Star Wars: Shadow of the Empire

Star Wars: Shadow of the EmpireWhen I saw this one on the store shelf, it sure surprised me. Here’s a soundtrack to a movie that doesn’t exist! In case you haven’t been keeping up, “Shadows Of The Empire” is Lucasfilm Ltd.’s desperate attempt to make sure no one can forget the Star Wars franchise between now and whenever George Lucas finally gets around to doing a new Star Wars film, which is itself an uncertainty. In the interim, starting in 1990, Lucasfilm began authorizing other parties to play with his characters and settings in the forms of books and comics whose continuity with the original films was closely monitored and engineered by Lucasfilm. After the first four of those books, I lost interest in the Star Wars universe as seen by authors other than Lucas, and so it remained until I spotted this album. To say that a new dose of Star Wars music piqued my interest would be an understatement. I’ve always considered John Williams’ body of work from 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back to be the best film score ever conceived, and much of the its predecessor’s music comes in not far behind.

One of my first hesitations about this CD was that the music is by Joel McNeely, not John Williams. McNeely is a George Lucas discovery who has scored episodes and TV movies of Young Indiana Jones, as well as Lucas’ film Radioland Murders and the recent rehashing of Flipper. Shadows Of The Empire opens with the immortal main Star Wars theme by Williams, indeed treating the album as if it’s a movie in its own right. Other material originated by Williams is incorporated in the album, though only sparingly – it keeps the royalty expenditures to a minimum, I imagine! McNeely seems to be trying to compose music in the Williams/Star Wars vein, but rather like the soundtrack album from Battlestar Galactica, it reaches my ears as John Williams pastiche. There are a few passages that show promise, but too much of this music seems to be trying to emulate Williams’ bombast instead of trying to find its own identity.

One good step in the right direction is the utilization of a large orchestra and a choral component that made some of Return of the Jedi’s more climactic moments all the more weighty. Specifically, McNeely conducts the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Chorus, a combined ensemble with a complement that rivals the size of Williams’ favored London Symphony. The choir is used to wonderful effect, at times reciting a poem by Ben Burtt (who created all the strangely effective alien languages for the Star Wars movies) which gives the whole thing a surprisingly epic, quasi-religious ambience.

The most effective piece on the entire disc is the final track, a space battle scene lasting nearly eleven minutes which has its own flaws – in places, it’s just too loud, too jarring, too apocalyptic…in short, too much! Other selections are guilty of sounding too bouncy and lighthearted (which is very much a John Williams artifact, a sometimes out-of-place Korngold-esque celebratory sound).

I really cannot recommend that anyone approach or avoid Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire; it’s growing on me slowly, but will take time to really sink in. It is not authentic John Williams, and isn’t even particularly good Williams Lite. It’s fine music in its own way, but no one ever should have tried to pass it off as a new entry in the Star Wars musical lexicon. Even Williams’ own music for Oliver Stone’s recent film Nixon – most assuredly not a science fiction movie, depending on how stalwart your political affiliations were in 1972 – smack much more of Star Wars than this album. I must also confess I haven’t read the “Shadows Of The Empire” books and really don’t intend to partake of them, so maybe knowing the story would help to grasp 3 out of 4this work better. Again, no recommendations or caveats – approach this item at your own speed. It’d be a great body of work if it were possible to go into it with no preconceptions, but who can live up to the standard set by John Williams in 1977 and 1980? The prejudice can’t be avoided with the words “Star Wars” on the front cover of the disc.

Order this CD

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

Released by: Varese Sarabande
Release date: 1996
Total running time: 66:16