A visitor from film music heaven

I’ve been thinking about the power of the E.T. score—how Williams crafted such tender and soaring themes to musically tell the story of a boy and his alien friend, and how he incrementally developed those themes to perfection, capping off the score with the greatest film score finale of all time.

Unlike many of his other scores—especially for similar big fantasy pictures—Williams opens E.T. with an eerie ambience, almost imperceptible. Mystery and atonality accompany a strange craft parked in a forest, with strange creatures milling about the trees.

The musical pulse begins to quicken as E.T., abandoned by his kin, escapes a set of ominous dangling keys into the American suburbs. Mystery and fear slowly give way to a fragile friendship being wrought between Elliot and his strangely connected alien discovery. A harp sleepily introduces the “E.T. and Me” theme, which becomes more urgent and poignant as the story progresses.

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Playful motifs accompany Elliot’s attempts to hide the alien in his closet, and the havoc wreaked as the bond between the two grows stronger. Fragments of the main “flying” theme are teasingly dropped in, until the big payoff when Elliot and E.T. soar into the night air on a bicycle, the moon behind them.

The drama intensifies as “Keys” and his gang close in on Elliot’s house, and the health of both boy and alien begins to fade.

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But then, during a precious deathbed farewell, E.T.’s heart glows red and the score flares with new life as Elliot and the boys break loose, evade the cops, and bring E.T. back to his awaiting spaceship. The themes mount and mount into a sublime climax, and no eyes are dry when the last note fades against the star-spotted sky.

This is film music at its finest. Williams told the entire E.T. story, with all its nuance and emotion, through his music. He found melodies that expressed the friendship, the danger, and the victory (over gravity, then death). He introduces each theme with subtle delicacy, fleshing them out with patience, then letting them blossom into their full glory at just the right moment.

E.T. never really appealed to me when I was a boy. It was only when there was some distance between my boyhood that I began to accept this delicate story of loneliness and otherworldly friendship on a deep level. It is probably the most emotional score I know of, and it is a study in film scoring genius.