Star Wars Episode VII: The Last Jedi

Composed by: John Williams

The followup to the Force Awakens, the Last Jedi opened to critical acclaim, but had a lot of detractors among fans and Youtube critics. I actually loved it and think it’s the third best Star Wars movie. I think people had too much expectations and were disappointed when the movie went in another direction. I liked being surprised and I thought the character development for Kylo Ren was particularly fascinating. I can understand why some people may be upset with the film, but I think calling it worse than the prequels is a bit far. speaking of the prequels, the one thing everyone actually loved about those movies was John Williams’ music. The same can be said for the maestro’s Last Jedi score. Continue reading

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Composed by: Michael Giacchino

Since everything has to have a cinematic universe now, Star Wars has been gettin standalone movies alongside the main trilogies. The first of these, Rogue One, tells the story of how the Rebels got the Death Star plans. It’s an okay movie. Most of the characters are one-dimensional and it takes a while for things to get going. There’s little moments of horrible fanservice as well. Do we really need to see those two a-holes from the Mos Eisley cantina? And was it necessary to have a creepy CGI Tarkin? It wouldn’t be sacrilegious to just find a look-a-like actor and cast him. But the final battle is probably the best the franchise has ever offered.

Along with being a standalone movie, Rogue One is also notable for being the first Star Wars film scored by someone other than John Williams. Originally, director Gareth Edwards had Alexandre Desplat hired on. But thanks to a ridiculous amount of reshoots and re-editing, the composer was unable to fit in a score and Michael Giacchino was brought in to produce a full Star Wars score in under a month. Giacchino has often been associated with John Williams, with his Medal of Honor music being reminiscent of the Indiana Jones scores and his work on Jurassic World. So does his score stand up to Willliams’ standards? First the themes.

Galen Erso: This is a simple emotional motif  for Jyn’s father that appears on piano in “Star-Dust” and plays a large role in the first couple minutes of “Your Father Would be Proud”.

Guardian of the Whills: This theme is for Donnie Yen’s force-worshiping character. It was used by a figure skater at the 2018 Winter Olympics. It serves as a mystical motif, but does get a heroic moment in “Confrontation on Eadu”.

Hope: This theme is for the still-growing Rebellion, With the absence of a title crawl, it serves as a fanfare for the main title instead of the traditional use of Luke’s theme. It even shares the first two notes, suggesting their main titles link. Incidentally, this theme is not heard in the track “Hope”.

Imperial March #2: Giacchino introduces two more themes for the Imperials, which are easy to lump together as one on the first few listens. This march first appears in “When is Now” and in the middle of “The Imperial Suite”. It’s appearances on the actual album are surprisingly scant, though the unreleased music is still available elsewhere so if you’re a fan of it you can still find it.

Jyn Erso: Jyn Erso’s theme first fully appears in “Wobani Imperial Labor Camp”. It usually has a tragic quality to it, but has its sweeping performances, a standout moment being “Jedha Arrival”.

Krennic: The film’s most prominent villain has the second of the new Imperial themes. It appears towards the beginning of “He’s Here for Us”. It’s a short motif, but an effective one, and gels nicely with Giacchino’s Imperial theme.

These are good, memorable themes, especially considering the rushed schedue the composer had to work with. There are also a couple action and suspense motifs that repeat. The suspense motif is a basic building piece in “Jedha Arrival” and “Cargo Shuttle SW-0608”. The action motif is also simple, a whirring piece that first appears in “Jedha City Ambush”

Of great interest is the use of Williams’ themes. As usual, the Force theme is prominent. As this is the days of the Rebel Alliance, the Rebel fanfare also makes quite a few appearances, the best in “Scrambling the Rebel Fleet”. In the same track, Luke’s theme appears for a nostalgic moment. The Death Star motif only makes one appearance, added onto the end of the Imperial theme in “When is Now”. “Krennic’s Aspirations” sees the return of the original Imperial theme from A New Hope, a legitimate surprise since most people only remember the more awe-inspiring Vader’s theme. Speaking of that theme, it also appears in “Krennic’s Aspirations” and at the end of the choral  outburst in “Hope”, but it doesn’t get any lengthy amount of time.

So Giacchino has an impressive array of new themes, as well as a dependable set of classic themes to work with. Whenever these themes appear the score is great. The problem is that a lot of the incidental and bridging music is weak, probably because he didn’t have a lot of time so he just had to put something in between the themes. This is most hurtful in “When is Now” and “Krennic’s Aspirations”, which have these wonderful villain themes, to get to them you have to sit through half a minute of anonymous, low music that’s boring. Some of the action sequences likewise suffer, but these examples didn’t make it onto the commercial album.

