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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
  • Composed by Michael Giacchino
  • Walt Disney Records / 2016 / 69m

When Disney bought Lucasfilm, I think a lot of Star Wars fans were quite nervous about what they planned to do with it, immediately announcing not just the new trilogy of sequels but also that there would be various spinoffs.  The fear, of course, was that quantity would be favoured over quality – but it would appear that so far the studio has got things right, with the first of the spinoffs being Rogue One, which has survived what was reported to be a hellish post-production to become not just the commercial hit it was always bound to be but a critical one too.

The film leads directly up to the opening scene of the original Star Wars, telling the story of the rebels acquiring the plans for the Death Star, allowing the heroic deeds of Luke Skywalker and co to happen.  Director Gareth Edwards hired – rather excitingly – his Godzilla composer Alexandre Desplat to write the score, but that troubled post-production ended up being led by somebody else, and he didn’t want Desplat – so on came Michael Giacchino, a composer who has seemed destined to write music for this universe for quite a long time.  He didn’t have that long to write his score, and faced the daunting prospect of following in the footsteps of perhaps the most iconic film score written in his lifetime – following John Williams on Jurassic World was one thing, doing it on Star Wars a whole different ball game.

Michael Giacchino

While I’m all for musical continuity, I think it often sounds pretty awkward and forced when film composers try to weave around pre-existing themes when they’re scoring sequels – and while there was a superficial resemblance to John Williams earlier in his career, Michael Giacchino has developed a highly distinctive sound of his own – it wasn’t an unqualified success when he used Williams’s iconic themes in Jurassic World, with slightly jarring transitions between the two composers’ music in an otherwise very entertaining score.  Rogue One is different though – while it’s a Giacchino score through and through, the effort that went into getting close enough to Williams’s sound from the original Star Wars trilogy that the use of themes would not have that jarring quality is evident for all to hear.

But while this is very evidently music in the Star Wars universe, it is also different in many ways to the music from the main chronology of films.  Most obviously, the score starts and – well, the main theme isn’t there.  Instead, “He’s Here For Us” launches straight into some tense action music, with Williamsesque wind writing and brass leading into the first performance of one of the score’s most significant new themes, for Imperial Director of Weapons Research Krennic – it actually reminds me a bit more of a darker take on The Force Awakens‘s “March of the Resistance” rather than “The Imperial March” – but it’s a very effective bad guy theme.

Another of the score’s new themes, Jyn’s Theme, appears later in that cue and then again in the subsequent “A Long Ride Ahead”.  This one recalls the composer’s excellent Yorktown Theme from Star Trek Beyond earlier in the year, though only fairly superficially.  After some dark action (unmistakably Giacchino, particularly with the very dry recording dynamic) we come to a very brief statement the Hope Theme to end the cue, which shares its opening leap with the main Star Wars theme.  A bit of a tragic sound then comes in “Wobani Imperial Labour Camp” before a more strident version of Jyn’s Theme in “Trust Goes Both Ways” (which is also the first appearance on the album of a Williams theme, the exceptional Force Theme being granted a little cameo).  The cue turns out to be not particularly interesting, dominated by suspense (and one particularly jarring effect) and I wonder if it might have been better left off the album.

Krennic’s Theme is back in opulent martial style to both start and end “When Has Become Now”, sandwiching more suspenseful noodling, which continues into “Jedha Arrival”, which features some more interesting textures including a very Goldsmithian synth effect which again is a little jarring (it is most resolutely not a sound you would associate with Star Wars).  Finally we lead into the first major action music since the opening, “Jedha City Ambush”, which is more like it – rhythmic and exciting, it brings to mind Attack of the Clones and its “Chase Through Coruscant” and “On the Conveyer Belt” via the Williams-approximated sound that dominated some of Giacchino’s classic video game music.  It’s great stuff.  “Star-Dust” by contrast opens with magical shimmering strings working their way around hints of Jyn’s Theme, leading into a lovely piano arrangement of it before some dark murmurings of tragedy end the cue.

