Check it out... if you have any interest in film music, or wonder why Star Wars became a phenomenon, John Williams' classic score playing a major role in the film's success
Skip it... if you only like the Star Wars scores featuring the 'Imperial March', as there is really no other reason to avoid this masterpiece
BY VIKRAM LAKHANPAL
"It’s easy to forget amidst the hype and clichés just how good this score is."
"It’s easy to forget amidst the hype and clichés just how good this score is."
It’s funny to think that the Disney money-printing machine known as Star Wars began almost 40 years ago as a small indie film. George Lucas’ low-budget 1977 science fantasy film revolutionized special effects, burst open Hollywood’s perpetual blockbuster craze, and made all the money. Adjusted for inflation, Star Wars (now known as Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope) is still the 3rd highest grossing film of all time. A large contributor to its massive success is the orchestral score by John Williams.
Williams’ score saturated the culture like few film scores before and after. The soundtrack album (on vinyl in those days) went platinum, and even spawned a disco version single. It won Best Original Score (or its equivalent) from the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes, the BAFTAs, and the Grammys, a feat matched only by two other scores (Williams’ E.T. in 1982 and Michael Giacchino’s Up in 2009). The American Film Institute declared it the Greatest American film score of all time, and A New Hope’s music has been referenced and parodied endlessly alongside its film throughout the years.
Which brings us to an important question: Why on earth am I going to write about it? Surely everything that could possibly be said about this score has already been written, and I’m sure it has. But I’ll review it for two reasons: 1) Because Episode VII comes out soon, and this is an effective gimmick for this website to run, and 2) Because it’s easy to forget amidst the hype and clichés just how good this score is, and it’s important to remind ourselves every so often.
In this review, I will cover and reference the contents of the 1997 Special Edition RCA release, which is identical in musical content to the 2004 Sony Classical album and the 2007 Sony 30th Anniversary edition. These releases are a comprehensive collection of the music in the film (as are the concurrent releases of the scores for The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi).
Like most of the Star Wars scores, Williams anchors A New Hope around 3 central themes, which he brings together in his end credits suite, and garnishes with a number of minor motifs. The first theme is the one heard over the opening titles, a heroic fanfare jumping between fifths and octaves with triplets in between. It also has a B theme, less brassy, more romantically swashbuckling, which comes in handy when hearing the A theme gets tiresome. It is used here primarily as a stand-in for the protagonist Luke Skywalker and his adventures, and is arguably one of the most famous pieces of music ever written.
The second primary theme is for the concept of the Force, and by extension, wise Jedi master Ben Kenobi. A slow melody, it plays in a minor key but is always rising, striving upwards. In its softer moments, it lends a sense of mystery, emerging from an ethereal haze; in its most grandiose moments, it provides great emotional heft to potent scenes. The third major theme is for Princess Leia; it’s a tender motif, slightly naïve but with a touch of melancholy. It is the only one to receive a concert suite arrangement on the album (though finding such arrangements of the other 2 is not difficult).
The score opens with great fanfare(s), first Alfred Newman’s classic 20th Century Fox theme, followed by the main Star Wars theme in ‘Main Title/Rebel Blockade Runner,’ which segues into a soft piccolo as we pan across the vast space. Upon seeing Tatooine and the enormous Star Destroyer, the music crescendos to introduce the Rebel theme, a two chord fanfare, before a repeated chord closes out the cue, evocative in rhythm and structure of Gustav Holst’s ‘Mars, the Bringer of War.’ Williams frequently uses the repeated chord technique to extend tense scenes and make the time seem to stretch.
The next track, ‘Imperial Attack,’ is propelled by precise militaristic music, slow when building tension, fast and overlayed with frenetic action across the orchestra when battle breaks out. After introductions to motifs for the Stormtroopers and the Empire as a whole (though used only in this first entry), we hear the themes for Leia and the Force for the first time, coinciding with the princess’ first appearance on screen. The cue continues to alternate between suspense and action before building to a climax at 4:20, where high strings shriek, uncertain of major or minor key as the escape pod floats in limbo before settling on a major key cadence as the droids escape. We’re then treated to soft renditions of the Stormtrooper motif before concluding with the Death Star theme, a 4 note arpeggiated seventh chord whose brevity makes it great for scene transitions (and cue endings).
We then follow C-3PO and R2-D2 onto the desert planet Tatooine in the cues ‘The Dune Sea of Tatooine/Jawa Sandcrawler’ and ‘The Moisture Farm.’ Sparse rhythmic plunking and string glissandos establish the otherworldliness in classic sci-fi fashion, to some degree evoking scores like Goldsmith’s Planet of the Apes. We also hear the theme for the droid-dealing Jawas, a bumbling oboe over oom-pah reeds conveying the strangeness, smallness, and silliness of these characters. The secondary phrase on trumpet almost seems a forerunner to the theme for the similarly tiny Ewoks in Return of the Jedi. At 1:24 of ‘The Moisture Farm’, we get just our second rendition of the main theme as Luke Skywalker appears on screen, immediately identifying him as the protagonist.
