Check it out... if you seek a score that will satisfy your expectations of John Williams, Star Wars, and the sci-fi/fantasy genre with its brawn, beauty, and a dash of nostalgia, for The Force Awakens will remind you of what can be achieved with a film score.
Skip it... if you are either too impatient to be rewarded with Williams’ craftsmanship over the course of numerous listens, or if you are so patient that you are willing to wait up to 20 years (or more) for the eventual release of the complete score, despite the excellent arrangement of highlights on the commercial album.
BY VIKRAM LAKHANPAL
Whatever his faults as a director, one has to give credit to J.J. Abrams, not only for positioning himself to revive two of the biggest movie franchises in Hollywood, but also for eagerly taking on those challenges with the baggage of having to placate multiple generations of rabid fanbases if he didn’t get it right. It can be argued that he may not have succeeded at that second task, but between the continuing virility of the rebooted Star Trek series and the 2 billion dollar box office pull for Star Wars: The Force Awakens (“Episode VII” only in the title crawl), it’s hard to call his efforts a failure at the first.
The Force Awakens was an endeavor in which almost every major decision had to go right, and that comes all the way down to the music as well. Whereas Trek’s revolving door of composers allowed Abrams to bring aboard regular collaborator Michael Giacchino, Star Wars has always been defined by the music of John Williams. While that clearly cannot be the case for all eternity, when the offer to score his seventh entry in the Star Wars series, thirty-some years after his Oscar-winning classic, Williams, 82 at the time, eagerly accepted. Approximately three hours of music was recorded, two of which were used in the film, and just over one hour was included on the soundtrack album.
With almost every aspect of the film received with overwhelming adulation, the score naturally had a warm reception, debuting at #5 on the US top 200 albums chart, a rarity for a score album, and picked up an Academy Award nomination (the fourth for the franchise’s music and the 50th for Williams). While the major film awards groups bestowed their accolades on fellow octogenarian Ennio Morricone’s score for The Hateful Eight, a vast majority of film music critics declared The Force Awakens the best score of 2015.
So why, after this much time, am I finally reviewing it? Because after three consecutive reviews of the original trilogy, I was a little Star Wars-ed out. I’m just as surprised to hear myself say that as you are. I saw the film, put the score on loop for a week, and then didn’t touch it for a few months; I needed the hype to die down and see if it was still that good in a relative vacuum. Short answer: yes, it is still as good as I remembered. In addition to my needing a break, Williams’ music is so dense, layered, and intricate, that repeated listens were needed to fully digest and fully grasp. In fact, I’m still finding new things to appreciate with each listen. Plus, everyone's seen the film by now, so I'm free of the burden of spoiler warnings.
The most obvious thing Williams gets right is the integration of the old franchise themes. Nostalgia is a huge factor in this film, but the music is never too heavy-handed with the allusions. The opening act, while bereft of familiar themes, nonetheless maintains the textures of the universe Williams has curated for so long. The opening “Attack on the Jakku Village” features liberal employment of militaristic brass triplets and resounding timpani pulses, much like the densely layer battle music he’s written in the past, as well as an exuberantly fiendish embrace of the minor key, particularly at the 4:19 mark with the introduction of the villainous Kylo Ren and his primary theme. While it’s quite a menacing, brassy motif, Kylo’s theme stomps its melodic foot so hard that occasionally you might giggle at it, betraying the petulant, wannabe-Vader nature of both theme and character.
As we shift over to Jakku, a planet that’s Tatooine in all but name, Williams once again utilizes a snaking oboe to establish the sprawling desolation of the desert, while “Rey Meets BB-8” gives us yet another cute little theme for a cute little character (I’ve lost track of how many of those the Star Wars series has). The theme for the dashing Poe Dameron, introduced in “I Can Fly Anything,” is as swooping and sweeping and swashbuckling as “The Asteroid Field” and “Sail Barge Assault” from the original trilogy.
