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

SpaceCamp – music by John Williams

SpaceCamp - music by John WilliamsSpaceCamp is one of those movies that had a serious handicap going into the theater. And its handicap wasn’t even the inherent (but earnest) goofiness of its plotline – a bunch of kids attending the U.S. Space Camp actually winding up in space because of a shuttle malfunction caused by a robot befriended by one of the “crew” – but by the worst kind of bad timing imaginable. There was no way that the makers of SpaceCamp could’ve known that somewhere between wrapping final photography and getting the movie into theaters, the space shuttle Challenger and her crew would die a fiery death in front of millions. Furthermore, some of the actual space shuttle footage filmed for the movie included Challenger’s previous mission. The release date was continually bumped further and further into 1986, until the film was finally unleashed on a public that had been treated to endless replays of Challenger exploding for the better part of a year.

It shocked absolutely no one that the movie didn’t do very well, but film music fans were mesmerized by John Williams‘ latest score. In the years following the end of the original Star Wars trilogy (and the years between Indiana Jones’ second and third cinematic adventures), Williams seemed to be staying out of orbit and being more choosy with his assignments. For fans of Williams’ classic adventure scores, SpaceCamp was a return to form. An LP pressing of the soundtrack from SpaceCamp was in print for what seemed like the blink of an eye, and aside from a Japanese-market-only CD pressing that went for prices that would’ve paid for another space shuttle, that was it.

Intrada’s long-awaited re-release – which, again, sold out in a heartbeat – is essentially a new pressing of the Japanese CD, this time with Intrada’s trademark extensive liner notes booklet (in English, thankfully) detailing the film’s production, its rough theatrical landing, and of course the history of its elusive soundtrack. For those who had never been able to afford a copy before, Intrada’s SpaceCamp soundtrack was a gift from the heavens… at least while it was available.

The music itself is classic Williams, especially once events in the movie move into space. A more contemporary sound is evident in earthbound scenes such as “Training Montage”, but still bearing the heroic touch that Williams was no doubt tapped to add to the film’s sound. There’s even an almost-obligatory nod to the composer’s existing body of work, if a slightly predictable one (the youngest of the film’s stars, scared out of his wits, has to be stirred into action by one of the other kids urging him to “use the Force” over the radio – surely you don’t need to think too hard to imagine what music Williams quotes there).

3 out of 4As goofy and ill-timed as the film itself was, however, SpaceCamp got the kind of full-blooded adventure movie music that seems to be in short supply these days, as more modern composers lean more heavily toward the exotic. The reason Williams’ fans loved this score is that it brought back the kind of unapologetically straightforward sound he was best known for. Whatever the movie itself failed to achieve, the SpaceCamp soundtrack delivers in spades.

Order this CD

  1. Main Title (3:12)
  2. Training Montage (2:03)
  3. The Shuttle (5:06)
  4. The Computer Room (1:58)
  5. Friends Forever (2:24)
  6. In Orbit (3:16)
  7. White Sands (6:56)
  8. SpaceCamp (4:11)
  9. Viewing Daedalus (2:48)
  10. Max Breaks Loose (2:25)
  11. Andie Is Stranded (4:12)
  12. Max Finds Courage (2:23)
  13. Re-Entry (3:59)
  14. Home Again (3:30)

Released by: Intrada
Release date: 2010
Total running time: 48:23

Black Sunday – music by John Williams

Black SundayLet’s say it’s the 1970s, and you’re doing a movie about a plot to kill a lot of people at the Super Bowl – a movie that won’t wind up on MST3K. A disaster movie, a well-worn and dying breed at the time, one that requires a big, dramatic orchestral score. Who do you call? You’ve probably got one John Williams – the man best known at the time as the maestro behind Jaws – on speed dial. (This is really more of a figure of speech than anything – you probably call the switchboard operator downstairs from your posh office on the studio lot and have her call Williams for you, because speed dial hasn’t been invented yet. Damned inconvenient.) That seems to have been the case for Black Sunday, which has just been released by Film Score Monthly.

Black Sunday is an oddity in Williams’ repertoire – aside from diehard Williams fans, not a lot of people know it’s even there. The movie was released early in 1977 by Paramount, and as is well known by now, another movie hit theaters in May 1977 which all but erased Black Sunday from the public film-going consciousness, a movie that also had a John Williams score. As such, Black Sunday has the odd distinction of being the only post-Jaws Williams soundtrack that has never been released – not even on vinyl or any other medium – until now.

And it was definitely worth the wait: there’s little in the Black Sunday soundtrack that sounds dated; only one distinctively ’70s-style source cue and the end credit suite, played over a gentle, mid-tempo ’70s-style soft rock beat, give the game away (and in any case, the typically extensive Film Score Monthly liner notes reveal that this version wasn’t used in the final edit of the film; another mix, minus the pop elements, is presented here but also went unused). The vast majority of the music sits nicely between Jaws and Star Wars, with menacing, brooding themes for the building suspense, and Williams’ signature style of action music, though it takes on a more worried tone than his often 4 out of 4celebratory style.

The Black Sunday soundtrack is a lost gem from the Williams repertoire, and fans of his music from this era won’t be let down – even if the music comes from a movie that isn’t usually mentioned in the same breath as Williams’ more, ahem, super efforts.

Order this CD

  1. Beirut (0:37)
  2. Commandos Arrive (1:14)
  3. Commandos Raid (5:30)
  4. It Was Good / Dahlia Arrives / The Unloading (3:12)
  5. Speed Boat Chase (1:51)
  6. The Telephone Man / The Captain Returns (2:13)
  7. Nurse Dahlia / Kabakov’s Card / The Hypodermic (3:30)
  8. Moshevsky’s Dead (1:56)
  9. The Test (1:56)
  10. Building The Bomb (1:53)
  11. Miami / Dahlia’s Call (2:26)
  12. The Last Night (1:28)
  13. Preparations (2:43)
  14. Passed (0:31)
  15. The Flight Check (1:50)
  16. Airborne / Bomb Passes Stadium (1:45)
  17. Farley’s Dead (1:33)
  18. The Blimp and the Bomb (3:12)
  19. The Take Off (1:43)
  20. Underway (0:39)
  21. Air Chase, Part 1 (1:12)
  22. Air Chase, Parts 2 & 3 – The Blimp Hits (7:19)
  23. The Explosion (2:36)
  24. The End (2:19)
  25. Hotel Lobby (source) (1:47)
  26. Fight Song #1 (0:50)
  27. Fight Song #2 (1:48)
  28. The End (Alternate) (2:17)
  29. The Explosion (Revised Ending) (2:11)

Released by: Film Score Monthly
Release date: 2010
Total running time: 64:01