CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977) – Album Reviews (Expanded Edition)


Review by Jeff Commings

Fans of John Williams know very well that 1977 was a banner year for the composer, as he wrote two very extraordinary scores to two “space films.” The more popular one was of course Star Wars, but the release of the Close Encounters of the Third Kind Collector’s Edition CD led me to believe that both scores should be raised onto the same platform, as both use styles that many have tried to copy, but none have succeeded.

With the startling hit that opens the film and the CD (“Opening: Let There Be Light”) we are instantly aware that things aren’t going to be wine and roses. The swirling duststorm and the strong bass (“Navy Planes” and “Lost Squadron”) signify a miraculous find, but in this case the score takes a back seat as we marvel over the mystery of the reappearance of planes thought to have disappeared years ago.

“Roy’s First Encounter” gives us what could be considered classic Williams: a chase scene with swirling strings. When the spaceships disappear from view and we see little Barry running in the road, the low-end bass is almost the calm before the storm, before a flourish of strings is heard when Roy almost runs into Barry.

No Williams score would be complete without a motif or two, and amidst all the atonality it is easy to recognize several themes. “False Alarm” introduces us to two of these themes. The first is the Devil’s Tower theme, full of choral beauty and a little mystery for what lies ahead. The second is more subtle in the film but can be heard many times on the CD. It is Roy’s theme, which is a repeating four-note motif, probably used to express his constant obsession over his desire to find out the truth. The first time it is heard we see Roy with some followers as they see lights approaching (which turn out to be only helicopters).

I am most grateful for the release of this CD because of the missing music I was able to hear during “Barry’s Kidnapping.” This is the only scene in the film where I think the terror can be associated with the aliens ( I believe the real enemy here is the government.). Williams uses high notes on strings, sharp piano hits and choral lifts. This is probably the most atonal piece in the score. If possible, everyone should watch the film with the CD playing along and hear the missing music that would have been used. In the film, the onscreen sound effects drown out the music in parts, but parts of the scene are without music at all. These occur when we hear noises on the roof and lights shine through the chimney and through the window. Now all hell breaks loose in the house and the orchestra, with a fervent string section. A cacophony of brass accompanies a haywire vacuum and the strings and chorus fight for attention during the brief lightshow and when Barry escapes through the doggy door. Only when the house calms down does the orchestra take a breather. A low bass line is heard as Gillian runs out of the house after Barry (this music is not used in the film).

The government/military theme is heard in full orchestral form in “The Cover-Up” and “Stars and Trucks.” There are the typical snare drums, but these are not the focus of the theme. Low bass and strings suggest the undermining evil as they try to fake the citizens into evacuating.

A nice scherzo accompanies “Roy and Gillian on the Road,” a melody similar to the chase music heard in “Roy’s First Encounter.” Williams, however, cuts down on the urgent theme when an orchestral rise goes along with a camera lift when Roy and Gillian first see Devil’s Tower. The “danger” becomes more imminent when looming brass signals the sight of dead cows in the road.

It’s always nice to hear alternate cues on CD releases, as we can see what the composer and director first had in mind. “The Escape” and its alternate start out the same, with Roy’s theme, but deviate when Roy, Gillian and a doomed escapee run out of the helicopter. The cue used in the film is lighter, suggesting a sense of hope that they will escape, while the alternate suggest danger and possible recapture, despite a reprise of the string flourish from “Roy’s First Encounter.” The alternate also relies heavily on Roy’s theme, using different instruments and variations, to suggest that Roy simply will not give up and go back home.

The terror in the film comes to an end in “Lightshow,” and here the fascinating mystery begins. I really like this cue because the strings make the scene more heavenly as the ships recreate the Big Dipper and appear into view in the form of shooting stars.

The fun really begins in “Wild Signals,” which is the point in the CD and the film I enjoy the most. Some of the music on the CD is not in the film, which makes the CD more of a treasure. Upon close inspection it could be argued that the five-note signal that has passed into music fame is a derivative of “When You Wish Upon A Star” (albeit a couple of octaves lower). This piece is very playful and jaunty, helping us to alleviate our fears of this behemoth ship before us. Listening to this it is hard to argue that music is truly a universal language. A little of the mystery returns with “The Returnees,” as lost fighter pilots, mothers and children are released from the spaceship, along with some highly frenetic strings in “The Visitors,” as the little men scurry about surveying their new surroundings.

In the end all is well, and Williams reassures us that our two worlds can coexist, as the score settles into flowing strings and lyrical chorus, a nice change from the atonal frenziness at the start. As the ship takes off, we hear a grand rendition of the spaceship theme. The credits close with the CE3K theme and “When You Wish Upon a Star,” definitely a song Spielberg was singing as he wrote this script.

