Album review: With The Force Awakens, John Williams finds his majestic music playing second fiddle to frenetic pacing
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Original Motion Picture Sountrack)
Walt Disney Records
A John Williams score is always something special. When Star Wars hit cinemas in 1977, what set it apart from all that came before – besides its phenomenal, never-seen-before art direction – was the unique sonic universe he conjured, in the vein of Wagner and Holst.
There had never been anything quite like Star Wars’ opening text crawl and its fanfare – a dramatic and clearly-articulated aesthetic statement about the brand new world the audience was about to enter.
Williams is as much a part of this galaxy far, far away as its visual language of crossfades and star destroyers.
But in The Force Awakens, his soundtrack doesn’t stand out as prominently as in previous films.
This is mainly because the sound editing in Episode VII clearly differs from that of its predecessors. The music simply does not have as big a role to play this time.
George Lucas wrote into the scripts of the previous movies a variety of mostly-static visual tableaus that could showcase Williams’s score – from Binary Sunset and The Throne Room from Episode IV: A New Hope, to Battle of the Heroes from Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. These distinctive visual and aural set pieces are a hallmark of the original films.
Now that Lucas has stepped aside, J J Abrams’s hyperkinetic script and direction, in which characters barrel breathlessly through the plot faster than the Millennium Falcon can make the Kessel Run, does not lend itself to grand, static tableaus accompanied by striking themes.
Abrams has said that Terrence Malik’s film Tree of Life had encouraged him to slow down when editing, to compose longer, wider shots – but from watching The Force Awakens, it looks like his instinct to make everything move quickly was at best only slightly weakened. The film still charges ahead with great pace, and that limits the scope for moments of reflection during which we can absorb Williams’ music.
You can see this in the score. The majority of the tracks are accompaniments to action sequences, which makes them less expansive and less interesting.
The Falcon, for instance, alternates between rapid ostinato strings overlaid with staccato brass parts and musical rewards for the audience – a cell from Williams’ Hyperspace motif, a cell from the Main Theme – tied to onscreen beats – Finn destroys a TIE Fighter, Rey performs a loop-the-loop. (There is no better example of film score supporting cinematography than the heroic, excited brass stabs that Williams uses to accompany the Millennium Falcon’s jump to lightspeed.)
The Rathtars! is very similar – action-orientated strings and brass plus a few stabs of familiar themes on visual beats.
Scherzo for X-Wings – and what a title that is – is written using the same technique – in this case, variations on the Main Theme are echoed between brass instruments as X-Wings make attack runs on yet another Death Star.
Rey’s Theme, the most substantial new composition for The Force Awakens, is a jaunty, adventurous piece with an optimistic, ascending string and woodwind melody. One could be forgiven for feeling that it belongs in Indiana Jones movie than in Star Wars. Abrams self-consciously models himself on Stephen Spielberg, after all.
Later arrangements of the theme – after Rey, a Jedi, definitely assumes the mantle of the hero of the series – move the melody onto a more stately brass arrangement.
The March of The Resistance, an orchestral fugue, is, much like the Resistance itself, a warmed-up version of previous ideas – The Imperial Motif, the Pomp and Circumstance-inspired The Throne Room, and Episode I: The Phantom Menace’s forgettable March of The Trade Federation. It’s perfectly satisfactory but it doesn’t win many points for distinctiveness.
The Imperial March provides Williams fans with a clear case study in how to subvert the tonal conventions of a march to great effect – one cannot envy Williams the number of marches he has to write.
Snoke is an obvious echo of The Emperor’s Theme – but is curiously derivative. Mainly it is a long male-voice choir drone. Aside from some imaginatively dissonant sul ponticello strings, it is unexpectedly simplistic.
The Starkiller is basically Anakin’s Betrayal – Execute Order 66! from Revenge of the Sith – but somewhat less histrionic, slower, and arranged for string orchestra.
The Ways of The Force is a musical duel between the motifs Williams has written for Kylo Ren and Rey. He mirrors the ebb and flow of the duel between Ren and Rey by alternating the melody between cells of Rey’s theme and cells of Ren’s. Each character’s theme vies to dominate the melody, before both are superseded by The Force Theme – which intervenes, decisively, on Rey’s side.
The symmetry is obvious: Luke turned off his targeting computer at Obi-Wan’s ghostly prompting, accompanied by The Force Theme – Rey communes with the Force to defeat Kylo Ren, to the same theme.
Torn Apart, the accompaniment to the film’s biggest spoiler, has to closely follow Abrams’ tonal direction – first sadness and affection, as we are led to believe that Ren may be redeemed by his father’s love – then, the light literally goes out and we are treated to Steve Reich-style violins which grow ever more out of phase, which is presumably a musical reflection of Kylo Ren’s mental state.
After a reprise of the tragic Starkiller motif, we are treated to a powerful restatement of Kylo Ren’s theme – moody, descending minor-key brass with some very loud and low percussion – indicating that the dark side has triumphed. The effect is a bit camp, as can often happen when quickly-changing musical moods are tied to sudden changes in the dynamic between characters on screen. But blame Abrams for that.
The best use of the score is at the conclusion of the film, when Abrams follows Lucas in recreating the silent tableau that ends each Star Wars film. The Jedi Steps is a great theme – borrowing from and advancing Rey’s Theme, but with great expectation written into a lyrical, ascending string-and-woodwind melody that pulls away before reaching harmonic resolution.
The central motif from Rey’s Theme moves onto brass instruments and is slowed down, giving it an expansiveness and stately grandeur that the audience hasn’t heard before. Then Williams, heading straight for the moneymaker, gives us a slow rendition on French horn of The Force Theme, as the film’s closing secret is revealed. The Force Theme swells majestically into Finale – Williams’ now-famous end-credits music. The Force Awakens ends with a musical exclamation mark.
The score for Episode VII is not the equal of A New Hope or The Empire Strikes Back – much like the film itself. That’s because Abrams simply doesn’t use music as effectively as George Lucas – watch Lucas’ American Graffiti if you disagree – and yes, that also applies to the prequels.
But to listen to Williams write themes and motifs, and to combine and manipulate them with his customary versatility and intelligence, is to witness a genius at work.