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Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
  • Composed by John Williams
  • Walt Disney / 77m

And so we reach the end (until it starts again). For the third time in my life, I’ve seen the last ever Star Wars movie, this one drawing to a close the adventures of Rey, Finn and Poe and their foe Kylo Ren and a second close to the adventures started by Luke, Leia and Han – with a returning villain (Palpatine) and a returning hero (Lando) along for the ride as well. It’s perhaps the least satisfying of the new trilogy but for this Star Wars fan – almost exactly as old as the first movie – it certainly served as a satisfying conclusion.

John Williams has been associated with Star Wars for half his life. You could take these nine movies away from his filmography and still be left with one of the most extraordinary bodies of film music that’s ever been put together – add this singular achievement in and you just have to sit in awe at what he’s done. He too will have thought he was scoring the last Star Wars movie three times (or perhaps four given he would undoubtedly have thought the first one would be it while he was working on it) – almost inevitably it really is it for him this time and he has pulled together one last brilliant piece of musical adventure to call time on his signature work. Of course we get a whole load of returning favourite themes, and of course we get new ones which will become beloved favourites themselves over time.

John Williams and friends

The album opens with “Fanfare and Prologue” – it’s the first time it’s been called “Fanfare”, but you know what it is. Everyone knows what it is – surely the most recognisable piece of film music that’s ever been written (and it still gets the juices flowing after all these years). This time it leads straight into action material before going darker – eventually leading to a fairly soft version of Kylo Ren’s theme and ultimately an anguished take on the Emperor’s theme. Surprisingly, we also hear a minor theme from Revenge of the Sith (also associated with Palpatine) and the first of this score’s new themes, a dynamic and dark motif for the Knights of Ren.

“Journey to Exegol” brings more action – there’s a hint of Harry Potter about it early on, but only a hint, and the piece builds with frantic brass and percussion going through Kylo’s theme, the First Order theme, the Knights’ theme and eventually another returning favourite, with a dynamic blast of the Imperial March.

Just as in The Last Jedi, Williams combines his two main new themes into a single concert track, called “The Rise of Skywalker”. They’re both exceptionally warm in a “Yoda’s Theme” kind of way, and to be honest so closely related to each other it can be hard to distinguish between them. Both themes are essentially about the warmth of the relationship between the new characters, the first perhaps extending out to the warmth of the relationship between all the heroes from the saga. They seem to have become known as the “Rise of Skywalker theme” and the “trio theme” so I’ll use the same nomenclature here; the piece alternates between the two of them (and also throws in another motif in the middle which has an important role to play near the end of the film). It has an almost hymnal quality at time, with some truly gorgeous harmonies – I’m sure the piece will become a real favourite.

We go back to the dark side in “The Old Death Star” – after some sinister dramatic thrusts we return again to the most sinister music of all (the Imperial March) before very subdued little arrangements of both the March of the Resistance and Rey’s Theme are intertwined together. After that a new dramatic impetus takes hold (and it’s dark, again).

The score’s signature action track is “The Speeder Chase”, a sensational piece of bright and breezy melodic excitement that Williams has peppered through both this series and the Indiana Jones movies – for some reason it is barely heard in the film itself which is such a shame because it’s posisbly the single finest piece of action music in the new trilogy. It’s all built around a great little trumpet fanfare which blasts out around some trademark Williams adventure hallmarks, and (while I assume it was intended to be a film cue even if most of it didn’t end up being used) is constructed so perfectly including a great ending, it could easily be a concert track itself.

The new character Oma Tres looks strangely familiar

You know what sort of cue “Destiny of a Jedi” is going to be based on its title alone – some tortured material, tiny bits of Rey’s theme scattered throughout, a hint of the motif from the big Kylo/Han moment from The Force Awakens, then the Force theme, the new Anthem of Evil theme (more on that in a moment), both Luke’s and Leia’s themes, the gorgeous Trio theme and finally a great big performance of Yoda’s theme climaxing in the same ending as heard in The Empire Strikes Back when Luke finally uses the Force to raise his X-Wing while he’s training with Yoda. (I can’t believe people are complaining about Williams reusing that material, as if he’s being “lazy” – well I guess I can, people complain about everything – but I found it to be a really powerful moment in the film and that was almost entirely to do with John Williams.) All this in five minutes!

