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Solo: A Star Wars Story
  • Composed by John Powell
  • Walt Disney Records / 77m

A little-known fact about Star Wars is that its French title is Les dents de la mer, which I can tell you translates directly as The War of the Stars.  [*See footnote.] You may wonder why I’m telling you this – well, I’m a follower of Ron Howard on Instagram and let me tell you, just before he was revealed as the director of Solo – the latest instalment of the series set in the distant future, this one follows the adventures of the young Han Solo, telling us how he got his name, showing us when he first met Lando and finally letting us see that infamous card game when he got his hands on his pet Chewbacca – I saw a picture of him, right there, in France with his elder son Clint – and I just knew what was going to happen.  Sure enough, before we knew it, the production was revealed to be in trouble and in stepped the veteran director to take over the shoot.

Remarkably, just like Rogue One, this spinoff story holds together remarkably well despite its well-documented production difficulties.  For whatever reason audiences don’t seem to be flocking to it – I’ll be right there however much Star Wars Disney churns out, but really, it’s entertaining.  Did it need to be made?  Well, does any big studio franchise movie “need” to be made?  As long as it entertains, I have no issue.

John Powell

Musically, things turned out rather differently from Rogue One.  Circumstances, for a start: on that film, of course, Michael Giacchino stepped in fairly late in the day and delivered a fine score; this time round John Powell was on board a long time ago (he hadn’t been announced at the time, but he was actually hired before Ron Howard).  More significantly, someone else was on board too: in fact, not just someone but the man himself, the great John Williams.  He offered thoughts and advice to Powell and even wrote some music for the film.  Powell’s treatment of the Williams music (not just the new material he wrote, but also the classic Star Wars music which is interpolated throughout the score) is completely different from Giacchino’s – he blended his own material with very reverential quotes of Williams – Powell takes the Williams music and very much does his own thing with it – both approaches work very well.

So, the new Williams material: it was always referred to as “a theme” before release, but actually he wrote a few short pieces for Powell to use and combined his material together into a concert suite, called “The Adventures of Han”, and it opens the album.  There are two main melodic ideas in it: the main Han theme is adventurous and heroic, as you’d expect; there’s a second one in the B-section, rather curiously called the “Han Searching theme” by Powell, which is frenetic, action-orientated.  The piece is – as you’d expect – very much in keeping with the modern Williams Star Wars style and the concert suite is great fun.

It goes without saying that Powell uses the Williams material a lot – but you might be surprised by just how much.  I doubt that any Star Wars score has made as heavy use of a single theme (or pair of themes, depending on your point of view) as Solo makes of Williams’s.  And right there in the first score cue after the opening concert suite, “Meet Han”, we get a clue as to what Powell is going to do in his score – because we’re hearing the Williams melody, but it sounds like a John Powell score, 100%.  The percussion, the energy – the trademarks.  And then comes “Corellia Chase”, a wonderful piece, so busy and thrilling, that new Williams theme blasting out for all its worth.  Just after the two-minute mark, listen for the percussion and brass – unmistakable Powell.  “Spaceport” opens with more action – Han’s theme, again – but things do slow down just a little and later in the cue, we do hear the first major glimpse at one of Powell’s own several themes for the film, the love theme for Han and Qi’ra, albeit it is actually given a tragic sweep for its first appearance.

The next one comes in “Flying with Chewie”, another spectacular action cue, with what Powell refers to as the Gang theme (for Woody Harrelson’s smuggler and his crew) – fast-paced, heroic, very satisfying.  The last minute or so of the cue could easily be straight from How to Train Your Dragon – modern in arrangement, timeless in melody – it’s nothing like anything you’ve heard in a Star Wars score before, but it works.

“Train Heist” is one of my favourite cues – an action masterclass from the composer who I think is probably the best in the game at such things, these days.  It actually opens with a surprisingly tender passage for strings, harp and flute but when the action starts, boy does it start – based largely on the Gang theme, it’s exceptionally entertaining and breathlessly exciting.  While the percussion is nothing like John Williams has ever written, it’s unmistakable what an effort Powell is making to remain in the right sound world – the orchestra sounds so pure, the little flourishes from the winds in particular having that vintage Star Wars sound.  And speaking of that, Powell brilliantly incorporates the imperial theme from the first Star Wars (i.e. the one used for the enemy before Williams had got round to writing the most famous bad-guy theme in film history) and it’s brilliantly done.

