- Composed by John Williams
- Walt Disney Records / 2015 / 77m
Not so long ago in a galaxy familiar to most of us, John Williams played a pivotal role in the success of what was to become one of the most successful and beloved entertainment phenomena. His thrilling music captured the spirit of the golden age yet proved vibrant and vital to the audience of the day – and that music has continued to have the same effect ever since. Two films later the final page seemed to be turned – at least cinematically – and Williams had completed an astonishing collection of music. Of course, that collection turned out not to be complete and George Lucas provided his disappointing prequels starting in 1999 – the best thing about them being Williams’s contribution, very different but very good – he was a different composer by then, but more pertinently the filmmaking and storytelling techniques were completely different.
When the new round of Star Wars movies was announced after the property was sensationally bought by Disney from Lucas, of course there was only one question on most film music fans’ minds – would John Williams be back? It took a while for the confirmation to come – after J.J. Abrams was announced as director, there was inevitable speculation that Michael Giacchino would take over the musical reigns – but come it did, with Kathleen Kennedy announcing that Williams would be scoring the new trilogy starting with The Force Awakens (though he won’t be doing the spinoff movies – 2016’s, Rogue One, will be scored by Alexandre Desplat). Now 83, it remains to be seen whether he will be able to do the other two movies (the third of them is four years away and it would be extraordinary for an 87-year-old to have the energy to work on the most high-profile and highly-pressured film of the year, which it surely will be).
Very pointedly, the Disney hype machine for this film has focused entirely on tapping into the massive nostalgia for the original trilogy – it’s as if the prequels never happened – and this did lead some to wonder whether that might mean Williams would revert more to the swashbuckling style of those films rather than the tighter, more martial sound of the prequels – given that the “prequel sound” was very much in keeping of the other films he scored during and since that period this never seemed particularly likely, and indeed The Force Awakens is certainly an extension of that sound, written in his modern action style, clear echoes of everything from his Harry Potter scores through Minority Report, Indiana Jones (interestingly, the third as well as the fourth one) and even War Horse. But there are moments in the score when Williams seems to get a little bit closer to the original trilogy sound than he did as the prequels went on. In any case, it’s extremely energetic music, full of life, and absolutely unquestionably a Star Wars score – if you took out all references to previous themes, you’d still know you were listening to Star Wars.
Speaking of themes, there’s a whole hatful of new ones. Chief among them is “Rey’s Theme”, a multifaceted piece for the character played by Daisy Ridley. It gets its own concert arrangement on the album (in the middle of it rather than after the main title, as had become customary) and features countless times through the score. It features a delightful introduction (on flute in the concert arrangement, but it’s heard in numerous guises elsewhere) which is playful and memorable, a hook which leads into the central melody, which is full of adventure and spirit – it reminds me a bit of Harry Potter’s “Fawkes the Phoenix” crossed with War Horse. There’s even a third major motif within it, a simple and zesty flourish.
There’s an action theme that also appears often, often but not always associated with John Boyega’s stormtrooper Finn who defects, though it isn’t actually his theme and it disappears for a long time in the middle of the album. It doesn’t have its own concert arrangement but it forms the basis of a cracking action track, “The Falcon” (I’ve referred to it through the review as “the action theme” because irritatingly I can’t think of anything better). Energetic and effervescent, it’s a rhythmic and propulsive, flexible device. Another of the heroes, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) does get his own theme – it’s heard very sparingly on the album and that’s a shame because it’s great, flowing and rousing. Finally for the rebels is the fantastic “March of the Resistance” which is where Williams gets closest to Indiana Jones, specifically the tank music from The Last Crusade. The composer is no stranger to marches and this one can get added to the long list of great ones he’s written.
