Ranking the Star Wars Soundtracks
John Williams’ work for Star Wars is amongst his most acclaimed. Thanks to his use of leitmotif (recurring themes for characters; a particularly Romantic tradition and perfect for film scoring), there’s little of his work generally that isn’t instantly recognisable. Every score he turned out for the series is musically brilliant, and extremely accessible to the casual listener, and whilst I found it easy to decide which score I think is the best, it was the lower rankings I found more difficult. How do you decide which of 7 wonderful works to put last? Actually, I found that easy too. Maybe this wasn’t so hard after all.
7. The Force Awakens
Part of the joy of The Force Awakens was sitting in the cinema and having that familiar opening chord strike out loudly from giant cinema speakers. But by the end of the opening crawl, I knew something wasn’t quite the same. Sure enough, when I later checked the music credits, Williams abandoned the London Symphony Orchestra and Abbey Road Studios for this film, instead recording with a freelance orchestra in California. He also opted not to conduct. It’s such a minor thing, but when you compare an LSO recording of the theme from the prequels and the Force Awakens version, there is a noticeable difference in sound especially.
The Force Awakens score is pure 2010s Williams. In recent years he has developed a lighter touch, moving away from big brass sections in favour of more intimate, playful, and delicate scoring. The thing is, this is not the Star Wars sound. Obviously with the new films, new stories, new characters, and new styles are welcome, but I just feel like Williams was not quite making it with this score. There isn’t a “Binary Sunset”-type moment until “Binary Sunset” is itself referenced right at the end, and Kylo Ren’s theme is cool but ill-defined. I hope it gets some development into an Imperial March-style concert-friendly theme for Episode VIII.
The real standout of The Force Awakens‘ score is “Rey’s Theme”. This needs to be intimate and playful, but also mysterious. Williams manages this beautifully, conveying the growth of her worldview from small to galactic, and the hope that comes along with it. In just over three minutes, Williams tells us that Rey is a young, innocent, but strong and vibrant character. And the fact she has her own theme means she is very important. The return of “Han and Leia” and its reworking into a piece of high tragedy worthy of Wagner or Tchaikovsky is another brilliant stroke, and the punchy, swashbuckling theme for the Resistance is a lot of fun.
The score for The Force Awakens is another Williams triumph,but just not up to the strengths of the rest.
6. Star Wars (A New Hope)
Am I going to be burned at the stake for this heresy? Worth it. Yes, it’s true, I think The Star Wars (as my double-vinyl album would have it) has the weakest of the first six Williams scores. As laden with iconic moments as it is (“Binary Sunset” racking up a second mention already), it lacks the breadth and exploration of Williams’ later work for the series. Furthermore, he liberally ‘borrows’ from Holst’s The Planets, a significant strike against this score considering the rest of the series contains so much more original musical thought.
Williams was definitely doing playful in 1977, and his themes for many of the Tatooine scenes, such as “The Little People Work” or the Mos Eisley sequences. are some of the lighter pieces in the score; but even these are laden heavily with loud brass and lush strings, in contrast to the less enthusiastic orchestrations of The Force Awakens. And man, “The Cantina Band” is one of the most memorable and quirky pieces ever put on tape. Stories abound of people who heard the song in the original trailer and were disappointed it barely appears in the finished film.
One of the other bits which first jumped out at me when I listened to the score on its own for the first time, years ago, is the small cue which plays under C3PO and R2D2’s escape from the Tantive IV in the first act. It accompanies perfectly their descent through the emptiness of space, looking out at the stars, and into the adventures on the planet below. The small brass phrase that closes this cue finishes the scene perfectly.
The two most important themes from this score are without a doubt the “Main Title”, often employed as Luke’s action theme throughout the Original Trilogy, and “Binary Sunset”. This is now often referred to as The Force Theme, and in this film it’s first used to signify Luke Skywalker’s desire to escape his agrarian existence and get out and see the galaxy. In contrast to “Rey’s Theme” which is hopeful and positive, “Binary Sunset” expresses a hope tinged with sorrow and longing on Luke’s part – a hero waiting for his time. Throughout the film, it also underscores great loss, and love. Williams can be justly proud of this piece; aside from the Main Title it’s probably the most significant theme in the saga.
