Steven Spielberg, George Lucas & Kobe Bryant Laud Composer John Williams At Emotional AFI Toast

Carlo Allegri/Getty Images for LAPA

Composer John Williams performs on stage at the Walt Disney Concert Hall opening gala on Oct. 25, 2003 in Los Angeles, Calif. 

“Without John Williams, bikes don’t really fly. Nor do brooms in Quidditch matches. Nor do men in red capes. There is no Force. Dinosaurs do not walk the earth. We do not wonder. We do not weep. We do not believe,” said director Steven Spielberg, as he saluted his pal Thursday night (June 9) at the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood.

Five-time Oscar winner Williams, the first composer to receive the recognition, is so synonymous with outstanding quality that no less than Kobe Bryant sought out the legendary film scorer for advice on how to achieve excellence.

“In 2009, I asked him to meet me,” said the recently retired Los Angeles Lakers superstar, who garnered the biggest ovation of the night other than Williams. 

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“I needed to understand how he created timeless music…his complex compositions told simple stories that captured the magic in all of us. John’s music achieved a level of perfection that I wanted to replicate on the basketball court. If I could understand how John did it, maybe, just maybe I could do it too. John was a catalyst for me to search and learn and be inspired.”

Williams, 84, has written iconic themes for such films as Jaws, Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone, Saving Private Ryan, Raider of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial and, of course, Star Wars IV: A New Hope, which leads the AFI’s list of the Top 25 Movie Scores of all time. 

“How much of John Williams’ music needs only to be heard? The visuals are nice, but not always necessary because John’s music has a singular authenticity that stirs our synapses. How much do you need? A few bars? Not even. A few notes,” said Tom Hanks, as he hummed the opening of both Jaws and Close Encounters. “And just like that we remember where we were and what we were doing when we heard that music for the very first time.” 

Some of the evening’s most illuminating moments came when actors revealed their reactions the first time they saw--and heard-- their scenes set to Williams’ score.

“John Williams understands the simplicity of character and yet the scope of an epic,” said Tom Cruise, via video. “What he brought to the score of Born On The Fourth Of July. That horn. I’ll never forget that horn the first time I heard it. It has this heroic ache that was Ron Kovic.”

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“There were moments we were [shooting Star Wars: The Force Awakens] and I was thinking, ‘With the music, this is going to be amazing,’” said one of the movie’s stars Daisy Ridley, via video. In the same video, Mark Hamill recalled the tremendous emotion Williams’ “Binary Sunset” theme brought to the pivotal two suns scene in Star Wars: A New Hope.

Star Wars: A New Hope director George Lucas credited Williams’ music with lifting the story of a far away galaxy to another level, so much so, it changed the course of Lucas's life.  “You see, Star Wars was meant to be a simple hero’s journey; a fantasy for young people,” he said. “And then John wrote the music and he raised it to a level of popular art that would stand the test of time.” Looking at Williams, Lucas added, “What I’m trying to say is you made my life so easy. I had so many ideas for other movies, but I never got to them because you ensured that Star Wars would last forever and then you did it again with Raiders of the Lost Ark. A long, long time ago, Steven [Spielberg] and I sat on the beach to talk about the story of Indy and, instantly, we both said at the same time, ‘John has to write the music.’ Steve said, ‘Right. that’s the most important part. Let’s go have lunch and we can write the story later.’”

Harrison Ford, who walked on stage to the Indiana Jones theme, joked “That damn music follows me everywhere. They play it every time I walk on a stage, every time I walk off  a stage…it was playing in the operating room when I went in for my colonoscopy.”  Ford more seriously noted, “To play a character graced by John’s music is, of course, a real gift.” He went on to cite “Marion’s Theme,” which plays as Indiana Jones fears his lover has been killed. “It invites the audience’s emotional involvement. It encourages us to feel. It’s an example of entertainment elevated to art. John, you’re a genius.”

Richard Donner, who directed Superman, agreed, recalling to Billboard how Williams nailed the classic theme from the start. “The first cue he did was the titles and when the title ‘Superman’ came across the screen, his music said Superman. I couldn’t believe it. I went home. I took the rest of the week off."

Throughout the evening, clips of classic movie scenes with Williams' epic themes unspooled. Perhaps most emotional was the final scene in E.T. Spielberg was so loathe to cut any of Williams' music that he made the scene longer. Among those also aking part in the tribute were Will Farrell, Drew Barrymore,  Bryce Dallas Howard, Seth McFarland and JJ Abrams.

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Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who conducted some of the music for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and, who, on Thursday night, led the American Youth Symphony through The Theme From Schindler’s List, told Billboard, “He’s such a generous person and he’s such a humble person too. He respects his musicians so that they give 150% to him all the time. And honesty. That is what we have in his music. That is why we have connected to all of these melodies from all of his great films.” 

That humility was on display in Williams’ gracious acceptance speech, during which he spent more time  praising others — including noting that two of his musical heroes, Alfred Newman and Bernard Herrmann, certainly were worthy of the honor before he — than reflecting on his glories. 

After thanking the long list of directors with whom he had worked, Williams ended his remarks with a story about the first time he saw the rough cut of Schindler’s List. He recalled that he was so emotionally overcome after viewing the Holocaust movie, he took a walk before coming back to Spielberg. “I said, ‘you need a better composer than I am for this film,’” Williams recalled. “Spielberg sweetly said, ‘I know, but they’re all dead.’”  Williams’ score to the 1994 film won him his fifth Academy Award. 

“AFI Life Achievement Award: A Tribute to John Williams,” will air on TNT  June 15. Turner Classic Movies (TCM) will follow with an encore presentation on Sept. 12 as part of a night of programming dedicated to Williams.