Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

Composed by John Powell

The next Star Wars movie spin-off from Disney was also, at the time of this review, the last. Solo: A Star Wars Story is a prequel chronicling the start of Han Solo’s smuggling career. Producer Kathleen Kennedy was so disgusted with the original directing team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller that she fired them and hired safe choice Ron Howard to reshoot nearly the entire movie. An origin story, the film sees Harrison Ford’s beloved smuggler played by a younger actor, Alden Ehrenreich. Solo meets Chewbacca, gets into the smuggling business, and tries to woo back his old flame despite her affiliation with the crime syndicate Crimson Sun. Thanks to fan backlash after The Last Jedi, the heavy cost of reshooting the film, and the unwise decision to release the film in close proximity to Avengers: Infinity War, Solo became the first Star Wars film to bomb at the box office. Ironically, this is my favorite entry of the Disney era, something of a guilty pleasure. Han’s character development doesn’t gel with where he is at the start of the original trilogy (in how he’s already going out of his way to help heroic resistance fighters instead of looking out for himself) and there are still some annoying moments of shoehorned fan service and prequelitis. But the movie is just fun and avoids the emotional baggage of the Skywalker saga. The composer this time is John Powell, who has been acclaimed for his work on the How To Train Your Dragon franchise. Having hired the likes of Alexander Desplat (whose Rogue One score was lost to post-production), Michael Giacchino, and then Powell, Disney’s Star Wars has had a good habit of selecting from the small pool of composers who can still deliver big on thematic scores.

Powell’s score has Williamsesque brass flourishes, yet the composer maintains his style with his electronic accompaniments and rhythmic-based action and suspense cues (though in less quantities than he would in, say, one of his Jason Bourne scores). Powell’s use of themes is masterful. He makes them distinctive, but more importantly, to account for today’s noisy action films and tight post-production schedules, able to maintain their power and dramatic effect when used in brief bursts. In fact small pieces of the various themes often occur around each other. For example, Chewbacca and Beckett’s themes will take turns in an action cue that also contains the first motif of Han’s theme. In short Powell’s themes are liberally thrown into the score in small increments without losing their effect.

John Powell did not craft his score alone. John William actually provided the main theme for Han Solo. Solo had never had his own theme or even a small motif, outside of his love theme with Leia. Williams could always score his big moments with the Rebel Fanfare or some non-thematic flourish, but for a film centered on the character this would not do. Williams conferred with Powell and showed him two themes steeped in swashbuckling heroics. Powell suggested that both themes be made into a two-part theme. Ironically, this mirrored the formation of the Indiana Jones theme, which was also for an iconic Harrison Ford role. The theme, introduced in concert arrangement in the first track, is fast, powerful, and brassy. The first part, the primary motif, is a grand heroic identity and makes every scene it appears in better. The second phrase is still heroic, but has a perilous edge to it, indicating the dangers Han has to get through.

While John Powell can’t take credit for Han’s theme, which is the best part of the score, his own themes for the other characters are nothing to sniff at. Alongside Han, the beloved Wookie Chewbacca also finally has a musical identity. Instead of prioritizing nobility or strength, which is present, Powell chooses to emphasize the character’s more loveable aspects as well as his friendship with Han. On the deluxe album “The Beast” misleadingly introduces Chewie’s theme in horror fashion. However, Chewie’s theme soon turns out in full as a warm and pleasant segment in “Flying with Chewie” (2:28). The theme gets a sadder treatment, with the first notes leading into lamenting strings in “Train Heist” as he describes how he was split from his family. Powell usually presents the theme in small pieces, focused on the initial melody, in the various later action cues.