“Star-Dust” has a neat easter egg. The scene involves a hologram, so Giacchino uses a bit of the music from when Leia appears as  hologram to Luke in A New Hope. Another nice callback is in “AT-ACT Assault”, which uses the exact metallic percussion from the Walker assault in Empire Strikes Back. This track is also where the album really reaches the height of Williams. “The Master Switch” has a typical Giacchino rhythm, which keeps building and repeating until the Guardian of the Whills theme has its heroic last hurrah. “Your Father Would be Proud” really lays on the emotion. It starts off calm, the heroes having accomplished their goals and reflecting on their success. About two minutes in an angelic choir joins in before Jyn Erso’s theme takes over, ending in a trumpet flourish. “Hope” does not sound hopeful at all. It’s intense, evil choral music that concludes in a short rendition of Vader’s theme. The Rebel fanfare from A New Hope’s “Blockade Runner” takes over before the an iteration of the Force theme. This track ends abruptly, as Giacchino decides to split the end credits suite into three concert suite tracks, presenting all of his new major themes. All that really gets cut out is the traditional use of Luke’s theme that always comes on when the end credits start to roll.

Michael Giacchino equals John Williams in his themes and several action cues are tremendous. Where he falls short is some of the non-thematic material, which can get very dull and tedious. This can be blamed on the short amount of time he had to work with. A streamlined album presentation that cuts some of this fat out would be great.

Rating: 8/10

 

Tracklisting

  1. He’s Here for Us (3:20)
  2. A Long Ride Ahead (3:56)
  3. Wobani Imperial Labor Camp (0:54)
  4. Trust Goes Both Ways (2:45)
  5. When Has Become Now (1:59)
  6. Jedha Arrival (2:48)
  7. Jedha City Ambush (2:19)
  8. Star-Dust (3:47)
  9. Confrontation on Eadu (8:05)
  10. Krennic’s Aspirations (4:15)
  11. Rebellions are Built on Hope (2:56)
  12. Rogue One (2:04)
  13. Cargo Shuttle SW-0608 (3:59)
  14. Scrambling the Rebel Fleet (1:33)
  15. AT-ACT Assault (2:55)
  16. The Master Switch (4:02)
  17. Your Father would be Proud (4:51)
  18. Hope (1:37)
  19. Jyn Erso & Hope Suite (5:51)
  20. The Imperial Suite (2:29)
  21. Guardian of the Whills Suite (2:52)

Soundtrack Review: The Force Awakens

Composed and Conducted by: John Williams

Bought out by Disney in 2012, the Star Wars film series was quickly brought back, with the first of a new trilogy released at the end of 2015 as Episode VII: The Force Awakens. It was thankfully and perhaps surprisingly a pretty good movie, much better than the George Lucas prequels. The new characters are actually people you care about and can carry a movie without any of the originals, though having Han Solo, Chewbacca, and others come back was pretty awesome as well. Also making his return was John Williams. His music for the prequels didn’t match up to the standards of the original, but were still pretty awesome. The question was, ten years after Revenge of the Sith and at the age of 82, could he still deliver the goods? His only film work after 2006 had been relegated to Spielberg movies.

Spoilers for The Force Awakens were avoided pretty well, with most plot elements being concealed in the trailers and much of the merchandise not being released until the day of the film’s release. The soundtrack was one of these pieces of merchandise, and the track titles were placed in the middle of the booklet, not on the back of the CD case, a clever move although the track titles don’t reveal too much anyways. Still, a careful listening could lead to some deductions, such as who the main character of the new trilogy is.

I can say that the Force Awakens soundtrack is pretty good. It avoids some of the problems the prequel scores had, most importantly the lack of new themes. Here Williams has many recurring themes and motifs, though only one really seems to match the power of the original trilogy’s offerings.

Action/Finn?: This is a repetitive action motif. I’ve read that it’s Finn’s theme and it does appear in the end credits suite, but it only appears in action sequences, so I’m not sure. It also builds into Poe Dameron’s theme a couple times.

BB-8: As far as I can tell, this whimsical little motif only appears twice in the film. It appears in “Rey Meets BB-8”. BB-8 himself is a delightful character, comedy relief and cuteness done right.

Kylo Ren: The new villain gets a sinister five-note motif. It’s pretty evil sounding, but a little too generic for a Star Wars villain theme. It does sound like any composer could come up with it quickly. Nevertheless, it’s grand entrance in “Attack on the Jakku Village” is pretty nice.

Kylo Conflict: This is a secondary motif for the villain which shows his tragic side.

Poe Dameron: Awesome X-wing pilot Poe gets a short heroic theme that appears in “I Can Fly Anything”.

