E.T: I remember clearly going to see it for the first time, at the age of twelve. I remember seeing the posters, some of which had a boy and a… thing lying on hospital beds surrounded by plastic sheets, and I wondered what on earth I was going to see. And then the lights went down, strange electronic sounds filled the cinema, then the screen showed a starry sky, a piccolo played a haunting melody, and then as the camera panned down to show a Christmas bauble-like ship in a forest clearing, the most amazing change occurred in the music – harps, strings, all creating a sense of awe, of magic, of mystery. And then this weird, stately music, full of strange and slightly scary chords, played on something which to my ears sounded like an organ.
That music, and then the music which follows in the whole film, fired my imagination. It fed my soul. It made me hide behind my hands. It made me cry. It was, and is, one of the most powerful experiences of music I have ever had. This was the film which really fired up my love for film music, and John William’s music in particular.
Listen to the change which comes in the above piece at 2:11. This is film music doing what it should do – enabling us to step into the experiences of the characters who fill the screen. At this point it is the creature we will come to know and love, waddling through a wood of immense redwoods, and looking up at the canopy far above. The music gives a sense of incredible size, of awe. And indeed to a visiting botanist such as this creature, the redwoods must have been a thing of huge magic and power.
Then we have the chase scene through the forest, as ET runs madly back to the ship, only to see it disappear before he gets there. (Abandoned and Pursued) After a frenetic action cue, at 1:40 we “hear” the spaceship majestically rising into the sky, and after a wonderful crash of the cymbals and timpani accompanying the wonderful brass section, we are left with the same poignant melody we heard right at the start. Here, it feels different. Instead of carrying promise and potential, here, coming so soon after the majestic blazing of the orchestra as the ship lifts off, it feels small and lonely.
Those of you who know the score to ET may notice that so far I have included pieces from the original soundtrack recording as it was originally released. It is largely a rerecording of the score, and some of the major action cues, including the one I referred to above as “Abandoned and Alone” (the original soundtrack title) are markedly different to the score as it is heard in the film. That is simply because it was this album which I listened to countless times as a teenager. It was this album which opened up a whole world of music to me. So whilst I will refer to some of the actual movie cues as I go on, the bulk of this post will relate to that original album.
E.T. and Me is a beautiful poignant theme built around a major seventh harmony, played on harp with shimmering strings providing a backdrop. the effect is tender and emotional. After a short figure on the strings at 1:55, the theme is repeated in full strings and french horns with woodwind dancing above at 2:02. It’s yet another example of William’s seemingly effortless writing for the orchestra. After exploring the melodic possibilities of the theme, it comes to a lovely shimmering conclusion, very much as it started.
E.T.s Halloween follows this, a lovely little jaunty march for slightly atonal woodwind. It is reminiscent of “The Little People Work” from Star Wars A New Hope, the music Williams wrote for the jawas. There is a lovely little throwback to Star Wars in this music when ET spies a child dressed as Yoda, and we hear Yoda’s theme momentarily at 1:16. This gives way to a rhapsodic build in the orchestra, first with horns and flutes, then joined by the strings, and finally by the piano. Everything builds to a climax, and then we burst into, for the first time in its full glory, the Flying Theme – the one everyone knows as the theme to ET. It is a wonderful marriage of visuals and music, as the pitch changes of the theme trace Elliott’s soaring journey across the Moon and down into the forest.
This is followed by the concert version of the Flying Theme, which I won’t spend time on at this point, except to say that it’s well-documented melodic similarity to the Star Wars theme is certainly there, but it has a very different feel. this is a piece dominated by the strings and woodwind rather than brass, giving it a much less heroic feel. It flutters around and at times soars. It is actually only the first 5 notes which share the same melody as the Star Wars theme, and the rest is markedly different.
After this comes “ET Phone Home”, which prominently features the emotional theme from “ET and Me”. It is lovely, and actually is used partially in the scene in which ET comes back to life. Well worth listening to, but it is the final two pieces on the original album I want to look at. But before I do, I need to drop in one of the highlights of the score for me. It’s the music Williams wrote for Elliott’s first kiss, and it is only available in the full score recording. It starts as being incidental music (ie music which the characters within the film can themselves hear) – the score to a black and white romance which ET is watching on the TV whilst Elliott is at school. at 9 seconds in, though, the full orchestra comes in as Elliott plays out the action which ET is watching, due to their powerful psychic link. It’s short, and utterly wonderful. The rich swelling theme of the strings comes to a climax, and then as things come back down to earth, we hear them play a fragment of the Flying Theme. It’s masterful.
The next piece, “Over the Moon” is surely one of the most wonderful pieces John Williams has ever composed. Played on the piano initially with very little embellishment from the orchestra, it has the most wonderful chord structure – D flat, C, B, D in the first two phrases. There is something about this very chromatic use of chords which give the piece huge impact. I have always loved this piece almost more than anything else ever written by Williams. And the melody, with it’s huge reaching major seventh intervals is pure genius. I’m not sure there has ever been a piece of film music which can equal it.
This theme then features prominently in the final track, “Adventure on Earth”, which at 15 minutes long is one of the longest tracks on a score album by Williams. However, there is a reason for that. Steven Spielberg famously told his composer to write whatever needed to be written musically, and he’d edit the film to the music, rather than the other way round. And it shows. There is a completeness to this piece which take it beyond it’s place in the film. It becomes it’s own entity. It reminds powerfully of the last moments of the film, as Elliott and friends race to get ET safely delivered back to his spaceship, but there is something downright operatic in this music. It feels free – free of the restrictions of needing to hit a particular accent at a particular time. It works as music. It also serves in some ways as a reminder of all the music which has gone before, as it refers to many of the themes we have heard.
I can’t say too much about this piece, because it is a piece which needs to be felt. I could pull it apart and comment on the marvellous structure, the wonderful orchestrations, the beautiful way melodies are weaved in and out of each other. But it just needs to be listened to. Highlights though for me are the “Over the Moon” at 1:14 with brass punctuation. Then this dies down after a wonderful tubular bell strike at 3:17 to a spine-tingling statement of the very first piccolo theme we heard as the boys meet in the park. Then at 4:28 we have a wonderful new theme, which is similar in vein to the music heard when ET’s spaceship takes off and leaves him on earth. A syncopated rhythm on high woodwind and strings creates a blaze of colour whilst the brass play a wonderful heroic theme, full of reaching major intervals. This accompanies the boys on their heroic journey to return ET to his people. This builds up to a climax at 6:56, before we are treated to another rendition of the Flying Theme.
At the end of this soaring theme, the music returns to earth if you like, and features some of the most emotional music ever composed for film. It is just wonderful. I’m listening to it as I write, and words fail me. I cannot describe the power of this sequence. As I said before, it needs to be felt. If you have never heard it, listen to it here. If you have heard it but not for awhile, let it flow through you once again and weep. I can’t listen to this without weeping. It’s wonderful wonderful stuff.
And now I must go and cry in the corner. Enjoy!