The first musical bridge to the rest of the Star Wars universe comes when Rey and Finn are pursued by the First Order TIE Fighters and escape on the Millennium Falcon. It’s a scene brimming with nostalgia, and the sequence is propelled across two cues (“Follow Me” and “The Falcon,” nonsensically ripped apart from each other on album) by the theme for Finn (appearing first at 1:11 into “Follow Me”). The brass pulses in his theme, combined with the off-kilter 11/8 rhythms and complete with Rebel Fanfare flourishes, are a terrific callback to the syncopated brass blasts of “TIE Fighter Attack” from A New Hope, even concluding on the same post-explosion twinkling as the end of “The Battle of Yavin.” Williams takes the nostalgia factor one step further by re-appropriating the fanfare for the long-gone Rebellion as a motif for the Falcon, becoming one of the old familiar touches throughout the score.
The title theme, traditionally reserved for Luke and generally awesome moments, is deployed overtly just twice outside of the opening and closing, both milking the sentimentality to great effect. The first instance is when Han and Chewbacca board the Falcon, and the second appearance is cleverly weaved into the trench run sequence, once again echoing its kindred scene in A New Hope. (Sidenote: the album track “Scherzo for X-Wings” is a concert arrangement of this cue.)
Other old themes cameo alongside familiar characters. “Han and Leia” opens with a soft quotation of Leia’s theme, followed up with the bittersweet love theme from The Empire Strikes Back, sounding muted, restrained, and as weary and cautious as the two characters it has long united and divided. The world-famous Imperial March, present in every Star Wars score save for A New Hope, appears twice. First and most obviously on solo bassoon when Kylo Ren talks to Vader’s helmet (not included on album), and more subtly in “The Ways of the Force” in the low brass at 1:00 (It’s hard to catch, but you won’t un-hear it once you find it). While not a direct allusion, “Snoke” features heavy throat-singing reminiscent of both the Emperor’s theme in Return of the Jedi as well as the “Palpatine’s Teachings” scene from Revenge of the Sith. Whether this is foreshadowing of who Snoke is or merely a general “bad guy” texture Williams likes to employ remains to be seen. (Now you can craft tinfoil theories based on the music!) Regardless, it’s also noteworthy that, unlike the prequel scores, the choral presence is limited to this one idea in The Force Awakens.
Less obvious on the first listen are the quality of the new themes Williams introduces. After playing around with the villain’s theme in “Kylo Ren Arrives at the Battle,” Williams tenders a secondary motif for him, introduced in “The Abduction” that emphasizes his connection with the Dark Side. Just three descending pitches (though the first one is repeated 4-6 times) built around the same intervals as the Imperial March, this motif captures the raw, unbridled, nearly unstoppable power the nascent Sith lord carries within him. Around this same point in the film, Williams introduces (after a small tease in “Rey Meets BB-8”) his theme for the Resistance (Did “The New Rebellion” not test well with audiences?). One suspects that Williams could write a march in his sleep at this point, but he sets the Resistance March apart from its Droid and Nazi cousins by developing it into a fugue. It’s difficult to determine what the crisscrossing melodic lines accomplish, save for turning the concert arrangement from a karaoke staple to a barbershop quartet standard, but it’s appropriately bombastic, militaristic, and defiant.
Two minor but attractive themes appear in the second act, both connected to the “Totally not a Death Star” Starkiller Base. The first is a searing string elegy appearing in “The Starkiller,” as the superweapon destroys an entire star system. This death motif reappears in the potent and pivotal “Torn Apart.” Another motif for the First Order’s base is a frosty motif on strings used in establishing shots. It bears similarity to Memoirs of a Geisha, but is sadly left off both the album and the “For Your Consideration” promo.