The album’s second and final concert piece (though I suspect it won’t actually end up in that many concerts) is “Anthem of Evil”, which as you would expect is an exploration of all things dark. The deep choral opening recalls the Emperor’s music from Return of the Jedi without quoting his theme – it’s a new one, quite short but given numerous different arrangements through the track, both choral (a capella for a while) and orchestral. It builds rather slowly – it’s not actually the sort of intimidating music associated with Darth Vader or Kylo Ren, more a disarmingly distant suggestion of power for much of its length before the horns thrust home that power.

There’s no time to pause for breath because we’re straight into more action in “Fleeing from Kijimi” which begins with a blast of Kylo Ren’s theme before we go into frantic territory, with those trademark little string runs, brassy blasts and timpani-propelled moments of high drama cycling through small quotes from various themes (including the Knights’ theme and a very subtle little quote from Luke’s). From here we flip back to the light in “We Go Together”, which is an extended take on the very warm Trio theme mixed in with shorter moments of Rey’s theme and the Force theme, leading up to a great action coda which is thematically unrelated to anything else and is a really nice little moment. “Join Me” is the pivotal dramatic moment of the film but actually Williams’s music is fairly subtle – it’s suspenseful for the most part until we get to a dynamic reading of Anthem of Evil and then by far the darkest version of Rey’s theme we’ve heard before some sweeping action material.

After that, the tide begins to turn and we are back to heroic music in “They Will Come”, hearing the Rise of Skywalker theme and the wonderful March of the Resistance. Next comes “The Final Saber Duel” which is actually from much earlier in the film – and while it does open with some dynamic Kylo Ren material, it’s not the big extravaganza you might expect, becoming surprisingly reflective (including a subdued take on the March of the Resistance). It ends with a particularly lilting arrangement of the ever-moving Leia’s Theme.

The big action finale begins in “Battle of the Resistance”, which has a great militaristic opening and the excitement never really lets up. We get to hear a wonderfully expansive take on Poe’s theme (the only time it’s heard on this album) which leads into an absolutely tremendous outburst of brass, the rebel fanfare (you just know what happens on the screen when that music comes in…) a big action version of the Force theme and a really massive ending.

One of my favourite cues is “Approaching the Throne”, which cycles through some very suspenseful material (including some rare hints of dissonance) into a sinister version of Anthem of Evil and another dark version of Rey’s theme showing how tortured she is – midway through the track, the grit and determination takes over and we get music to match, culminating in a really heroic version of the Rise of Skywalker theme, a slow but really dynamic arrangement of March of the Resistance and then, to close, an absolute explosion of choral power. Choir of a very different nature is heard early in “The Force Is With You”, distant and almost angelic, before an arresting version of Rey’s theme for solo piano and then more of that reflective music before a massive version of the Emperor’s theme recalling its biggest moments in Return of the Jedi. That’s followed by another big take on the Force theme and eventually the Rebel Fanfare.

“Farewell” starts the big send-off. It opens with a gentle variant on Rey’s theme and then an emotionally-wrought, very different version of Kylo Ren’s, some moving music for these two characters. It all leads up to a really, really beautiful version of Rey’s theme and then a stately take on the Rise of Skywalker theme before moving from elegiac to celebratory with that great motif I mentioned about 10,000 words ago when I was talking about the “Rise of Skywalker” concert track. We don’t stop there though – that leads into an absolutely stellar, soaring version of this score’s main theme which ends with a very subtle little nod towards Leia’s theme.

A couple of months before the score came out and the hype machine started talking about Williams bringing back “all the themes” they were probably referring to the track “Reunion”, which cycles through Luke’s, the Force, Rey’s, the Trio, a particularly playful version of Yoda’s, Rey’s, the ever-beautiful Luke and Leia and finally the Rise of Skywalker. It’s such a warm valentine cycling through all this beloved music. Williams isn’t quite done there yet though – we still have one more great piece within the score itself, “A New Home”, which cleverly mixes Rey’s theme with elements of the Jedi Steps theme from The Force Awakens (which is just so perfect in the film – but not perhaps in the way you might expect if you just extrapolate from the music and the track title).

