John Williams’ best movie scores of the ’80s – ranked bottom to top

AP photo
AP photo
Published February 9
Updated February 9

The world of John Williams didn't start with Star Wars, whether '80s fans want to believe it or not. Truth is our favorite movie score composer had been working at his craft since 1954, when he penned the music for a tourist promo film for Newfoundland.

Between that forgotten footnote and the latest edition of the Star Wars franchise, Williams gave us so many more dazzling pieces of work (and even a Oscar-nominated song – If We Were In Love from the forgettable movie Yes, Giorgio). And putting aside movies for the moment, let's not forget his work on the Olympic fanfare for the 1984 Summer Games.

Here are each of his movie scores from our beloved decade, ranked bottom to top:


15. HEARTBEEPS (1981): Easily one of the biggest flops of the '80s, Heartbeeps was lucky to have Williams on board at all. It's not hard, though, to hear his signature sound in this flick. (Listen)

14. THE RIVER (1984): Here's a movie nobody name-checks from the '80s and for good reason. Though critics loved it, Mel Gibson and Sissy Spacek's work about a struggling farm family didn't connect with the '80s generation. (Listen)

13. MONSIGNOR (1982): I guess ask your parents about this one? Christopher Reeve starred in this movie about a priest's rise through the Vatican. If the start of the soundtrack sounds like it belongs in The Godfather or The Thorn Birds, that's why. (Listen)

12. SPACECAMP (1986): "Max and Jinx … friends forever." Sadly, this movie's legacy was derailed by the Challenger disaster. Oh, who am I kidding: The movie fizzled out right after launch, but it did raise awareness to the truly amazing program that is the real-life Space Camp. (Listen)

11. RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983): How can you resist a soundtrack with numbers like Parade of the Ewoks and Jabba's Baroque Recital? (Listen)

10. INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984): It's a stinker of a movie – sorry, Indy – but the opening number of Anything Goes is the one bright side to the movie and thankfully starts the soundtrack. (Listen)

9. INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE (1989): Good luck finding a copy of this; it's out of print. One highlight from the movie that didn't make the recording is Williams' adaptation of the Königgrätzer Marsch, which plays when Indy and his father go to Berlin to retrieve the grail diary. ("We are pilgrims in an unholy land…") (Listen)

8. THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST (1988): Williams' work here was Oscar-nominated, but is probably overshadowed by the acting work of William Hurt and Geena Davis. (Listen)

7. THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK (1987): Williams scored a handful of his many Grammy and Oscar nods for the score to this sadly forgotten classic. (Listen)

6. BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY (1989): Williams was nominated for an Oscar again here, but sadly lost out to Alan Menken for The Little Mermaid. Listen to it today and the start almost sounds exactly like the theme to House of Cards. (Listen)

5. ALWAYS (1989): This remake of A Guy Named Joe is probably better remembered for Richard Dreyfuss' whistling and the song Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. But Williams' score dazzles nonetheless. (Listen)

4. E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982): With his best work, it's hard to distinguish between the magic of the film and the heavenly notes of the soundtrack. That begins with E.T., where the images and music are forever paired in time. (Listen)

3. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981): Who needs coffee to wake up each morning when we have this masterpiece? As with all of his signature themes, it's impossible not to hum along once it reaches its heights. (Listen)

2. EMPIRE OF THE SUN (1987): Whoa, whoa, whoa, you might be saying. Why rank this one so close to the top? Because – like with his other career highlights – its Williams' score that gives this film its lift. You simply cannot separate the story of young Jim from its score. The chilling performance of Suo Gân – a traditional Welsh lullaby that serves as a one-two gut punch in the film – is just sublime. (Listen)

1. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980): There's a reason college football stadiums still rock The Imperial March nearly 40 years after its release: Because Williams' first piece of work in the '80s remains his best. (Listen)