It is easy to get lost in a good movie. You become attached to the characters and engrossed in the story to the point that, for two hours, you completely forget about the goings on of your own life. The conflict, the laughter, the love, the special effects, the visuals and sounds allow you to completely immerse yourself in entertainment. And the perfect finishing touch that accompanies all of that to truly make the movie perfect, is the music.
How often do you get a song stuck in your head or hear a song and immediately recognize it and wonder, “what is that from?” And how often do you remember that it is the score from one of your favorite movies? It could be just the simplest of tones but because we associate it with an intense action scene or an iconic movie title, it means so much more to us.
Everyone has at least one movie theme they would recognize. However, not everyone would recognize the name of the composer that created that theme. In fact, even John Williams, who is arguably the greatest film score composer ever, is far from a household name. Movie fans love to watch their favorite actors and directors create incredible films, but not many can name the people that create the music that completes those films.
This idea has led me to the thought that not enough people are aware of one of the most impressive careers the film industry has ever seen. It also led me to conduct a survey, testing the knowledge of movie fans in regards to film score composers with a hypothesis in mind: John Williams is the most under-appreciated person in film history.
Let me preface my findings with some history on Williams’ career. He has certainly not been overlooked by the academy. Williams has won five academy awards and has been nominated a record 44 times. He has created the memorable scores to a long list of iconic movies including Star Wars, Jaws, Jurassic Park, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Superman, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Indiana Jones, Home Alone, Harry Potter and more. Needless to say, he is at the top of the list of great film score composers.
And yet, the average movie fan doesn’t know his name, despite being able to recognize a great deal of his work. I surveyed 100 people to see just how many would be able to identify Williams and other composers. The first question I asked was how often they watched movies. The purpose of the question was to ensure that the majority of the people surveyed actually are movie fans.
From the picture above, you can see that roughly 97% of those surveyed watch movies at least a few times a year and 90% watch at least once a month. Clearly the vast majority of the responses came from legitimate fans of film.
Next, I asked which film score was the most recognizable. This was certainly not an easy question to answer, and that showed in the fact that nine responders skipped the question and several others answered with multiple movies. Among the 91 answers however, 52 (57%) of the films named were scored by Williams. Star Wars led the way with 20 responses, while Harry Potter followed with 14 and Jaws had 13. Lord of the Rings, Titanic and Pirates of the Caribbean were the first non-Williams-scored films with 5 responses each. Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones and Catch Me if You Can were the other Williams films named.
The next step was to find out how many composers the responders could name. I asked exactly that. More than 41% of them said that they could not name any composers, while another 35% said they could name only one or two.
Then, to take it further, I asked which composers they could name. 38% of the responders were able to name Williams. Admittedly, that number is higher than I initially anticipated, though it is still considerably lower than the 57% that listed his scores as the most recognizable. It is also worth noting that 47% of the sample was unable to name any composer. Hans Zimmer and Danny Elfman were the second and third most frequently named composers with 27% and 13% respectively.
Finally, I provided a list of 10 films, five of which were scored by Williams, and asked which scores the responders could recognize. A staggering 91% said that they could recognize the music from Star Wars. Jaws was the only film close to that, at 84%. The five films that were scored by Williams all finished in the top six most recognized, with only Rocky edging out Jurassic Park by about 3%. Perhaps the most telling statistic to come out of the entire survey though, was that 100% of the sample chose at least one of the five Williams scores as a recognizable one.
Overall, my findings from this survey may not have been exactly what I expected, but they did make it clear that John Williams’ name is not nearly recognizable as his music. This isn’t something that is completely impossible to believe. Names in Hollywood can be forgotten often. How many times do you find yourself saying, “oh, he’s the guy from that show,” or “she’s the girl from that movie,” when you can’t think of an actor’s name?
Typically though, this is not the case when the actor in question is someone as accomplished as John Williams is. You don’t forget Tom Hanks’ name, or struggle to come up with Steven Spielberg’s. And yet, Williams, who has as many Oscars as those two combined, is not a name that most people know.
Is John Williams the most under-appreciated person in the history of film? That is not for me to say, but my research could certainly support that. Whether you hear the ominous tones of Jaws every time you’re in the ocean, or you whistle the Imperial March when you see your boss coming, John Williams' work is something most people are familiar with. It’s a shame that most people aren’t familiar with his name.