Another barnstormer of a track follows – “Marauders Arrive” – and it’s another to stick straight onto your playlist (any playlist!)  It features the thrilling theme for the marauders (the Enfys Nest theme), with vocals performed by a female Bulgarian choir, and if you get my meaning, they sound like they might be singing in Na’vi.  It’s an arresting sound, accompanied by absolutely belting, powerful action music from the orchestra.  It’s brilliant music, and brilliant musical storytelling, too, in the way the Star Wars scores always have been – close your eyes and you can picture what’s happening in the film even if you’ve not seen it.

Next up is “Chicken in the Pot”.  I don’t want to talk about “Chicken in the Pot” other than to say that I guess every generation needs its “Lapti Nek”.  An interesting sound is used for “Is This Seat Taken?”, underscoring Han’s first encounter with Lando – it’s stylish music, guitars, bass flute, marimba – classic heist music, really.  There’s the briefest hint of Powell’s Chewie theme but it doesn’t really get to shine until later; a hint too at the Rebel Fanfare, for the first time on the album.  “L3 and the Millennium Falcon” introduces us to the theme for the droid L3 (it’s quite a darkly comic little theme, really) before the big reveal of the iconic ship is accompanied by a rousing version of the main Star Wars theme, and you’ve never heard it like this before, sweeping and with choir.  It’s followed by the Rebel Fanfare again and that duo is used from this point on as a kind of de facto theme for the Falcon.  To close the cue, we get a brief reprise of the Enfys Nest theme.

“Lando’s Closet” finally brings us the unexpurgated version of the love theme – cleverly, Powell hints ever so briefly at “Han Solo and the Princess” for a bar or two before revealing his own theme in all it glory.  It’s a classic, vintage Hollywood love theme – surprisingly so, in fact – it could genuinely be accompanying Bogart and Bacall in a 1940s tearjerker, so steeped is it in a vintage sound.  It’s probably the most memorable of Powell’s new themes for this film.

We’re soon back into action territory – “Mine Mission” is another belting cue, distinctly Williamsesque – it’s like his “March of the Resistance” crossed with Ron Goodwin – cycling through a lot of thematic material but focusing primarily on the L3 theme.  Rousing stuff!  The theme is used too in “Break Out”, including one particularly tragic variation – but I suspect the highlight of that cue for many will be the couple of brilliant appearances of Chewie’s theme – the first of which gets the hairs on the back of the neck standing very much to attention.  There’s a spectacularly heroic burst of Han’s theme in there, too – another great cue.  “The Good Guy” is another lovely set of variations on the love theme – it’s mature, assured writing.  A dynamic burst of the Enfys Nest theme closes the cue.

Some people have written about the film and used the term “fan service” as an insult – quite why fan service is a bad thing, I’ve no idea.  John Powell does his own fan service in “Reminiscence Theory”, which quotes numerous Williams themes from the first two films in the series – most notably “Here They Come!” from Star Wars (in a very Powellian arrangement) and three separate bursts of material from “The Asteroid Field” from The Empire Strikes Back.  Listen out too for the Death Star motif from the first film at the start of the piece – the way Powell uses it in the film is just inspired (I won’t spoil it but I had a very wide grin on my face when I watched what it was used for) – and a few bars from Empire‘s “Attacking a Star Destroyer”.  I just love his general approach to using Williams’s music and making it so much his own throughout the score, but its zenith is undoubtedly this cue, music by the two composers being blended seamlessly throughout the unbelievably energetic six-minute cue.

The action continues into “Into the Maw”, an exceptional piece with brass writing so fiercely complex it hearkens back to Elliot Goldenthal in his pomp.  I know I keep saying it – but it is just so thrilling.  The Enfys Nest theme is back in “Savareen Stand-Off”, after a suspenseful opening to the cue, and it leads to some elegiac string material later in the cue.  The Gang theme comes back in “Good Thing You Were Listening”, this time with a tragic air; then in “Testing Allegiance” we hear a strident action variant on Han’s theme, and some frenetic, dark low-end string and brass, as we go through one last action sequence, before it finishes with a sad solo piano version of the love theme.  The album closes with “Dice and Roll” – after a slightly odd opening, we explode into one last burst of Han’s theme which serves as a finale here (but in the film leads into the familiar Star Wars end titles, absent from this album just as with Rogue One).  It does mean things have a rather abrupt ending, but that’s a small complaint after the brilliance that has gone before.