In film history, this score changed soundtrack trends and kept a lot of musicians in jobs. Williams single handedly re-popularised the epic orchestral soundtrack in science fiction, and this would carry over into other genres as well. Moonraker, James Bond’s too-late answer to the Star Wars craze, features John Barry doing his very best Williams impression, and that style would actually go on to become Barry’s late career sound – his work on Bond in the 1980s is much more orchestral than before Star Wars.
5. The Phantom Menace
Sub-par film, whose inferior quality should have been a sign of things to come. The score actually is a sign of things to come. John Williams would do arguably career-best work on the prequel films; it’s just a shame the prequels weren’t equally as good.
The Phantom Menace is in the odd position of still being Star Wars, but also being new and different. The score is much more royal and majestic, with many more fancy brass fanfares, especially on Naboo. Williams works in new themes, and makes clever and cheeky throwbacks to old ones. Notable amongst these is “Anakin’s Theme”, a cute happy theme which is more enjoyable than the character deserves, and which hints at the character’s dark future with a minor shift into notes from the “Imperial March” at the end of the leitmotif. Music from Return of the Jedi appears when Jabba the Hutt starts the pod race, and of course, the Force Theme makes appearances here and there.
Ruining the poorly kept surprise of Senator Palpatine’s duel identity is Williams’ telegraphing the “Emperor’s Theme” into his scenes, but more cleverly disguising it by modulating into a major key in the nightmare-music finale “Augie’s Great Municipal Band”.
Everyone loves “Duel of the Fates”; personally I find it a little bit tedious, epic as it is. I’ll talk more about it later.
4. Attack of the Clones
Attack of the Clones has its roots in the mystery and political espionage films of the 1970s. There’s a real Watergate-esque feel to the proceedings, and this is magnificently complimented by Williams’ darker and more mysterious score. So much of the new incidental music in this film has a downward progression; listen to the music as Obi-Wan arrives on Kamino and you’ll see what I mean.
There is little positivity in Attack of the Clones. Even its most iconic new theme, “Across the Stars” is in a minor key. I mean, even when the film was new we knew more or less how the story of Anakin and Padme was going to end (not nicely), but the tragic beauty of “Across the Stars” only serves to emphasise this.
In this vein, one of the big criticisms I would make about Williams’ scores for the prequels is their total lack of subtlety. His biggest offence here comes at the end of the film – not only does he re-use his admittedly rather excellent Battle Droid March to emphasise the moral ambiguity of the clone army and the Republic, but he then segues into the Imperial March! I mean, it’s a YAAAASSSSS moment for fans, but settle down, John.
3. Return of the Jedi
It was a tough choice between this and The Empire Strikes Back for number 2, and Return of the Jedi only just lost.
Williams develops his themes built for the previous two films and achieves a sense of finality. “Luke and Leia”, a precursor to “Across the Stars” in Attack of the Clones is drawn from Williams’ original “Leia’s Theme” from Star Wars and it’s a truly wonderful, sweeping emotional piece. He also gets to work more on “Han Solo and The Princess”, which gets another workout here as Han and Leia become closer.
Williams excels himself at ‘exotic mystery’ with the sequences on Tatooine in the first act, and gets as brassy as he ever will in the Original Trilogy when writing for Jabba’s sail barge. There’s a fair bit of source music in this film, including some pseudo-Baroque organ, funky space rock, and a piece of music I always thought was “Low Rider” by WAR until recently.
There’s also a theme for the Ewoks, which is an early occurrence of Williams’ increasingly common self-plagiarism – it’s very similar to his “March of the Villains” from Superman. This theme has a fun bounce to it though, and I did find it quite helpful on the treadmill at the gym once.
