Apr 23: ‘E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial’ is the sound of change

E.T. the extra terrestrial john williams

For his third Best Original Score Academy Award, John Williams lays out a complete compositional metamorphosis.

Were you to switch off E.T. after the opening credits, you’d be forgiven for assuming you were watching some hard sci-fi thriller. Faded purple lettering appears over a black screen, against atmospherics that are more sound design than original score.

For titles that introduce a blockbuster the whole family can enjoy, it’s spooky. Steven Spielberg’s 1982 record-breaker has more in common with Arthur than Arthur C. Clarke, widely celebrated as a modern classic by Gen-Xers raised on Amblin Entertainment productions. And it’s easy to see why. Pastiche revivals like Stranger Things have aped E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial‘s single-parent, Dungeons & Dragons trappings, but the story of Elliott (Henry Thomas) and his alien friend is one that’s forged by isolation and understanding. The spectacle of cycling teenagers soaring across the night sky is undoubtedly the film’s most endearing sequence, E.T. and John Williams’ Oscar-winning score really work to reach that emotional high.

After those opening credits end, we’re presented with a half dozen extra-terrestrials and, notably, curious and delicate music. Williams’ approach here is withdrawn but nonetheless intrigued by the idea of foreign creatures whose hearts glow, whose biological complexities could be fascinated by something as simple as wildflowers. When the aliens’ botanical sampling is interrupted by a group of scientists, we hear scattershot brass repeating a figure not unlike the end of “The Imperial March.” These men are bad news, and we’re to have no part of them. (As an extended aside, “The Imperial March” isn’t the only Star Wars connection. Williams also includes a tease of “Yoda’s Theme” as E.T. walks past a costumed the green guy.)

Spielberg actually insisted on shooting most of his adults from a child’s height for much of the picture. That adolescent perspective is present in the music, too. “Toys” and “Beginning of a Friendship” tease tender discovery between E.T., Elliott and his siblings. Both cues also ease into the film’s “flying theme,” a mixture of repeated phrasing and diatonic progressions. On the bonus features of the E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial Blu-ray, Williams lays out his compositional metamorphosis. “The music evolves, it morphs itself into something that’s loving and familiar and familial.” In fact, the flying theme’s standout appearance doesn’t come until E.T.‘s finale, where John Williams really lets the listener have it, beginning with running strings before that soaring penultimate ride to the heavens.

Even before Williams nabbed his third Academy Award for Best Original Score, it was clear how good E.T.‘s score was. After leaving his composer with a piano in solitude for two weeks, Spielberg would opt to cut the final reel of the film around whatever came out of the recording sessions. In cinema, that’s practically a miracle.

  • UW Cinematheque presents E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial on Sun, Apr 23 at 2:00p in the Chazen Art Museum. Admission is FREE and open to the public.