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Star Wars: The Phantom Menace
  • Composed by John Williams
  • Sony Classical / 1999 / 74:15

Never has a film’s release been so widely-anticipated as the first of the Star Wars prequels, The Phantom Menace.  Over a decade and a half after Return of the Jedi, fans queued for literally weeks to make sure they saw the film’s first showing.  Then, finally, the moment came… and over the course of the next couple of hours, those same fans’ faces dropped as they realised quite how awful it was.  The visuals dazzle for sure, but with no clear protagonist, a villain who only pitches up very occasionally, incredibly stilted acting and lame dialogue, it is truly an awful film.  Of course, being Star Wars, George Lucas can keep on re-releasing it and the fans will bitch and moan and pay for it anyway; the latest incarnation is 2012’s 3-D version, which has come with a re-release of John Williams’s soundtrack.

As Lucas wonders what he might do with his latest billion, I hope he occasionally has pause to sit and be thankful for the day he met John Williams.  There were a number of key individuals who made great contributions to the success of Star Wars, and Williams must surely be considered near the top of that list.  It is very hard to imagine that – for all its other qualities – the film would have had nearly the success it did without his musical contribution to it, which remains a benchmark.  While he was treated badly (some would say with contempt) by Lucas and his megalomaniacal sidekick Ben Burtt on the second and third prequels, on The Phantom Menace his music was at least treated with the respect it deserved for the most part and is, by some distance, the best thing about the film.

George Lucas and John Williams

The disappointment in the film didn’t begin until a couple of minutes into it – for those two minutes, viewers get to marvel at John Williams’s main title one more time.  Of course, it opens the album – that brilliant blast which opens it, the heroism and excitement of the theme itself – it’s film music magic.  Here, it mysteriously segues not into the music which accompanies the film’s opening scene, but into “Arrival at Naboo” (the music doesn’t underscore the arrival at Naboo, either) – it’s one of several entertaining “transitional” pieces Williams wrote during the prequel trilogy, nice little fanfares to accompany ships landing on planets and the like.  The strangest thing of all is that this half of the opening cue is repeated literally verbatim as the second half of the later “Queen Amidala and the Naboo Palace”.

After that slight oddity come the score’s two “concert themes”.  “Duel of the Fates” – despite being used only fleetingly in the films themselves – has come in many ways to be seen as the defining theme of the prequels.  While its screen time might be limited (and more often than not a tracked-in version of this concert arrangement) its quality is anything but.  It’s wonderfully dramatic, a choir bellowing lyrics in Sanskrit, the brass doing their share of bellowing too.  “Anakin’s Theme” is the opposite, a gorgeously lyrical piece with a noble air which ends with the subtlest interpolation of “The Imperial March” to signal what’s to come.

Within the body of the score, a sequence of three tracks in the middle of the album is my favourite and represents Williams at his very best.  “The Arrival at Tatooine and The Flag Parade” begins innocuously enough before the second half of the cue becomes a glorious Rózsa-inspired march (I’ve always longed for an extended Williams concert treatment of the piece on disc, but don’t suppose that’s going to happen now).  Then “He Is The Chosen One”, where that nobility that Williams gives to Anakin reaches its zenith.  Finally, some brilliant action music, “Anakin Defeats Sebulba”, which features one of several nods in the score to themes from the original trilogy, this time Jabba the Hutt’s.

Of course, one can’t talk about The Phantom Menace without mentioning Jar Jar Binks, much though one might want to.  Williams gives him appropriately-playful music, similar to his treatment of the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi; and “Jar Jar’s Introduction” is the only good thing that came of that ill-advised character.  By contrast, Liam Neeson’s character Qui-Gon is the subject of the score’s most intensely dramatic sections, specifically when he dies and then for his funeral.  “Qui-Gon’s Noble End” begins with some intense action music, including a choir-free version of “Duel of the Fates”, and builds into a beautifully-executed section of whispered Sanskrit before its dramatic finale.  “Qui-Gon’s Funeral” is a stirring choral piece (including a lovely arrangement of the Force theme) and is an undoubted highlight.  The score’s final major theme is for the droid army which is the subject of one part of the film’s unnecessarily-multithreaded finale.  The dynamic theme is heard best in “The Droid Invasion”, another very impressive piece of action music.  That segues into the menacing “The Appearance of Darth Maul”, which features a growling choral presentation of the theme for the Emperor.  Aside from that and “Duel of the Fates”, Williams uses voices elsewhere to conjure an ethereal effect, notably in “Passage Through the Planet Core”, which is very beautiful.

