The Best Thing About ‘The Force Awakens’: John Williams

Matt Clark and I over the weekend did a rather important show about the new Star Wars picture and the radicalism of Disney from its employees based on an article I wrote several weeks ago. You will be able to listen to that broadcast on WAAM radio soon. However, Matt had on a guest that was late to the call at the bottom of the hour and needed to fill some time while his producer got him on the phone. So we had to come up with a bit of off-script content to bridge the gap. I brought up something I had been thinking about a lot in anticipation of the new Force Awakens Star Wars film based on persistent fears that the expectations were just so high. There was a real danger of walking away disappointed. I realized after a lot of thought that the primary reason I was looking forward to the new Star Wars film was for one simple reason—I want to hear new Star Wars music from John Williams. Everything else is literally secondary. To understand why, watch this old 20/20 segment about John Williams from 1983.

I was a strange kid—which should have been assumed based on a casual reading of my millions and millions of words. There are a lot of people who get paid decent amounts of money for writing far less than I do about far, far fewer topics. Yet I know that I have to write otherwise my head would explode with too many thoughts. I have too many hobbies, too many passions, too many philosophical quandaries that reside at the root of politics that if I don’t get them out and onto some kind of page to look at I may well explode with enthusiasm. So I have to write because I opened the door to something when I was very young that I have never closed. I only wanted to be one thing when I grew up—but I was caught between two worlds really. There was no other job that I wanted to be involved with than a director of movies. The trouble was I also had a pretty powerful physical aptitude. Creative types tend to enjoy escaping from reality and creating what they do in a vacuum of contemplation—whereas I didn’t. I wanted to be in the thick of reality at all times, which flew in the face of the film industry. But at age 13 in 1983 when that 20/20 episode came out on John Williams I wanted to be a film director so that I could work with people like him. What I learned eventually, and much later that there really isn’t anyone like John Williams, the great composer and conductor for some of the most powerful and important movies our American culture has ever produced. So that 20/20 episode was very important to me—I watched it over and over again on a new device called a VHS video tape. I had recorded it and showed it to every member of my family whenever there was some gathering trying to share with them the passion I felt for John Williams music. Most of them didn’t understand.

John Williams is the most important musical personality of the millennia—more so than Beethoven, Mozart, Bach or anybody else. Many years later as I worked at Cincinnati Milicron in Oakley, just north of downtown Cincinnati I listened to all those composers religiously on NPR radio while I worked as a tear-down person for rebuilt machine lathes. The other workers had a typical unionized approach to work, they watched the break clock closely—paced out their day making sure not to produce too much too quickly, and they listened to a lot of classic rock. I wasn’t adverse to rock and roll—there is a certain magic to it blaring from a radio in a machine shop—a freedom that is healthy and defiant in all the right ways—but its not very intellectual. Rock music is very linier—which has never been something I was interested in—rock music equals a can of beer resulting in unstable personal relationships. I enjoyed it for its ambiance, not for the lifestyles that draped off it—the limited vision of the world and lack-luster ambition typical of its fans. So I listened to my radio tuned to NPR’s classical station in Cincinnati and listened to the greats for hours on end while I worked. I was the only one who did this within the entire facility which eventually was dismantled and is now covered by the upgraded development occurring around the Rockwood shopping complex. I have always thought that if more people listened to that classical station with me that the employees would have been smart enough to see the writing on the wall years ago, and Cincinnati Milicron would not have eventually closed down their Oakley facility—but that’s a story we’ve covered before. For this purpose, I considered classical music to be the supreme type of music a human being can listen to—and among them at the very top is John Williams. There is nobody better—and I’ve listened to them all.

Most classical composers wrote their music for some play centuries before they ever appeared on NPR radio. So to me it was not deficient to look at John Williams as one who will eventually surpass the memory of all the obvious musical minds in the future. Movies are modern plays, so a film score is tomorrow’s classical music that will play on NPR radio in the future, all the time. These days however if anybody happened to look at my iPod they would only see two primary names on the entire 10G device, John Williams and Hans Zimmer. There are a few others, but 95% of my iPod is filled with those two musical film composers. Of those two, Hans Zimmer is clearly the student of the master, John Williams. I don’t see them as comparable in any way—other than they both make music. Nobody writes music like John Williams—I listen to him nearly every day in some fashion or another and I never get tired of the way he strings together compositions.

As we were sitting at the bottom of the hour trying to get Matt’s guest on the air, I thought about why I was eager for The Force Awakens by thinking about what I liked most about the recently released trailer—the final one before the film opens on December 18th. It was the scene from a series of clips where the Millennium Falcon was entering hyperspace from the inverted direction speeding into blue light accompanied musically by an upgrade from the previous Han and Leia theme. That was fresh music made just for this trailer and it was stunning in how it helped invoke curiosity. John Williams understands just the right notes to put on a page for what is happening on the screen. The way he tells stories through music is extraordinary, and it was his music that I wanted to hear most regarding the new film.

I meant it when I said it on the air, the Disney Company could put hand puppets on the screen for The Force Awakens and I wouldn’t care so long as I had yet another opportunity to listen to a film score by the great John Williams. He enjoys making swashbuckler type of compositions and really thrives in the type of story that Star Wars is, so it typically brings out the best in him. If the story is not something I can get into, I will at least enjoy the John Williams music—which is what I am looking forward to most. It’s not often that the entire world will attend a musical concert that is classical in nature. Literally the entire planet will be attending a John Williams concert when The Force Awakens opens just ahead of Christmas 2015. And there is nothing negative about that.

Music doesn’t need language—it transcends social limitations and reaches for the pit of our very souls for understanding. Based on that 20/20 clip, it was obvious then that John Williams was on a crash course with destiny as the greatest composer of all time—at least over the last 1000 years—because there has been nobody like him ever. He’s just the right mix of everything musical. No matter how much I listened to Bach, or Mozart on NPR radio, when they would occasionally put on some John Williams music—from any movie—it was clear that a master had assembled the notes. With that in mind there isn’t much Disney can do to ruin Star Wars so long as John Williams is the man behind the music. Star Wars will always be good so long as the music from those movies are made by the 83-year-old composer who was always ahead of his time and is the best that ever occupied nostalgia. Film music is considered low-brow entertainment among the art critics of our day—but that’s because they’re in the back of the train. Eventually those art analyzers will catch up to what I’m saying today—that John Williams is the primary reason that millions will love the new film and it will be the largest and most diverse opening to an orchestral concert in the history of earth—and that is enough to give anyone goose bumps because the impact it will have on shaping our future generations will be paramount. I suspect that The Force Awakens score will be the grand fortissimo to a long and prosperous career.   But more than that, it will be the last act of a brilliant mind, who would rather write alone all day behind a piano than do anything else—which is why he has been and will always be the greatest.

Rich “Cliffhanger” Hoffman


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