11 Things We Learned at AFI Tribute to John Williams

Kobe Bryant reveals why he used “Star Wars” music for inspiration when he returned from injury, among other stories

Steven Spielberg John Williams
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It takes a special kind of L.A. icon to bring together such disparate local luminaries as retired Laker Kobe Bryant and charismatic Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel, not to mention Steven Spielberg and George Lucas and Harrison Ford and Tom Hanks. But composer John Williams did just that on Thursday night at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, drawing an eclectic crowd of heavy hitters to see him become the first composer to receive the Life Achievement Award from the American Film Institute.

Others in the crowd who came to celebrate the composer of the music to “Jaws,” “Star Wars,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Jurassic Park,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Superman” and “Harry Potter” included Drew Barrymore, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Ted Sarandos, Vince Gilligan, Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy and songwriters Diane Warren and Carol Bayer Sager.

“Without John Williams, bikes don’t really fly,” said Spielberg, who has made 27 movies with the prolific conductor, who has received a remarkable 50 Oscar nominations. “There is no Force. Dinosaurs do not walk the Earth. We do not wonder. We do not believe.”

An edited version of the AFI show will be broadcast on TNT on June 15 — but in the meantime, here’s some of what we learned.

1. John Williams played piano for Marilyn Monroe … sort of.
A film detailing Williams’ start in Hollywood pointed out that the composer got his start as a pianist working with composers like Bernard Hermann and Elmer Bernstein. In a series of clips, you could hear Williams’ piano in scenes from “To Kill a Mockingbird” (score by Bernstein), “The Apartment” and “Some Like It Hot” (Adolph Deutsch).

The “Some Like It Hot” clip featured Marilyn Monroe singing “I Wanna Be Loved by You,” with Williams on the soundtrack as part of her backing band. But as he explained in the film, the band did its part in the studio, and simply played to a vocal that Monroe had already recorded.

Kobe Bryant AFI
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2. Even in a crowd of Hollywood stars, Kobe Bryant stands out.
As the crowd mingled before the program began, one person towered over the others in the orchestra section of the Dolby, which had its usual seats replaced by tables for dinner. Kobe Bryant was taller than anyone else in the room — but the ex-Laker star also exhibited a strong gravitational pull on much of the theater, greeting a steady stream of admirers and posing for a constant string of selfies.

And when he took the stage to the loudest round of applause for anybody other than the guest of honor, Bryant explained that he’d approached Williams during his Laker career to figure out how the composer did it. “John’s music created a level of perfection that I wanted to replicate on the basketball court,” he said. “I thought if I could understand it, I might be able to replicate it.”

A few years later, he added, he turned to Williams’ music to accompany his 2013 return after an injury. “The music I chose to return to the court was the Imperial March from ‘Star Wars,’” he said. “Why? I needed John Williams to inspire me. That’s music for a villain. The Black Mamba was back and the Imperial March immediately put me into character.”

3. The AFI doesn’t have a big budget for roadies.
Early in the show, Will Ferrell (who was introduced as “John Williams Ferrell”) took the stage wearing white tie and tails and carrying a conductor’s baton. He mock-conducted an elaborate version of the five-note motif used to communicate with the alien spaceship in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” incorporating Cloris Leachman and Idina Menzel into the number before it was taken over by a couple dozen singers who appeared at various points in the Dolby’s orchestra section.

When the number ended, all the singers filed down the aisles and left the Dolby — and they all did double duty as their own roadies, carrying the chairs which they’d brought into the theater so that they could sit unnoticed during the first part of the number.

4. Steven Spielberg didn’t like the theme to “Jaws” when he first heard it.
When he first came up with the low throbbing sound that would signal the appearance of the shark in Spielberg’s 1975 film, Williams said, he told the director that he had an idea “for this kind of thump-thump thing.’”

But the director didn’t immediately love the thump-thump thing. “When he played that for me on the piano for the first time, I thought he was joking,” said Spielberg. “And he wasn’t.”

