Score Wars: John Williams Strikes Back

By Jordan Gagné

Mailed on January 11, 2016

Dear John Williams,

It's not often that a film score is as eagerly anticipated as your score for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. And rarer still that the anticipation isn’t just coming from film music aficionados. The Star Wars film franchise is one of those rare cultural products where even casual fans have a fairly nuanced understanding of its accompanying music, so to say that your work on this project will be under a microscope is a bit of an understatement.

With your return to the franchise that made you a household name, many people, myself included, were anxious to see what you might add to the pantheon of Star Wars themes. Would there be something as instantly iconic as the “Main Title”? Something as powerful as “Binary Sunset” (also known as “The Force Theme”)? Or even something as epochal as “The Imperial March”? Never mind the equally fantastic music of the prequel trilogy, which, with epics like “Duel of the Fates,” were three masterpiece scores desperately in need of three better movies to go along with them.

Star Wars has always been your comfort zone, your sweet spot. So when I came out of the theatre after seeing The Force Awakens not being able to remember...well, anything of the brilliance I’d just heard, it was admittedly a little confusing.
 But was I going to stop there?

Of course not. You're the one composer whose legions of fans are going are going to go home and listen to the soundtrack as many times as it takes to unwrap what you just did. And they are not going to stop until they're humming something new. You've earned that trust, especially among Star Wars fans. So even though nothing stuck with me after my initial viewing, I listened until something did.

After giving the score a second listen, it started to make sense why there weren’t any of those catchy themes that were replete throughout the previous trilogies. The music in Force Awakens is incredibly unpredictable. For instance, your “March of the Resistance”is probably the most recognizable theme in the film, but it's highly resistant to short-term memory; the melody tumbles here and there, dips this way and that way—and just when you think you know where it's going, it veers off in the opposite direction. It's a testament to your mastery of musical form that you weren’t drawn into the predictable patterns that many composers find comfort in. Your refusal to write predictably is apparent throughout the score, and while this unpredictability perhaps earns deductions in the memorability department, it aces every other category with ease.
 “March of the Resistance” also shows a more nuanced approach to thematic writing. It would have been incredibly easy to go with a standard, all-major-all-the-time heroic theme (like your theme for 1978's Superman). The Resistance are the heroes, after all. But I was happy to see a less black-and-white interpretation in this piece, as the sudden chromaticisms give it a shade of darkness and ambiguity. It's an interesting take in a world where the themes have been, well, on-the-nose (regardless of how utterly brilliant they are). “The Imperial March” is fantastic, of course, but you have to think that if Darth Vader had commissioned a march for his stormtroopers, his feedback might have been along the lines of, “Uh, it’s great, John—but it sounds a kind of evil.”
 Speaking of evil, Kylo Ren's musical signature makes numerous appearances throughout the score, and musically it is likely what you would have expected. Menacing horns, swirling strings, and machine-gun trumpet stabs give it a slight resemblance to “The Imperial March”, but it's more of a leitmotif than a fully-fleshed out thematic piece (Kylo's Ren's theme can be heard at 4:20 of the opening track “Main Title and Attack on Jakku Village”). And while the first episode of the new trilogy leaves the villain without a fully-formed thematic piece, A New Hope actually did the same. Interestingly enough, “The Imperial March” was only written three years later for The Empire Strikes Back. While the current theme, like Vader's, is transparently ominous and evil, it works perfectly for Ren: he's so desperate to fill the enormous shoes of his grandfather that every part of his appearance is calculated to make him look bigger and more threatening than he actually is. If he had commissioned you for a theme, the only question would have been whether what you had written was evil enough.

Listening track-by-track to The Force Awakens is incredibly rewarding, as the writing itself is second to none. It may not be a treasure trove of new thematic gems, but it's still you at the top of your game. Despite some of your recent scores sounding somewhat dated by contemporary standards (2002's Minority Report is like taking a musical time machine to 1983, and War Horse to 1995), the Star Wars sound is timeless. And it's good to have you back.

But if there's one criticism I have, it's how you handled the film’s other most recognizable musical piece: “Rey's Theme”. While “March of the Resistance” demonstrates your nuance and restraint, with “Rey's Theme” you pull an age-old film scoring move by giving the pretty young heroine the pretty little instruments: a bouncy flute here, a twinkly celeste there. But she's not a dainty little girl – she's a feisty, mind-controlling, lightsaber-wielding, scavenger-engineer-fighter-pilot jedi-in-the-making – and while this impressive resume is assembled over two hours and sixteen minutes, she's a badass from her very first scene. It may be a long, long time ago in a galaxy far away, but she's a modern woman. J.J. Abrams and company manage to make that abundantly clear, whether it's with her refusal to be led by the hand or her knowing just as much about spacefaring circuitry as perennial man's man Han Solo, so I can't help but think that your choice of instruments for Rey is missing the point a little.

That being said, the rest of the score more than makes up for that misstep. “The Jedi Steps and Finale” is a thrilling journey through themes both new and old alike, and ends the film with a hype-inducing punch. So while your score may leave moviegoers without something new to hum as they exit the cinemas, it's still easily one of the best scores of the year.



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