Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom MenaceLadies and gentlemen, John Williams is back, and so is the universe of Star Wars. Many fans have been biting their nails over this element of the new movie, perhaps in fear that John Williams has lost his touch…but this film score proves that he has not. If anything, ever since I heard Williams’ music from Oliver Stone’s JFK and Nixon, I have been curious as to what the next Star Wars movie’s music would sound like – that is, if George Lucas ever got around to making the next movie.

In short…does the John Williams score for The Phantom Menace live up to the music from the original trilogy? Yes, it does. Given that this new film takes place a generation prior to the adventures of Luke Skywalker, in a complacent but basically pleasant galaxy that has yet to experience the horrors of Darth Vader or the Empire, the music is in a different vein. The constant military action in the original Star Wars trilogy demanded military music. But this “earlier” age in George Lucas’ fictional chronology, where the Jedi Knights are very much alive and well rather than legends of a bygone era, calls for more mysterious, and in some cases almost majestic music. Now, don’t become too alarmed – there is action music out the wazoo, and there are marches, and listening the The Phantom Menace soundtrack in the car may indeed give you the subliminal urge to dry to drive at hyperspace-worthy speeds.

To sum it up before we break down the entire CD track-by-track, John Williams knew what was expected of his music. The audience – and Lucas – wanted the immortal Star Wars/John Williams sound…as well as new surprises. And The Phantom Menace soundtrack does not disappoint in that regard.

Main Title / Arrival at Naboo: The familiar Star Wars signature theme opens the movie, instantly validating it as a real part of the storyline and turning us all into five-year-olds again, if only for a couple of minutes. Even before seeing the movie, I got chills from listening to this familiar tune segue into a new piece, a chunk of an adventure I had yet to experience. “The Arrival at Naboo” portion of this track follows the Star Wars main title tradition of opening up mysteriously and building up energy toward the end of the cue.

Duel of the Fates: This is the same piece which has been getting radio, MTV and VH-1 airplay. It’s this movie’s the equivalent of “The Imperial March” – a familiar theme which is woven throughout the fabric of the rest of the score, and at least one interview with George Lucas and John Williams has leaked out that this piece may underscore the final duel (we all know which one that will be) in the third prequel…so we can once again count on Lucas reverting back to the Return of the Jedi practice of occasionally tracking his new films with well-worn music. I have a love-hate relationship with “Duel of the Fates” – its primary choral motif is compelling and very memorable, but when the music slumps back into the low, menacing string rumble that seems to take forever to rebuild to the choral refrain, it seems as though the music has stopped short, never quite developing that motif further.

Anakin’s Theme: Wistful and nostalgic, “Anakin’s Theme” all but demands that we love Anakin Skywalker, for who but the most selfless and gentle child in the galaxy could merit such a nice theme tune? I’m a little mixed on this piece – it is very nice, don’t get me wrong, but I’m on the fence about the dubious merits of quoting “The Imperial March” from The Empire Strikes Back – a.k.a. Darth Vader’s theme – when virtually everyone knows that Anakin will become Vader in a matter of a few decades.

Jar Jar’s Introduction / The Swim To Otoh Gunga: Somewhere between Jawa music and Ewok music falls Jar Jar’s loping, comedic theme, very appropriate for his character. This theme literally dives into the flowing, mystical, and very choral music for the underwater trip to the Gungan city. I love this piece – the mysterious choral work reminds me a great deal of one of my all-time favorite instrumental pieces, Holst’s “Neptune” from The Planets. Williams provides music that really does flow over one like water, with appropriate tonal and atonal “undulations,” with an end result very much unlike anything in the original Star Wars trilogy. This is one of my favorite cues from the new movie.

The Sith Spacecraft / The Droid Battle: Opening with a classic terror-movie windup, this cue quickly jumps into a loud, threatening march, punctuated by a string quote of “Duel of the Fates”‘ primary motif.

The Trip to the Naboo Temple / An Audience with Boss Nass: After an opening crash, “The Trip to the Naboo Temple” moves forward with a low, menacing rhythm, worthy of an army of Battle Droids, but things lighten up considerably with some triumphant moments courtesy of our heroes. The music becomes, in turn, light-hearted and mysterious for “An Audience with Boss Nass” (the Gungan ruler voiced by Brian Blessed, who has guest-starred in virtually everything that has even been produced in Britain).

The Arrival on Tatooine / The Flag Parade: Opening up with an uncertain statement of Queen Amidala’s theme and another light-hearted hint of Jar Jar’s musical signature, things quickly get more serious. After a brief pause, a cue from later in the movie – a boisterous march marking the beginning of Jabba the Hutt’s Boonta Eve Podrace – kicks in. I rather like “The Flag Parade” – its combination of military bombast and oppressively heavy progressions gives it an air of a march in the Russian classical tradition.

He Is The Chosen One: A quiet and mysterious piece, this cue accompanies Qui-Gon’s growing suspicion that young Anakin Skywalker is destined for greater things. The Force theme, which was originally associated with Obi-Wan in the first movie’s score, leads into a sweeping flourish, which then decreases in intensity and leads to a restatement of “Anakin’s Theme”, followed by more uncertain “mystery” music. The cue closes out with a triumphant blast from the brass section.

Anakin Defeats Sebulba: This relentless action cue is also from the Podrace scene, right in the thick of the action. Things start out quietly, including another statement of the Force theme, which segues into something that sounds like an extension of “The Flag Parade” (which is placed later on the CD, but earlier in the film). Menacing “trouble” music and several quotations of “Anakin’s Theme” are heard. I’m sure this track will top several fans’ lists of their favorite Episode I musical moments, especially when the accompanying visuals are among the movie’s most dazzling sequences.