These are only a couple of the heroic themes. A fanfare for Han’s mentor Tobias Beckett and the smugglers in general is presented at 0:40 in “Flying with Chewie.” It’s most memorable when used as a brass fanfare, but also serves as an effective rhythmic device in such cues as “Train Heist.” Backing up these new heroic identities are two traditional Star Wars themes. The Rebel Fanfare continues its association with the Millennium Falcon, started in The Force Awakens. Powell takes this development of the motif even further. In the two sequences where Han and Lando have a card game over the Falcon, Powell incorporates parts of the Rebel Fanfare in a humorous manner (“Is This Seat Taken?” and “Dice & Roll”). Luke’s theme also appears a couple times as a nostalgia piece. It gloriously introduces the Falcon in “L3 & The Falcon” (1:38) with choral accompaniment, as well as the Rebel Fanfare attached to the ending.

The most notable theme from Powell is his Qi’ra/love theme. This romantic piece is a true throwback to older Hollywood scores. It’s a two part theme that is appropriately melancholic since she and Han are separated by a twist of bad luck in the film’s opening sequence. She then ends up as something of a slave, trapped within the criminal Crimson Sun organization. The first obvious statement of her primary motif on the main album comes at a particularly tragic moment in “Spaceport” (2:45). The second part of her theme appears at 3:41 in the same cue, a repeating forlorn three-note motif. This motif represents the dark path she goes down and also doubles as a motif for Crimson Sun. For a track that focuses primarily on her theme, check out “Lando’s Closet.” Speaking of Lando, the character does not receive his own independent theme. His actions are instead represented by the general smuggler and Falcon themes. His sidekick on the other hand is able to get her own motif. Powell provides sassy female droid L3 with a somewhat noble theme that is presented humorously in “L3 & The Falcon,” but turns into a heroic march in the Kessel sequence (“Mine Mission” and “Breakout”).

One of the film’s strengths, in my opinion, is the more peripheral villainy, with the Empire serving the role of a corrupt lawkeeping force that gets in the way of the characters’ heists and the most visible Crimson Sun villain sitting in a comfy ship waiting to have his goods delivered to him. Powell’s music takes suit. Crimson Sun shares Qi’ra’s three-note motif from her theme and even then the motif is more about her relationship with the organization than designated main villain Dryden. Powell represents the Empire with classic Williams themes. Following Giacchino’s lead from Rogue One, he uses A New Hope’s Imperial theme for “Train Heist (3:35) to represent the pre-New Hope Empire. The Death Star motif appears at the start of “Reminiscence Therapy” to herald the arrival of a Star Destroyer. The Imperial March also appears in the film, but is only released on the deluxe album. “Empire Recruitment” features the Imperial march in heroic major key when Han sees a recruiting video. “Battle of Mimban” unleashes the theme in its proper villainous glory as our hero is thrust into a horrific land battle.

Powell does provide one major villainous theme at the start of “The Marauders Arrive.” It’s a savage piece for the masked criminal gang Enfys Nest. In its more aggressive appearances Powell spruces it up with a children’s choir. It is a two-part theme. The first motif has ascending three-note phrases that invert the Crimson Sun/Qi’ra theme to show their conflict of interests. The second motif is a simple add-on for extended playthroughs. It does appear in softer tones later on in the score, when they actually have a conversation with the heroes (“Savareen Stand-Off”). Track 32 on the deluxe edition, which I won’t spoil with its title, features a fresh iteration of a classic villainous prequel theme.

Solo’s commercial album was released prior to the final round of edits and changes. A deluxe edition has recently been released with the complete score. This edition not only has all the previously unreleased music, but altered versions of the original album tracks. Some of the new material was left off the original album for good reason, but a lot of the new material is pretty good or at least interesting. Many tracks from the first album appear under different names with small changes. For example, the final confrontation in “Testing Allegiance” is repackaged as in ‘Dryden’s Long, Long Fight.” The one significant difference is a new percussive bit thrown in after the two minute mark. These alterations may or may not be superior based on your personal taste.