Resistance: The heroic Resistance gets a bombastic military march. Interestingly, the instrumentation and tune are heavily reminiscent of the Nazi music from the Indiana Jones franchise, which could be considered an irony when the Resistance is fighting a Nazi-style regime. It’s of course showcased in “March of the Resistance”.

Rey: This theme is the main theme of the movie and is the only one that I would rank among the great Star Wars themes. It’s a mix of heroism and innocence and plays during most of the high points. After the movie came out I listened to this theme over and over. It first appears in “The Scavenger” in its most innocent form and gets a concert suite arrangement in “Rey’s Theme”.

Snoke: Snoke gets a ominous choral arrangement based off of the chilling opening of “Palpatine’s Teachings” from Revenge of the Sith. Unfortunately it does come off as a little generic and hopefully the character gets an expanded theme in the sequels.

Tragedy: This sad string motif appears in “Starkiller” and at the low point in “Torn Apart”.

The new trilogy has much more characters and connections to the original three films and so Williams uses the classic themes much more than he did in the prequels. The Rebel fanfare is heavily present, serving as a motif for the famed Millennium Falcon. The main Star Wars/Luke’s theme factors into the climatic cues and appears in particularly nostalgic moments. Of course, with the Force always playing a major role, it’s theme appears fairly often too. Very welcome are the return of Leia’s theme and the love theme from Empire Strikes Back, first appearing of course in “Han and Leia”.

The soundtrack opens with the main title, which leads into some peaceful space music only for a sinister little tune to barge in. “Attack on the Jakku Village” is a pretty good track and introduces Kylo Ren’s theme. “The Scavenger” opens with up music that would fit the Tatooine scenes in A New Hope before debuting Rey’s theme. “I Can Fly Anything” and “Rey Meets BB-8” bring in the rest of the main character themes.

“Follow Me” is a generic action cue which does climax with the Rebel Fanfare. After the concert arrangement for”Rey’s Theme”, the action motif ties together a frenetic action cue in “The Falcon”. The one main complaint I have for this soundtrack is that some of the action cues are just frenetic noise. In the other Star Wars movies Williams would have some scene-specific motifs. Think of the ominous little ditty from “Battle in the Snow” or the fanfare from “The Asteroid Field”. Tracks like “The Rathtars!” don’t hold much interest beyond the occasional statement of one of the themes.

“Finn’s Confession” is a pretty good emotional piece with some statements of Rey’s theme. “Maz’s Counsel” has the Force theme and a grand statement of Rey’s theme that unfortunately gets cut off, while”Starkiller” features a solemn string piece. Rey and Kylo Ren’s themes feature in the next couple cues before nostalgia kicks in with “Han and Leia”.

After the themes for the Resistance and Snoke are properly introduced, it’s on to the climatic cues. “Torn Apart” is a heavily emotional piece, very sad with a glimmer of hope before Kylo Ren’s theme triumphs in the end. “The Ways of the Force” has Ren and Rey’s themes battle each other, with the Force theme in its climax. “Scherzo for X-Wings” is full of fanfares, including Luke Skywalker’s theme.

The last two tracks are amazing. “Farewell and the Trip” opens victoriously with Rey, Poe, and the Force’s themes, all right after another. There is a calm interlude with Han and Leia’s themes before the music swells again with Rey’s theme. “The Jedi Steps” features what could be a separate recurring motif, though it sounds like a permutation of Rey’s theme. This motif dies down before the Force theme slowly builds up, climaxing in a slightly sinister style and seguing into the end credits suite. What’s nice about the end credits suite is that it doesn’t cut and paste any concert arrangements, being its own showcase of almost all the new themes and motifs.

Overall, I would say this is a great soundtrack, though there are several cues that aren’t really that interesting. The use of the original trilogy themes are great and while only Rey’s theme matches up, most of the other new themes and motifs are still pretty good, with the Resistance march in particular being pretty catchy. If less of the music sounded like filler, this would easily get a 9 or 10.

Final Rating: 8/10

Track Listing

  1. Main Title and the Attack on the Jakku Village (6:25) 8/10
  2. The Scavenger (3:39) 9/10
  3. I Can Fly Anything (3:11) 8/10
  4. Rey Meets BB-8 (1:31) 7/10
  5. Follow Me (2:54) 7/10
  6. Rey’s Theme (3:11) 10/10
  7. The Falcon (3:32) 7/10
  8. That Girl with the Staff (1:58) 5/10
  9. The Rathtars! (4:05) 5/10
  10. Finn’s Confession (2:08) 9/10
  11. Maz’s Counsel (3:08) 6/10
  12. The Starkiller (1:51) 7/10
  13. Kylo Ren Arrives at the Battle (2:01) 6/10
  14. The Abduction (2:25) 7/10
  15. Han and Leia (4:41) 10/10
  16. March of the Resistance (2:35) 10/10
  17. Snoke (2:03) 6/10
  18. On the Inside (2:05) 5/10
  19. Torn Apart (4:19) 9/10
  20. The Ways of the Force (3:14) 7/10
  21. Scherzo for X-Wings (2:32) 9/10
  22. Farewell and the Trip (4:55) 10/10
  23. The Jedi Steps and Finale (8:51) 10/10

