Directors: George Lucas, Irvin Kershner, and Richard Marquand
Composer: John Williams
When John Williams scored the original Star Wars films, he set a precedent for the revival of the epic film score, bringing back what was started in the 1930s and 1940s era of Hollywood classic movies. It is my personal opinion that John Williams’ scores improve over time, and as such, the music for the recent prequels is richer and more magical, while still drawing upon major themes from the former three films. My affinity for his work is unparalleled, and I could in no way do it justice with a mere review. It is too difficult to narrow my scope to just one of the six Star Wars films, since they each contain such stunningly exhilarating pieces of music. I therefore made the decision to write two long reviews, one for each of the two trilogies, highlighting two pieces from each film.
I will go in chronological order by release date rather than by episode, beginning with A New Hope. At the time, George Lucas and his collaborators had no idea if Star Wars would be a success, much less a worldwide phenomenon. In fact, there was initially no plan to go beyond one film, even though the title sequence read “Episode 4.” Lucas intended this as a storytelling technique, to begin in media res, Latin for “in the middle of things.” He must have imagined it more interesting to start in the middle, gradually but never completely revealing the backstory.
As for the score, Lucas had originally assembled his favorite Classical works to complement the film, a technique utilized for 2001: A Space Odyssey. However, his friend and colleague Steven Spielberg recommended John Williams to write an original score, convinced that it would be more effective. Having worked with Williams on Jaws, Spielberg knew what he was capable of. Little did he know that their professional creative relationship would continue on to last over 40 years!
John Williams was no doubt the only man for the project. Just imagine how different the films would be, not to mention music in general, without the genius of John Williams! When beginning the scoring process for this first film, George Lucas wanted to have leitmotifs, or recurring musical themes, to help the audience distinguish between complex characters and situations. Williams went on to make that his trademark and specialty, as is evident in the legacy of his career.
Starting with Episode IV: A New Hope, I will now narrow my discussion to two selections per film. Where to begin with such a vast array of excellent choices? I would have to begin with the track entitled “Ben’s Death and TIE Fighter Attack,” which begins with Luke witnessing the downfall of Obi-Wan Kenobi and culminating in a small-scale space battle in defense of the Millennium Falcon against Imperial TIE Fighters.
The piece begins with a French horn solo as Obi-Wan looks at Luke for the last time, and then sacrifices himself to the strike of Darth Vader’s light saber. Swelling strings give energy to the scene as Luke shouts out in disbelief, drawing the attention of storm troopers and their laser guns. Once out of harm’s way, we have some reflective transitional music as Luke ponders the loss of his mentor. Then we gear up for a skirmish as Han Solo and Luke retreat to their separate cockpits, ready to fight off oncoming imperial attackers. What follows is probably one of John Williams’ most unique works up to that time, a brassy adventure piece that is rhythmic without heavy percussion. Williams found a unique way to look at a fight scene: adventurous rather than melodramatic. This is part of what made Star Wars fun, what lifted it off the movie screen and pulled the audience into the action at the same time. It almost becomes a theme for Han Solo, who fills the role as space cowboy and rugged hero in the film.
The second piece I will discuss is “The Battle of Yavin,” by far the most engaging and climactic piece in the film. If you had to pick only one piece to listen to, pick this one. It has a little bit of everything, and manages to keep you on the edge of your seat for the entire nine minutes. One thing about John Williams’ music is that it is constantly changing, constantly evolving. He is always throwing in unexpected key and time signature changes to match the action onscreen, providing variety for the listener. The piece chronicles the film’s final battle between the Rebel Alliance and the Galactic Empire over the Death Star near Yavin 4, the moon harboring the rebel base. At the climax of the film, Han Solo reappears out of nowhere to create a diversion, in order to give Luke a time window to blow up the Death Star. Luke makes the final pass and everyone holds their breath as we hear a repetitive brass note, speeding up and leading us to a realization of victory. The music following the Death Star’s grandiose explosion is magical and empowering, with the use of chimes and swelling strings, marking the defeat of the Empire. We are left with feelings of hope and elation.
Music links for Episode IV: A New Hope :
Ben Dies and TIE Fighter Attack: Ben Dies and TIE Fighter Attack
The Battle of Yavin: The Battle of Yavin
Now on to Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. George Lucas once described the storytelling process of writing a trilogy in the following way: the first episode is introducing the characters and the problems. The second episode is the characters falling in a hole (metaphorically speaking). And the third episode is the characters getting out of that hole.
Such can also be said of the music. John Williams not only revisited and expounded upon original themes from the first film, but explored and created new ones as well. The two themes I will discuss for Empire are in stark contrast to one another, one representing the dark side, and the other representing the light.
The world-famous “Imperial March,” or Darth Vader’s theme, symbolizes the Empire and the Dark Side of the Force. Played in a minor key, the march is both rhythmic and systematic, evoking feelings of fear and awe, while carrying a simple melody line that can be inserted wherever needed and woven into other themes with various tones. This theme functions to identify the villains of the story as well as the very concept of evil.
On the other hand, we have “Yoda’s theme,” which embodies all that is good and light. It begins in the upper register of the violins and descends to the cellos, which ebb and flow to project sentiments of hope and wisdom, characteristics possessed by the character Yoda himself. The strings are accompanied by woodwinds and the occasional harp glissando. The piece is played in a major key and becomes even whimsical at times, demonstrating that light can overpower darkness.
The Empire Strikes Back contains many more great themes, of course, but I chose those listed above because they define the two opposing forces in the saga.
Music links for Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back :
Imperial March: Imperial March
Yoda’s Theme: Yoda’s Theme
Finally, we have arrived at the final film in the entire Star Wars saga: Return of the Jedi. Both Lucas and Williams knew that, whether or not they would eventually make prequels, this film would end the entire saga, and it had to end well.
First, I fell in love with a piece included as a bonus track, entitled “The Forest Battle.” It tells the story of the little ewoks helping the rebels defeat the Empire once and for all. I can listen to it over and over and never grow tired of it. The last 40 seconds of the piece were incidentally used for the Attack of the Clones trailer many years later. Primarily brass and percussion, its playful and magical qualities complement the film’s spirit of adventure.
The second theme I have chosen defines the relationship between Luke and Princess Leia, whom he eventually discovers to be his sister. We hear it in the scene where the two converse on a treetop bridge on Endor, Luke expressing his need to face his father. The theme, entitled “Luke and Leia,” begins in the flute section and descends to become a French horn solo, implying nobility. Then the cellos take their turn and play off the violins in a soaring yet profound expression of hope. Though Williams is famous for his love themes, this one is different because it carries the emotions of concern for loved ones rather than romantic attachment. It is under this music that Luke tells Leia that she is his sister, and she replies, “I know…somehow, I’ve always known.” The notion that the force binds a family together, even when they are initially unaware of their relationship, is evidenced by this theme.
Music Links for Episode VI: Return of the Jedi :
The Forest Battle: The Forest Battle
Luke and Leia: Luke and Leia
In conclusion, John Williams has ingeniously given life to one of the most enduring cultural phenomena of all time. Most serious fans agree that these original three films are the best, but wherever you stand on the spectrum of fandom, their musical scores provided a framework for the rest of the films and undoubtedly changed the face of film music forever. Please stay tuned for Part 2: Episodes I, II, and III.