Sunday, February 8, 2009

Story Told in Music – Raiders of the Lost Ark

Sometimes it's a bit tough to remember when something iconic was new. This really hit home when I recently watched "Raiders of the Lost Ark". I was just a kid when this movie came out in 1981, and the viewing of the movie is fairly vivid in my mind. But branded even deeper than images of Indy outrunning a bolder, crawling beneath a moving truck and surviving the biggest face melt in movie history was the music. The "Raiders Theme" also known as the "Indiana Jones Theme" is one that nearly everyone on the planet knows. Just hearing the first few bars and most people are immediately reminded of Harrison Ford in a fedora.

Of course this memorable piece of music was written by John Williams. Williams was at the peak of his creative skills back in the late 70's and early 80's. He came up with iconic themes for "Star Wars", "Superman", "Jaws", "Close Encounters of a Third Kind" and of course "Indiana Jones". I bet as you read that list you could at least hum one tune from each of those movies. Williams style was so potent that it influenced nearly all movie scoring for the rest of the 80's and early 90's (things would shift around once Hans Zimmer showed up). What is amazing about these early scores by Williams, is that they are all so memorable and that they immediately transport the listener to the scene in the movie that they occur.

"Raiders of the Lost Ark" is a great example of this. If you were to listen to the score you would be able to figure out exactly what is going on in each sequence. Part of the reason is Williams created themes for Indiana Jones, Marion Ravenwood, The Ark of the Covenant and the Nazis. He even went so far as to create mini-themes for key sequences in the film. The most obvious is titled "The Basket Game" in which Indy runs around Cairo searching for Marion as she abducted in a wicker basket. The whole scene uses it's own little jaunty theme, that rises and falls, speeds up and slows down to create tension and paint the action on the screen. When the chase scene ends in an explosion (and the "death" of Marion) Marion's theme swells to tragic proportions.

What struck me as I watched "Raiders" again was how much of the film relied on music and visuals. The entire opening of the film is all music, camera movement, sound effects and lighting. It all builds to a mini-climax when Indy uses his whip to snap the gun from the man's hand. In that moment we know all about Indy and his bad ass skills (and we didn't even hear the theme yet!). Plenty of other moments rely solely on music, including the map room scene, the truck chase and even the opening of the ark (once that puppy is open there is very little talking and a whole lot of epic choral scoring).

In a sense Williams composed a mini-opera. The story is told in a large part with music and visuals (almost working like a silent film) and if the music isn't going to have it's own power the movie isn't as effective. In a sense, as good at Ford's performances is, as good as Kasdan's script, is and as good as Spielberg's direction is - the music is a vital part of "Raiders of the Lost Ark".

Do you have a favorite film score or film composer? What do you think of the score to "Raiders"? Do you think John Williams is over-rated?

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