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Star Wars on tv

When Disney acquired Lucasfilm they must have been dreaming of all the big-screen adventures they could entice Star Wars fans to go and see, and sure enough the third Skywalker trilogy quickly went into production. They only managed two other movies though before deciding (rather bizarrely) that the market was saturated, and they could use it instead to attract subscribers to their new streaming service by producing weekly tv shows instead.

Musically, that has led us down some strange paths. Since Gladiator completely transformed the way movies were scored, there has been an increasingly-small number of big Hollywood franchise properties still doing things the old-fashioned way. The last of these standing was Star Wars. But for tv – forget all that. Quite what the thinking was I don’t know, but it’s almost as if the people now running Lucasfilm and making the musical choices believe that somehow Star Wars became the extraordinary behemoth that it did despite John Williams, rather than in no small part because of him. It’s evident even in the little Star Wars logo that precedes the shows on Disney+ – an innocuous, forgettable little motif accompanies the logo (according to some reports, written by John Powell) – it’s perfectly fine I guess, but what a weird thing to do when you have to hand the single most recognisable piece of music in cinema history – heck, maybe the single most recognisable piece of orchestral music in the world. (Early warning: by the end of this piece, I will have exhausted all synonyms of “weird.”)

The first show to come around was The Mandalorian. I think it’s quite charming in its way, at least once its story of Grogu began to kick in (I’m not sure – now that story seems to have been resolved – why the show is continuing – hopefully there’ll be another surprise in store). But here’s the thing about The Mandalorian: amongst its charms is the fact that it is a completely loving valentine to the Star Wars of George Lucas. Everything about it is done with such care to leave the viewer in no doubt that this is the same universe we all grew up watching adventures take place in. The visuals, the sound effects – heck, even the familiar characters that turn up. Given that – why on earth put music in it that immediately pulls you away from the Star Wars of George Lucas?

Now, you’re not going to hire Ludwig Göransson and then ask him to avoid sounding like himself and sound like John Williams instead. But we saw in the two non-Skywalker films that did get made that Michael Giacchino and John Powell wrote music that sounded unmistakably their own but was evidently believable as being in the same musical universe as the previous films. I understand Göransson’s musical direction – taking a cue from spaghetti westerns, presenting the character as a gunslinging bounty hunter – it’s valid enough. With a kind of Stockholm Syndrome setting in, eventually I guess I gave into it. If this had been my introduction to the world of Star Wars, I’d probably have never doubted that aspect of the score in the first place.

I’m less sure though why the Bill Conti fanfare is there – this one really is harder to explain, because now we have the composer actually writing in a big orchestral idiom but still not going anywhere near John Williams. And much of the action music – very modern, functional I suppose in the way of these things – but usually just too generic-sounding for what it’s accompanying. I must admit, while the score has won me over to a degree over time, I do wish it that this had not, in the end, been the way.

I can’t not mention the odd album release situation either – the first season got weekly albums, one for each episode – completely understandable during the streaming age (just give people everything), but for those not into streaming it’s a real shame there wasn’t a highlights album to buy and enjoy. (Surely nobody is actually paying for all these separate short albums.) Season two did it a bit better, with two longer albums, though I’d still rather have just had the highlights.

Spun off from The Mandalorian was The Book of Boba Fett, he having cropped up with some success in the former show. Sadly when it came to his own show, nobody involved seemed to know what to do with him, and “oh cool, it’s Boba Fett!” can only sustain you for a few minutes. The show was just boring, the only exception being towards the end when he was barely even in it any more and it became about Mando.

Nobody could accuse Göransson’s theme of being boring – it’s bizarre, for several reasons. At first I thought the composer was playing with a Morricone influence again, until somebody linked to a piece of music from a Swedish movie called Ronja Rövardotter. I mean – listen to it. Its composer, Björn Isfält, died in 1997 else I’d have thought he would have been rather keen to get his hands on some Star Wars royalties. Ignoring that – it’s an extraordinarily bold piece of music to put as the main theme of a Star Wars show – but it does somehow work and I can’t help but admire the tenacity of doing it.

