Star Wars: The Force Awakens – music by John Williams

Star Wars: The Force AwakensJ.J. Abrams had no shortage of composers who he could’ve called into action for this project; indeed, during press junkets for Star Trek: Into Darkness, not long after Abrams was announced as the first non-Lucas director of a Star Wars feature film, he was being asked if he was going to bring longtime collaborator Michael Giacchino to the Star Wars franchise, or if he would try to rouse John Williams out of semi-retirement. As much of a Star Wars fanboy as Abrams is, it didn’t seem terribly surprising that he fully expected to work with Williams. Ultimately, you bring Williams back to Star Wars for the same reason that you pull Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher back into it: to create a point of audience identification and to make this new, outside-the-original-trilogy entry authentic.

There, at least, Williams – now 81 years old – succeeds, because he set the bar for what to expect. But The Force Awakens isn’t really Star Wars from the past: it’s Star Wars for the future. For lack of a better way to put it, the “texture” of the soundtrack is very different, as it deals with a movie that takes place in settings unimagined in the six prior films, populated largely by character we’ve never met before. Williams gives Jakku a different flavor of desolation than Tatooine, and Kylo Ren’s musical signature is very different from Darth Vader’s. It’s an almost entirely new universe scored with almost entirely new music.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t some familiar tunes; outside of the main titles, the Star Wars theme makes itself heard first in “The Falcon”, an otherwise new track whose rapid-fire strings echo the past exploits of Han’s ship. It may not be “Hyperspace” or “The Asteroid Field”, but it’s still a pulse-raising piece of music. The Star Wars theme shows up as a motif elsewhere, including “Scherzo For X-Wings”. “Han And Leia” revives both the Princess Leia theme from Star Wars, and “Han Solo And The Princess” from The Empire Strikes Back, and both themes show up elsewhere as well.

It’s probably no surprise to anyone that the Force theme, whose perfect Platonic ideal performance-wise remains “Binary Sunset” from Star Wars, also reappears (what with the Force awakening and all). But what’s more surprising is to hear it coupled, in “The Jedi Steps and Finale”, with a musical callback to the prequel trilogy, referencing music from the scene showing Anakin’s final transformation into Vader. A surprising and ominous choice for a refrain.

It all adds up to a nice musical package. Some fans demand completion in their soundtracks; in some cases, I’m one of them. But Williams has always sequenced and sorted his soundtrack albums so they make cohesive musical sense as a listening experience. He picks out his favorite bits, and even though the three original trilogy movies have each received more-or-less-complete score releases, I still find myself going back to the original albums. The Force Awakens soundtrack is a lot like that: there’s over an hour of music here (something of a minor miracle given that it was recorded in Los Angeles by union musicians, a factor that many labels cite when issuing irritatingly short soundtrack releases), and Williams’ favorite material 4 out of 4is good enough for me. As much as the shiny new action figures of Rey and Finn and Poe Dameron and Kylo Ren (and, yes, BB-8) sitting on my shelf, a new CD of new Star Wars music by John Williams himself is the thing that says “It’s back!” more than anything else. (Now I’ll just be waiting for Meco’s take on the whole thing.)

With the next franchise movie (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) set to be scored by Alexandre Desplat, it’s clear that the learners weaned on Williams’ soundtracks will soon become the masters. But if this is the last Star Wars movie Williams scores, he’s left a parting shot to show the next generation of Star Wars soundtrack composers how it’s done.

Order this CD

  1. Main Title and the Attack on the Jakku Village (6:25)
  2. The Scavenger (3:39)
  3. I Can Fly Anything (3:11)
  4. Rey Meets BB-8 (1:31)
  5. Follow Me (2:54)
  6. Rey’s Theme (3:11)
  7. The Falcon (3:32)
  8. That Girl With The Staff (1:58)
  9. The Rathtars! (4:05)
  10. Finn’s Confession (2:08)
  11. Maz’s Counsel (3:07)
  12. The Starkiller (1:51)
  13. Kylo Ren Arrives At The Battle (2:01)
  14. The Abduction (2:25)
  15. Han And Leia (4:41)
  16. March Of The Resistance (2:35)
  17. Snoke (2:03)
  18. On the Inside (2:05)
  19. Torn Apart (4:19)
  20. The Ways Of The Force (3:14)
  21. Scherzo For X-wings (2:32)
  22. Farewell And The Trip (4:55)
  23. The Jedi Steps and Finale (8:51)

Released by: Disney Music
Release date: December 18, 2015
Total running time: 77:28

Star Wars: The Clone Wars – music by Kevin Kiner

Having reviewed the music from nearly the entire prequel trilogy “sight unseen” (i.e. without seeing the movie first), I thought I could get away with it again here, with the soundtrack to the CG-animated movie The Clone Wars. It may turn out that this wasn’t a good idea, because the soundtrack is as much a departure from everything that has gone before it as the film itself.

