Album running time
Artwork copyright (c) 2002 Lucasfilm Ltd; review copyright (c) 2002 James Southall
Artwork copyright (c) 2002 Lucasfilm Ltd; review copyright (c) 2002 James Southall
ATTACK OF THE CLONES
Send in the clones
In 1999, Star Wars fans around the world were in an almost orgasmic state of excitement as they awaited the release of the first new Star Wars film in 16 years - The Phantom Menace, the first of three prequels to George Lucas's classic science fiction saga. Similarly, film music fans got rather over-excited at the prospect of John Williams returning to the universe which saw him create some of the richest, most exciting music of his or any other film composer's career. In 2002, the excitement has been almost as palpable, despite the fact that The Phantom Menace was a disastrous film and only a reasonable score. Once the initial excitement (in which many serious critics made fools of themselves by getting carried away by the hype and not really taking much note of the music on offer) died away, the score was left on few people's top ten lists of 1999. Despite this, and its silly title, much is now expected of Attack of the Clones but, ironically, the score seems to have been received with rather less initial enthusiasm than its immediate predecessor despite being, in my mind, vastly superior.
I can't help but wonder whether the circumstances in which many fans have heard the score for the first time have dictated this, at least to an extent. Somehow the score album became available for download long before it was released by Sony Classical, meaning many fans of Star Wars or Williams were able to hear it in advance. Now, my technical astuteness in such matters is roughly comparable to that of a rainbow trout, but I invariably find that music downloaded in such a fashion sounds like it was recorded by a man standing underwater with a Dictaphone roughly three miles away from the orchestra, so I resisted the temptation to hear the score in that fashion, believing firmly that the experience would be far better if I were to hear the score first on the album. And I'm glad I did. First impressions tend to be lasting, and my first impression of this music was: wow.
Many of The Phantom Menace's problems stemmed from the film itself rather than any shortcomings on Williams's part: it was fundamentally a pretty disposable film with few moments of real consequence to the story as a whole, characters with whom it was difficult to relate and a huge number of very short scenes. These are hardly ideal components when a composer comes to write his score, and it showed in the final result, which featured a few superb set-pieces and a couple of great new themes, but just wasn't quite up to the level of Williams's previous efforts in the Star Wars universe. Attack of the Clones is a different kettle of fish entirely, with seemingly much longer, continuous scenes and rather more exciting material in the film enabling Williams to write a much more consistent score.
The 45-year-old John Williams who wrote Star Wars was a very, very different composer from the 70-year-old John Williams who has written Attack of the Clones. Core stylistic components remain, but his style has matured to such a huge degree that it is almost inconceivable he would (or perhaps even, could) write a score like Star Wars today, and that is something that needs to be firmly borne in mind while listening to his new composition. The key difference is that Williams has become much more "serious" and his strict leitmotif approach to Star Wars is almost completely abandoned in Attack of the Clones, which instead is essentially a series of well-developed, longer cues that don't really incorporate the familiar themes and motifs that have built up over the previous four films very much at all. Much of the new score centres around its single new theme, "Across the Stars". Don't let the name put you off, this is a beautiful composition, absolutely perfect for underscoring the developing - but ultimately doomed - romance between Anakin and Padme. Its flavour is somewhat similar to Nino Rota's Romeo and Juliet, mixed with hints of Williams's own Nixon. It's a stunning theme sent through a number of variations over the course of the album.
Some of the familiar motifs do crop up from time to time - most notably, the Force Theme, Yoda's Theme, Duel of the Fates and The Imperial March. Somewhat surprisingly, there is no place at all for Anakin's Theme until the end titles, no place for The Emperor's Theme and there is no new theme for the main villain of the film, Count Dooku. (Those of a certain age - my age - will find it very difficult to avoid thinking of Count Duckula.) Of course, these missing themes may occur during the film but are just absent from the album.
There is a lot of action music - a lot of very good action music. The third cue, "Zam the Assassin / The Chase through Coruscant", is the best. It's an eleven-minute showcase for all that the London Symphony Orchestra can do, proving that there is no better composer for brass working in film than Williams and no better interpreter of his music than the LSO. There are two real surprises in the cue - first is the controversial, much-discussed use of electric guitar. I don't feel that it detracts too much, but neither do I feel it adds anything, and it does come across as being a little gimmicky and likely to erode some of the music's timeless quality. Second is Williams's occasional passages for percussion - just percussion. Of course, Tan Dun introduced this idea to mainstream film music with his wonderful score to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (and the approach was also later used by Terry Venables in his music for Iron Monkey). It is a wonderful idea and Williams uses it just as gracefully as Dun; in some sort of inexplicable way, it's really quite beautiful.