Since I actually like the film and a lot of people didn’t bother to see it, I’m providing a spoiler warning for my run-through of the album. I’ll go light on spoilers, but things might slip through as I explain how the various themes are employed. “The Adventures of Han,” credited solely to John Williams, is a concert arrangement of the titular hero’s theme. As with Rogue One there is no customary main title march, though the film does have opening text to provide some background. In fact the first Powell cue (“Meet Han”) has a dark start with the Crimson Sun motif, as Han starts the film trapped in a crime ring run by a slug crime boss (not a Hutt). Han’s primary motif takes a dark tone as well as it interweaves with the Crimson Sun motif. About 40 seconds in the track gets exciting with Han’s secondary motif, accompanied by percussive-electronic rhythms. The rhythmic action continues in grand style with “Corellia Chase,” an unabashed action piece with liberal use of the Han Solo theme. The action carries over into “Spaceport,” but does subside. This leads to a very emotional moment where Qi’ra’s theme appears, its two pieces separated by the second part of Han’s theme.

I’ve already pretty much covered “Flying with Chewie” and “Train Heist.” “Marauders Arrive” continue the action from “Train Heist” with liberal use of the Han and Smuggler motifs as well as the introduction of the Enfys Nest theme. It has to be said that the action cues in this score are quite lengthy, with this track and part of “Train Heist” making for about seven minutes of continuous excitement. “Chicken in the Pot” is a diagetic cue, a lounge song (in Huttese, so probably really an African language) from a Crimson Sun gathering that appropriately has a dark edge. For some reason the original album has different vocals for the secondary singer, a head in a jar. On album it’s high-pitched and in the film deep and definitely male. The high-pitched voice was probably deemed too obnoxious and replaced in post-production. “Is This Seat Taken?” is the most distinctly John Powell-style track, with percussion and electronics dominating a rhythm. Fragments of many themes, from Solo’s to Enfys Nest’s to the Smuggler’s spruce up the track along with quirky bits. About two minutes in the Rebel Fanfare takes over and then the rhythm resumes. “L3 & Millennium Falcon” contains the aforementioned use of Luke’s theme. Despite the optimistic call to adventure in the track, it ends on a dour note with a choral iteration of the Enfys Nest theme.

“Lando’s Closet” showcases the love theme, with romantic swelling at the end. L3’s theme gets its chance to shine with “Mine Mission,” the start of the Kessel sequence. It starts the cue on a lonely trumpet, then goes on tuba with military percussion to lead to an even more rousing rendition as she starts a droid rebellion. About halfway through Chewie’s theme comes in as Wookiee slaves are also liberated. After the statements of Chewie and Han’s themes the L3 march returns to drive the track. This track actually garnered a Grammy Award for best instrumental composition, if one takes such awards seriously. The lengthy “Break Out” picks up where “Mine Mission” ended, with the military take on L3’s theme continuing with more urgency. A highlight is a very heroic rendition of Chewie’s theme at 0:45. Half-way through the track takes a more tragic tone as a couple of the characters are hit by laser blasts. L3’s theme returns as the heroes make their escape. The Rebel Fanfare gets in a couple shots when the Falcon lifts off (4:22 and 4:38). A partial statement of Han’s theme leads to a slow, tragic iteration of L3’s theme.

Though the album has been chronological, a later track is interjected between “Break Out” and “Reminiscence Therapy.” “The Good Guy” was likely placed here to make a breather amidst the dense collection of action cues. It also serves the purpose of not slowing down the album’s last act as the final confrontation of the film is relatively brief and thus would not provide a sustained action cue. The first part of the cue is built around Qi’ra’s theme as the female lead tells Han that their paths have become too separate for them to be with each other. Han’s theme tragically breaks out at 2:53, leading into Qi’ra’s Crimson Sun motif. The three-note motif continues for another minute, turning from angst to suspenseful build-up before it climaxes in the Enfys Nest theme.