Watto’s Deal / Kids At Play: An almost atonal choral introduction leads into a very threatening-sounding passage which includes some ethnic-sounding reed elements. The music becomes only slightly less heavy with “Kids At Play”, which includes another choral moment, this one more mystic than menacing, though the music then proceeds to get much darker and more action-oriented.

Passage Through The Planet Core: Opening with more music reminiscent of Holst’s “Neptune”, things stay dark and murky for almost three minutes until a very nice statement of the Force theme. It seems that the latter 2/3 of this track must include music from other scenes in the movie, because “Anakin’s Theme” and more of Jar Jar’s amusing theme can be heard.

Panaka and the Queen’s Protectors: This swashbuckling number contains, aside from the opening seconds of the main theme, the only restatement of the Star Wars theme within the body of the movie – and you’ll miss it if you blink. Some almost Raiders of the Lost Ark-like moments punctuate the barrage of action music, until a quiet and percussive interruption intrudes, but the heroic antics quickly return, even more light-hearted than before.

Queen Amidala / The Naboo Palace: Unusually, given the title of this track, the music we first hear is very dark indeed, eventually leading to a rather romantic reading of “Anakin’s Theme”, followed by the return of the soaring fanfare heard toward the end of track 1. But this time, the fanfare is followed by some quiet, occasionally sinister music, culminating in a downbeat burst of orchestral fury.

The Droid Invasion / The Appearance of Darth Maul: A percussive intro similar to the opening seconds of track 4 is followed by an angry, oppressive march. But the real treat here is “The Appearance of Darth Maul”, which opens with several wavering, droning, falling notes, and then presents us with a rendition of what we previously knew as “The Emperor’s Theme” from Return of the Jedi, but given an even heavier treatment, with more prominent choral overtones than the previous film’s version of the same theme. It’s now likely that this isn’t the theme for Palpatine, but for the Sith Lords as a whole, since one of The Phantom Menace‘s inferences is that the Emperor, in the original trilogy, was the senior Sith Lord, fulfilling the role that Darth Sidious plays in this movie, pulling the strings as his younger apprentice did the footwork.

Qui-Gon’s Noble End: Possibly the best piece of music on the entire Episode I soundtrack, this number opens up at full throttle and keeps building the energy from there with a dark, militaristic battery of percussion. Of all the cues Williams composed for The Phantom Menace, it is this one which reminds me the most of his best work for the previous Star Wars trilogy. I would much rather have heard this released as a single than “Duel of the Fates”, since this cue takes the “Duel” theme and develops it fully. The silences are scary, and the thunderous full-blast moments are even scarier. Perhaps the biggest surprise is that it ends very quietly. This cue and “The Swim to Otoh Gunga” almost justify the purchase price of the album by themselves.

The High Council Meeting / Qui-Gon’s Funeral: Opening gently, and including a brief statement of Yoda’s theme from The Empire Strikes Back, followed by the only full statement of “The Imperial March” from the same movie (rather than the small hint of it built into “Anakin’s Theme”). This track gradually darkens as it segues, at the two-minute mark, into the funeral dirge for Liam Neeson’s fallen Jedi Knight, including a very effectively mournful statement of the Force theme and some beautiful choral moments, finally coming to a frighteningly uncertain end as the other Jedi contemplate the future of the boy that Qui-Gon brought into their fold before he fell.

Augie’s Great Municipal Band / End Title: I’ve already seen newsgroup and web site reviewers complaining about the two and a half minutes that open this cue, but I think it’s rather cute. A raucously brassy piece with children’s choir accents opens the proceedings, reminding one very much of Return of the Jedi‘s “Ewok Celebration”. Where the Ewok party jam sounded primitive and tribal, “Augie’s Great Municipal Band” comes across as almost Caribbean – the only thing missing is steel drums. The music reaches a brief climax and jumps into the traditional Star Wars end title suite, which adds a small twist to the main theme and then cuts off abruptly just before a “Duel of the Fates” reprise. After the “Duel” reprise ends, we slide into “Anakin’s Theme”, which leads to the biggest contrast to the 4 out of 4original trilogy’s end title suites. Instead of crashing into a triumphant flourish as the three original movies did, this suite closes with a quietly menacing reiteration of the “Imperial March” quote from “Anakin’s Theme”. In retrospect, The Phantom Menace‘s musical conclusion is much more like that of Williams’ music for JFK or Nixon.

Order this CD

  1. Main Title / Arrival at Naboo (2:55)
  2. Duel of the Fates (4:14)
  3. Anakin’s Theme (3:09)
  4. Jar Jar’s Introduction / The Swim To Otoh Gunga (5:07)
  5. The Sith Spacecraft / The Droid Battle (2:37)
  6. The Trip to the Naboo Temple / An Audience with Boss Nass (4:07)
  7. The Arrival on Tatooine / The Flag Parade (4:54)
  8. He Is The Chosen One (3:53)
  9. Anakin Defeats Sebulba (4:24)
  10. Watto’s Deal / Kids At Play (4:57)
  11. Passage Through The Planet Core (4:58)
  12. Panaka and the Queen’s Protectors (3:24)
  13. Queen Amidala / The Naboo Palace (4:51)
  14. The Droid Invasion / The Appearance of Darth Maul (5:14)
  15. Qui-Gon’s Noble End (3:48)
  16. The High Council Meeting / Qui-Gon’s Funeral (3:09)
  17. Augie’s Great Municipal Band / End Title (9:37)

Released by: Sony Classical
Release date: 1999
Total running time: 74:15