It doesn’t quite reach the heights of the scores for the first two films of the original trilogy, but The Phantom Menace is still first-rate.  Williams went on to write fantastic music in difficult circumstances for the next two films, but this one remains the pick of the prequel scores.  Full of great themes, recapturing the vintage Star Wars sound but having plenty new to offer as well, it’s a dynamite score.  Surprisingly, it still hasn’t received a fully-satisfying album – there is so much great music in the film which was left off the original album, since that filled a single CD anyway; nobody was surprised when a double-CD “Ultimate Edition” was announced, but sadly it turned out to be an unmitigated disaster, presenting Williams’s music literally as heard in the film, complete with non-musical cuts.  I guess one day there will probably be a proper deluxe version of the music for all the prequels (I certainly hope so), but in the mean time the original album – which has received several releases, this latest one accompanying the film’s 3-D release in cinemas – is the best way of experiencing the score.  *****

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  1. Solaris (Reply) on Saturday 25 February, 2012 at 18:39

    “While he was treated badly (some would say with contempt) by Lucas and his megalomaniacal sidekick Ben Burtt on the second and third prequels […]”

    Could you please give me a link to an article detailing this further? I always wondered why the two other Prequel Scores turned out to be so strikingly different from Ep.I (and why the entire Final Battle of Ep.II was tracked with existing Music, an issue that bugged me ten years ago and still continiues to bug me to the present Day!) From what I’ve heard, Lucas was constantly cutting and recutting and Williams was unable to keep pace… I didnt know that Burtt was involved in this too, though (and I certainly didnt knew that Williams was treated with contempt)

  2. Jim Ware (Reply) on Saturday 25 February, 2012 at 18:48

    There *is* an extended concert version of ‘The Flag Parade’.

  3. Christopher Avis (Reply) on Saturday 25 February, 2012 at 18:59

    Well I don’t know specifically about EP 1, but on the Revenge of the Sith DVD, there was a featurette where, if I remember correctly Ben Burtt and Williams’ music editor were having an argument about loudness of score vs. loudness of sound effects. I seem to remember the music wasn’t on the winning side. I’ve long since gotten rid of the DVD (having given up trying to force myself to enjoy the prequels) and can’t check this.

  4. orion_mk3 (Reply) on Saturday 25 February, 2012 at 20:12

    Boy, that is one hideous cover for the reissue, isn’t it? And that’s saying something compared to the cover of the “Ultimate Edition…”

  5. Erik Woods (Reply) on Wednesday 21 March, 2012 at 15:06

    Like Jim said there are recordings of a concert version of “The Flag Parade.” Kunzel did one, the City of Prague Phil did one and Varese recorded, IMO, the best performed and recorded version by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra with conductor Frederic Talgorn. You can hear it on Part 5 of my John Williams radio special by going to Skip to the 17:14 mark.

  6. Andrew Catton (Reply) on Tuesday 4 February, 2014 at 11:29

    Due to the time needed to complete and edit the Geonosis section of Episode II, as well as the crash from beginning of Episode III, it was decided, and agreed upon, that music would be tracked into these sections. It freed Williams to not need to constantly edit, or have his work for those sections constantly re-cut by others (as was what happened with the re-edit of the battle in Episode I).

  7. Rory (Reply) on Sunday 2 February, 2020 at 06:00

    How’d you say your ranking of the prequel scores has evolved through the years? Going off your old review for Attack of the Clones, it sounds like you originally found that one the star of the three.

    • Rory (Reply) on Thursday 20 February, 2020 at 05:17

      I acknowledge that that’s kind of a multi-pronged question, too, as the scores as written for the film, album arrangements and film edits are all three wildly different beasts (e.g. Phantom Menace is tracked in everywhere in the prequels, the temple march sequence from Sith is brilliant but hails from Clones, Sith’s strengths aren’t well-reflected on its album whereas Clones’ wisely jettisons some incredibly lackluster material from its third act, et cetera).

      I sometimes feel like people could write academic theses based around the bootstrapping of music in Star Wars. It’s incredibly confounding sometimes, but then we’ll get wondrous things like “Binary Sunset” out of it that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.