- 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.
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.