Giacchino's Rogue One: A Soundtrack Story

Many people were understandably upset (myself included) when we learned that John Williams would not score Rogue One, though he thankfully remains committed to Episode VIII, and we assume, IX. After all, there has never been a Star Wars installment without Williams, from the familiar fanfare to the trademark themes and leitmotifs. But Rogue One always set out to be something different, not part of the trilogy proper, but an addendum, showing us the behind-the-scenes work that led to the heroics of Luke, Han, and Leia. To add to our collective confusion, the composer tapped to provide this installment, Alexandre Desplat, was replaced at the last minute with the uber-busy film composer, Michael Giacchino, fresh off his magnificent score for Doctor Strange. If we believe the press, Giacchino had a mere four weeks to score the entire film—no laughing matter for an epic that spans over two hours of screen time. However, I wonder whether or not that was simply to lower expectations for the score and deflect criticism of a non-Williams work? Either way, what we hear in the film—and on disc or MP3—are simply the notes, no matter how they were composed. After all, Mozart wrote the famous overture to Don Giovanni in the hours before its first performance, and his even more famous Symphony No.36 in a week. So why not a film score in four? 

Skimming through on-line reports, most people are unhappy with the score. “Where are the tunes?” they ask. “It sounds generic, it doesn’t sound like Williams, it doesn’t sound like Star Wars,” they complain. On first blush, perhaps not—and perhaps it shouldn’t. However, when listened to in the context of the film, and then countless times in careful meditation, the score emerges to be far more than a mere copycat of Williams’ space opera opuses. Giacchino wrote an exciting, moving, and ultimately memorable score which in some ways exceeds Williams’ recent foray in The Force Awakens (which many fans were also unhappy with, asking (predictably) where are the themes? Where is the sweep? Where is the magic?). With Star Wars, you can’t make everyone happy, since everyone wants to hear his or her childhood anew. If appreciated with fresh ears and a curious mind, I think Rogue One will delight the lover of Star Wars, movie soundtracks, or modern-day classical music. It might not exactly be a masterpiece along the lines of The Empire Strikes Back or The Fellowship of the Ring, but it’s far from generic fare, and a worthy edition to the musical legacy of the Skywalker saga.

When dipping into the soundtrack, start with Tracks 19-21, which are concert arrangements of all the main themes of the score. This way, you will become familiar with the themes and can trace them as they appear throughout the score. However, it’s mostly Jyn’s Theme you will hear in various references and guises.

Track 19: “Jyn Erso & Hope Suite”
: A dramatic, sweeping Romantic theme slowly emerges from the orchestral tapestry, sounding like the very beginning of the “Across the Stars” music from Attack of the Clones. The theme is curt and concise (particularly compared to the expansive “Across the Stars” music), yet beautifully underpins Jyn’s emotional journey throughout the film. The theme fades into more contemplative music, which is heard again in one of the final tracks, “Your Father Would Be Proud.” Jyn’s theme returns bolder now, more hopeful, before fading into a haunting cello solo. The cello theme almost seems to play the Star Wars theme, but it veers away into different territory, while remaining positive and upbeat. This is the music of love and hope, which our heroes will see precious little of in the film itself.

Track 20: “The Imperial Suite”: Here we find all the music associated with Krennic and the Empire, and it’s some of the most memorable and exciting. Though we don’t quite get The Imperial March, it’s definitely shares the same pedigree—a cold, calculating march with nice percussive accents. This piece positively reeks of John Williams, and sounds, strangely enough, a lot like his “March of the Resistance” from The Force Awakens. Suggesting that from the ashes of tyranny rises the voice of rebellion?

Track 21: “Guardians of the Whills Suite”: This brief, haunting piece reflects the spirit of the Force as it guides Chirrut and eventually, the others to their heroic doom. It’s very spare and contemplative, befitting a simple man like Chirrut himself. You don’t hear this music too often in the score itself, so it’s nice to hear it here presented in a concert arrangement, complete with chorus.