The absolute standout of the new themes is that for the primary protagonist Rey. It’s heard in its concert arrangement in “Rey’s Theme,” the first half of which informs “The Scavenger,” when Rey is introduced onscreen. A xylophone represents…something I still haven’t figured out, but the 7 note idea is neat and reminds me vaguely of something out of Korngold’s The Adventures of Robin Hood. It’s followed by a steady and determined 5 note ostinato passed through the orchestra and, with cello counterpoint, builds to the main phrase (1:30 in “The Scavenger,” :33 in “Rey’s Theme”), a magical melody that Williams easily toggles between adventurous, tragic, resolute, and yearning throughout the score. That final mood is how “The Scavenger” closes out as Rey hopes for a more interesting life. With the exception of Ben Kenobi in A New Hope and Emperor Palpatine in Return of the Jedi, Rey’s musical introduction might be the best in the series.
After appearing again in “That Girl With the Staff,” underscoring her first interactions with Finn, Rey’s theme takes a backseat until they arrive at Takodana in “Finn’s Confession.” Here, it’s filled with wonder and awe, echoing Rey’s amazement at seeing such a verdant world. In between these statements of Rey’s theme, the Force theme makes a couple appearances (only in the film) as Han tells Finn and Rey about Luke, his disappearance, and other old stories. The theme’s solemnity reflects the poor current condition of the Jedi, feeling like a relic from a(n even longer) time ago.
At its heart, The Force Awakens is about the growth of Rey and its eventual union with the Force Theme as it, well, Awakens, and the two themes finally converge in “Maz’s Council.” Following Rey’s vision with the lightsaber (arguably when the Force Officially Awakens), the Force theme emerges as Maz urges Rey to take the lightsaber. However, a part of Rey’s theme (perhaps a motif of destiny?) bursts forward with great distress while Rey hits the Force’s snooze button and flees the cantina for the woods. Following the menacing appearance of Kylo’s secondary motif in “The Abduction,” iterating while he pursues and captures Rey, the heroine’s theme makes a curious but poignant and full-throttled performance as Kylo takes her aboard his ship and Han and Finn look on in horror. While it seems odd that Rey’s theme is performed here, Williams plays the emotions of the scene, which are better served by the tragically melodramatic rendition of Rey’s theme than any devilishly triumphant version of Kylo’s.
The first album appearance of the Resistance March (soon after given its concert arrangement) occurs as an interlude in “Han and Leia” before the estranged couple continues their conversation. The love theme gives way to Kylo’s secondary theme as they talk about their son, poisoned by the Dark Side. When Leia insists he can be redeemed, just like Vader, the Force theme closes out the cue. Kylo’s stomping main theme re-appears in “On the Inside” with some choral augmentation (perhaps his resolve strengthened by Snoke’s council?) amidst some classic brassy Williams action music as he pursues the escaped Rey and her rescuers through the Starkiller Base.
As he so frequently has done in his prior scores for the series, Williams ups his game for the final act, starting with “Torn Apart.” The death motif returns as Kylo admits his pain to Han, with a hopeful, rising undercurrent of potential redemption in the lower strings. However, layers of brass build, starting at 1:28, with a repetitive string ostinato (first hinted at in “Snoke”) climaxing as Ren kills his father (in the film, the ostinato appears afterwards triumphantly). In the shocking aftermath, the elegiac death motif resurfaces, with a hint of the love theme in a minor mode at 2:14 when we see Leia sense Han’s death. Wave after wave of brass attacks crash as Chewbacca and the Stormtroopers begin shooting at one another, building to a powerfully ecstatic rendition of Kylo’s main theme, followed by the Force theme after Finn and Rey run from the base. Ren’s theme reappears softly as he confronts them in the snowy forest, followed by a tender version of Rey’s theme when she’s knocked unconscious. If I haven’t made it completely obvious, this cue accentuates the emotions of the sequence splendidly, and is one of the highlights of the score.