Soundtrack Review: Revenge of the Sith

 

Composed and Conducted by: John Williams

The conclusion to the misguided prequel trilogy is probably my favorite of the bunch. While the script still sucks and the acting still suffers from poor direction, lack of real sets in lieu of a blue screen, and Hayden Christenson, Revenge of the Sith focuses a lot on battles, which happen to be the prequel trilogy’s only constant strength. John Williams delivers a large epic score and the end result, while very good, seems to have missed the mark in a couple of areas.

Revenge of the Sith has little in the way of new themes, even more so on album.

Arrival: This stately motif appears after Anakin crash lands the Separatist warship and later on when Obi-Wan arrives at Utapau. It’s absent from the album.

Battle of the Heroes: “The Battle of the Heroes” showcases the new battle theme. Unlike “Duel of the Fates”, “Battle of the Heroes” is much more emotional and is more about Anakin’s betrayal and his personal duel with Obi-Wan. Although it only appears in the movie’s last quarter, it is the tune that sticks the most.

Betrayal: Showcased in “Anakin’s Betrayal”, this mournful choral music accompanies the extermination of the Jedi and actually makes it a good scene. It speaks to the power of John Williams’ music, because honestly we don’t really know and love any of the Jedi being wiped out. It appears again right before Anakin and Obi-Wan duel.

General Grievous: The other new theme on album is a pompous march for General Grievous, appearing most obviously in “Grievous Speaks to Lord Sidious”. Interestingly enough, his theme does not appear in the track that states his name.

There is one major disappointment which some fans had with the other two soundtracks, but here it matters more. That is the near-absence of themes from the original trilogy. Many expected the Imperial March to appear more often since Anakin becomes Darth Vader, but it appears only briefly, except in “Anakin vs. Obi-Wan”, where it sounds like it was just ripped from The Empire Strikes Back’s “Clash of Lightsabers”. The Emperor’s theme too is almost absent, even though he has a large presence in the movie. A few notes of his theme appear in “Enter Lord Vader”, but the action variation from his duel with Mace Windu is absent from the album. The Force theme is once again the only theme from the original trilogy to a make a significant contribution.

Likewise, the prequel trilogy’s themes seem to have been shoved out of the picture, with only a brief fanfare and the choral requiem from The Phantom Menace and “Across the Stars” from Attack of the Clones making returns. “Across the Stars” has a couple of gorgeous moments in “Anakin’s Dream”, appearing on melancholy strings near its opening. But even as Padme dies, this theme is absent, last appearing as a barely audible tune under wailing choir in “Padme’s Ruminations”.

But for all the thematic flaws, Revenge of the Sith still manages to thrill the listener. The first track features an amazing moment in which the Force theme is accompanied by a militaristic background. The cue is further helped by a pounding action section and a grand, sinister statement of Grievous’s theme. “Anakin’s Betrayal” is an emotional choral piece accompanying the betrayal and murder of the Jedi. Despite having to thematic connection to other tracks on the album, this piece still caused an emotional response in me as I watched made-for-action-figure Jedi characters sheepishly let themselves get killed in mere seconds, proving how good it is.

“General Grievous” is the most thrilling action cue, with a low-key buildup that leads into a furious brassy climax. “Palpatine’s Teachings” can either bore or intrigue you with over a minute of an eerie, droning choir, which end with a soft statement of the Imperial March. “Anakin’s Dark Deeds” has one of the best moments. The beginning sounds a little too ripped from Lord of the Rings, but as it nears its end it features a tragic melody followed by a dramatic villainous fanfare.

John Williams actually fails to create an appropriate end credit suite. The last track’s first half is amazing, with several well-thought references to the first movie’s themes to connect the two trilogies, plus a rendition of Princess Leia’s theme as the end credits start to roll. After another presentation of “Battle of the Heroes”, Williams is left with a choice: score a climax to the Star Wars movies as a whole or score an appropriate bridge between the two trilogies. He chooses the former, resulting in a rehashing of the concert version of “Throne Room & Finale”. It sounds good, but does not fit too well with the tragic apocalyptic material from the other tracks. It also is now rendered pointless since we are now witnessing a new crop of Star Wars movies.

