Soundtrack Review: Empire Strikes Back

Here it is, my all-time favorite musical score ever composed for film! Not only does it accompany my favorite Star Wars movie, it also has the greatest assembly of themes and motifs. For its time The Empire Strikes Back was a surprisingly dark film for an action-adventure and the music by legend John Williams follows suit, especially in the second half. Following are the new additions in what is the greatest assembly of themes ever devised by John Williams.

Bounty Hunters: The bounty hunters actually have a very brief motif. It is low and ominous and usually appears with Bob Fett, an example being when he is tracking the Millennium Falcon.

Cloud City: Cloud City gets a stately theme for when Lando is leading his friends throughout his city. It is featured most heavily in “Lando’s Palace”, but only appears briefly afterwards.

Droids: Not as identifiable as most other themes in the series, this light-hearted piece accompanies C-3PO and R2-D2 in the more comedic moments of the film. It is sometimes played briefly during suspense cues like “Hyperspace” and actually made a short appearance in Return of the Jedi (though I suspect it was unintentional since it appeared while the Ewoks were fighting).

Han and Leia: This is what I call a love theme! Introduced near the beginning, it is a lovely piece that unfortunately never got a concert suite by John Williams, although several other composers have tried their hand at it. In my opinion this is the best love theme Williams ever composed, cemented by its swelling version in “The Carbon Freezing Chamber”.

Imperial March (Darth Vader): The Imperial March is actually a better name for the concert suite, since the theme doesn’t’ always appear as a march. Darth Vader’s theme is in my opinion the greatest villain theme ever composed. It always impresses with either its sheer orchestral power or its effective placement in the underscore. It is often heard barging in loudly at the end of cues as the scene switches to the star destroyers. The Imperial March is the second most remembered theme from Star Wars, maybe because it’s associated with such an iconic villain. It should be noted that in earlier cuts of the movie many of the statements were replaced by bits of the concert suite, but restored in later editions.

Yoda: For the small green Yoda, John Williams has created a noble and calm theme which conveys the character’s wisdom. This doesn’t stop it from soaring to grand heights at key moments, however, like when Yoda pulls out Luke’s swamped up X-Wing (“Yoda and the Force”). It’s a very good theme, but I think it pales a little in comparison to the other two major themes,

Record Album

In contrast to the original album release of A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back receives a very jumbled presentation. In an attempt to create more of a concert experience, John Williams often splices together up two or three different pieces of music, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing. I have to say that this is not how I would have done things, but it is passable and is much better than some of his other out-of-order soundtracks.

Some of the splicing and changes made to the music for the record sound a tad too abrupt, but this is due to the lack of more recent technology, not to mention that hearing the complete score in chronological order makes these changes much more noticeable.

Yoda and Darth Vader get their own theme suites while the love theme is interrupted by the Imperial March in “Han Solo and the Princess”. “The Heroics of Luke and Han” mix together several pieces of music in a somewhat jumbled suite. One interesting cue is the ending of “Departure of Boba Fett”, which is music that was excised from the film to create a darker effect. Originally used for Luke and Vader’s duel in the carbon-freezing chamber, this cue is a rousing variation of Yoda’s theme which concludes with a short statement of Luke’s theme.

Thankfully the major action cues don’t get edited down for the record album. “Hyperspace” shows Williams’ genius, utilizing a motif that continually plays, but never finishes until our heroes finally escape the Empire. “Battle in the Snow” features bombastic clanging and brass to symbolize the invincible assault of the four-legged walkers on Hoth. “The Asteroid Field” is a widely popular cue featuring racing strings and grand fanfares before ending in a calm rendition of the love theme. One of the best tracks is “Clash of the Lightsabers”. It starts eerily before building into the most perilous variation of the Imperial March. The rest of the action music climaxes in a dramatic version of the love theme.

Perhaps my biggest complaint about the original release is the exclusion of the music which accompanies Han being frozen in carbonite, my favorite film score cue of all time. It would not get released until the early 90s. Overall, the original album is for the most part satisfying, but weak compared to the two-disc release

Rating: 8/10

The score also received a shorter release on CD. This album clocked in at just over forty minutes and while it does have most of the highlights, it’s horribly out of order, with the main title and opening put in the middle and “Battle in the Snow” at the end.

After this horrendously produced album, Empire Strikes Back would see several of its unreleased cues presented on the fourth disc of a 1994 re-release of the Star Wars scores, including “Carbon-Freezing”.

Two-Disc Version

The Empire Strikes Back finally received a complete two-disc release in 1997, along with the other two original Star Wars films. Of the three two-disc sets, it is the least chronological since the original music excised from the film is put back in. One example is the two versions of “Imperial Probe”. On the original album it’s a fast-paced cue with an early iteration of Darth Vader’s theme. Perhaps seeing that the music was too fast and racing for the scene, Williams replaced it with a slower and eerier cue in the film version. The complete album retains the pre-film opening, with the film version being moved forward to “The Imperial Probe/Aboard the Executor”. This track itself features variations of the Imperial March that were replaced by part of the concert suite in the final film.

This release is what made The Empire Strikes Back my favorite film score of all time. All two hours of the music is now available in all its glory and thematic complexity. Some wonderful cues not heard on the original release is an action cue accompanying the Millennium Falcon’s escape from the Asteroid Field and the Cloud City theme being cut off by the Imperial March as most of the heroes fall into a trap. “The Battle of Hoth” is a long fifteen-minute piece featuring “Battle in the Snow” and a wealth of new music, including an aggressive clanging piece as a walker leg smashes Luke’s snowspeeder.

“The Carbon Freezing Chamber” is my favorite part of the soundtrack, featuring a swelling version of Han and Leia’s theme before it is shoved out of the way by a villainous fanfare and the Imperial March. It is immediately followed by a short ominous piece that for some reason I find to be very good.

There are a few moments from the Dagobah scenes that aren’t too interesting, but they don’t last too long and the rest of the music more than makes up for it.

The Empire Strikes Back has the best villain theme, one of the best love themes, excellent integration of both old and new music, and superb action cues. If you must have one film score in your collection, this is it.

Rating: 10/10

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