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updated: 8/3/2014 10:17 PM

Still the maestro of the movies

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  • Film composer John Williams just earned his 49th Academy Award nomination, for "The Book Thief."

      Film composer John Williams just earned his 49th Academy Award nomination, for "The Book Thief."
    Associated Press

  • Video: Williams on "Star Wars VII"


Luke Skywalker. Indiana Jones. Harry Potter. Superman. E.T.

All of these legendary characters spring to life with the help of John Williams, certainly the most popular and arguably the most important film composer of all time.

Try to imagine Luke piloting his X-Wing in the trenches without Williams directing the orchestra to attack the strings -- it's just not the same, is it? Ditto for Indy, riding into the sunset as horns blare his famous theme.

Williams turned 82 last month and is nowhere near retirement. He collected his 49th Academy Award nomination this year for "The Book Thief" -- losing to "Gravity" composer Steven Price -- and has confirmed his involvement in J.J. Abrams' "Star Wars: Episode VII," set for release next year.

Anyone can hum the two ominous notes that herald the shark's arrival in "Jaws," but there's much more to John Williams than blockbuster heroics. Here are five essential works by Williams that may surprise you, and will certainly delight you:

• "A.I." -- Steven Spielberg inherited this epic about a robotic child on a journey of self-discovery from Stanley Kubrick, and much of the film feels unlike anything Spielberg or John Williams has ever done before. The main theme promises peril, not enlightenment, and many of the cues here take on a cyclical quality that would make Philip Glass proud. That doesn't mean Williams holds back the emotions -- that's what the final act is for. (Key tracks: "Hide and Seek," "The Mecha World")

"Heartwood" -- This 16-minute piece is the highlight of the 2002 collaboration "Yo-Yo Ma Plays the Music of John Williams." No rousing film music here -- "Heartwood" is a subdued, slowly building piece that may shock listeners expecting to hear something like "Jurassic Park."

"Lost in Space" -- Williams' theme for this beloved '60s TV show bridges the gap between his early career as a jazz musician and his current notoriety.

NBC News theme, "The Mission" -- Yes, that theme you've heard for years on television. Williams' rousing, sometimes militaristic theme debuted on "NBC Nightly News" in 1985, and it certainly sounds like a cousin to the theme from "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial." We only hear short gasps of this theme on TV, so the full 3-minute track is a real joy. It's available from iTunes and other music retailers on Williams' "American Journey" collection.

"Olympic Fanfare and Theme" -- Leo Arnaud wrote the short, famous theme that begins this piece, "Bugler's Dream," and Williams used that as a triumphant introduction for his stirring, 4-minute melody that millions of us heard every night as we watched the Olympians in Sochi. Motifs heard here rippled through Williams' career and are invoked in the recent "Lincoln" score, among others. The track is available on the "Summon the Heroes" compilation.

Sean Stangland is a Daily Herald copy editor and a tireless consumer of pop culture. "Journey to the Island" is his favorite John Williams piece. You can follow him on Twitter at @SeanStanglandDH.

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