are those? You know the dun-nuh… dun-nuh… duh-nuh, dun-nuh, dun-nuh, dun-nuh, dun-nuh in Jaws? That's a leitmotif—a.k.a., a recurring theme associated with a particular person, place, or situation.
E.T. has his own gentle leitmotif that repeats throughout the film, albeit in several distinctive variations that depend on the tone of the scene. Did you pick up on E.T.'s signature tune? Are you humming it right now? We are, if for no other reason than to get that dang shark's leitmotif out of our head. Sheesh.