John Williams : Orchestrating the Disasters

Producer Irwin Allen goofind around with John Williams during the recording session for The Poseidon Adventure

I made the surprising (or not) discovery the other day that I participated in absolutely… ZERO blogathons during the whole duration of 2021. There were several reasons for that, but now I’m back in force with my first blogathon of 2022: The John Williams Blogathon hosted by Rebecca from Taking Up Room! Of course, we’re talking about the prolific music composer who is turning 90 on February 8! PS: If someone ever organises a blogathon for John Williams, the actor, I’m totally up for it as well. This musical genius totally deserves the honours, and to discuss a composer rather than an actor or a director will take us out of the beaten tracks.

We often associate John Williams with the numerous scores he composed for Spielberg films or Harry Potter and Star Wars soundtracks. Some of his compositions became iconic and are now somehow part of pop culture.

However, there’s another side to Williams’s career, which we tend to forget. For example, his work on How To Steal a Million (William Wyler, 1966) or Family Plot, Hitchcock’s last film, is rarely discussed. And then, there are the disaster movies. And that’s what I’m going to focus on for this article. John William indeed composed the music for three major disaster films of the 70s (the golden decade for the genre): The Poseidon Adventure (Ronald Neame, 1972), The Towering Inferno (John Guillermin, 1974) and Earthquake (Mark Robson, 1974). The idea of this article is not to do a standard review of those films but rather to discuss how the music is used and other interesting elements in connections to John Williams’s compositions. Moreover, if you want to read my review of The Towering Inferno, it’s right here.

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Very briefly, for those who haven’t seen those films, they all involve different disasters, both natural and human-made, and characters trying to survive. Those pictures had the distinction of having an impressive all-star cast.

In The Poseidon Adventure, a cruising ship, the SS Poseidon, travelling from New York to Athens, is turned over by a gigantic wave caused by an undersea earthquake. The only solution to survive is to go up to the hull, which is probably still above water. Only a few passengers, guided by Reverend Scott (Gene Hackman), go on this journey.

In The Towering Inferno, a high-rise building catches fire on its inauguration day due to an electronic problem. The guests at the inauguration party, taking place on the last floor, have to be evacuated. Battalion Chief Michael O’Halloran (Steve McQueen) and his firefighters are in charge.

In Earthquake, we’re dealing with a series of…. earthquakes (!) and aftershocks dramatically destroying the city of Los Angeles.

I love those films. There are definitely among my guilty pleasures. Of course, we can criticize them for being overly commercial and clichés. However, let’s admit it: on the technical level, they were pretty impressive for the time they were made. And, even if you completely hate them, you have to recognize the quality of John Williams work! And if you don’t, well, so be it.

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THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE

Before he composed the score that propelled him to stardom, Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975), Williams had already entered the world of big cinematographic productions, starting with The Poseidon Adventure. Orchestral, but also suspenseful and eery music was in need for such a film. However, one can observe how the music remains pretty discreet and rarely outshines the dialogues if that isn’t necessary. The opening titles, of course, give a clear taste of the main theme. Its rhythm, as I observed, fits perfectly well with a ship navigating on the endless ocean. Then, variations of that theme are heard clearly and put in evidence during action scenes without or with very little dialogue. A first example would be when the survivors lift the gigantic artificial Christmas Tree to use it as a ladder. William’s music also plays a key role not long before the ultimate climax, as the remaining characters walk through the engine room, the culminant point of their “expedition” across the reversed boat. Other than that, John Williams composed themes for peculiar situations and characters, but those remain discreet if accompanied by dialogues. And while some scenes have no music, and while it could have been a film without any music, to have some remains a way for the film to feel complete and, in a way, remind us that it is, precisely, a film.

