Tuesday, December 22, 2015

THE SCORE AWAKENS: Listening to the Soundtrack to Star Wars VII

The cassette soundtrack to The Empire Strikes Back was my first musical purchase way back in 1981. I listened to it until the tape wore out, by which time I had two CDs of the score, each one claiming to be more or less “complete” (yet they never quite have all the music, do they?). John Williams’ scores not only lead me to his other film music, but to classical music itself, becoming a ‘gateway drug’ to Orff, Holst, Mussorgsky, and within a decade, to the entire canon of classical musical from Bach to Bartok. Williams’ music offered me the greatest musical appreciation course of all, since he showed me—and a million others, I imagine—how orchestral themes and colors ‘painted’ the various moods and emotions of a film. After watching the film umpteen times, I could ‘see’ how each piece of music conveyed these ideas to the listener, and before long, I could ‘read’ other music along the same lines, even when there was no story attached. While many composers argue that there is a strict difference between absolute and programmatic music, a keen listener can find the program in anything—even a twenty-second piano prelude by Chopin. So even though I went on to hundreds of more established composers, I always returned to John Williams’ music, particularly when a new film came out boasting his signature themes and orchestration. I still remember the thrill of running to the Tower Records on Wabash Avenue in Downtown Chicago the day The Phantom Menace soundtrack was released (you won’t find that place anymore). New Star Wars music—that was as exciting as a lost symphony by Beethoven or Sibelius! That score didn’t disappoint even if the film did, and his music for the Prequels almost (almost) made those clunky films worth watching. Hell, at least those three films gave us The Duel of the Fates and Anakin’s Theme! 

So imagine my elation as the release date for the soundtrack of The Force Awakens approached. For a long time, I had assumed Williams would bow out of yet another series of Star Wars movies, or else a new director would seek new blood for a new direction. Thankfully, Williams returned once more to create the signature sound of the Star Wars universe, which makes even more sense this time around, since so many familiar characters come back into the fold. After six scores, you would expect the wells to run dry, or for Williams to simply switch on the compositional auto pilot (or assign it to a protoge—assuming he has one). I’m thrilled to report that the score is a true Star Wars score, full of exciting music and at least one theme for the ages. I look forward to growing old with this score, though I doubt it will offer the sheer replayability of A New Home, The Empire Strikes Back, or Return of the Jedi, all of which were written partially with the concert hall in mind. In many ways, this score is firmly a film score, with few themes or moments that excise neatly from the film. Yet in the end, a score is a score, and should be listened to as a single piece of music, with the events of the film hovering in the background. Below is a brief run-through of all the tracks, with the most memorable ones bolded.  Start with these if you want to get a taste of the score before diving in from the beginning.

After the iconic Main Title sequence, we get the “Attack on the Jakku Villagemusic—mostly moody action music, much of it tinged with shades of the prequel music, esp. Episodes II and III. It doesn’t sound quite as video gamish as those battle sequences, but it hits the right mood of expansive menace. There are no memorable themes or anything you can hum, but it’s definitely “Star Wars” music.

“The Scavenger” represents our first glimpse of Rey: after a plaintive opening, we get Rey’s theme, which is reprised in full later. Interestingly, her theme is not what you would expect—no throbbing romantic theme ala Princess Leia.  Instead we get a light, syncopated tune which is barely a tune, more a subdued jig, initially punctuated with twinkling bells.  It beautifully represents her character, a mix of optimism, determination, and strength (perhaps why it resembles a folk tune).  It’s scored in a chamber-light fashion, as if to suggest potential strength rather than strength realized. It also sounds like a lot of his later scores, which are much more pared down, like The Book Thief, which also uses chamber-like forces. Many composers, notably the late Shostakovich, became more and more spare in his orchestrations as he grew older, and John Williams seems to follow suit (fittingly, for Williams borrowed much of Shostakovich’s pungent use of winds, particularly flutes, in his orchestrations).

“I Can Fly Anything” is the background music for Poe and Finn’s dramatic escape from the First Order in a Tie-Fighter. Again, nothing hummable or too memorable, but it’s thrilling Star Wars music in Williams’ action mode. A lot of trumpets and flutes bustling along, and though this can sound a bit generic, it’s still a lot of fun—even if it lacks the sheer originality of what he composed for action sequences in the first Trilogy.

“Rey Meets BB-8” is slow and magical, full of more twinkling bells and reminding us of the slower moments in The Phantom Menace. Bits of Rey’s Theme emerge, as well as a shadow of menace representing the soon-to-be-encountered threat of Kylo Ren.  It’s over in a flash, though, and this dissolves into...