What sets The Clone Wars apart from the prequel and original trilogies is that it was done entirely in the computer. One could argue that no camera ever rolled on large chunks of Episode II and Episode III as well, but with Clone Wars there’s not even a pretense of photorealism – the characters are now seen in a stylized, animé-inspired light, and the only actors involved are voice actors. It would seem that the entirely-computer-generated scenes of the prequel trilogy were just a stepping stone.

The music marks a significant departure from the rest of the saga as well. For one of the very few times in the Star Wars franchise’s history, it has been decided to go with a composer other than John Williams, although of course the new maestro may make use of Williams’ themes from time to time. In this case, the new musical voice of Star Wars is provided by Kevin Kiner, who has scored several films and TV shows on his own (such as the Leprechaun movies and Stargate SG-1), and served a vital role in the final season of Star Trek: Enterprise when the show’s budget cuts forced its composers to fall back on synths and samples instead of real orchestral instruments; Kiner teamed up with longtime Trek composer Dennis McCarthy and fleshed out McCarthy’s music into synth-orchestral life. The best example of this available on record may be on McCarthy’s privately-released Star Trek: Borg soundtrack, whose last three tracks are explosive, memorable stuff that you’d swear was performed by a huge ensemble. Kiner is, in fact, that good.

But from the first moments of music on the Clone Wars soundtrack, it’s clear that the musical vocabulary of Star Wars is changing along with the visual vocabulary. The music is a complete departure from the traditional opening of a Star Wars film, and though Williams’ immortal theme tune is quoted, it’s quoted in an unfamiliar context. For those of us who are rushing toward (or past) the age of 40 like the Millennium Falcon making the Kessel Run, it could be seen as a sign that this isn’t our Star Wars anymore – this is Star Wars for our kids.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the early track “Obi-Wan To The Rescue”, which breaks right out of the romantic-orchestral mode into a staccato barrage of electric guitar. To be fair, screaming guitars could be heard woven into the orchestral textures of Episode II‘s wild chase through the “streets” of Coruscant, but here, it’s front and center, and instead of being an exotic flavoring, it’s rock ‘n’ roll. Similarly, tracks such as “Ziro’s Nightclub Band” and “Seedy City Swing” don’t attempt to view earthly music through a somewhat alien prism (a la Williams’ “Cantina Band” cues) – they’re on-the-nose earthly music with no pretensions of being anything but. Given that this installment of the franchise – and it subsequent TV incarnation, which will also be scored by Kiner – seems to be aimed at a younger audience, I’m not saying that these more traditional, not-so-otherworldly treatments are bad. They server their purpose as a kind musical shorthand for the action they accompany.

And yet, with cues like “Destroying The Shield”, you’d swear Williams was at the conductor’s podium – Kiner’s original pieces, for the most part, do not sound out of place next to the rest of the saga. This is partly why I listened to the soundtrack before seeing the movie: I wanted to see if the music would work just fine if there were real actors on the screen in costume. It’s not like this is John Williams meets Carl Stalling. There’s nothing I can think of that stands out as “cartoon music.” Slightly cliched bits of source music? Sure. Maybe all of a couple of minutes’ worth. This is why we have “next track” buttons.

Those expecting wholesale use of Williams’ themes all over the place, however, may be surprised – Kiner develops his own themes across the board, and while there are occasionally hints of the musical signatures originated by Williams, you don’t get big, obvious quotations of the original Star Wars themes until the very end, when some really neat variations on “The Imperial March” and the Ben Kenobi/Force theme roll out. By this time, you’ve grown so accustomed to not hearing a lot of the Williams material that their appearance comes as a shock, which is a neat effect.

Fans of Star Wars music will probably square off along a love/hate battle line to which no skirmish between clones and battle droids can compare when it comes to this album. With its orchestral-plus-occasional-rock-and-techno-beats style, this is post-Matrix Star Wars music. Oddly enough, fans who have already had their palates cleansed in advance by some of the better Star Wars game music of the past 10 years, from Force Commander’s rockin’ remixes to Empire At War’s stew of original material and Williams quotations, will be primed for this approach; those who have stuck to nothing but the original six film scores may be shocked.