The Poseidon Adventure‘s opening titles

The fact that the music remains discreet most of the time is, in my opinion, a product of the New Hollywood era. Following the end of the Production Code, Hollywood developed a new way of ranking and making films. And their music was not left aside. It could be omnipresent in old Hollywood films, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing but gave the illusion that some scenes were more dramatic than they were. Moreover, as cinema changed during the New Hollywood era, acting changed, and music probably had to follow. But what I just wrote is just a hypothesis, so don’t quote me on that. However, that informative podcast episode I listened to in preparation for this blogathon sort of supports my argument. Hosted by Maurizio Caschetto and Tim Burden, that episode of The Legacy of John Willams Podcast involves a discussion with soundtrack producer Mike Matessino, the man behind a restoration of John William disaster scores for the CD box set The Disaster Movie Soundtrack Collection – Music by John Williams. In the episode, they discussed how Williams probably had to adapt and change his style when scoring disaster movies, beginning with Poseidon. Indeed, if we look at some of the scores he composed before, which felt more uplifting and aimed for comedies, the one for Poseidon fell into a completely different category. As a matter of fact, Matessino raises the relevant point that the director himself, Ronald Neame, had to change his usual style for that film. So, why not John Williams as well? In case you didn’t know, a few years before making that disaster film, Neame directed The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969), which, naturally, had a completely different style.

A young John Williams

Moreover, regarding John Williams, by transforming his composition style and scoring a disaster film, Maurizio Caschetto observes the more suspenseful tone of his music. That was, indeed, a perfect way to settle an uncertain atmosphere and make us understand why Spielberg chose Williams to score Jaws. In other words, the music in Poseidon is present enough for us to admire John Williams’s brilliant work but doesn’t distract us from what’s going on in the film either. And, let’s not forget that this is a disaster film, and as much as I love them, they are rarely a synonym of subtlety and, yes, can be over the top at times. So to add loud music to each scene where some thrilling action is going on could be too much. Think, for example, of the scene during the New Year’s Eve party when the wave reverses the boat. Everybody screams, and it’s complete chaos. And the film team was intelligent enough not to add music on that. On the opposite, the music used when they lift the tree adds some “glory” to the moment and illustrates the character’s strength, not only physically but also in their teamwork. It’s one of the rare times in the film where pretty much everybody agrees on doing something without questioning it too much. There are films where the score is essential and almost becomes a character. However, in this case, I don’t think it was intended that way, so the way it was used worked.

A scene that needs no music

During his career, John Williams won five Oscars for his masterful film soundtracks and was nominated countless times, including for The Poseidon Adventure. He won his first Oscar the year before for Fiddler on the Roof (Norman Jewison, 1971). If you haven’t seen Poseidon and aren’t familiar with the soundtrack, you can listen to it as an introduction to the subject. And, hopefully, you’ll watch the film as well to understand better how that glorious soundtrack accompanied one of the most successful disaster movies of the 70s.

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THE TOWERING INFERNO

There was definitely an evolution and changes in how the music was used and composed for The Towering Inferno. These are subtle but not necessarily less noteworthy (well, considering you pay attention to that aspect of the film). Once again, it is not necessarily used in moments where it would be too much, such as chaotic situations. So, that brilliant idea was preserved. However, you feel the music is more present, and there’s a clearer distinction between action and ambient music.

First of all, the presence of “calm” music used purely to add a certain feeling to the scene is much more present and plays on the variations of the theme. But, once again, it won’t necessarily be used in scenes where the sound dimension is already very present. I can think, for example, of that scene where Lisolette Mueller (Jennifer Jones) is leaving Mrs Allbright (Carol McEvoy)’s apartment. She took care of the children while their mother was at work. Then, everything goes well, and it’s a scene that introduces those characters: Lisolette, Mrs Allbright and her children, Phillip (Mike Lookinland) and Angela (Carlena Gower). A piece of music that only adds a light ambience plays in the background, almost as if it were the radio. Then, it cuts to a scene in the electricity room of the new tower where there are already a lot of noises caused by the different machines. So, the music stops here. Not only because we move to another scene, but also because it wouldn’t necessarily add anything. It’s also not necessarily used to create surprise effects because the image is already efficient enough for that.

Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s never used to create an effect of grandeur and emotion when it’s appropriate and almost necessary. Think, for example, how the music becomes expressive and grandiose when the building lights up under the look of the impressed people who have come to attend its inauguration. If that particular moment didn’t have any music, it would have been a bit weird and lost its wanted effect. The music is also not always used in scenes where things go considerably wrong. That was probably a clever move since viewers are already focused enough on the action and probably won’t pay much attention to the music, except if it was really playing a first layer role in the scene. But The Towering Inferno is a film with lots of dialogues and sounds. Of course, there are exceptions. Think, for example, of the suspenseful and worrying score as Dan Bigelow (Robert Wagner) and Lorrie (Susan Flannery) discover that they’re trapped by the fire. The intensity of the music increases with the action, which goes from them smelling smoke to [SPOILER ALERT] Lorrie jumping out of the window. [END OF SPOILER]. We could also consider the scene where architect Doug Roberts (Paul Newman) looks for Mrs Allbright and the children in their apartment or the tense helicopter landing scene.

You’ll observe that in the three films discussed in that article, being The Poseidon AdventureThe Towering Inferno or Earthquake, the best moment to appreciate the music is during the opening titles. I know: it goes without saying. It works that way because not tons of information is thrown at us. It’s much richer visually than narratively, and the music precisely accompanies so well with what we see on the screen. I earlier observed that the music in the opening titles of The Poseidon Adventure went perfectly with the image of the SS Poseidon navigating the ocean. A similar observation is made in the Legacy of John Williams Podcast when it is said that the music “nails the grandeur of the setting and the moment”. They also add that it reminds you that it’s a film by being a very cinematographic moment, something that doesn’t resonate with real life. I agree with that but, while The Towering Inferno used music to a greater level than The Poseidon Adventure, the opening scene isn’t the only one where the score becomes a big part of the scene. I believe it is also brilliantly used in that scene where they decide to blow up the water tanks to extinguish that fire once and for all. It is indeed one of those scenes where we see the brilliance of John Wiliams in creating suspenseful scores that will be used at its full potential in Jaws. Here, the music resonates perfectly with the tension and the anticipation of the moment, especially since we (and the characters) know that not everybody will survive. As the camera zooms on each character’s face, the music becomes louder and tenser (PS: I like how William Holden thinks of taking off his glasses – smart move). Then there’s the explosion, and rightly so, the music stops because we don’t need it anymore. Aside from the opening titles, it’s the best scene of the film, musically speaking. Somehow, it makes me think a little of that scene in High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952) when the characters are waiting for the arrival of Frank Miller at noon. I also like the dramatic, almost fatalist score with low tones heard as Susan (Faye Dunaway), Lisolette, the children, and other characters enter the promenade elevator. Nobody knows how all this will end. And it goes perfectly well with cinematography in that scene, with the shadow of Faye Dunaway’s face.

The Towering Inferno‘s opening titles

John Williams, unsurprisingly, also received an Oscar nomination for his work on The Towering Inferno but lost it to Nino Rota and Carmine Coppola for The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974).

EARTHQUAKE

Although Earthquake is probably the less good film out of the three, the music didn’t lose its quality and, once again, remains among the best aspects of the film. Released the same year as The Towering Inferno, it probably got less attention despite its, once again, impressive ensemble cast. The Towering Inferno had a massive work of production. Moreover, unlike Inferno and Poseidon, Earthquake was, surprising as it is, not produced by Irwin Allen. Mark Robson produced and directed it, which wasn’t such an odd choice. Indeed, with films like Peyton Place (1957) or The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958), Robson could direct films with highly dramatic moments. It is also pertinent to know that it wasn’t the first collaboration between Robson and John Williams. Indeed, Williams also composed the soundtracks of Valley of the Dolls (1967) and Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting (1969). On a side note, I wonder if Mark Robson and Genevieve Bujold ever talked about Montreal during the filming since they were both born there.