After a substantial stretch of the film without music, the score returns with a jolt as Luke discovers Leia’s message in ‘The Hologram/Binary Sunset.’ Leia’s theme plays in a rendition most similar to its concert arrangement, as ethereal as her projection. Following this is a soft playing of Luke’s theme, which brings us to one of cinema’s iconic moments. Luke looks off into the sunset as the Force theme plays, first on solo horn, followed by the full orchestra for the B phrase, hinting at his future, echoing his yearning for a more interesting life. Like most performances of this theme, it’s utterly poignant.
After a fast tempo rendition of Luke’s theme to open ‘Landspeeder Search/Attack of the Sand People,’ we get dissonant, percussive music for the Sand People, a cousin to the earlier music for the desert and the Jawas. After repeating a 2 note suspense phrase as a mysterious hooded figure appears in the film, we hear the Force theme as the man removes his hood. This flows directly into ‘Tales of the Jedi Knight/Learn about the Force,’ where the Force theme is reprised as the man reveals himself to Luke as Master Obi-Wan “Ben” Kenobi. After an interlude of more Sand People music, the Force theme guides us back to Ben’s home, where he tells Luke of his father and the Old Republic. Hints of the Empire theme and the Force theme weave in and out, never quite resolved, before Leia’s theme returns as Ben views the hologram. A sad string elegy appears briefly as Luke struggles with what he should do, giving way to the Force theme. Slow, grim harmonies yield to faster strings in ‘Burning Homestead’ as Luke realizes his family is in danger. A determined burst of the Force theme precedes his discovery that he was too late. Both ‘Learn about the Force’ and ‘Burning Homestead’ end with bursts of the Death Star motif to transition to brief scenes of Princess Leia’s captivity and torture in the evil fortress.
Williams blends the avant-garde textures of Tatooine with the more romantic tones of space adventure in ‘Mos Eisley Spaceport’ as the heroes arrive at Luke’s gateway to space. After this, we enter the famed cantina, and the two iconic diegetic pieces ‘Cantina Band’ and ‘Cantina Band #2.’ Williams goes back to his 60s jazz roots in these two cues, establishing a wholly unique sound to the bar in the context of the Star Wars universe.
‘The Millennium Falcon/Imperial Cruiser Pursuit’ builds the tension as it cuts between ominous wind music for the Stormtroopers closing in and optimistic renditions of Luke’s theme as the protagonists prepare to leave, building to a dramatic chord as Han Solo’s ship is revealed, though it hangs without resolve as Luke criticizes its beat up appearance. Swirling strings and heroic brass launch the action music as the Empire pursues the Falcon. Throughout the rest of the cue, a slow, metronomic pulse from the lower registers mark the constant approach of the Imperial Cruisers and the time running out for the heroes to get to lightspeed, while the increasingly desperate strings propel Han and Chewie into escape, culminating in a big chord that transitions effortlessly into the Death Star motif as we cut back to Darth Vader and Princess Leia.
‘Destruction of Alderaan’ opens with some twinkling, has some string buildup, has some juicy brass and timpani rips, and closes with a wrenching string motif that is echoed throughout the orchestra, the last cries of pain from the destroyed planet fading away. ‘The Death Star/The Stormtroopers’ opens with a slowly building march as the Falcon is drawn helplessly towards the battle station. Interestingly enough, it culminates not in the Death Star motif, but instead in a defiant burst of the Rebel fanfare. After a brief rendition of the Force theme and a truly menacing statement of the Stormtrooper theme, some sparse suspense music suddenly comes to life with frenzied dissonance before Luke’s theme closes out the cue and he reaches temporary safety.
The next four cues, which comprise the remainder of the action on the Death Star, are filled with more soft suspense punctuated by bursts of action as characters sneak around and get into firefights. Strange creatures, such as the mouse droid and the trash eating monster get undeveloped identities on winds, while action music is blasted out of sharp brass with layers of strings above and percussion below. With all the principle characters together, Williams blends every thematic color together in this sequence. We feel the pace of the movie shift, as Luke’s theme and the Rebel fanfare kick ass in ‘Wookie Prisoner/Detention Block Ambush’ before finally uniting with Princess Leia’s theme. In ‘Shootout in the Cell Bay/Dianoga,’ the Stormtrooper snarls back into the frame as the heroes are trapped, bearing down on them until they escape into the garbage chute. ‘The Trash Compactor’ emphasizes the rock bottom they hit as a repeated descending 2 note theme, a forerunner to Williams’ theme for the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark, builds the tension as they struggle to not get squished. The thematic interplay comes to a peak in ‘The Tractor Beam/Chasm Crossfire,’ shifting effortlessly between each identity, particularly some attractive development of the Main Title’s B theme, for the string of successes and setbacks.