John Williams’s arrangement of his music on album is also less than satisfactory. While not very chronologically correct, the music flows okay until the track “Anakin vs. Obi-Wan”. Tracks 9-11 actually play out in exact reverse order of when they appear in the film, resulting in some personal frustration for me. This sequencing also completely shoves any action material out of the soundtrack’s last third. A reordering of the tracks is probably necessary for a better listening experience.

All in all, Revenge of the Sith has fantastic music, but Williams’s failure to use his themes more and some poor album production can result in disappointment for some listeners. However, fans might be pleased with an additional DVD disc which doesn’t affect the price. This disc features most of the concert arrangements set to montages of scenes from the movie to create the story of Star Wars.

Rating: 7/10

  1. Star Wars Main Title And Battle Over Coruscant (7:31) 8/10
  2. Anakin’s Dream (4:46) 8/10
  3. Battle of the Heroes (3:42) 10/10
  4. Anakin’s Betrayal (4:03) 10/10
  5. General Grievous (4:07) 9/10
  6. Palpatine’s Teachings (5:25) 6/10
  7. Grievous And The Droids (3:27) 6/10
  8. Padmé’s Ruminations (3:16) 5/10
  9. Anakin Vs. Obi-Wan (3:57) 6/10
  10. Anakin’s Dark Deeds (4:05) 7/10
  11. Enter Lord Vader (4:14) 7/10
  12. The Immolation Scene (2:41) 6/10
  13. Grievous Speaks To Lord Sidious (2:49) 6/10
  14. The Birth Of The Twins And Padmé’s Destiny (3:37) 8/10
  15. A New Hope And End Credits (13:05) 6/10

Soundtrack Review: Attack of the Clones

File:Star Wars Episode II Attack of the Clones (soundtrack).jpg

Three years after the disappointment of Phantom Menace, many fans still found their expectations building for Attack of the Clones. It’s about as bad as its predecessor, some would say worse. While there is no child Anakin or Jar Jar, there is still unmemorable characters and too much politics. Also added to the mix is a whiny Anakin Skywalker who spends a good chunk of the film engaged in the worst love story of modern cinema. But also like Phantom Menace, a bright spot is John Williams’ score.

However, Williams did show a troubling trend of holding back on new themes, even though the score is still a thematic one.

Anakin and Padme: Showcased in “Across the Stars”, this sweeping love theme has been accused of deriving too much from Williams’ Hook theme. There’s a similarity, but it’s only one part of the theme, maybe a couple seconds. This lovely theme dominates the soundtrack, just as the cringeworthy romance between Anakin and Padme does. Though it is a love theme, it does swell up fairly often to show that this romance will have ramifications across the entire galaxy.

Kamino: This theme is mis-named. It’s more of a mood-setting motif which sounds mysterious, though much of its appearance is in the Kamino scenes.

Separatists: This simple theme appears towards the end of the first track. It’s low key, probably to emphasize that something manipulative is going on behind the Separatist movement.

And as far as I can tell, that’s it for the actual recurring themes and motifs. But the real problem is how music from Phantom Menace is rehashed. For some reason, Lucas had much of the final battle sequence temped with action cues from that film, even overwriting a large chunk of “The Arena”. There’s also a reprise of the Trade Federation march which doesn’t make sense, as it’s used for a scene showcasing the Republic’s clone troopers. Thankfully, aside from the Trade Federation march, Williams only puts his original work on the album.

This is the first Star Wars film score in which the music is actually arranged chronologically on its original release. The first track, “Main Title and Ambush”, features once again the opening crawl and the Kamino and Separatist motifs. After “Across the Stars” plays, it’s on to “Zam the Assassin and the Chase through Coruscant”, which runs over eleven minutes long. It starts off eerie and suspenseful, but once the action starts and it’s a pretty frenetic cue. The most novel thing about it is the actual use of electric guitars at a couple points for the seedy side of Coruscant.

“Yoda and the Younglings” (just call them children!) is a decent track which features Yoda’s theme and some wondrous choir. The love theme starts to get its references in “Departing Coruscant” and “Anakin and Padme”. “Jango’s Escape” is a so-so action piece which doesn’t really feature any themes.

“The Meadow Picnic” is a pretty neat romance track, featuring a playful tune before going into “Across the Stars”.

“Bounty Hunter’s Pursuit” opens with a pretty nice perilous tune before dying down into some music from Anakin and Padme’s story. “Return to Tatooine” features the Kamino motif before the Force theme appears. “Duel of the Fates” makes a token appearance here thanks to its popularity, leading into a bunch of sneaking-around music. The first couple minutes of “Tusken Camp and the Homestead” is a definite highlight, featuring Shmi’s motif one last time before Anakin’s anger grows, leading to Vader’s theme.