We are used to John Powell scores being full of energy and Solo pushes it to a whole new level.  The album goes heavy on action – there is a fair bit of unreleased music in the film and not much of it is action – so perhaps it’s a bit unbalanced, but it is just incredibly exciting.  The new Williams material is excellent, the way Powell uses it (and the classic themes) truly impressive – and I really rather admire that he went so much his own way with the score.  I loved Giacchino’s Rogue One and this is perhaps a shade more impressive still – while Powell’s themes are frankly perhaps not quite as memorable as Giacchino’s, he has the benefit of using that new Williams material and boy does he run with it.  The album is a real thrill-ride and will bring repeated massive smiles to the faces of both Star Wars fans and John Powell fans.  If this turns out to be his only contribution to the wonderfully rich musical world of Star Wars then Powell will have left quite a mark; and I sincerely hope he’ll get the opportunity to come back for more in future.  It’s one of his finest works to date.

Rating: *****

See also:
Rogue One Michael Giacchino

*Footnote: 25 Twitter users have pointed out that I inadvertently made an error here. Of course, the French title in question was actually Close Encounters of the Third Kind, another Lucasfilm production from 1976, the same year as Star Wars. I sincerely apologise for this error.

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  1. Roger (Reply) on Sunday 3 June, 2018 at 21:54

    love the music but the mixes are so cloudy and messy on the whole album, except for the first Williams track. Not sure if the same person mixed the JW and JP stuff but the JW stuff sounds soooo much better

  2. Tim IB (Reply) on Sunday 3 June, 2018 at 23:02

    Erm, Les dents de la mer is the French title for Jaws. (The teeth of the sea)

    • mastadge (Reply) on Sunday 3 June, 2018 at 23:51

      I know that James has no sense of humor but maybe this was a rare attempt at a joke?

    • John Smith (Reply) on Wednesday 6 June, 2018 at 12:00

      The French title would be “La Guerre des Etoiles” 😉

  3. mastadge (Reply) on Sunday 3 June, 2018 at 23:34

    There’s so much to unpack in this score. Every time I listen I hear new uses of themes.

  4. Jules (Reply) on Monday 4 June, 2018 at 03:38

    It’s really turning out to be a bumper year for blockbuster scoring. I second the call to get Powell back for more, brilliant stuff. This has some of my favorite cues from modern SW, probably only behind ‘Rey’s Theme’ and that Resistance track in Force Awakens.

  5. Rory (Reply) on Monday 4 June, 2018 at 07:35

    I hope Williams and Powell got as much out of producing this score as I did listening to it, because I was so on board with this. The entirety of the Kessel Run, I was smiling from ear to ear in the theater. I really hope they do more together.

    Next on my Star Wars wishlist: They bring Giacchino on board one of these films early enough for him to book the LSO.

  6. Rory (Reply) on Monday 4 June, 2018 at 08:55

    Also, what did everyone think of the Imperial March actually being an in-universe state/military theme? Seemed a little distractingly executed in the film itself, but away from it, I’m surprised how not-turned-off-by-the-rampant-metafictionality-of-it-all I am.

  7. Maarten (Reply) on Monday 4 June, 2018 at 10:34

    Hi James, nice review! I don’t get the French Jaws-joke, but that’s probably me? This soundtrack is growing on me. At first I was a bit underwhelmed, also after hearing the Williams theme, but that took its time to unveil its secrets. The way Powell adopts it in his score is very entertaining. Who conducted it, by the way?

    • mastadge (Reply) on Monday 4 June, 2018 at 11:18

      Gavin Greenaway

  8. Kalman (Reply) on Tuesday 5 June, 2018 at 11:41

    Solo is the first movie in ages where I stayed in the cinema until the last letters of the end credits rolled. I simply had to listen to the music. It was brilliant.

  9. Dr.Tenma (Reply) on Tuesday 5 June, 2018 at 13:31

    I’m sorry to be “that person” and correct your footnote but, if I’m not mistaken, Lucasfilm had anything to do with ‘Close Enconters of the Third Kind’. Not even the visual effects were made by ILM.

    Anyway, a great review. I’m enjoying this score much than I expected. I like Williams’ suite but also the L3 theme (particularly the track ‘Mine Mission’ (maybe because it sounds very close to March of the Resistance).

  10. Daniel Henderson (Reply) on Thursday 7 June, 2018 at 07:50

    After listening to this, I wouldn’t be surprised or disappointed if John Powell scored Avatar 2. Marauders Arrive’s choral sections remind quite a bit of Avatar and the action is spot on.

  11. Mastadge (Reply) on Friday 8 June, 2018 at 20:17

    I think too though I cannot cite the source that in one interview Powell said he was using the main title as a Destiny theme or a Han’s Destiny theme or something. Hence its use when Han meets the Falcon, during the famous Kessel Run, etc.