As Ben Kenobi sacrifices himself to enable the others’ escape, a solemn but brief performance of the Force theme is followed by a fast but lush rendition of Leia’s theme in ‘Ben Kenobi’s Death/Tie Fighter Attack.’ The Rebel theme takes the torch as the Falcon gets away from the Death Star, and some aching development of the Force motif occurs as Luke processes his loss. But his grief is short-lived, as high strings and pizzicato low strings usher him back into action to fend off Imperial fighters, building into the energetic and iconic TIE Fighter attack music. The propulsive strings and syncopated brass hits get the blood pounding, with the Rebel fanfare popping up frequently to contribute to the militaristic edge. Swirling strings take over for a brief stretch before arpeggiated woodwind runs bring us back to the original phrase. Finally, a large crescendoing scale culminates into a triumphant blast of the Death Star motif, as they finally get away, before rumbling in the bass region and percussion echo the final TIE Fighter explosion. It’s impressive to consider that Williams wrote such a memorable sequence while using only one significant motif, mostly built around a standalone melody.
The score climaxes in ‘The Battle of Yavin,’ as a fleet of Rebels in small fighters dogfight with TIE Fighters and attempt to destroy the Death Star before the Death Star destroys their base and wipes out the Rebellion. Over the course of 9 minutes, Williams weaves the major themes together while propelling the battle from every section. Early in the cue, the militaristic brass leads the charge with the Force theme, accompanied by a variety of counterpoints with each rendition, intercut with the Stormtrooper theme combating it in the wind sections. Curiously, much of the first half of the track is buried in the film mix beneath the gunfire and ship noise sound effects. Halfway through the track (and after a significant music-free stretch in the battle), the strings build the tension with rhythmic fury before launching into a 3/4 pattern, a 3 note descending phrase that slowly climbs up the scale with each iteration heading the sonic assault, before the percussion suddenly cuts it off by with the death of Biggs. A trumpet solo emerges and segues into a minor key version of Luke’s theme as he flies down the trench, the Rebellion’s final hope. Another repeated phrase (2 notes this time) appears for a few seconds before the brass and percussion give way to legato strings. Luke hears Ben tell him to “Use the Force,” as the strings deliver another powerful performance of the Force theme. The music takes a definitive turn for the major key, but only for a few bars, Luke’s theme getting some of its only significant development in the series in both major and minor keys (and something in between at times) as Vader closes in on him. With the Death Star in firing range, and several others things happening at once, Williams again stretches time and extends the tension with a chord repeated for 20 seconds. By my count, the chord is played 47 times before a final hit on timpani and tuba coincide with the Death Star’s explosion. Chimes twinkle away with the remnants of the battle station, before a triumphant inversion of the Rebel theme closes the scene out.
The film closes with ‘The Throne Room/End Title.’ As Luke, Han, and Chewbacca are honored for their heroism, the Force theme is morphed into a pompous military performance, with an elegant middle section featuring the B phrase of Luke’s theme. Though we don’t see performers, the march is intended as diegetic music, which might open up crazy fan theories. The piece then segues into the end credits, featuring excellent arrangements of the main theme and Princess Leia’s theme, the Rebel fanfare flitting in between. This is the kind of music that you stay in the theater to hear, regardless of whether there’s a post-credit scene or not.
In addition to these cues (virtually all of the music heard in the film), the album includes a concert arrangement of Princess Leia’s theme that opens disc 2, as well as a 17 minute track at the end of disc 1 that includes the original version of ‘Binary Sunset’ in addition to several alternate takes of the opening sequence. Ideally, these 2 would be pushed to the end of disc 2 instead of pushed in the middle of the album, but it isn’t difficult to excise them in making your own playlist. Those jaded by the bold themes or harboring a general dislike of Star Wars will still find a multitude of interesting non-thematic and textural moments to appreciate. Ultimately, A New Hope is a watershed moment for film music, an iconic work of art unto itself, and a must-have for any film score collector. You can purchase Star Wars: A New Hope on Amazon and iTunes, here and here.
Additional notes about release: additional information listed in review.
|1.||20th Century Fox Fanfare||0:23|
|2.||Main Title / Rebel Blockade Runner||2:14|
|4.||The Dune Sea of Tatooine / Jawa Sandcrawler||5:01|
|5.||The Moisture Farm||2:25|
|6.||The Hologram / Binary Sunset||4:10|
|7.||Landspeeder Search / Attack Of The Sand People||3:20|
|8.||Tales Of A Jedi Knight / Learn About The Force||4:29|
|10.||Mos Eisley Spaceport||2:16|
|12.||Cantina Band #2||3:56|
|13.||Binary Sunset (Alternate) [Contains Secret Track:Takes 16-20 Of Main Title]||2:19|
|1.||Princess Leia's Theme||4:27|
|2.||The Millennium Falcon / Imperial Cruiser Pursuit||3:51|
|3.||Destruction Of Alderaan||1:32|
|4.||The Death Star / The Stormtroopers||3:35|
|5.||Wookie Prisoner / Detention Block Ambush||4:01|
|6.||Shootout In The Cell Bay / Dianoga||3:48|
|7.||The Trash Compactor||3:07|
|8.||The Tractor Beam / Chasm Crossfire||5:18|
|9.||Ben Kenobi's Death / Tie Fighter Attack||3:51|
|10.||The Battle Of Yavin (Launch From The Fourth Moon / X-Wings Draw Fire / Use The Force)||9:07|
|11.||The Throne Room / End Title||5:38|
|Total Album Time:||91:08|