The longest cue is “Confrontation on Eadu”, an eight-minute action set-piece which sees Giacchino pull out all the stops.  Staccato bursts of action leap forth, there’s a little airing of Williams’s Death Star theme from the first film, but Jyn’s Theme plays the major melodic supporting role, and it very much takes the lead at the end of the cue where it soars away in its most emotional incarnation, the high drama unfolding on screen very much reflected in the score.  “Krennic’s Aspirations” offers not just a no-holds-barred version of his theme and some other music very much in that vein, but also sees Darth Vader’s Theme introduced into proceedings – not before a welcome appearance by the much lesser-known Imperial Theme Williams had used in the first film.

“Rebellions are Built on Hope” is the cue where the tide starts to turn away from the darker sound which has dominated the preceding section and go exactly where the title implies it will, with the Hope Theme back for the first time since very early on, playing off Jyn’s Theme very nicely.  “Rogue One” is a brief but satisfying burst of action (including the Force Theme and some excellent rumbling piano writing alongside the strings) and then “Cargo Shuttle SW-0608” feels a bit like the calm before the storm, some impressively Williamsesque suspense music mixing in with Giacchino’s style.  Things really get going again in “Scrambling the Rebel Fleet”, which inevitably features the Rebel Fleet, less inevitably a little hint of the main Williams theme, and an excellent action take on Jyn’s Theme.  I love “AT-ACT Assault” with its clear allusions to The Empire Strikes Back‘s “Battle of Hoth” – of course it’s not as good as that, but not much is, and it’s great to hear the various homages Giacchino pays within the cue, which is the score’s most genuinely exciting.

There’s an ever-growing tension in “The Master Switch”, a storm circling around with the swirling strings eventually joined by the brass, drums accentuating a never-ending rhythm.  There’s the briefest glimpse of the Guardian of the Whills Theme, barely heard in the body of the score but given a starring role later on.  The score’s best cue is its most emotional, “Your Father Would Be Proud”, a requiem of sorts with gorgeous string writing (not unlike what Giacchino provided to the finest musical moments of Lost) and choir to pull at the heartstrings.  It’s really very moving.  The film’s finale is “Hope”, but of course we know what happens next and after some epic choral material it’s Darth Vader’s Theme that takes the starring role before The Force Theme enters in a way that is just right to finish things off.

For the end titles Giacchino wrote extended arrangements of his various themes; within the film they are bookended by the Williams main theme, but not on the album, where they are split into three separate (self-contained) cues.  “Jyn Erso and Hope Suite” offers beautiful versions of those two themes featuring some sumptuous writing for violin and cello – I especially like the very tender way the first of the themes is handled.  “The Imperial Suite” (which sounds like the name of a hotel room you might have found in Delhi in Victorian times) is a great take on Krennic’s Theme, all bold and brassy and very satisfying.  The biggest surprise is “Guardians of the Whills Suite”, which turns that little glimpse of melody heard in “The Master Switch” into a glorious piece, complete with clear homage to “Across the Stars” from Attack of the Clones.

I think Rogue One is fantastic.  Michael Giacchino has seemed for some time to be the most likely composer to take over Star Wars when John Williams hangs up his baton, and while there’s no sign of that happening yet, this score shows that he’s more than ready for the job.  It would be remiss not to also say that another thing this score shows is just how damn good Williams is: for all its quality, and it’s undoubtedly one of the most impressive Hollywood scores of the year, at no point does it come close to being as good as Williams’s own music.  In some ways of course Williams is in a whole different galaxy, but the fact is that actually on this occasion Giacchino is playing in that galaxy so comparison is inevitable and so is disappointment if you spend too long going down that course.  The musical storytelling is just not as vivid as Williams’s and the themes not as memorable (nobody’s are) but I do think Giacchino really stepped up, managing to write his own thing while skirting around Williams’s style closely enough for it to be a very impressive achievement indeed.  A lot of reaction seems to have been considerably more negative, which surprises me – Giacchino is a popular composer and I struggle to see much here that’s not to like.

Rating: **** | |

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  1. James Southall (Reply) on Friday 23 December, 2016 at 21:59

    I have rarely deliberated as long over a star rating as this one. It’s clearly better than say Jurassic World, which I awarded four stars. It’s clearly nowhere near as good as Williams’s Star Wars scores so giving it only half a star less than them felt too generous. So maybe it should get four and a quarter.