"Yoda and the Younglings" is a very lovely cue, the first use of choir in the score (and the first appearance of Yoda's Theme). The short "Departing Coruscant" sees the first euphoric statement of "Across the Stars" within the score itself; and "Anakin and Padme" introduces further variations. "Jango's Escape" is tremendously exciting, again with that trademark Williams brass, and another showcase for his wonderfully busy - but not overwhelmingly so - orchestration. The second half of the cue is just about the album's only negative aspect, a bit of source music that sounds really quite out of place. "The Meadow Picnic" is, as its name suggests, a lovely, pastoral cue. A delightful flute solo opens it - quite unlike any other music heard in any Star Wars film so far, but superb nonetheless. Almost inevitably, it gradually moves into a lovely, uptempo arrangement of "Across the Stars". Less inevitable is the apparent homage to Bernard Herrmann's Vertigo which finishes the piece.
"Bounty Hunter's Pursuit" is another great action piece, thrilling from start to end. Again it's an indication of how different Attack of the Clones is from the original trilogy; in them, the action pieces generally incorporated thematic material fairly often, but it is notably absent here until the very end of the cue. (This means that the score functions probably less well as "musical storytelling", but perhaps slightly better as pure music.) "Return to Tatooine" is a fairly transitional cue that moves through a variety of styles; most notably, it incorporates a brief-but-thrilling quotation from "Duel of the Fates", one of the themes introduced in The Phantom Menace, complete with choir.
"The Tusken Camp / The Homestead" does not start especially promisingly, with some rather foreboding suspense music occupying most of the start and end of the track, but it does feature some exciting action music in the middle. "Love Pledge / The Arena" begins with another fine presentation of "Across the Stars", followed by a thunderous action piece simply brimming with menace and terror. (It reminds me quite a bit of The Lost World, one of Williams's most finely-crafter and underrated scores, or even "The Battle of Hoth" in The Empire Strikes Back. In any case, it's magnificent.) Once again, thematic material is notably absent from the action material, but the cue ends with a lovely action variant on the Force theme. That same theme opens "Confrontation with Count Dooku / Finale" but then another innovation (for this series of films) arrives: a beautiful piece for solo soprano. Again it's non-thematic but that doesn't prevent it from being very attractive indeed. Following is a parade of stunning moments - a dramatic appearance by the Imperial March, a rapturous version of "Across the Stars" and the end titles. A few words about those end titles: Williams has written some of the finest end titles in film history, regularly incorporating a number of ideas from his score therein, but just recently I've been disappointed. The Phantom Menace's were awful, just a cut-and-paste job of sticking the two concert arrangements recorded for the album onto the end of a brief blast of the Star Wars main theme. Attack of the Clones is a bit better, though not considerably so - again the credits start as they always do, and then there is a complete presentation of the lengthy concert arrangement of "Across the Stars", before three themes intertwine at the end for an intriguing - if not thrilling - ending, those themes being "Across the Stars", the Imperial March and Anakin's Theme. But do you remember those wonderful endings to all three of the original Star Wars end title cues? I wish Williams would do something like that again. (Bit late to suggest it now though, I guess.)
Rather strangely, the end titles are not the final cue. Well, not necessarily, anyway. Sony Classical have released a special edition of the album to selected stores featuring a bonus track, "On the Conveyer Belt" (microwave oven... set of gardening tools... cafetière... wahay!... a cuddly toy). It's a great piece of action music, but it belongs in the middle of the album; while Sony's reasons for doing it are clear, at least they could have put the piece where it belonged. As it stands, it just sounds a bit odd coming at the end of the album. And another word about the album: it is completely inevitable that there will be a subsequent, "Ultimate Edition" Attack of the Clones soundtrack on two CDs. A cynical marketing ploy, but unfortunately that's the way it is.
It is worth noting here what an extraordinary career John Williams has had. It was the original Star Wars that catapulted him to the top of the A-list in producers' eyes, a position at which he has remained ever since. He has a remarkable knack for getting attached to the highest-profile movies, nearly all of which are box office successes. Think of his major contemporaries: Elmer Bernstein is still writing the occasional score, but his heyday was almost forty years ago; John Barry is in semi-retirement; and Jerry Goldsmith is still cranking out a couple of scores a year, but hardly for films of note. Just think: during 2002, Goldsmith will score The Sum of All Fears and Star Trek: Nemesis, two films likely to attract reasonable box office but not much in the way of critical recognition. On the other hand, Williams has already written a theme for the Olympics, released three classical albums featuring among other things his violin and cello concerti, had recordings of his tuba and trumpet concerti released by others, and he is scoring two films for Steven Spielberg, along with Attack of the Clones and the second Harry Potter movie, four of the five most phenomenally high-profile films of the year. Much like Sven-Goran Eriksson, Williams has a finger in many of the most delicious pies there are. His is truly one of the most extraordinary careers in all of film history, let alone just that of its music.
Attack of the Clones may not quite be on the same level as Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back, but it is not very far behind, and has provided probably the most exciting and entertaining film music CD to come from a new Hollywood film in several years. Williams is amazing, and while I realise there are many months remaining this year, I honestly can't see this score being bettered during the year. Roll on Episode 3.