And then, the curtain comes down. The ten-minute end title piece begins (predictably) with one last rousing statement of the Force theme before moving into the familiar end credits version of Luke’s theme, then the Trio theme, then the Anthem of Evil, then an arrestingly powerful, wonderful full performance of the Imperial March, then Rey’s theme, then the Rise of Skywalker theme… and then, for the first time in nine movies, the opening title arrangement of the main theme being used in the end titles. When we do get to the familiar closing bars, it is hard to resist a little tear forming, regardless of how many times we’ve heard them before.

I wonder what he’d have said then if you’d told him he’d still be doing this when he was 87…

With that, John Williams draws to an end his involvement with Star Wars – and what an unprecedented achievement it is. Twenty or so hours of music, written over four decades, much of it ingrained into the public consciousness – there has been nothing like it before and will be nothing like it again. George Lucas always used to say that the movies are like silent films, propelled along by the music – and it is simply impossible to overstate Williams’s contribution to the series’ success. I just can’t imagine Star Wars having been successful without Williams – other composers would I’m sure have done a competent job, but there was something special about his approach and Lucas was extremely lucky to have him. While the films have varied in quality, Williams’s music has never dropped below being very good. People who dismiss the new scores because they’re not as good as The Empire Strikes Back are entitled to their opinion – and no, they’re not as good as The Empire Strikes Back – but that’s hardly reason to dismiss them.

All that rich body of themes built up over such a long time provides, simply, joy – classical musical storytelling, countless indelible melodies. The new trilogy has brought some more of those – primarily the exceptional Rey’s theme but also the March of the Resistance, Kylo Ren’s brilliantly sinister theme (what a shame we didn’t ever get a concert arrangement of that), Poe’s brilliant heroic theme (and what a shame we didn’t get to hear more of that) – Rose’s theme from the last film, the new ones from this one – it’s an incredible array of material, and it’s on top of all the themes from the previous two trilogies.

John Williams is one of a kind. He’s 87 and once again he has written a score of more energy, with more life in it than any other I can think of this year. His musical artistry and indeed craft is simply beyond comparison with any other film composer working today – and with Star Wars he has gone on an unparalleled journey. I said before that George Lucas was lucky to have him – well, we’re all lucky to have him. The Rise of Skywalker is a triumphant conclusion to an extraordinary musical saga. We will never hear its like again.

Rating: *****

See also:
Star Wars: The Force Awakens John Williams
Star Wars: The Last Jedi John Williams

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  1. Daniel Henderson (Reply) on Tuesday 24 December, 2019 at 13:52

    To be fair, if we’re going to call out John Williams for being lazy during that scene in question, he still did more work being original than JJ Abrams did for the rest of the movie…

  2. Mark Camilleri (Reply) on Tuesday 24 December, 2019 at 19:25

    Thank you James for accompanying and guiding us through this amazing John Williams Star Wars journey. I too am nearly as old as the franchise, and it’s been great to see these 9 film scores evolve. Your analysis and opinion has helped appreciate them more. As you said, nothing will ever compare to this.

  3. Maarten (Reply) on Tuesday 31 December, 2019 at 09:39

    Thanks for the outstanding review James, like always. Still looking for a moment to see the film, and my soundtrack is waiting for me, still in plastic… But I know it will be as great as you describe. Thank you John Williams! Have a good new year, James, and thanks to you too!
    Maarten, Netherlands

  4. Dirk (Reply) on Saturday 4 January, 2020 at 14:05

    Saw the film, enjoyed it kinda, could be better. But the music is as Always with Williams an instant classic. All nine films he scored with the same passion and talent, nothinh like it in cinema history. Greetings from Dirk from The Netherlands.

  5. Samuel Rousseau-Mascolo (Reply) on Tuesday 14 January, 2020 at 05:25

    Thank you so much for this article !

    I am a huge SW music fan and of course I made my own analysis of EP IX’s soundtrack but wow It’s so nice to see another one feeling the same for it than I. I’ve listen to this new soundtrack a lot and it really helps enjoying the movie. I’ve seen Rise of Skywalker 9 times now in theatres, and the way Farewell hits at 4:20 the “trio” theme is truly one of the best musical moment of the saga.

    Greetings from Sam, Quebec, Canada.Thank you so much for this article !