  2. James Southall (Reply) on Friday 23 December, 2016 at 22:02

    Also clearly better than Star Trek Beyond, which I also gave four stars too. Also better than Doctor Strange (also four stars). None of those ratings feels over-generous with hindsight but I still couldn’t quite take the plunge to give this any more. Odd. I’ll shut up now.

  3. Mickey (Reply) on Friday 23 December, 2016 at 22:50

    Nice review, well done.

    I find it odd though that you prefer this over ST Beyond or Doctor Strange; I would rank both above Rogue One – Star Trek in general features Giacchino’s strongest thematic material to date, and Doctor Strange scores points for some originality and a truly magnificent finale on album. Rogue One, on the other hand – while slowly growing on me – is just wholy unoriginal and just hasn’t that much to offer outside of some highlights you also mention.

    I also think it weird that most people attribute only a superficial similarity of Jyn’s theme and the STB Yorktown theme. The progression of Jyn’s theme is actually right there in every Star Trek score in the secondary ST theme. They are not obviously the same in their respective suite statements, but they often feel identical when popping up in various form in the course of the scores, which for me just brings to mind Star Trek again and again while listening to Rogue One. Speaks for Giacchino’s Star Trek identity, I guess; not so much for Rogue One …

  4. Aidabaida (Reply) on Saturday 24 December, 2016 at 00:06

    Well, your comments on the star rating deliberation suggest that all five star ratings are equal.

    A Giacchino five star does not < A Williams five star.

  5. CK (Reply) on Saturday 24 December, 2016 at 03:22

    Perhaps you should colour-code your star ratings, James… 😉

  6. William Bard (Reply) on Saturday 24 December, 2016 at 05:03

    Just FYI, the theme that opens and closes “When Has Become Now” and “The Imperial Suite” is not Krennic’s theme; it is his new Imperial Theme. For comparison, Krennic’s Theme can be heard in the former at 1:29, and the latter at 1:06.

  7. Adam (Reply) on Saturday 24 December, 2016 at 05:42

    Interesting review James.
    It’s a very, very good score. Parts of it make me want it to be a 5* score., but it just doesn’t quite hit the top notes overall.

  8. Ghostof82 (Reply) on Saturday 24 December, 2016 at 09:25

    There was a moment towards the end – I think it was when Jyn loads the plans into the transmitter up in the tower- that I swear the music slipped into a Star Trek theme from one of his recent scores. It was quite jarring. Other than that, in the film at least it seemed like a decent score, albeit nothing spectacular. Doubt I’ll buy the album, unless it goes cheap in a sale.

  9. tiago (Reply) on Saturday 24 December, 2016 at 15:09

    Yeah, it’s a good score… Although I think it could be slightly better if Giacchino was given more time.

    In retrospect, I still prefer Star Trek Beyond and Doctor Strange. I have to say that STB was a great surprise earlier this year, an really entertaining score with some great percussion writing. I think I even prefer Jurassic World, which had some great original themes. All of them, of course, not as great as Giacchino’s entries on “not based on anything” sci-fi movies, like Jupiter Ascending and Tomorrowland.

    Anyway, I have the impression that this score will grow on me the more I hear it, so there’s that.

  10. Sanchit Varma (Reply) on Monday 26 December, 2016 at 13:47

    Yeah. I always thought the logical person to replace Williams for Star Wars is Giacchino and thus was glad that the reshoots made this happen. He has had quite a year with STB, Doctor Strange and saving the best for the last – Rogue One.

    I feel it is unfair to compare anyone to John Williams and seeing this is an anthology film, I have pushed all comparisons out of my mind.

    That saying, it is a VERY GOOD score. The new themes for the empire and Orson Krennic are bold and menacing and sounded brilliant in the movie. I love the fact that he has also used the pretty much unknown Death Star/Empire theme from A New Hope multiple times in the score making the connection to A New Hope even clearer.