The score itself is largely a straighter, more orchestral score than Mandalorian. It’s co-credited to Joseph Shirley, Göransson’s assistant. The album was again released as a two-volume affair, one for each half of the season, and it goes on forever. The highlights are quite entertaining, particularly when the score plays with the main theme or (in later sections) The Mandalorian’s, but it’s an endurance test to sit through the whole thing.

The next live action show was Obi-Wan Kenobi, and with a very different creative team behind it, we went in a completely different musical direction. Well, two directions. I liked the show more than the previous two – everyone else seemed to like it an awful lot less, but there we go – it has at times terrible direction (particularly the action) but I thought it was very well-plotted and in Ewen McGregor it had such a charismatic presence in the leading role, I was disappointed it wasn’t longer.

This time the show didn’t just look and feel like Star Wars, it was actually directly telling a piece of missing story in between episodes 3 and 4. Given that, lord only knows how it ended up with the score it originally had, composed by Natalie Holt, whose energetic if not exactly memorable score for Loki presumably got her the job. A lot has been written about her not using John Williams’s themes even while we were watching characters that the master had written typically masterful themes for – the suggestion that this was because Williams himself in some way didn’t allow it seems frankly incredulous. (A story that has been stated and restated so many times that he forced Michael Giacchino to rescore parts of Rogue One, told in this context to justify the decision not to use them in Obi-Wan Kenobi, and take his themes out of it is 100% false.)

Holt was presumably doing what she was told and delivering the music that the showrunners wanted her to. It’s basically like a Marvel score or something without any themes in it – a modern blend of orchestra and electronics, generally joyless action material, nothing that sticks in the memory. (Watching Darth Vader with this music accompanying him makes him look like a man in a silly costume rather than cinema’s most iconic villain, which is what John Williams made him look like.)

Whether you believe the official story or not is up to you, I guess – it is that there had always been a hope that Williams himself would be involved in the show but it wasn’t clear if his schedule would accommodate it, so Holt scored the whole thing and then when Williams did become available, he came up with a theme and William Ross re-scored various key scenes across the show’s whole season using that theme.

It’s quite a theme – you have to get yourself over the PR stuff about how Obi-Wan was the only character who didn’t get his own theme in the original trilogy and that’s what made the composer want to do it (WHAT!?) – but as soon as it starts, a few seconds in you’re left there thinking – this sounds like Star Wars. I think it’s a really clever piece – at times it vaguely suggests the theme that Obi-Wan very much did have in the original trilogy but it blends this with the more tentative nature of the character at the point in his life the tv show is set. I think it’s beautiful.

The Ross-scored sections of the show (most – perhaps all – of which are on the album) are done well. At times you could easily be fooled that you were listening to Williams himself. Eventually, we do get to hear some of the themes we should have been hearing in every episode, and it is glorious when we do. (I know the argument – the characters didn’t “earn” the themes before then – but given they’d already had the themes put on them in Revenge of the Sith, which takes place earlier, the argument makes no sense.) Unfortunately Holt is a victim of having her music heard directly alongside the Williams/Ross stuff. It does not fare well at all, seeming so small in scope and ambition. Again – very hard to know what the decision-makers were thinking.

The most recent one is Andor, scored by Nicholas Britell. I was genuinely excited when Britell was announced for it – a superb composer, responsible for some of the finest tv music of recent years. Unfortunately, I hadn’t taken into account the music heard in showrunner Tony Gilroy’s previous projects. The show itself takes a long time to get going, and I’m not sure I understand why it is about Andor (surely it would have been better to have the same story be about someone else, so there wasn’t the constraint about it having to end at a certain point) – but it’s turned out to be a compelling watch. It’s genuinely different – the sort of thing Disney said they would do from the start, but the first time they’ve actually done it – it is genuinely very different from any other star war.

Britell’s music – well, most of the time it seems to barely even be there. Gilroy does not like big music, that much is clear. The very simple main theme lets you know right up front that you’re going into uncharted territory (for this franchise). The score is gritty, generally small, generally seeming to actively avoid providing any sort of musical narrative or emotional manipulation – it’s textural, mood-setting perhaps, but seems so far within what Britell is capable of. Essentially, if John Williams’s Star Wars sound is the bright centre of the universe, this is the musical planet that it’s furthest from. I get it, I do – it’s 2022, things move on and we must move with them. What I don’t really get is what this music is supposed to be doing for the show – it’s just there.

