This weekend marked the great John Williams’ 81st birthday. So it’s fitting to dive into my favorite of his scores. But where do I start? There are too many. Well, okay, anyone who knows me knows that my favorite movie theme of all time is his Superman. But that’s not only why this magnificent score is so rich and meaningful. To me, it’s because of the journey that it takes until we arrive at the fulfillment of this timeless three note motif, which by the way Williams derived from the same three notes starting Richard Strauss’s famous Also Spracht Zarathustra (which most people know from the opening of 2001 A Space Odyssey) in which Nietzsche introduced the concept of the Ubermench (the Super Human).
To me, the best stuff is in the first half of the Richard Donner film. It’s the dark material that starts at Planet Krypton as it approaches destruction, baby Supe’s journey to Earth, followed by the Coplandesque Americana music as he grows up, and then the atonal writing that takes us through the Fortress of Solitude. Only after that whole experience are we finally rewarded with the Superman theme. The moment it finally explodes, you feel like you just want to zoom up into the sky.
There’s one more thing that has resonated with me ever since I was a little boy. It’s the Helicopter Rescue scene, where after a suspenseful sequence where Lois is hanging off the top of the building about to fall off with the helicopter, Clark Kent walks out of the Daily Planet building and he notices everyone on the street looking up at the disaster about to happen, and here Williams pulls off one of the greatest movie music moments of all time. Ta ta tum. Ta ta ta, ta ta tum. The hint at that Superman motif comes as Clark looks for a spot to change into Superman. And you feel the goosebumps rise up, and then finally he opens his shirt as he runs towards camera along with the theme which finally goes into full blast as Supe saves Lois and the falling chopper.