“Follow Me” picks up when Finn and Rey are thrown together in the Jakku marketplace. After a slow introduction, a kind of frantic dance accompanies their flight, with racing strings and tolling brass. Then—wait for it!—the “Falcon theme” from the early movies appears.  It’s a startling moment and invokes the line where Finn suggests they take a derelict spacecraft, which is dismissed by Rey as “garbage.” However, when her vehicle of choice is destroyed, she says “the garbage will do!”—and we then pan over to see the Millenium Falcon. Priceless. 

“Rey’s Theme” is one of the highlights of the entire album. Here what is timidly revealed in “The Scavenger” is allowed to sing full-tilt. The theme emerges with more strength and character, full of youthful energy and high spirits. It reminds me slightly of Harry Potter’s theme from The Sorcerer’s Stone, yet it is so endearing—like Rey herself in the film—the you are swept away with smiles.  While this theme is not vintage Williams, and some might have expected a more memorable, dashing theme, it does full justice to the film and her character.

The Falcon” picks up where “Follow Me” left off, with more of the “Falcon Theme” as it blasts off under Rey’s uncertain control. The glorious notes of that theme belted out by brass makes you a little wistful for that earlier score. Certainly this is not the same composer, and while this score works beautifully, it isn’t quite as magical as A New Hope. But what could be? The action music here, with racing strings and punctuated by xylophone and flutes, reminds me a little bit of the bicycle scene from E.T. (minus that great theme), and is Williams’ go-to music for chase scenes. So nothing new here, but nothing wrong, either.

“The Girl with the Staff” is a meditative cue for Rey, using a variation of her theme until darker, more mysterious music intervenes. This may be from when Finn first sees her being attacked by men trying to steal BB-8, but I’m not sure (I’ve only seen the film once). It ends with ‘scary’ music, bleating horns illustrative of Kylo Ren, however, so I’m not sure where to place it.

“The Rathtars!” is the action music for when Rey accidentally lets those dangerous creatures loose on the Millenium Falcon. The Force theme appears briefly before the monsters are let loose and chaos ensues. Not coincidentally, this music sounds like some of Williams’ music for Jurassic Park. Conscious quote or accidental crutch? Either way it works. It reprises the dancing chase theme from “Follow Me” which seems to link Finn and Rey in their adventures. It closes with a valedictory cry of the “Falcon Theme.”

“Finn’s Confession” almost quotes a plaintive theme from The Phantom Menace, before settling into a gentle, ruminative theme that sounds almost Coplandesque. It has a very “open air,” optimistic feel, and quotes a bit of Rey’s Theme as well.

“Maz’s Counsel” is a more serious cue, reflecting Rey’s first awareness of her hidden past and her future as a Jedi. It’s predominantly dark and quiet, though the Force Theme emerges toward the end, as if marking her as a Skywalker (we can only hope). Yet in the film, as in the music, she rejects this and runs away, and the music shows that hope can turn to despair all too quickly.

“The Starkiller” is a brief cue for the music accompanying the destruction of the planet and its moons by the Starkiller planet/weapon. Surprisingly, the piece is a subdued, massed-strings lament, offering no description of the weapon itself which proves eerily effective. More worlds and cultures snuffed out in the race for power.

“Kylo Ren Arrives at the Battle” is a brief action cue, hard to appreciate without the film, but doubtless effective in context. It comes as quickly as it goes.

“The Abduction” reflects the Dark Side—and specifically, Kylo Ren’s attempts to bring Rey to submission. This is one of my favorite scenes of the film, when he attempts to read her mind, only to find her strangely resistant to his probing. Indeed, she pushes him away and reveals her considerable powers—however latent—with the Force. Rey’s theme is reprised here, heroically, to show her resistance and her newfound role as Jedi-to-be.

“Han and Leia” is a watershed moment: we get the reunion of two iconic characters on screen, as well as a reprise of two beloved melodies: “Princess Leia’s Theme” from A New Home, and the “Love Theme” from The Empire Strikes Back. And they’re so good, too, especially in this context. The basses and cellos play the love theme, as if to say that the love is no longer quite as bright as it once was...too much time and heartbreak has intruded. Martial music quickly intrudes, which later turns out to be the “March of the Resistance” which gets its own concert version in the next track. This subsides into slower, quiet music, hinting at the conflict between our heroes (the love theme returns in the horns toward the end). A final appearance of the Force theme ends the track, along with a musical question mark, as if to suggest Rey’s uncertain future.