JJ Abrams John Williams AFI
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5. Williams likes to give people nicknames.
This information came from “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” director J.J. Abrams, who said that typical conversations with the composer would include sentences like, “Oh, Angel, I just hope this cue is good enough,” and “Baby, do you mind if we reference the Force thing here?”

6. In a career full of iconic film scores, “Star Wars” stands out.
When a body of work stretches over 58 years and includes more than 100 film scores, it’s hard for one piece of music to dominate. And the AFI program made a strong case for “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial,” “Schindler’s List,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and several other Williams scores.

Still, the “Star Wars” movies were in many ways the stars of the night. Abrams and George Lucas both spoke about the importance of his music to the films, as did Daisy Ridley and Mark Hamill on film. “‘Star Wars’ was meant to be a fantasy for young people,” said Lucas, “and then John wrote the music, and raised it to the level of art.”

A string of clips made the case strongly — maybe most of all in the simple and ineffably poignant scene of a young Luke Skywalker standing on his home planet of Tatooine and looking out at its two setting suns.

As Hamill said in a film clip, “It’s impossible to understate his importance to those films.”

7. Williams wrote the music for a lengthy and inappropriate love scene between Luke and Leia.
This was a sidelight to the “Star Wars” portion of the evening: Williams said he once wrote music for a love scene between two characters he figured were destined to get together — only to find out that he was misguided once Lucas began filling in the backstory and revealing family ties in the second “Star Wars” film, “The Empire Strikes Back.”

“I wrote quite a heated love scene, including a big climax, thinking that Luke and Leia were lovers,” he said. “And I found out two years later that they were brother and sister.”

Gustavo Dudamel AFI
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8. Gustavo Dudamel conducted a bit of the score to “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”
In his acceptance speech, Williams mentioned that the L.A. Phil maestro had come to a scoring session for “The Force Awakens” as his guest. But while William Ross conducted most of the score, Williams prevailed upon his friend Dudamel to take the baton for what he said was the opening sequence and the end credits.

“So now I can say that he’s the best Hollywood conductor,” added Williams.

On Thursday, Dudamel conducted a small group of musicians from the American Youth Symphony in a gorgeous section of the “Schindler’s List” score, which was perhaps surprisingly the only full-bodied live musical performance on the program.

9. Harrison Ford is a virtuoso of grumpiness.
Maybe we didn’t learn this on Thursday night — maybe we already knew it, since Ford’s famously terse interviews and public appearances are widely known. But the actor brought the house down when he walked on stage to the “Indiana Jones” theme and grumbled, “That damn music follows me everywhere.”

He elaborated, “It plays 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.”

John Williams Steven Spielberg AFI tribute
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10. Williams didn’t think he was good enough to write the score for “Schindler’s List.”
When he first saw a rough cut of Spielberg’s film set during the Holocaust in World War II, Williams said, he had to leave the room and take a walk to collect himself before facing the director.

Then, he said, he tried to get out of the job. “I said, ‘Steven, this is a great film, and you need a better composer than I am to write the music,’” Williams said. “And he said, ‘I know, but they’re all dead.’”

11. Even Spielberg gets insecure.
This revelation came from the pre-Williams part of the program, when television director and producer Lesli Linka Glatter accepted the Franklin J. Schaffner Alumni Medal. Glatter talked about how before her first TV directing job, she had a nightmare that she showed up to work and found she was on the wrong set, with a crew that didn’t know her and had started filming with a different director.

She told her dreams to the producer who’d hired her, and then immediately regretted letting him know that she was scared. “But he said, ‘Can I tell you a secret, Lesli? I have that dream, too,’” Glatter said, laughing.

“That show was ‘Amazing Stories,’ and that man was Steven Spielberg. Maybe he was just telling me that to make me feel better.”

From his seat next to Williams, Spielberg immediately shook his head no.