In “The Ways of the Force,” dissonant strings build to a defiant rendition of the Force theme when Rey uses her growing power to summon Luke’s lightsaber. However, instead of employing this potent bit of music, the scene is tracked in with the variation on the Force theme heard in “Burning Homestead” from A New Hope. While it serves the scene quite well, it’s a highly distinctive variation on the motif, which made it a bit distracting for me.
In any case, the rest of the cue continues the streak of excellence and belongs in the pantheon of lightsaber duel music. Instead of offering up a mere Clash of Lightsabers, or a simple Duel of the Fates, or a quaint Battle of the Heroes, we are treated to a sequence in which two characters, representing the Light Side and the Dark Side of the Force, fight one another, and their respective themes fight each other musically. Rey’s theme attacks and subsides when Kylo’s two motifs press his advantage. Ren’s main theme recapitulates twice, each time softer, before the Force theme responds and grows in volume, leading to a counterattack from Rey’s theme. A buzzing dissonance as the two combatants are deadlocked gives way to a combo attack of the Force and Rey at their most triumphant, but a fading low string tremolo closes the cue in an unresolved fashion when Kylo and Rey are separated by a chasm. It’s quite clear that there is unfinished business between these two when they cross laser blades again.
The bulk of our heroes’ themes come together to wrap the story up in the penultimate “Farewell and the Trip.” Among the highlight chains is the victorious statement of Poe’s theme seguing effortlessly into the Force theme, augmented with bright, heartwarming trumpets. Equally powerful is a delicate solo cello playing Rey’s theme as she bids farewell to the unconscious Finn, followed immediately by Leia’s theme when the Resistance general, on her own once again, wishes Rey good luck. This is succeeded by a lengthy buildup featuring bits of Rey, the Rebel/Falcon, and the main themes before concluding with Rey’s theme, now boldly advancing to her next adventure. In about five minutes, Williams merges old and new seamlessly together in an immensely satisfying coda to the film.
But Wait! In the grand tradition of infomercial stars, Peter Jackson films, and Columbo, There’s More! One mystery that has still eluded me is the opening melody to “The Jedi Steps and Finale.” The theme plays as Rey climbs the mountain at the end, a series of descending notes, which slowly rise in intensity and volume, leading to a dramatic swell as Luke finally appears before seguing into a final statement of the Force theme and launching into the credits. Williams just dangles it before the audience at the very end of the film, then dangles one final morsel for those willing to sit through all the credits (or those listening on album). After excellent arrangements of the themes for the four new characters (featuring Poe and Finn’s themes in counterpoint! Is Williams shipping them?) and the March of the Resistance, Rey’s theme is reprised in counterpoint with the Force theme. Here, Williams shows his hand, revealing how they were connected this whole time, and how they come together harmoniously, before a final quotation of the Rebel fanfare followed by Luke’s theme twinkling softly on xylophone at the end.
This final stroke of brilliance leaves me eager to hear the Jedi Steps motif developed, find its place in the Star Wars tapestry, figure out how Rey’s theme grows in the coming films, and hear it do battle with Kylo Ren’s theme again in unique ways. As long as I can remember, the music of Star Wars has felt like a fully-formed, pre-existing world. Of all the impressive accomplishments of The Force Awakens as a film and as a score, perhaps the most impressive is how alive the series feels, and how I find myself legitimately excited to see and hear the next installment. “The WVIII for VIII” continues with great fervor.
Additional notes about release: none.
|1.||Main Title and the Attack on the Jakku Village||6:25|
|3.||I Can Fly Anything||3:10|
|4.||Rey Meets BB-8||1:31|
|8.||That Girl with the Staff||1:58|
|13.||Kylo Ren Arrives at the Battle||2:00|
|15.||Han and Leia||4:41|
|16.||March of the Resistance||2:34|
|18.||On the Inside||2:06|
|20.||The Ways of the Force||3:14|
|21.||Scherzo for X-Wings||2:32|
|22.||Farewell and the Trip||4:55|
|23.||The Jedi Steps and Finale||8:51|
|Total Album Time:||77:08|