The album goes back to the Kessel Sequence with “Reminiscence Therapy.” As the title indicates, this is a nostalgia-heavy cue with the Death Star motif at the start, various iterations of the Rebel Fanfare and Luke’s theme, and passages from A New Hope’s “Tie Fighter Attack,” and Empire Strikes Back’s “Asteroid Field” and “Attacking a Star Destroyer.” While the classic passages were obviously put in to manipulate fan nostalgia, Powell has the decency to at least tinker with their presentation, speeding up their tempos to make them fit more into his original work. Powell also bridges them with some of the most dashing iterations of Han’s theme, as well as one for Chewie’s theme. This is Han’s shining moment as he proves his piloting skills by leading Tie Fighters into an exciting chase through a dense space cloud of debris and rocks. Things finally quiet down with the Smuggler motif and some forbidding notes.

The heroes aren’t out of the woods yet. “Into the Maw” is the last of the action-packed Kessel sequence cues. This dense action cue stands on its own with a heavier dose of peril and more fragmented performances of the hero themes. Wailing horns throughout the track represent a Lovecraftian space monster’s attempt to draw the Falcon into its massive circular maw. In the last minute a sped-up percussive rhythm backs up triumphal statements of the Han, Luke, and Rebel themes. “Savareen Stand-Off” begins with long ambient notes and rattling electronic percussion. This builds into the Enfys Nest theme. After the initial choral bursts their theme continues in much softer fashion. At 2:32 the theme is joined by ominous throat-singing. After an iteration of the Qi’ra/Crimson Sun motif, the Enfys Nest choir returns in less aggressive fashion.

“Good Thing You Were Listening” starts off as dark underscore and swells into Qi’ra’s theme. “Testing Allegiances” is the climatic cue. It’s definitely not as strong as the Kessel sequence cues, but this is perfectly fine considering the way the scene plays out.  Rumbling underscore and the Smuggler motif build into a short action passage that is light on thematic statements. Han’s theme makes one final action appearance at 1:46. The track takes a more tragic turn halfway through with Qi’ra’s theme, first accompanied by harp and then on piano (2:36). Her theme repeats in the minor key in defeated fashion and her shared motif with Crimson Sun builds up to close the cue. “Dice & Roll” goes back to “Is This Seat Taken?” as Han has another card game with Lando. The Rebel Fanfare breaks out at 1:11 and Han’s theme has one last go, starting with the secondary motif this time. One quibble I have with the album is that it ends abruptly. Han’s theme doesn’t really make a sustained grand exit. Perhaps part of the end credits could have been employed on the remaining two minutes of disc space to provide a more thrilling climax. The deluxe edition has the end credits suite, which gives more punch to the ending. It sounds like Powell just edited together pieces of tracks for his compilation of themes but it isn’t as jarring as some of Williams’ latest end credits suites.

I originally thought that John Powell’s Solo: a Star Wars Story was a good but not incredible score. However, repeated listens have really built it up in my estimation. I think the problem is that many of the themes, while good, do have structural similarities to each other so it takes some studying to differentiate and appreciate their respective purposes. This is a fantastic score that keeps the excitement going with numerous heroic thematic statements and lengthy action pieces, as well as an engaging, melancholic love theme. The deluxe edition has some cool bits, but the original album its good enough on its own and avoids a few passages of meandering underscore. It’s a shame the film bombed or Powell might have gotten to score a sequel.

Rating: 10/10

Tracklisting

  1. The Adventures of Han (3:49)
  2. Meet Han (2:20)
  3. Corellia Chase (3:34)
  4. Spaceport (4:07)
  5. Flying with Chewie (3:30)
  6. Train Heist (4:48)
  7. Marauders Arrive (5:14)
  8. Chicken in the Pot (2:09)
  9. Is This Seat Taken? (2:36)
  10. L3 & Millennium Falcon (3:16)
  11. Lando’s Closet (2:13)
  12. Mine Mission (4:10)
  13. Break Out (6:15)
  14. The Good Guy (5:24)
  15. Reminiscence Therapy (6:13)
  16. Into the Maw (4:49)
  17. Savareen Stand-Off (4:26)
  18. Good Thing You Were Listening (2:08)
  19. Testing Allegiance (4:21)
  20. Dice & Roll (1:54)

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