J.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 is 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.
- Main Title and the Attack on the Jakku Village (6:25)
- The Scavenger (3:39)
- I Can Fly Anything (3:11)
- Rey Meets BB-8 (1:31)
- Follow Me (2:54)
- Rey’s Theme (3:11)
- The Falcon (3:32)
- That Girl With The Staff (1:58)
- The Rathtars! (4:05)
- Finn’s Confession (2:08)
- Maz’s Counsel (3:07)
- The Starkiller (1:51)
- Kylo Ren Arrives At The Battle (2:01)
- The Abduction (2:25)
- Han And Leia (4:41)
- March Of The Resistance (2:35)
- Snoke (2:03)
- On the Inside (2:05)
- Torn Apart (4:19)
- The Ways Of The Force (3:14)
- Scherzo For X-wings (2:32)
- Farewell And The Trip (4:55)
- The Jedi Steps and Finale (8:51)
Released by: Disney Music
Release date: December 18, 2015
Total running time: 77:28