Okay, now to the score proper:

Track 1: “He’s Here for Us”: The score opens with a bang—an almost horror-music cue which signals the arrival of Krennic and his death troopers. What a difference from the expected John Williams fanfare! Yes, this is going to be a very different film and soundtrack. After some mood music, a subdued version of the “imperial theme” surfaces, echoing the terrifying tread of the imperial forces. Tense, low music follows, again in the horror-music vein, while brass continues to bleat the imperial theme. Jyn’s theme appears in a very subdued manner around the two-minute mark, but quickly fades into the shadows. The rest of the movement is shadowy, tense, and uncertain—before reaching a brief climax (with the shooting of Galen’s wife, perhaps).

Track 2: “A Long Ride Ahead”: more mood music suggesting the young Jyn’s state of mind as she is abandoned—or of the adult Jyn imprisoned in an Imperial labor camp. Rumbling brass and percussion over tense strings pervades this movement, until ‘action’ music commences, probably when Jyn is released and starts attacking her Rebel liberators. This fades into a moment of relative tranquility as Jyn’s theme is partially played, again in a very subdued manner as if suggesting her fate. Unsettled music follows leading into a brief fanfare announcing “Rogue One” in the credits—a half-hearted attempt to be heroic, while also saying “this is not a tale of swashbucklers and derring do!”

Track 3: “Wobani Imperial Labor Camp”: the first bold statement of Jyn’s theme with the full orchestra—like a breath of fresh air after the first two murky movements. This piece, which will be heard more prominently later, contains something of the Williams film-score DNA. As mentioned above, it sounds like the first few bars of “Across the Stars” from Attack of the Clones, though it quickly goes in another direction. It’s less expansive, too, which is fitting in a movie that has no true love interest or tinsel-town heroics. It’s poignant and spare—no-nonsense like Jyn herself.

Track 4: “Trust Goes Both Ways”: Opens with a more subdued orchestral treatment of Jyn’s theme, more in the major key—that leads directly into the Force theme from A New Hope (a thrilling moment). But this is cut off by an odd percussive effect, sounding like the ringing of a saw blade—and fittingly, it introduces the renegade Saw Gererra. Not surprisingly, the rest of this movement is tense, horror-movie music, perhaps depicting the tentacle mind-reading beast that interrogates Bodhi.

Track 5: “When Has Become Now”: the Imperial theme opens in a more martial aspect, not as triumphantly as later in the score, but enough to wet our appetite for a fuller treatment. The murky mood music leads into the theme again, which explodes in full-blooded treatment. This is very reminiscent of Darth Vader’s theme, and very catchy—if perhaps, not quite as personal as Vader’s theme itself (and after all, can Krennic compare with Vader?).

Track 6: “Jedha Arrival”: a beautiful interlude introducing featuring Jyn’s theme. But darker, Imperial music soon takes over, as Jedha is a very dangerous place to be in—especially for the Rebellion.

Track 7: “Jedha City Ambush”: Introduces a cool action-music motif with an almost jazzy rhythm—again, very Williams inspired. Giacchino’s orchestra is less opulently Romantic than Williams,’ but he knows how to evoke the chaotic bustle of action and war. Great use of the orchestra in this piece, with a few nods to Williams throughout.

Track 8: “Star-Dust”: Opens with music that sounds almost exactly like the John Williams of A New Hope, but only briefly. The flute figurations seem to suggest Princess Leia’s theme for the briefest of seconds, but a more portentous motif intrudes. This leads to emotional music for a few bare notes of a piano with a harp in the background against gently shimmering strings. “Star-Dust” is Galen’s pet name for his daughter, so this evokes the hologram Jyn finds of her father—the first time she has seen him in 15 years.

Track 9: “Confrontation on Eadu”: The largest set-piece on the album, this evokes the scene where they attempt to liberate (or assassinate) Galen Erso on the bleak mines of Eadu. It opens with low strings that seem to quote Darth Vader’s theme, but never quite get there. Tension builds up in numerous stray motifs including a Shostakovich-esque 3-note theme, which is eventually taken up by the entire orchestra. This leads into the battle proper, which includes a Williams-esque flourish from the brass. Blindfolded, I would say this was written by Williams—it’s a bang-up job of musical homage. It ends with an elegy that takes up Jyn’s theme in its most Romantic garb, perhaps illustrating the tragic death of Galen Erso and her fateful commitment to joining the Rebellion.