The main villain of the piece is Kylo Ren, played by Adam Driver. He gets more of a motif than a theme – it’s more akin to the musical treatment of Darth Vader in the first film than The Imperial March. It’s a classic golden age “bad guy theme”, doom-laden and menacing. There’s another villainous theme used a few times too (“dark action theme” – sorry), related but distinct. Of the old themes, several are back – Luke’s Theme, of course (surprisingly often, in fact, and it forms the basis of one track in a new an unexpected way), the Force Theme, Han and Leia’s Theme, Leia’s Theme, the Rebel Fanfare (rather a lot). The Imperial March is in the film once (so you’d notice) but there’s only a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bar from it on the album.
The score was recorded in Los Angeles in fairly short bursts over a period of months, surely unprecedented for a Hollywood blockbuster, and much music was discarded along the way as the film was re-edited. So far there is just this single-disc album (though you can get it in different types of packaging) which is very full but it seems rather unlikely that this will be the only music we hear from The Force Awakens. It’s not clear at this point how many tracks were recorded specifically for the album but I’m sure it won’t be long before we find out. Williams had a few health problems during the lengthy recording process and wasn’t able to conduct all of the early sessions, with William Ross stepping in, and pulled a surprise by inviting his friend Gustavo Dudamel to conduct the main and end titles along with a couple of other key pieces.
The main title is of course about as familiar as any piece of film music that’s ever been written, but it sounds a bit different this time – it’s the first Star Wars score not performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, and obviously it’s a different recording studio too – there’s somehow just a little less “punch” behind those famous opening bars than we’re used to – and it’s “twinklier” than usual. (It took me a while to locate the correct musical term.) It segues into “The Attack on the Jakku Village”, with some piercing and propulsive action music in the modern Williams style but with a few flourishes that might be from 1980, and the first new thematic statements of the score, of Kylo Ren’s Theme, which gets several growling airings in between some terrific brassy flourishes and elegiac sweeping statements (of which there will be more).
“The Scavenger” opens with a passage echoing some of the Tatooine music of the first score before offering the first airings of Rey’s Theme, the playful opening and main body of the melody which evokes a determination but also a great sense of curiosity both getting numerous variations. “I Can Fly Anything” has a swashbuckling spirit – it’s a rousing piece, with Poe’s Theme the highlight. I love the musicianship on display, Williams at his musical storytelling best, veering between different motifs in some style. The score’s most playful moment comes in “Rey Meets BB-8”, with a magical hint of E.T. in the composer’s treatment of the robot everybody (but particularly toy companies) fell in love with after seeing him in the film’s first teaser.
The score’s main action theme enters in “Follow Me”, its kinetic energy immediately irresistible. The piece mixes it with a few softer pauses – and the great Rebel Fanfare, as exhilarating today as it was 38 years ago. In the film the track leads without pause into “The Falcon” but on the album Williams chose to separate them with the concert arrangement of Rey’s Theme, which will be going straight onto most people’s Star Wars playlists. For that matter, so will “The Falcon”. While it’s no “Asteroid Field” or “Forest Battle”, frankly I’m not sure any film score has featured an action cue quite like “Forest Battle” since Return of the Jedi and “The Falcon” is everything you might want from a 2015 John Williams action cue, or a 2015 Star Wars movie. A little hint of the Rebel Fanfare leads into the action theme, and they trade places (along with some non-thematic, darker material) through the cue – and late on there’s actually a hint of The Empire Strikes Back‘s “Battle of Hoth”.
“That Girl with the Staff” offers a rather tentative take on Rey’s Theme leading into some particularly dark suspense music; then “The Rathtars!” continues the suspense, mixing it here with some bursts of action, along with the first appearance of Luke’s Theme in the body of the score (very briefly). I love the low-end piano jabs that punctuate the driving action rhythm midway through the cue, which is a perfect blend of 1970s Williams with 2010s Williams – and there’s a spine-tingling appearance by the Rebel Fanfare towards the end. Much calmer is the emotion-laden “Finn’s Confession” (which at times treads very closely indeed in the direction of War Horse), sad and whimsical to begin with but gradually growing lighter – it’s beautiful. “Maz’s Counsel” is generally rather low-key, gently prodding in various directions before arriving at the album’s first version of the Force Theme.