Earthquake uses its music differently, but one can notice similarities with the previously discussed films. There’s still the idea that the music is at its best at the beginning of the film and establishes the immensity of the location. While Poseidon and Towering take place in limited spaces (a boat and a high rise building), Earthquake involves all of Los Angeles. Therefore, it’s that location that the opening credits introduce, accompanied by William’s score, one with noticeable touches of piano. That particular theme is probably my favourite of the whole disaster movie compositions John Williams wrote. It has a different energy than those for Poseidon and Towering and a mixt of uplifting and dramatic tones. It becomes a way of describing the city beat before the earthquake but also announces that what we see now will be destroyed. Overall, we observed a great variety of musical styles, including some with more energy and pep and even described as “funky” in the podcast. Some of the themes are jazzier, and some, obviously, more dramatic and suspenseful. In my opinion, that shows the variety of the story, its setting and its narratives. Indeed, while Earthquake revolved around a series of earthquakes in Los Angeles, there are substories and many characters, some that never meet.

An uplifting music!

The sound dimension, not only the music, takes a highly important place in Robson’s film. Indeed, an earthquake is a phenomenon that resonates both with our vision and hearing. The use of the Sensurround sound effect had for objective to give the impression to people in theatre that they were in the middle of the earthquake. Now, when watching that film on a computer or a television, that effect isn’t felt anymore, but it must have been a pretty chilling experience at the time, especially since there’s a scene in the film during the first earthquake that takes place in a theatre. John Williams himself understood the importance of these sounds. The podcast informs us that the music for the album and the one for the film were recorded in two different sessions. The album version includes sound effects on the opening theme as initially intended by John Williams, showing a more accurate representation of his initial idea. Therefore, it is sort of like his “composer’s cut”. I guess?

Opening theme: Film version
Opening theme: album version (with sound effects)

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It’s fascinating to realise the immensity of John Williams’s body of work. There’s indeed so much to say about it, so many periods to analyse and considerable musical versatility. It always amazes me to think that the man who composed the music of the three disaster films I discussed in this article also wrote the iconic score of Harry Potter, a product that had a considerable influence on my generation. Therefore, Rebecca’s idea to celebrate that genius with a blogathon was excellent. And it was an honour for me to write about him and his music. And, between you and I, I always need a good excuse to do my annual 70s disaster films marathon.

I invite you to read the rest of the entries written for this blogathon and learn more about John Williams and his compositions. Thanks a lot for hosting, Rebecca!

And if you want to know my top 15 soundtracks composed by Williams, it’s here!

See you!

14 thoughts on “John Williams : Orchestrating the Disasters

  1. Great article! You really got me interested in seeing those movies, while making me discover some great John Williams pieces. No matter the era, he never seems to disappoint! On a side note, the opening sequence for Towering Inferno feels like an exact opposite of the ending of Jurassic Park : while they both feature an helicopter, the music in JP’s track feels like a peaceful, and hopeful, resolution, while the one of TI gets us really hyped up for what’s to come!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is fascinating! I forgot Williams did “Posiedon” and “Towering Inferno,” but it makes sense–he was really able to get farther through the door with these movies, plus “Earthquake,” even if it wasn’t as good. And wow, he looks so young in that photo, Very cool. Thanks again for joining the blogathon with this great review! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m with you…there’s no not loving The Poseidon Adventure (you knew that ship was in trouble when the Captain is Lt. Frank Drebbin from The Naked Gun), The Towering Inferno (I know these movies love a “big cast,” but Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, and William Holden…how did they do that?) and Earthquake (agree with you this isn’t the best film ever…but I’m a sucker for Charlton Heston and George Kennedy.:) )

    Liked by 1 person

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