Soundtrack Review: Return of the Jedi

The third installment of the original Star Wars trilogy, Return of the Jedi is in my opinion the weakest of the three, showing some troubling signs for the future prequel trilogy. We are treated with laughable characters such as Jabba the Hutt, cutesy antics by the Ewoks, and some rushed plot twists. However, while the music too is down a notch, John Williams still delivers an amazing score and a fitting end for the series musically. Here I will review the original record album and the two-disc set, since those are the two versions I’ve listened to. But first, the themes.

Emperor: This is my favorite of the ROTJ themes, an evil piece that stands out because it often uses a choir (unusual in the original trilogy). It perfectly captures the dark evil of the Sith and is featured heavily in “The Emperor’s Throne Room”. This theme is one of the reasons why the Luke-Vader-Emperor scenes in the film were so strong and moody.

Ewoks: The Ewoks get a playful two-part light-hearted theme showcased in “Parade of the Ewoks”. It’s a little too jolly compared to the other great themes of the previous films, but is an inevitable result of the silliness of Return of the Jedi. The Ewoks also get strange percussion at many points, most noticeably in “Ewok Ambush”.

Jabba: Obese crime-slug Jabba the Hutt gets perhaps the most chuckle-inducing theme of any Star Wars character. To portray his massive bulk and obesity, John Williams utilizes a tuba, which would be considered woefully inappropriate if the character had been human. There’s actually a Jabba the Hutt suite on one of the trilogy compilations, which ends with random notes of the tuba!

Luke and Leia: This is the one theme from this movie that gets the most treatment on John Williams compilations. It is a good emotional piece which doesn’t appear too much, but always makes the most of its time. It is showcased in the track of the same name.

Death Star Approach: This motif has a sinister run in the opening cue and returns in a tenser, more militant form in “Into the Trap”.

Record Album

If this was the only version of the soundtrack available to me, I would have been very disappointed. The first two soundtracks were released when there was about thirty-five to forty minutes available on each record. Knowing that such a running time would do no justice to Williams’ music, the famed composer and George Lucas put in two records, totaling about seventy-two minutes for each of the films. Unfortunately, by the time Return of the Jedi was released records could hold forty-five minutes of music (as could the first CDs) and since it would have cost a ton of money to put in ninety minutes of music, a shorter soundtrack was produced.

Gone is the cue-by-cue analysis by John Williams (which were included with the first two) and gone is the enjoyment of seeing the various themes interweave throughout the score, as there is just not enough time and the concert arrangements provide even less room for what you actually hear in the movie. The first track is “Main Title (The Story Continues)”, a wholly appropriate opener. It features the obligatory Star Wars main theme followed by a sinister cue as Vader’s shuttle approaches the second Death Star, climaxing in the Imperial March.

“Into the Trap” definitely should have been put on, since it is a great suspense cue with several of the themes making brief statements. I should also mention that it sounds very much like some of the Indiana Jones music, which is understandable with it being the same composer. “Luke and Leia” introduces the new emotional theme of the movie.

“Parade of the Ewoks” is a concert suite for the Ewok theme. It’s a bit too goofy (but then again, so was the movie) and is one cue that should have been partly made up of actual music from the film, since most of it is already present in the end credits. “Han Solo Returns (at the Court of Jabba the Hutt)” features a bit of eerie suspense music before a short rendition of the Han and Leia love theme. It then segues into a short concert version of Jabba’s theme, a laughable piece performed with a tuba to represent his fat bulk. Side one of the record album ends with the ridiculous “Lapti Nek (Jedi Rocks)”, which is actually a song about working out (very 80s). I don’t like it, but it has to be on the soundtrack since they bothered writing the lyrics and hiring the singer.

Side two begins with “The Forest Battle”, another concert piece which takes up time that could have been used for actual music in the film. However, it is still an awesome track and features a very exciting ending. “Rebel Briefing” (somewhat mislabeled) is a good emotional piece featuring Luke and Leia’s theme and the Force theme from near the end of the movie. “The Emperor”, another excellent piece, features the music from the scene where Vader redeems himself. It’s disappointing that the Emperor’s theme only gets played once, since it’s the best theme introduced for the film. “Return of the Jedi”, the cue from the sail barge battle, features renditions of music from A New Hope, plus a brief appearance by Jabba’s theme.