Alongside “Across the Stars”, “Love Pledge and the Arena” is the other popular track from this album. It starts off with the love theme, which swells as the heroes are led into the bright arena. The rest of the track is dominated by a new march somewhat reminiscent of the Trade Federation theme. I wouldn’t call it a theme, as it only plays during this scene, but it’s a great action melody.

“Confrontation with Count Dooku and Finale” is a little misnamed, since the admittedly not-that-interesting music from the actual confrontation is not here. Starting with a racing choir and the Force theme, the track descends into an eerie rendition of the Emperor’s theme. A little later there is an awesome reprise of the Imperial March and then “Across the Stars” before the end credits statement of Luke’s theme rolls. The end credits suite is basically “Across the Stars” until the end, when Anakin’s theme reappears, this time growing darker and more somber in the part that references Vader’s theme. In the film this led to the sound of Vader’s breathing and was actually pretty creepy.

If you bought the album from Target, you got an exclusive bonus track, called “On the Conveyor Belt”. From the Chicken Run scene, this music is a pretty decent action cue which has a reprise of the Force theme in it. The climax was used in the character-based TV spots from around the time of the film’s release.

I think I like this more than Phantom Menace. While it would have been nice for Williams to create a couple more themes and even reference more from the previous four films, the album flows much more smoothly and the love theme really ties it together.

Final Rating: 8/10

Track Listing

  1. Main Title and Ambush (3:46) 6/10
  2. Across the Stars (5:33) 10/10
  3. Zam the Assassin and the Chase through Coruscant (11:07) 7/10
  4. Yoda and the Younglings (3:55) 6/10
  5. Departing Coruscant (1:44) 6/10
  6. Anakin and Padme (3:57) 7/10
  7. Jango’s Escape (3:48) 5/10
  8. The Meadow Picnic (4:14) 7/10
  9. Bounty Hunter’s Pursuit (3:23) 6/10
  10. Return to Tatooine (6:57) 7/10
  11. The Tusken Camp and the Homestead (5:54) 6/10
  12. Love Pledge and the Arena (8:29) 8/10
  13. Confrontation with Count Dooku and Finale (10:45) 10/10
  14. On the Conveyor Belt (3:02) 6/10

Soundtrack Review: The Phantom Menace

The Phantom Menace ost.jpg

The long-awaited prequels started to hit theaters in 1999 and immediately fans were hit with great disappointment. The charm of the original trilogy is missing from Phantom Menace, which suffers from a confusing and boring plot about trade and taxation, Jar Jar Binks, and characters that are just not interesting. The question for the next several reviews is: did John Williams new scores fail to live up to the originals as well?

First here are the new themes that Williams created.

Anakin: This innocent theme is for the child version of Anakin, only resurfacing once in the next two installments. It’s pretty good, and the best part is that the end references a piece of Vader’s theme without sounding villainous. It gets its own concert arrangement.

Darth Maul: Darth Maul gets a whispery Sanskrit chant which can actually get pretty creepy.

Duel of the Fates: The most popular theme from prequels, this is a mix of racing notes and grand choral chanting in Sanskrit. It appears in the final act of the film, with the choral bombast occurring during the lightsaber duel. Actually, the prequels were noted for using much more choir. The original trilogy had the low male voices for the Emperor and that was about it.

Jar Jar Binks: This is a goofy, comedic motif which is okay, but I’m not excited when it comes on. It does suffer from being associated with such an awful character. It is appropriately introduced in “Jar Jar’s Introduction”.

Qui-Gon Jinn: Liam Neeson’s Qui-Gon gets a very noble theme which doesn’t appear too much, and not even on the original album release.

Shmi: Shmi has her own little motif. It’s mot notable appearance is in “Anakin is Free” on the two-disc set.

Trade Federation: The Trade Federation gets its own military march, showcased in “Droid Invasion”. It doesn’t appear a lot, but when it does it’s pretty awesome. It’s kind of sad that such an awesome theme accompanies the worst foot soldiers of Star Wars.

People were curious which themes would return from the original trilogy. The Main Theme graces the opening crawl and end credits per tradition, but otherwise gets just one brief statement in “Panaka and the Queen’s Protectors”. The Force theme appears much more often, as it’s a concept very much at the forefront of the prequels. Yoda and Darth Vader’s themes are referenced in “The High Council Meeting”. The Emperor’s theme appears too in scenes with Darth Sidious, who obviously is Palpatine in Sith guise.

One-Disc Release

The Phantom Menace soundtrack was released with over seventy minutes of score. Williams decided to release in what is a called a concert suite form. Basically, the music is not arranged as it is in the film and in many places two or three cues are spliced together. For some listeners this can get frustrating, wondering why the Trade Federation theme bookends the music from the fish chase scene or bits of Sanskrit chanting appears to slow down action cues. I find some of the edits to be a little annoying, as it makes the presentation feel jumbled at times, but in general this is a good listening experience. The only missing highlight is “Anakin is Free”.