Track 10: “Krennic’s Aspirations”: A dark action cue opens this piece, which leads to a brief quotation of the Stormtrooper theme from A New Hope. And then—exactly what you wanted—a quote from The Imperial March from Empire Strikes Back. Clearly, Vader has entered the scene. We don’t want Giacchino to shameless pilfer from Williams, but it is nice when he judiciously quotes to signal the arrival of a major character from the trilogy. Low strings play with the Stormtrooper theme and Darth Vader’s theme, but quickly fizzle out. The piece ends with a subdued but defiant statement of The Imperial March.

Track 11: “Rebellions Are Built on Hope”: Gloomy music leads into an oboe playing Jyn’s theme, a moment of light in the darkness. We also get a statement of the “Guardian of the Whills” music, defiantly major key and transcendent. This is music of hope. The orchestra takes up Jyn’s theme as if to side with her, though the rest of the Rebellion sides against her.

Track 12: “Rogue One”: militant music that briefly alludes to the Force theme proper, but this fades away in the general commotion. Tense music underlines the precariousness of their mission—to steal back the Imperial Cargo ship from the Rebels and go off on their own. Jyn’s theme becomes militant here, even played jauntily on the flutes in counterpoint with the Force theme.

Track 13: “Cargo Shuttle SW-0608”: More tense music as they try to bluff their way into Scariff. An ethereal statement of Jyn’s theme leads into music that quotes the “Shuttle Tyderian” music from Return of the Jedi (when those rebels were trying to sneak into another imperial base—clever!). Jyn’s theme soon returns with a dramatic orchestral background, suggesting fate, hope, and quite possibly, doom! The martial music that follows predicts an 85% chance of “doom.”

Track 14: “Scrambling the Rebel Fleet”: a brief, exciting action cue that starts off slow but soon kicks into hyperspace. Jyn’s theme is in there behind racing winds and percussion, and then—bravo—the Force theme and the Star Wars theme! (but only briefly).

Track 15: “AT-ACT Assault”: An action-music cue with a lot of percussion, and a slight Williams influence. The Star Wars theme makes an appearance around the 1:30 mark to signal the Rebels’ heroic—if suicidal—resolve.

Track 16: “The Master Switch”: A tense motif which builds, becoming louder and louder as the Rebels realize someone has to pull the master switch (and Chirrut sacrifices himself to do so). Reaches a tremendous climax, which is fitting for the dramatic high point of the film. Dramatic, full-blooded music which ends with Chirrut’s death—and a full chorus for the first time in the score. A softer chorus follows, dying out to the strains of a solo cello. This piece plays behind several deaths in the film.

Track 17: “Your Father Would Be Proud”: the tragic ending of our heroes, as well as the entire planet of Scariff. Slow, elegaic music opens this piece, yet more wistful than truly sad (reminding me just slightly of the gorgeous “Enigma” variation from Elgar’s Nimrod Variations). Fittingly, this is one of the most Romantic moments in the score, as Jyn and Cassian commemorate their victory of the Empire, short-lived though it is. The chorus enters, sadly lifting up the music to a grand apotheosis as they take up Jyn’s theme one last time. The piece ends with more dramatic music, as he realize that the end of Jyn’s story is the beginning of another one.

Track 18: “Hope”: The title belies the fury of this piece, which opens not with “a new hope,” but with Darth Vader advancing on the rebels, lightsaber in hand. This is very exciting music—racing strings and a doomsday chorus which sounds like something from Ringwraiths in The Lord of the Rings. A version of the Imperial March suddenly emerges, terrifying in its brief ferocity. Then, in a clever stroke, the opening music of A New Hope appears (after the fanfare, when we are first introduced to the battle on Leia’s corvette). A dramatic pause—and we’re ushered into the final credits.