The jury is still out on whether “Yub Nub”, from the theatrical release is a better closing piece than “Victory Celebration” from the special editions, but certainly as music to listen to, “Victory Celebration” wins every time. It certainly closes out the trilogy less comedically! It’s just a shame there are Gungans in Return of the Jedi as a consequence.
2. The Empire Strikes Back
The follow up to Star Wars is often hailed as the best film of the seven. Musically, it’s definitely up there.
The most important contribution of this score to the canon is definitely the “Imperial March”. It’s easily the second most iconic piece of Williams music, after the Star Wars theme itself, and it has become synonymous with evil, and is often used as a rhetorical device in satire to highlight people with unsavoury agendas.
This is also where the magnificently versatile “Han Solo and the Princess” gets its first outing. It underscores the blossoming love between Princess and nerf herder, and is used throughout the film to great effect during pursuits and fights as well. It even forms the basis for the final fanfare of the film before the credits, and Williams does a great job of making it sound tragic but hopeful.
George Lucas’ much maligned Special Editions did benefit this film’s score somewhat – the extended flyover of Cloud City by the Millenium Falcon is accompanied by William’s full composition for the sequence, and it’s a beauty.
1. Revenge of the Sith
Revenge of the Sith was lucky, because Williams could draw from his entire written works for Star Wars to create nostalgic throwbacks and provide musical links to events in the original trilogy.
However, there’s also a fair bit of new stuff too, most notably General Grievous’ bombastic leitmotif. It’s slightly goofy, but since George Lucas had an apparent obsession with making his villains seem incompetent, the theme works perfectly.
Williams foreshadows the impending tragic ending of the film right at the beginning, with a maudlin and sorrowful arrangement of “Binary Sunset” which accompanies warring fanfares as Anakin and Obi-Wan descend upon the battle over Coruscant. He re-uses his punchy battle droid march once again, as Anakin/Vader storms the Jedi Temple, and there are highlights from the Imperial March throughout. The unsettling theme for Palpatine is used to full effect here as well, especially once he is disfigured into the face we know and love! It hides in the background as Anakin is seduced to the Dark Side, and underscores the slide perfectly.
“Padme’s Ruminations” is phenomenally effective – an atmospheric and terrifying piece which helps the audience share Padme’s fear and concern for Anakin as she watches smoke rise from the Jedi Temple. Padme’s funeral is accompanied by the same choral work as Qui Gon’s in The Phantom Menace, which is nice.
Now: “Battle of the Heroes”. I didn’t talk about “Duel of the Fates” earlier because it’s easier to discuss against its use in “Battle of the Heroes”. This piece seems like a more finshed and polished version of “Duel of the Fates”, and considering it features “Duel” heavily, I suspect that was the idea. In “Battle of the Heroes”, the original trilogy comes full circle. Sith apprentice battles Jedi master, but this time the Jedi gains the upper hand. It compliments perfectly the visuals of lava exploding out of volcanoes in the background of the battle, the unbridled power of nature contrasted against a human fight for superiority. It’s brassier, punchier, and develops more ideas than “Duel of the Fates” – not to mention the fact that everyone loves Obi-Wan Kenobi and it’s a lot harder to watch him battle his own apprentice than Darth Maul.
Williams concludes the trilogy musically in just over three minutes. Senator Organa hands over the droids to Captain Antilles, Padme’s funeral occurs, and the music from that scene transitions into the Imperial Fleet forming around the first Death Star as Grand Moff Tarkin, the Emperor, and Vader look on. It’s appropriately emotional, and this transitions into Leia’s theme as we see the Tantive IV land on Alderaan. Finally, “Binary Sunset” gets a hopeful restatement as Owen and Beru look out at a binary sunset. The seeds are sown for the different childhoods the twins will have (which as far as I know is a pretty unexplored concept which could be interesting) and the credits begin.
Revenge of the Sith takes the best from all six films and digests it down into one extremely effective score which provides more emotion and depth than most of the acting and direction. Williams, for all his faults and repetition through different franchises, still manages to make this score sound as original as his first score for Star Wars all the way back in 1977. When he eventually passes the baton, his genius will be missed.