There was a time when I wouldn’t have thought this was a controversial thing to say, but now I’m not so sure: after George Lucas (and perhaps alongside John Dykstra), John Williams was the single most important figure in the success of Star Wars. He made every hero more heroic, every villain more villainous. Without him, I’d say there wouldn’t even have been a second movie, let alone all these tv shows half a century later. And yet the people now in charge of Star Wars think the answer to their musical problems is to be as far away from John Williams as possible. It makes no sense to me. I’ve no doubt I’m a moron, but really. If Disney buys Coca-Cola, they presumably wouldn’t immediately replace the flavourings that go into it with pureed broccoli and pieces of shellfish – Coca-Cola drinkers may find the new contents to be more than a little abrasive. And yet that seems to be what they’ve done – and appear determined to keep doing – with Star Wars. If any of the many mooted big-screen adventures do ever see the light of day, I hope they follow the musical model of Rogue One and Solo and just allow a talented composer to do his or her thing while paying venerable tribute to the man that cleared the path for them to follow.


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  1. Corey (Reply) on Sunday 20 November, 2022 at 18:05

    Really enjoyed this commentary and thoughts on the all these different series. Really quite agree. Thanks for staying in the game.

    Regards,

    Corey

  2. Sivakumark52 (Reply) on Monday 21 November, 2022 at 12:06

    You had put words to my feelings. Reading I could say in some capacity I got to vent out all my anger I had surrounding this entire thing. Star Wars was not the kind of movie which I would have exposed myself to as a kid, if not for Mr. Williams music. I watched the Rise of Skywalker for him alone in an IMAX theatre to hear his themes for one last time in their glorious renditions. And I completely agree to the fact that the composers should bring their own voice but it should build on the foundations on what has been already laid, they (in this case I mean the studio) should not burn the house down and build a crappy one. If you are planning on doing so, don’t name it Star Wars, but that too would not justify the musical choice because when you see a series like The Orville, we know it is a homage to classic Star Trek, and so is the music and they did not have Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross score it.
    It is so sad that Disney being the company which likes to cash on nostalgia is taking this route with Star Wars, and I hope they steer back to the soul of the the franchise, which is it Music

  3. Marco (Reply) on Tuesday 22 November, 2022 at 17:18

    I feel like Obi-Wan Kenobi as a soundtrack would have worked a lot better if Holt’s material had been scrapped. I loved her work on Loki, but her compositions and style for the show really suffers in comparison to Williams’ theme, which I absolutely love.

    It also didn’t help that the prequel soundscape was left by the wayside. How incredible it would have been to hear Duel of the Fates, Anakin’s Theme, Across the Stars or Battle of the Heroes again after so many years.

    Love this new review format. I hope it gets used in the future, maybe for film franchises you haven’t tried yet or missed (Fantastic Beasts 2 & 3, Halloween, etc).

  4. Sean (Reply) on Wednesday 23 November, 2022 at 13:56

    I get exactly what you’re saying about the music not sounding John Williams enough, the way you say that maybe Rogue one and solo at least tried to. But I think it was the right choice because as good as solo and Rogue One scores were I really could just hear people trying to sound like John Williams instead of themselves and not sounding as good as John Williams; What I mean is they would have sounded better composing the way that they are used to composing their own completely original great music (Michael G and John Powell are both brilliant, I’m in Powell is my personal favorite ever.) And I was glad to get that from Ludwig, the score is completely his own…. EXCEPT (!!) for as you mentioned, the Bill Conti influence, which on the mandalorian theme is so obvious and it frustrates me so much that he never lists Conti amongst his influences when asked. I mean he obviously got a lot of Bill Conti in his system from reinterpreting Conti’s themes into the creed soundtrack but I wonder if he himself forgot. Anyway, overall though, composers who both compose for orchestra first AND who write themes and melodies so beautifully as (or close to) John Williams simply don’t exist anymore. I guess if I had to choose one or the other I’d prefer just to let the post-Williams, more Zimmer inspired, composers do their thing as they do best, because it is really great even though it’s not the John Williams way. Anyway great thoughts as always, keep writing!