If it weren’t for Star Wars this score may have gained more notoriety. The way Williams can take atonal instruments and make it sound connected is truly a stroke of genius and mastery. Thanks to this CD I have found that there is much more amazing music in this score besides the famous spaceship theme, and it is to this end that I find this work fascinating. I admit to being one of the people to dismiss this score as one of Williams’ understated works, but with the release of the new CD it is apparent that this score definitely deserves the same amount of recognition as that other space movie.

Review by Frank Lehman

No other film in movie history has placed so much importance on the film’s musical score than Close Encounters. The five note motif (A, B, G, an octave lower G, D) is the backbone of the movie. And what a backbone it is. But that is not to say that CEot3K consists of nothing but those five famous notes. To say that would be the greatest lie of all time. Close Encounters has, in my opinion, one of the most fantastically varied scores by John Williams. From the dissonant strikes of fear in Barry’s abducion to the militaristic brass of “Who are you people?” to the downright impressionistic chords and choruses of “The Returnees” Close Encounters encompasses everything. And thank the angels at Arista for releasing it all in one marvelous album: The Collector’s Edition Soundtrack. I have been enthusiastic about CD’s before, but I have never grown so attached to the actual album, the sheer fact that it exists, as this one. Every track is arranged in perfect chronological order. New cues, alternate ones and unused ones abound. This CD tells a story like no other…

The CD starts out with a bang. A very literal one in “Let There Be Light!”. The next two tracks, “Navy Planes” and “Lost Squadron” are typical shocking discovery type pieces, but they are still very fun, with the sense of discovery almost turning into horror in later. But the real horror has just begun! Tracks 4 through 6 all hold a sense of eerie suspense. But it’s otherworldly suspense.

The sound of the UFOs starts of track 6 “Chasing UFOS” which has got to be one of the strangest sounding musical techniques I have ever heard Williams use. When I first heard the album, I must have thought “…what in the WORLD is that?” It’s great fun! Track 7 introduces a recurring motif in the score which will later build up to the “The Mountain” and “The Mothership.” But the next track hardly needs any building up to. “Barry’s Abduction” is terrifying! The horrific low chorus, piano strikes, screeching skins and hits of brass create an atmosphere like no other. Definitely one of Williams’ most scary pieces, right up there with the chant from The Temple of Doom and the painful scenes of Born on the Fourth of July.

After Barry’s abduction, the music really starts to pick up in terms of thematic richness. “The Cover-Up” is a nice government conspiracy track. Not remarkable, but nice, bearing resemblance to the music in The X-Files movie. Track 10, “Stars and Trucks” is the shortest track, but it packs a whallop. It starts out serene and pieceful but explodes into a full fleged second Roswell incident at the end, with the same conspiracy theme. Track 11, “Forming the Mountain,” gives a musical window into the turmoil within Roy Neary’s soul as he struggles with the visions in his head and tries to channel into something meaningful. He discovers just what that very meaningful thing is in “TV Reveals.” Again, the recurring motif for Devil’s mountain begins to take form in this piece, but it soon travels into some nice driving across an empty highway looking for answers on an unhelpful map music. Pizzicato strings describe Neary’s plight as he throws the map away.

The action begins on “Roy and Gillian on the Road.” A memorable theme is used in this fast paced ominous piece. The ominous presence disappears for a moment in “The Mountain.” The mountain motif is fully revealed in its full grandeur as the duo’s destination is found. But soon it’s back to the grind as Roy and Gillian see some shocking sights on the side of the road. They move on, and the mountain theme is given an urgent taste. But the urgency soon catches up with them as the government! gets them before they can reach the mountain. Snare drums and low brass give the men in black and white (hazmat) their dues, but soon it’s back to the government conspiracy theme in “Who are you people?” The only full fledged realization of the theme on the soundtrack.

“The Escape” and “The Escape (Alternate)” are both frantic chase scenes, the first using a musical phrase used in “Roy’s First Encounter.” The later is a bit darker, but both end up with the mountain theme. “Trucking,” not used in the film, is another good action piece. Another recurring motif builds up and up in this track until it reaches a musical maximum and dies right back down. It’s very good for individual track listening, especially since it wasn’t in the movie.

Track 19, (Yes, we’ve gone through 19 tracks. And there’s 26 in all!) “Climbing the Mountain” makes nice use of dissonant and unmatching chords, and then proceeds with a chase sequence with strong jabs at the low piano keys and high brass notes. The mountain theme once again appears, this time totally hopeless. “Outstretch Hands” is the last true action piece in the film and closely resembles “Climbing.” The track ends on a soft relaxed note. The two heroes have reached their destination and now we are prepared for the really, REALLY fun stuff.