4 out of 4The story of Star Wars, and its music, are under new management (though with George Lucas standing over everyone’s shoulder, clearly with the approval of the old guard), making new Star Wars stories for a new audience. And going by this first installment, there really isn’t anything necessarily wrong with that. It’s cracking good adventure movie music with a few nods back to some old favorites. Star Wars was such a boon to my generation when we were in our single digits – it single-handedly got me fascinated with the visual medium, orchestral music, and the concept of space as a whole, all of which have stayed with me my entire life. So even if this is the sound of Star Wars for our kids…that’s cool. They should be so lucky to have that same kind of inspiration.

Order this CD

  1. A Galaxy Divided (1:13)
  2. Admiral Yularen (0:56)
  3. Battle Of Christophsis (3:19)
  4. Meet Ahsoka (2:44)
  5. Obi-Wan To The Rescue (1:24)
  6. Sneaking Under The Shield (4:24)
  7. Jabba’s Palace (0:46)
  8. Anakin Vs. Dooku (2:18)
  9. Landing On Teth (1:43)
  10. Destroying The Shield (3:08)
  11. B’omarr Monastery (3:10)
  12. Battle Strategy (3:07)
  13. The Shield (1:36)
  14. Battle Of Teth (2:45)
  15. Jedi Don’t Run! (1:22)
  16. Obi-Wan’s Negotiation (2:07)
  17. The Jedi Council (2:04)
  18. Ahsoka (3:39)
  19. Jabba’s Chamber Dance (0:42)
  20. Ziro Surrounded (2:20)
  21. Scaling The Cliff (0:46)
  22. Ziro’s Nightclub Band (0:53)
  23. Seedy City Swing (0:34)
  24. Escape From The Monastery (3:12)
  25. Infiltrating Ziro’s Lair (2:21)
  26. Courtyard Fight (2:41)
  27. Dunes Of Tatooine (2:00)
  28. Rough Landing (3:03)
  29. Padme Imprisoned (0:50)
  30. Dooku Speaks With Jabba (1:28)
  31. Fight To The End (3:59)
  32. End Credits (0:51)

Released by: Sony Classical
Release date: 2008
Total running time: 67:23

Star Wars: Christmas In The Stars

Star Wars: Christmas In The StarsWhile just about every Star Wars fan knows about Meco and his classic Music Inspired by Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk album, most are unaware that he produced this holiday-themed Star Wars album after writing directly to George Lucas for permission to do so. Apparently, Lucas did not feel disillusioned enough following The Star Wars Holiday Special and gave the project the go ahead.

What resulted is exactly what you’d expect; a bunch of super-sugary sweet Christams-y songs that refer to elements of the Star Wars universe. For the most part, it’s the droids that get the attention, as Anthony Daniels as C-2PO and the sounds of R2-D2 introduce all the songs and Daniels sings (or speaks) a few himself.

The only original song that really stands out and deserves any kind of long-term re-play is “What Can You Get A Wookiee for Christmas (When He Already Owns a Comb)?”, which fulfills all the promise that preposterous title indicates. The rest are worth a chuckle or two, but mostly produce groans from all but the youngest Star Wars fans. The non-original tracks (“Sleigh Ride” and “A Christmas Sighting”) work better, as they are solid novelty versions of classic well-worn material.

I should make note of this album’s other claim to fame: the fact that it features the first recorded material by Jon Bon Jovi. Credited under his birth name, John Bongiovi, he sings lead on “R2-D2 We Wish You A Merry
Christmas” four years before Bon Jovi’s debut album. He’s virtually unrecognizable, not only because he was younger, but his voice is slightly altered (as all the voices are – to sound like elves, I guess). Still, if you’re a fan, you should get ahold of this little piece of Bon Jovi history.

Ultimately, Christmas In The Stars proves to be less than it could have been. It is neither a 3 out of 4timeless work (like Meco’s Galactic Funk) nor a monumental, so-bad-it’s-fantastic disaster like the Holiday Special. It’s a wacky novelty album that kids will love and adults can chuckle over. Star Wars fans will want it for completeness, but playing it at Christmastime is a tradition more likely to be honored in the breach than in the observance.

Order this CD

  1. Christmas In The Stars (3:17)
  2. Bells, Bells, Bells (3:15)
  3. The Odds Against Christmas (3:04)
  4. What Can You Get A Wookiee For Christmas (When He Already Owns A Comb)? (3:24)
  5. R2-D2 We Wish You A Merry Christmas (3:16)
  6. Sleigh Ride (3:36)
  7. Merry, Merry Christmas (2:09)
  8. A Christmas Sighting (‘Twas The Night Before…) (3:43)
  9. The Meaning Of Christmas (8:08)

Released by: RSO
Release date: 1980
Total running time: 33:52