“Finale” features the anti-climatic Ewok song from the original version of the film, plus the typical end credits suite. Overall, the record album has good music, but it’s too short. Personally, I would have loved less concert suites and more music from the actually movie, especially since two of the tracks are in the end credits suite anyways.

Rating: 5/10

Two-Disc Set

Return of the Jedi received several re-releases, including a Charles Gerhardt re-recording and an expanded one-disc release with a more chronologically correct track sequence. However, in 1997 RCA finally graced us with a two-disc complete score set, which has been re-released in 2004 by Sony. Now the complexity of Williams’ music can be seen in all of its grandeur. It should be noted that this release fits the special edition, and so has replacements for Lapti Nek (this time we have “Jedi Rocks”, a far less ridiculous song) and the Ewok song at the end (we now have a more dramatic and emotional finish, sadly without any of the themes in it).

Compared to the other films’ complete scores however, Return of the Jedi isn’t as consistently great and engaging. The first disc covers the Jabba storyline and all of the events preceding Luke turning himself in to the Empire. The scenes for Jabba’s palace are given low uninteresting underscore, often synthesized, and it can become a pain to wait for the good moments. These “moments” include Han and Leia’s reunion and “Den of the Rancor”, perhaps the best original action cue on the first disc. Things get more energetic with “Sail Barge Assault” which is basically “Return of the Jedi” from earlier releases.

“The Emperor Arrives” introduces the Emperor’s theme and the most purely evil rendition of the Imperial March ever. On the same track are “The Death of Yoda” and “Obi-Wan’s Revelation”, which include some good renditions of the Force theme. “Shuttle Tydirium Approaches Endor” has a cool moment when a dark choir drones on, leading into a brief bit of triumph interrupted by the Imperial March. The Ewok material comes to the forefront in sometimes meandering cues. One interesting track is “Threepio’s Bedtime Story”, in which Williams provides a goofy rehash of the trilogy’s main themes with Ewok instrumentation.

Disc one ends with three bonus cues. The first is “Jabba’s Baroque Recital”, a so-so piece of source music. “Jedi Rocks” is the new song for the special edition, complete with the furry creature Yuzzum’s salivating yell and Sy Snootle’s “oops”. “Sail Barge Assault (Alternate)” is the original music for the scene, which has an unused action motif and music that was later incorporated into “Ewok Battle”.

Disc two is an improvement over the first one, reaching the heights of The Empire Strikes Back. It starts off with “Parade of the Ewoks” and “Luke and Leia”. After “The Emperor’s Throne Room” we are given all thirty-two minutes of the Battle of Endor. “The Battle of Endor I” begins with “Into the Trap” before the music subsides. It then breaks out into wild percussion and the Ewok theme as the action begins in earnest. The amount of themes, motifs, and tempos being thrown around in this cue is mind-boggling and shows why the original trilogy scores were so great.

“The Battle of Endor II” isn’t quite as good, but it has the highlights from the Luke-Vader-Emperor scenes. When Luke lashes out at Vader with the Dark Side, John Williams gives us a super-dramatic choral moment that tells us that the battle is coming to a close. The highlights of “The Battle of Endor III” include “Darth Vader’s Death”, a slow somber version of the Imperial March, and rehashing of “A New Hope” music, another sign that the trilogy is coming to a close.

Williams gives the Force theme gets its most dramatic film moment in “Light of the Force” before the finale and end credits. But it’s not over yet. Ewok source music is featured in “Ewok Feast/Part of the Tribe” and in a fitting end to all of the two-disc soundtracks, “The Forest Battle” concert suite closes the album.

Return of the Jedi falls short of the other two mainly because of some goofy moments and the boring underscore in the Jabba’s Palace scenes. However, it’s hard to complain when you have all the music you could possibly want (okay, so they didn’t put in that little band tune from Jabba’s Sail Barge) and the second disc is amazing.

Rating: 9/10

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