“Lightshow” gives way to the first true close encounter. The music begins down low, with a dangerous, Jaws quality, but soon the chorus brings us the assurance that there is nothing to fear. A flute magically illuminates the shooting stars. The orchestra builds up to a sense of wonder and amazement. The music changes to a stressed and confused sense for just a second as the scientist try to record everything, witness everything and make sure everything is going okee-dokee.

The next track “Barnstorming” is one of my favorites from the CD. Another suspensful beginning breaks as the orchestra completely explodes. I mean explodes. Watch out. You thought you received a start at 1:12. Wait till 1:37. Every aspect of the symphony is released as the spectacle of hundreds of spaceships fill every corner of the sky. It is masterfully done. In the movie, everyone’s eyes are wideopen with astonishment. You too feel like you are there, but only with your ears. The track pauses and lets in a more relaxed statement of the mountain theme, but soon ends with more “oh God, what can I expect next?!” Well, you have “The Mothership” to contend with, now don’t you! “The Mothership” certainly isn’t easy listening, but it still retains some of that “wow!” quality from “Lightshow,” only this time on a much bigger and more threating way. The phrase at 2:45 is used twice in the movie, and it marks the climax of the track. Still more scientist running around music makes its way into the track, followed by the last great rendition of the mountain theme. Next comes the music that everyone remembers.

“Wild Signals” is the entire conversation between the humans and the mothership. It starts out with the five most famous notes of music history. (I dont know if they are the most famous notes. Psycho and Jaws come to mind). Anyway, the conversation is a audible spectacle. It is brilliant and crazy at the same time. One of John Willams’ most original and whacked-out pieces ever! The conversation ends with the same two notes from the Jaws theme on the mother ship (which is really just a computer altered Tuba.) The next track, “The Returnees” starts out in a scary way. The mothership is opening and who knows what will come out. The chorus rises as the dark figures step out, but the music is no longer threatening. For the people are our own. The lost pilots and little Barry are among them. The music is light and very impressionistic, using a combination of choir, flutes and harp to create an airy atmosphere. Not really what you’d expect from Williams for a joyous reuinion scene, but incredible nonetheless.

But believe it or not, we still haven’t reached the true climax of the film. That appears on the very last track “The Visitors/”Bye”/End Titles: Special Edition” “The Visitors” starts out dark and scared. We get our first glimpse of the alien. But everything soon turns out right. As more and more tiny grey creatures climb onto the ground, we realize that they are curious and playful, and mean us now harm. The music too is curious, reviving the impressionistic quality from the “Returnees.” On this section of the track, John Williams does something very, very interesting. He injects “When You Wish Apon A Star” into the piece, interporlated with mysterious but harmless harp and strings. The music turns truly romantic and glorious as “When You Wish” gives way to the beautiful end of “The Visitors.” But nothing can prepare for “Bye.” Starting off with the signature 5 notes, “Bye” is the gem of the CD. Everything on this track is gleeful and triumphant. The theme builds up and dies down, with the Mountain theme mixed into the piece, only to be interrupted magnificantly by the most triumphant and graceful playing of the theme on the CD. As we see the Mothership take off with Roy, brass chime the theme with unbelievable beauty. After hearing “Wild Signals,” it is hard to associate the theme with anything else but a strange conversation between a keyboard and a huge ship, or a whole lot of Indians chanting giberish, but now when I hear the theme, I think only of its strong proclamation in “Bye!” And after that, you thought it’d all be over. Of course not! In “End Titles: The Special Edition” John once again uses “When You Wish Apon A Star,” this time much more directly and open. The music is given a sense of closure with the chorus bringing back the theme one last time. A magnificant ending to a fantastic score.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind will always remain one of my favorite scores, for two reasons. 1- It’s got everything. I like scores that have a little bit of everything. I liked Indiana Jones 2, I liked 3, I liked Far and Away and I like this. The might of the music can carry you away at times and make you bite your nails at others. And 2- The CD itself is wonderful. It’s got just about everything from the movie, save an unremarkable kiss between Richard Dreufuss and his character’s wife. Now comes the hardest part of the review. The gripes.

I’ve got only two gripes. Gripe number one: I love the CD, but the case is very hard to care for. I like how Arista went the distance and created a shiny bright CD case, but the shine don’t last for ever and the front of my case has a little annoying bubble. Dont ask how. I just think a plastic jewel case could have been better. Gripe number two: Towards the end of the CD, a lot of the tracks have very inconspicuous beginings. I mean, it is hard to tell them apart just by listening to the first thirty seconds. I guess there is really nothing anybody could have done about this, and after listening to the tracks for fifty thousand times, you can recognize a track after listening to the first second. So I guess it’s not so much a gripe as a word of advise. Learn your track names. Huh? I dunno? A few words of wisdom I guess. And of course, the final rating. I’d give it a 6… Just kidding. Give me a break if you actually though I was serious. After reading all of that. Were you paying any attention? 10! 10! 10! Absolute 10!