“March of the Resistance” is another stand-out piece, a short, rousing march in Williams’ classic style. It sounds a lot like music from Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade (more on that later), particularly some of the fighting-the-Nazis music. Perhaps this suggests the true nature of the First Order, with their neo-Nazi overtones (certainly visible in General Hux’s Hiter-like speech before the firing of the Starkiller). It’s full of Wagnerian brass and a dashing swagger that beautifully accompanies our heroes’ Quixotic mission.

“Snope” is another subtle standout: a choral piece for bass singers, creating the brooding, spectral backdrop for Snope’s hologram. It sounds a bit like the Emperor’s Theme from Return of the Jedi, though it barely has a theme per se. It’s more a mood, an evocation of evil, and it’s quite chilling. It also sounds a bit LOTR via Howard Shore’s score, which is an interesting touch.  It’s very brief, but anything more would rob this piece of its ‘palate cleanser’ position in the soundtrack.

“On the Inside” is a brief action cue accompanying Han and company’s attempts to deactivate the shield protecting the Starkiller (sound familiar?).  Good action cue, with a lot of “dark side” music.

“Torn Apart” is a pivotal moment in the film, when Kylo Ren struggles with his allegiance to the Dark Side and his father. In a moving scene, he asks for his father’s help in the struggle, which Han naturally interprets as help against the Dark Side. The cue represents Han’s unguarded emotions as he confronts his son, until more agitated music intervenes—Ren’s jangled emotions. Then a brief lament for the murder itself. Action music swallows this up as Chewbacca shoots Ren and the others escape. The Dark Side motif appears triumphant, but a brief reprise of the Force theme swallows it up.

“The Ways of the Force” is the dramatic centerpiece of the score—Dark vs. Light, Ren vs. Rey! The Force Theme and the Dark Side motif duel in battle music which almost suggests Duel of the Fates. Rey’s theme pops up as well, but fragmented, as if she is in danger of vanishing herself. After the Dark side seems to win, a restatement of the Force theme, quietly this time, seems to upset the scales. In the movie, of course, she connects with the Force and quickly overpowers Ren, subduing him and almost killing him (apparently, the novelized version has a dark voice in her head saying “kill him, kill him!” but she resists it).

“Scherzo for X-Wings” is a brilliant piece, another staple of a future concert suite from the film. The “Rebel” theme from A New Hope appears, along with dashing, energetic music that reminds me of another scherzo: “Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra” from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It’s a fun, playful piece that beautifully accompanies X-Wings racing over the water in pursuit of Tie-Fighters. Star Wars old and new mingle here, yet the two styles find a nice balance, even if you kind of miss the power and originality of the old themes.

“Farewell and the Trip” rounds out the adventure, giving us a happy—if inconclusive—ending, as well as some old friends: the Force Theme, the Love Theme, and Princess Leia’s Theme. Fittingly, it ends with Rey’s Theme, as she sets off with Chewbacca to find Luke in some remote corner of the galaxy.

“The Jedi Steps and Finale” provides the true ending for the score, as we follow Rey to seek Luke in his remote mountain hermitage. The music is slow and mysterious, leading her step-by-step toward the hooded figure at the summit. Visually this sold the entire movie to me, and the score punches up the drama—I couldn’t wait for him to lower his hood! The Force theme reappears, sounding almost exactly as it did in Return of the Jedi when Luke set Darth Vader alight. This fades into the familiar closing fanfare of Star Wars, which is played closer to its original version in A New Hope. Yet it is quickly cut off to reprise Rey’s Theme (still my favorite piece in the film, and arguably the only actual theme in the entire score!) in a slightly different form, which then leads into the Kylo Ren/Dark Side motif. The racing/dancing music of “Follow Me” comes next, which segues into “The March of the Resistance” (which sounds curiously Third Reichish the more I hear it). “The Force Theme” follows mixed in with “Rey’s Theme” (a hint of things to come?) along with some of the “Falcon’s Theme” before the music slowly fades away...not in a blaze of glory, but with a glockenspiel reprise of the first notes of the Force. 


  1. This is one helluva post, and interesting.

    Too often the prequels are dismissed as not worth watching, but seldom do we pause to think about the musical score, which really was great, no matter your feelings on the actual story.

  2. Thanks for reading! And you're right, the soundtracks of the prequels, esp. The Phantom Menace, are among his very best work. Sadly, that got lost in the shuffle of the criticism of the film and its new, more juvenile, direction. Which is such a pity, since Jar-Jar's Theme is one of my favorites--so quirky and clever. But no one will admit to liking it now because of the character! The more I listen to the new soundtrack the more I'm impressed with it, even though it's less thematically orientated than previous efforts. In fact, it's much more like Revenge of the Sith than any of the others. Hope you enjoy it!

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