Things kick off with the opening crawl and some stately music from the arrival on Coruscant scene, though it’s incorrectly titled “Arrival at Naboo”. Following are the concert arrangements of Duel of the Fates and Anakin’s Theme. Track five, “Sith Spacecraft and Droid Battle”, is an interesting highlight. It starts with sinister chanting and ominous percussion before breaking out into all-out action. If you listen closely you can hear that it’s a variation on Darth Vader’s theme!

The standout moments of the next few tracks are the pompous “Flag Parade” and the sinister “He is the Chosen One”. There’s not much else of note until track thirteen, “Panaka and the Queen’s Protectors”. This is rousing heroic piece which suddenly slows down towards the end with some slow percussion before picking up again for the finale.

After the aforementioned “Droid Invasion” is “Qui-Gon’s Noble End”, which kicks off with action music from a way earlier scene. After some haunting usage of Darth Maul’s motif a tragic rendition of Duel of the Fates breaks out. “Funeral” showcases yet another Sanskrit choir, this one a very mournful tune which would make a return for the ending of Revenge of the Sith.

The last track is “Augie’s Municipal Band”, which is actually an upbeat and happy version of the Emperor’s theme! This is largely accomplished by changing the last note to make it more uplifting, as well as children chanting in lieu of a sinister male chorus. The end credits is basically tracks 2 and 3 pasted together.

Overall, Phantom Menace, like most John Williams scores, has a lot of great music. But there’s actually quite a bit I don’t find interesting. Queen Amidala and Naboo Palace” isn’t terrible, but it’s not a track you’re going to go back to a lot. A lot of the action tracks not from the last act don’t have much in the way of references to themes and motifs, something which was always a great strength in the original trilogy. I think another problem that I have personally is that my impressions of a film can reflect on its score. When I hear music from Empire Strikes Back, I think about that movie’s wonderful moments. When I listen to this soundtrack, I think of a lot of bad and underwhelming moments. I just can’t get the same thrill I do with the original scores.

So does John Williams disappoint? He does maybe a little bit, but his music is still one of the few genuinely great things about the prequels,

Rating: 8/10

Two-Disc Ultimate Edition

Just a year later the Phantom Menace received a two-disc release, and is the only prequel score to have gotten one. It’s completely in chronological order and if there’s any music you wanted on the original release that wasn’t there, it’s here. “Anakin is Free” is the best one. It starts with Qui-Gon’s theme before a few minutes of amazing emotional music and then a statement of the Force theme. One little cue I really like is “Darth Sidious and Dart Maul”, which kicks off with an evil fanfare before going into the Emperor’s theme.

Listening to this album can actually be a little jarring during the final battle sequences, as they were re-edited in post production, meaning the music goes all over the place. Many of the tracks are also really short, making it hard to keep up with what track you’re on.

I think I actually prefer the original release. Some of the concert arrangements flow much better.

Rating: 7/10

Track Listing for One-Disc Release

  1. Main Title and the Arrival at Naboo (2:55) 6/10
  2. Duel of the Fates (4:14) 10/10
  3. Anakin’s Theme (3:05) 10/10
  4. Jar Jar’s Introduction and the Swim to Otoh Gunga (5:07) 6/10
  5. The Sith Spacecraft and the Droid Battle (2:37) 8/10
  6. The Trip to the Naboo Temple and the Audience with Boss Nass (4:07) 5/10
  7. The Arrival at Tatooine and the Flag Parade (4:04) 7/10
  8. He is the Chosen One (3:53) 8/10
  9. Anakin Defeats Sebulba (4:24) 7/10
  10. Passage through the Planet Core (4:40) 6/10
  11. Watto’s Deal and Kids at Play (4:57) 6/10
  12. Panaka and the Queen’s Protectors (3:24) 8/10
  13. Queen Amidala and the Naboo Palace (4:51) 4/10
  14. The Droid Invasion and the Appearance of Darth Maul (5:14) 7/10
  15. Qui-Gon’s Noble End (3:48) 8/10
  16. The High Council Meeting and Qui-Gon’s Funeral (3:09) 8/10
  17. Augie’s Great Municipal Band and End Credits (9:37) 8/10

Soundtrack Review: Shadows of the Empire

Composed and conducted by: Joel McNeely

In the mid-1990s, Star Wars fandom was experiencing a large revival, with hundreds of new action figures, many new video games, and a whole new expanded universe in the form of novels and comics. George Lucas, who by now had become the marketing-obsessed man who would torment us with an inferior prequel trilogy, decided to pick a book and treat it like a movie. This would mean for a written novel there would be toys, a video game, a comic book adaptation, a making-of book, and, most unusually, a soundtrack!

