It all depends how you feel about blockbuster composer John Williams, says Ty Burr
Rupert Grint, Daniel Radcliffe, ...

”Harry Potter” soundtrack: a horror or a joy?

If you had any remaining doubts about how thoroughly the ”Harry Potter” franchise is being transmuted from the literary version of an eccentric old English tea shoppe to a steroid-enhanced multi-national entertainment brand identity, well, the fact that the producers hired John Williams to score the movie seals the devil’s bargain.

As the man who gave us the music behind every Spielberg and Lucas blockbuster, not to mention countless other movies good, bad, and massively successful, Williams is the sound of the Hollywood machine in full cry: sweeping strings, barking brass, thrumping percussion, pastoral winds. The man’s a genius as an orchestrator and arguably as a melodist, but he doesn’t have an ironic bone in his body, and so, while the masses hum the theme from ”Close Encounters” and the cultists argue the merits of the various ”Star Wars” scores, there’s a malcontented minority that finds Williams’ work unsubtle, corny, pushy, mainstream, and corporate: the McDonalds of movie music.

I am, most of the time, one of those malcontents. The mere sound of a patented Williams wave of violins breaking like the dawn as the hero of ”Jurassic Park” watches the dinosaur clear the horizon is enough to make me scrunch down in my seat in displeasure. So obvious, so in your face, so pompous. Why, I wonder, can’t filmmakers and composers use less rather than more? Why is Hollywood afraid of silence?

Here’s the thing, though: I actually rather like Williams’ score for ”Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone.” It’s not his greatest moment — I’ll take ”Hook” or ”Nixon” or even overlooked gems like ”Rosewood” or ”Seven Years in Tibet” over the many famous warhorses like ”Raiders of the Lost Ark” and ”Star Wars” — and it’s already being accused of self-plagiarism and outright theft by some reviewers. And in cut after cut, it can’t help giving in to overbearing schmaltz after setting up moments of strikingly arranged subtlety. But those initial moments are worth the price of admission.

Take the cut called ”Platform Nine-and-Three-Quarters/The Journey to Hogwarts.” The first part is a playful bit of low-key mickey-mousing in which you can practically see with your ears as Harry stumbles toward the magic railway station doorway that ultimately leads to Hogwarts — whereupon Williams breaks out the ghostly female choruses and batteries of brass. Or ”Harry’s Wondrous World,” in which a lovely, surging theme struggles to break free of the relentless orchestration.

And even if this score reflects the influence and chord patterns of classical greats — in ”Entry into the Great Hall,” alone, you can hear echoes of everything from Bartok’s ”Concerto for Orchestra” to Ives’ ”Third Symphony” to Vaughn Williams’ ”Sinfonia Antartica” — well, playing spot the master is half the fun.

Anyway, what modern film scorer doesn’t swipe from the canon? Part of film music’s JOB is to touch on familiar nooks and crannies in our musical consciousness, the better to support the emotions onscreen. Or, as Dimitri Tiomkin told the audience when he won a 1954 Oscar for scoring ”The High and the Mighty,” ”I would like to thank my colleagues: Brahms, Bach, Beethoven….”

What’s more curious is the way Williams seems to be directly channeling the spirit of Danny Elfman in parts of the ”Harry Potter” score. ”Prologue” and ”Hedwig’s Theme” use a combination of spooky celeste melody and swirling string counterpoint that could come straight from ”Batman” or ”Edward Scissorhands.” In the end, though, that may reflect how mainstream Elfman’s signature sound has become over the years — to the point where John Williams, who IS the mainstream, and sometimes brilliantly, can add that coloration to his palette.

The ultimate question for a film score should be: Does it serve the film? And the ”Potter” score does that, in its big-budget theme park fashion. No major surprises here, which is exactly what Chris Columbus, Warner Brothers, and the legions of Harry Potter fans wanted, I guess. But listen carefully and — quel horreur — you might hear John Williams trying to think small.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
  • Movie
  • 152 minutes