Soundtrack Review: Star Wars

Everyone’s excited for the new Star Wars movie. As a soundtrack fan, I’m really looking forward to John Williams’ next musical installment. In anticipation I’m reviewing all six Star Wars movie scores, as well as an interesting entry from the expanded Universe

I don’t really need to say much about the start of the Star Wars franchise, since it’s pretty much common knowledge. It’s also commonly accepted that John Williams made grand, orchestral soundtracks popular again with his amazing well-known score for A New Hope, perhaps the most consistently entertaining and easy-to-listen-to entry in the Star Wars music saga.

Like the film it accompanies, Williams’ music was a throwback to earlier filmmaking. Most science fiction at the time was more serious and often dark in its themes. Star Wars was more of a space fantasy in the vein of Flash Gordon. Likewise, most sci-fi music at this point was electronic, ambient, and experimental. Odd electronic keyboard music wasn’t exactly something the casual moviegoer was going to rush to buy on album, regardless of how well it fit within it’s own movie. Williams went back to an earlier time, reviving the grand thematic work of earlier composers such as Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Max Steiner.

He also shows influences of classical artists such as Richard Wagner and Igor Stravinsky, who would often use motifs when scoring larger pieces of work. “The Desert” sounds like something out of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”, while the bombastic notes following the opening theme are ripped right out of Gustav Holst’s “Mars, Bringer of War”.

One way Star Wars music reflects early Hollywood is its abundance of themes and motifs. Following is a list of those that debuted in A New Hope.

Ben (The Force): This noble theme is perhaps my favorite from this movie. Originally a theme for Ben Kenobi, it became an overall theme for the Jedi and their ways. By becoming the Force theme, it became the only theme from the original trilogy to consistently pop up in the prequels.

Death Star: This simple, short, and effective four-not motif perfectly conveys the monstrous majesty of the Death Star and usually appears at the end of cues (and with shots of the Death Star in the movie). See the end of “Blasting Off”, or “Imperial Cruiser Pursuit” as it’s called on the complete soundtrack.

Jawas: The Jawas have a quirky, playful theme that appears a couple of times, and is not one of the more well-known ones. In concert arrangements and compilation albums it is titled “The Little People Work”. It usually plays as a march, and is a less goofy precursor to “Parade of the Ewoks”.

Imperials: This is what I consider to be the “forgotten” theme of Star Wars. There was no Imperial March in A New Hope. Instead there was an ominous often low-toned piece used to underscore Darth Vader and the stormtroopers, most commonly heard in the Death Star chase sequences and “Imperial Attack”. It’s a good theme, but nowhere near as awesome as the Imperial March.

Leia: Though not a love theme (unless you count a possible crush on Leia by Luke, there is actually no romantic subplot in the first movie), it still sounds like one. Princess Leia’s theme is one of my favorites of all the Star Wars themes and was the first to get a concert suite treatment. Simply beautiful. Unfortunately it’s appearances start to get sparse by Return of the Jedi.

Luke (Main Theme): The popular main theme which always plays over the opening text crawl is perhaps the best known movie theme of all time. It is actually supposed to be Luke’s own theme, and is usually used as such by John Williams, not playing after the main title until Luke actually first appears. Likewise, it rarely comes up after the opening crawls in the prequels, getting thrown in occasionally since it’s so associated with the franchise. Personally I sometimes get a little tired of having to sit through the same exact opening music every time I pop in a Star Wars score or watch some parody online.

Rebels: The Rebels get their own swashbuckling fanfare heard in heroic moments throughout the film. Despite being easy to weave into the action, this fanfare would not play as large a role in the sequels

Record Album

A New Hope benefits from having the best original album release of the three films. It starts off with the concert arrangement of the Star Wars theme, with the opening and ending music pasted together. In fact, many of the tracks are two cues put together. While out of order chronologically, the arrangement of music is still near perfect, my only complaint being that “The Battle of Yavin” has its militaristic opening replaced with cues from when the heroes are sneaking around the Death Star.

Side one contains the aforementioned Star Wars suite, “Imperial Attack”, Princess Leia’s gorgeous theme suite, and “The Droid Auction”, which starts off with a Stravinsky-style piece. Side two features “Ben’s Death and Tie Fighter Attack”, noted for the surprisingly effective use of Leia’s theme to accompany Ben getting killed by Vader. This music segues into a heroic swashbuckling piece with the Rebel fanfare, one of the most exciting musical pieces I’ve ever heard. “The Little People Work” showcases the Jawas’ theme while “Inner City” features an ominous build-up as our heroes enter the Death Star.

Williams also has two pieces of source music for the cantina scene. The one that gets onto the original album is simply titled “Cantina Band”, a catchy, jazzy tune known for getting stuck in listeners’ heads. Despite jokes that the Modal Nodes (the band in the movie) only know one song, they actually have a longer piece of music present on later releases that is not as fast, but still pretty awesome.

Side three starts off with savage percussion in “Land of the Sandpeople”. “The Mouse Robot and Blasting Off” features a suspense cue and the music accompanying the Millennium Falcon’s escape from Tatooine. “The Burning Homestead” is one of the best emotional tracks, starting with mournful horn music, segueing into an urgent rendition of the Force theme, and swelling into further tragedy before the Death Star motif interrupts.

Side Four contains the epic music for the Battle of Yavin, perhaps the greatest action cue of seventies film music (which actually isn’t saying much). It’s so epic and bombastic that it sometimes leaves me mentally exhausted listening to it. I can only imagine how it would have gone if Williams had scored the entire final battle sequence. “Throne Room and End Title” features a heroic march accompanied by the Force/Ben theme and once again the end credits.

A New Hope benefits the most on its original record release, probably because there’s only about fifteen to twenty minutes of music missing as opposed to over fifty for The Empire Strikes Back or two hours for Return of the Jedi. Overall, an awesome masterpiece by John Williams!

Rating: 10/10

Two-Disc Set

Experiencing more chronologically correct re-releases over the years, A New Hope finally got a two-disc release in 1997. Aside from being in chronological order, the missing music is brought back. Among them is the other piece played by the Cantina Band, “Mos Eisley”, “Tales of a Jedi Knight/Learn the Force”, and the militaristic build-up in “The Battle of Yavin”, not to mention all sorts of bits cut out to weld two cues on the original release. “Destruction of Alderaan”, a great short doomsday cue, is my favorite addition.

The ending of the first disc proves to be interesting, with an alternate cue for the binary sunset scene and a “hidden” fourteen minutes of main title recordings, including the first one ever. This two-disc set never lets up, with even the more low-key tracks being thematically rich and entertaining.

Overall Rating: 10/10

This is also the only Star Wars score to win an Academy Award for Best Original Score. More impressive was that it was competing against another John Williams soundtrack, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. If you look at the list of nominees for best originals core over the years, John Williams constantly gets a split vote because, being so awesome, he gets two of his scores nominated in a single year.

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