That’s right. A soundtrack would be created for a movie that didn’t exist. Unfortunately, instead of choosing the superb Thrawn trilogy by Timothy Zahn, Lucas picked Shadows of the Empire, which takes place between Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. I guess the the fact that Darth Vader was still alive in said novel probably helped it. The multimedia event would ensure that this book became one of the most highly praised among fans, particularly nostalgic ones that played the video game. Actually, the novel is pretty decent, with a good story, but some issues when it comes to how it is written.

Joel McNeely, who had scored the Young Indiana Jones series, was chosen to do the soundtrack. He found himself with virtually no limitations, other than the amount of music he could create (around fifty minutes). The result is a surprisingly eclectic, although fairly thematically driven score.

John Williams’ themes would only grace three of the tracks, but new ones would be created. The first track is completely credited to John Williams, as it is the famous Main Title and a re-orchestrated section of the carbon-freezing music from Empire Strikes Back. The only original material here is a slowly descending motif that bridges these two pieces together. The same motif crops up in a couple of other places.

The new material goes full force with “The Battle of Gall”. The first half features the descending motif in its longest appearance, followed by a brief action outburst, some jaunty battle preparation music, and a Rebel hymn. The second half is exciting, but doesn’t match up to Williams, especially since it lacks the battling themes of the maestro’s cinematic scores.

“Imperial City” is one of the best tracks on the whole album. The cue is for a scene that would never be put into a movie due to its length. As we approach the city planet of Coruscant, things start off quietly with light piano music, the planet just a tiny speck. As we start to get into the clouds, some fanfares break out, and when the city is revealed in all its glory the music becomes an Olympic-style fanfare. The music somewhat subsides for a bit, but breaks out into more fanfares at the end before trailing off the way it began. This is a fantastic cue, although it is very hard to hear the opening notes.

“Beggar Canyon Chase” is more Indiana Jonesesque than Star Wars, but does end heroically with what is, according to the liner notes, supposed to be a “brief iteration of Dash’s theme”.  As far as I can tell, no such theme exists anywhere else on the album. “Southern Underground” gives us a new recurring theme, but what it is for I have no idea.

McNeely’s crowning achievement is his new master villain theme for the horny, reptilian Prince Xizor, showcased in track six. There’s a lot of dissonance here to represent his criminal and two-sided character, but it’s all worth it for the last minute and a half, a full percussion-backed march of evil which presents his theme three times. This is the most obvious and popular of McNeely’s Star Wars themes, in large part thanks to its presence in the video game’s final levels.

“The Seduction of Princess Leia” is an interesting waltz that I think deviates a little too much from the Star Wars style. “Night Skies” is a dramatic cue that obviously deserves a spot among my highlight cues. It features Xizor and Vader’s themes as they contemplate their schemes. The best moment however is supposed to occur when Vader reaches out to Luke Skywalker, prompting a grand version of the Force theme which surpasses even Williams’ “Light of the Force”.

After the underwhelming “Into the Sewers”, McNeely lets loose with a ten-minute finale which features most of his new themes. It’s full of choral crescendos, which seems to give a hint at the more prevalent use of choir in the prequel trilogy, and some bold statements of Xizor’s theme. The most interesting part is when Xizor and Vader’s themes actually weave around each other, with the dark lord’s fanfare winning out in the end. The Rebel hymn and a brief reiteration of “The Imperial City” give the album a grand satisfactory closing.

Personally, I would have liked it if more money was invested into this project, if only to create an actual end credits suite which is customary for Star Wars films. Some editing software could create such a track using the usual closing credits opening, “Southern Underground”, and the finale of “Xizor’s Theme”.

Shadows of the Empire is a unique soundtrack, and is actually quite good although McNeely really should have used his themes more often. I actually find this album almost as good as the prequel scores, which likewise could have used some of their new themes more. Surprisingly, this soundtrack is still easily available online, so listen to the music samples to make sure you want it and then buy it.

Rating: 7/10

Track Listing

  1. Main Theme from Star Wars and Leia’s Nightmare (3:41) 6/10
  2. The Battle of Gall (7:59) 7/10
  3. Imperial City (8:02) 8/10
  4. Beggar’s Canyon Chase (2:56) 6/10
  5. The Southern Underground (1:48) 6/10
  6. Xizor’s Theme (4:35) 8/10
  7. The Seduction of Princess Leia (3:38) 7/10
  8. Night Skies (4:17) 10/10
  9. Into the Sewers (2:55) 5/10
  10. The Destruction of Xizor’s Palace (10:44) 8/10