    The Jyn Erso and Hope themes are beautiful, rousing and emotional. The two times the Jyn theme is used in the movie with full effect (After the ambush in Eadu and towards the end) were so powerful that they made me tear up. Also, using a haunting choir for the Darth Vader scene towards the very end was a inspired decision.

    Stop comparing this score to William’s works. This is a beautiful, exciting and rousing score.

  11. T. Webb (Reply) on Thursday 29 December, 2016 at 16:14

    ^^ “Stop comparing this score to William’s works. This is a beautiful, exciting and rousing score.”

    Well said!!

  12. Timothy Snyder (Reply) on Tuesday 10 January, 2017 at 16:53

    I really like it, with the exception of the main cue first found in A Long Ride Ahead. It comes off too happy and celebratory for the surrounding movie, especially when it first appears during the title card.

    The first few notes are clearly supposed to invoke the main Star Wars theme, but it comes off feeling like the theme for a Star Wars TV show.

    I loved Star-Dust, which is pure Giacchino through and through. If you close your eyes, you might think you’re watching LOST.

  13. Timothy Snyder (Reply) on Tuesday 10 January, 2017 at 16:55

    Also, I’ll forever be left to wonder what Desplat’s soundtrack would have sounded like. As much as I love Giacchino, Desplat always seemed like a better fit for the tone of this movie.

  14. Garland (Reply) on Tuesday 17 January, 2017 at 19:41

    Tonally, I struggle to marry this score with the film’s rather dark narrative and visuals. It feels rather heavy-handedly bright and sensational during the action cues–as if having been lifted from seventies Saturday morning superhero serial. Despite crafting some lovely themes here, Giacchino fails–as, sadly, often is the case–to develop and interweave them. Rather the score careens from one rote thematic presentation to the next, almost as though a scoring algorithm simply patched in the appropriate theme when a requisite character appeared on screen. Sometimes, it sounds like I’m listening to The Incredibles rather than arguably the grimmest story yet told in the Star Wars universe. Other times, I’m certain Rogue One shares more with Giacchino’s Star Trek scores than any Star Wars.

    Admittedly, I’m no “fan” of Giacchino’s work, generally. However, I do own and love his scores for 2009’s Star Trek and Super 8 and thought his music for the TV show Lost was excellent. But I cringed when I read he’d replaced Desplat as composer for Rogue One. I just found no indication from his body of work that he was capable of providing a score that accomplishes what Star Wars requires of its scores: Serve as emotional and psychological bedrock. If this “standalone” Star Wars movie didn’t run right up against the beginning of A New Hope, perhaps I’d feel more forgiving of its emotional miscues and genre-lampooning bombast. But it does abut A New Hope, and no matter where it began, musically (I’ll give Giacchino that latitude), by the end it should feel like Star Wars.

    Which this music never does. The more I listen to it, the more I’m able to appreciate Rogue One as a standalone composition. I even really adore parts of it–in the same way I adore the best parts of Super 8. But none of Rogue One is iconic; none of it is infectious or inevitable in the way John Williams’ themes are when that is his goal (it took three listens of Rogue One to begin to distinguish themes in the music). Michael Giacchino simply hasn’t shown himself to be the caliber of composer able to fill John Williams’ shoes once he decides to retire from the Star Wars endeavor. So, while Rogue One is a good effort under what sounds like difficult circumstances, I hope the search goes on for a composer who understands the role music needs to play in a Star Wars film and has the virtuosity to provide it.

    • Ghostof82 (Reply) on Tuesday 17 January, 2017 at 22:36

      It isn”t really his kind of movoe, but I wonder if Howard Shore might be good for Star Wars? His scores have complexity and melodic structure. Its so crazy it just might work…

    • Icbeoaneistari (Reply) on Monday 15 July, 2019 at 08:47

      I have always thought that though in his early days, Michael Giacchino mimicked John Williams’ orchestrations from Indiana Jones like in Medal Of Honor but he never quite had the melodic or tonal sensibilities that I would associate with John Williams, don’t get me wrong I love Michael Giacchino, but he’s no John Williams.

  15. K.S. (Reply) on Thursday 23 February, 2017 at 22:53