The elegiac sound I mentioned earlier reaches its zenith in the beautiful “The Starkiller”, with the strings straining to wring every ounce of feeling out of Williams’s outstanding music. The dark side then gets centre stage in “Kylo Ren Arrives at the Battle”, aggressive and forceful action music and several dark statements of Kylo Ren’s Theme. That continues into “The Abduction”, where the score’s dark action theme is heard (and it really is dark). That receives an immediate antidote in “Han and Leia”, with Leia’s Theme first getting an airing before the unabashedly romantic Han and Leia Theme making its own appearance. It’s such a florid, beautiful melody; when I first saw the album track list I rather hoped that Williams had finally found an opportunity to give us the concert arrangement of the theme, and that’s sadly not the case but it’s an interesting piece, with the thematic statements bookending a sequence which covers quite some ground, including the first appearance by just a little part of the Resistance March. Late in the cue, a hesitant version of the dark action theme (not in an action setting this time) leads into the Force Theme, Williams navigating the leitmotifs delicately and precisely.
Next up is the barnstorming March of the Resistance concert arrangement (well, I assume it’s a concert arrangement – much of it does seem to appear verbatim in the film, but not quite all – and it’s one of the pieces conducted by Dudamel). But after the good guys’ histrionics, enter another bad guy – “Snoke” gets a dark vocal, a slight hint perhaps of some of the darker choral music in Return of the Jedi but more notably “Palpatine’s Teachings” from Revenge of the Sith – it’s absolutely as black as coal, the male choir having all the more impact thanks to this being the only place on the album voices are heard. The darkness continues in “On the Inside”, Kylo Ren’s Theme particularly menacing here, the snatch of Rey’s Theme no longer as light and confident as earlier. Then comes the score’s emotional highpoint, “Torn Apart” offering a remarkably draining dramatic sequence leading up to a devastating mix of Kylo Ren’s and the Force Themes.
“The Ways of the Force” opens in much the same vein but the tide begins to turn, Rey’s Theme turned here into a gritty and gutsy one battling against the dark action theme and Kylo Ren’s. (And at precisely one minute into the track, listen to what the trombone plays, very briefly – a very familiar melody, subtly buried.) There’s still time for another classic bit of Star Wars action, with “Scherzo for X-Wings” offering Luke’s Theme as it has never been heard before, Williams again rolling back the years and writing the kind of thing he might have done in the 70s – I’ve seen others suggest it’s slow pace is a problem but I think the composer is suggesting something measured and determined, deliberately avoiding being too frenetic or manic. “Farewell and the Trip” goes on a journey around a remarkable number of themes – Rey, the Force (with a florid brassy accompaniment), Han and Leia, Leia, the Rebel Fanfare and Luke. Then the score reaches its conclusion – “The Jedi Steps” seeing an increasingly resolute Rey’s Theme building up to a soaring, glorious rendition of the Force Theme and then into the end credits, which begins in the familiar style and then sees the medley of new themes very much not just the “concert arrangement stuck into the end credits” style which may have been expected – a new and distinctively heroic version of Rey’s Theme goes into the dark action theme, Kylo Ren’s, the heroic action theme, Finn’s Theme, the March of the Resistance, then back to Rey’s Theme again before a remarkably gentle phrase from Luke’s Theme closes the score.
Five of the past six Star Wars scores are genuine five-star masterpieces (and the other one isn’t bad by any means); now we can make it six out of seven. The Force Awakens isn’t near the top of those six but it’s all relative. The new themes are great, hearing the old ones again is wonderful, the action music is remarkably energetic and the musical storytelling as vibrant as ever. It’s just so good hearing Williams return to this universe – but while that alone would have been great, hearing him return with as much style and quality as there is on display here is just an untold joy. There is so much going on in the score, there’s just so much life in it, it’s such a blessing; the 77 minutes fly by and I can’t remember the last time I was so disappointed when a soundtrack album ended because I simply wanted it to keep going on and on. The Force remains strong in John Williams and long may it continue. This music is just glorious.