February 4, 2016 John Williams – Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Album Review)
Highly accomplished Film Composer John Williams has attained a career that has spanned over six decades. With music composed for such classics as Jaws (1975), Indiana Jones series, and Jurassic Park (1993), among others, perhaps one of his most recognized works comes in the form of Star Wars. Winning an Academy Award for his original Star Wars score back in 1977, his music has been a fixture in all seven films in the saga, including 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Released via Walt Disney Records on December 18th, the same day the film debuted, the soundtrack has topped charts internationally. Conducted by Williams and William Ross, along with special guest conductor Gustavo Dudamel, the new music is some fans have loved from the moment they first listened.
Opening with “Main Title and The Attack on the Jakku Village,” this is a song that stirs up the embers of nostalgia in every Space Opera junkie from the late ’70s to today. Though much of Star Wars: The Force Awakens felt like an homage to 1977’s A New Hope, the movie’s intro music is more along the lines of 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back. Immediately, dark, eclipsing terror is the first cue, corresponding to the giant and evil looking Star Destroyer that eclipses the planet in the opening and the evil intent that accompanies the smaller ships which leave it. Instead of the sense of wonder that accompanied Star Wars fans’ first ever glimpses of Tatooine, viewers are instead introduced to the strikingly similar planet of Jakku with a sense of dread as evil forces make their way down, only made more harsh by Williams’ dark timbre. Important characters are introduced from the get go and the foreboding music comes with a sense of wonder and mysteriousness; the twinkling sounds, all hinting at The Force as the first action scene is set up. The dread from before returns, and this time it steadily gets more dramatic until the source of the evil makes his presence known. Sorrow mixed with fear as desperation leads partners to abandon each other, even temporarily. Cymbals announce how important this moment is. In the end, all that is left is horror and a clear sense of things not right. Using his full range of instrumentation and dynamics, Williams closes the first dramatic chapter of the intro.
The next track starts with mystery and curiosity that break down into what will later be recognized as Rey’s theme. It is all so beautiful. It is innocence, hope, sorrow, an inner frailty, and determination all rolled into one. “The Scavenger” also introduces a larger picture of Jakku. Listeners can literally feel the music zooming out as more instrumentation is added. Although, after all the wonder comes a sad solitude. Rey’s longing and the way she accepts her current circumstances are made clear by the solitary horn. Then, tense strings introduce a dangerous situation. “I Can Fly Anything” is a story of a desperate and nearly fatal escape. In classic out of the frying pan and into the fire style, the heroes go from one bad situation to another as they fall into the hands of our shadowy evil. The music leaves the listener with a pit in the stomach as one moves back to Rey. “Rey Meets BB-8” starts off serendipitously with a mechanical whimsy and tentative communication. Two beings trying to understand one another and opening up in a way that transcends language the same way music does. That is all cut short with heavy bass strings.
“Follow Me” starts with quiet complacency. Smaller curiosities quickly turn into an ominous threat and immediately sends things into flight. This is the sound of staying one step ahead. There are quieter moments where the threat seems to be gone, only to pick back up again. There is a consistent cue for urgency that listeners can begin to pick up here. It climaxes with cymbals and full horn as well as brass accompaniment. With a low bass filled promise that the danger is not over, the music fades out into the most iconic of the soundtrack yet- “Rey’s Theme.” Rey is a central character to the new Star Wars movie and, as such, her theme is incredibly central to the plot. The low end of the strings incites movement and flight, while all the qualities of Rey touched on before ride those waves. Clearly out of her element (aka Jakku) the music highlights new thing after new thing for our intrepid heroine. This is where the adventure starts in earnest. As it only continues to build over time, one gets the feeling that things are really about to go down before it ends delicately.
“Rey’s Theme” is a larger piece that is not in the movie directly as it is in the soundtrack. Therefore, “The Falcon,” the old hunk of junk that Rey did not even want, picks back up where “Follow Me” left of cinematically. The movie has a lot of chasing. The heroes are still on the run, but this time they have managed to get aboard one of the least reliable ships in the known Star Wars universe. Calls to the old dogfight themes of the older trilogies, trial by fire commences as difficulty has to be overcome. This is especially well exemplified by the hissing of escaping gasses heard in the soundtrack. Another chase scene comes to a startlingly sudden and sigh-of-relief inducing conclusion. “That Girl with the Staff” may have just saved their butts, but before there is much time to relax, it is once again out of the frying pan and into the fire as they are forced to hide. Once again, you can feel the menace as the horns herald in something large and scary. The movie never stops and “The Rathtars!” is next. Named after the horrible monstrous cargo Han Solo is hauling, the listener is lured into a false sense of fear, our heroes are accosted by two separate, but equally frightening gangs before the real menace is released. There seems to be a “Finn and Rey are running theme” happening. The bit at the end is a callback to a minor motif, “Here They Come!” that first appeared in A New Hope. It is appropriate because it is first introduced when Han Solo is flying the Millennium Falcon during its first battle with Luke onboard. It is also referred to as the “Space Battle Motif.”
Definitely the most sorrowful piece up unto this point, “Finn’s Confession” elicits empathy with viewers and listeners alike. The strings tell a sad tale of someone who has turned his back on the only way of life he knows and now just wants to escape his past. The subdued horns tell of an inner strength. The flutes tell of a sincere care for the people he has come to know, and when the horns turn playful, they tell of a certain happiness that is inside, but it soon turns dark as he makes the decision to leave his friends. Mysticism is the name of Maz’s game. “Maz’s Counsel” is part of one of the more mystic scenes in the movie as the Yoda of the new trilogy is encountered. Being over 1,000 years old, Maz knows a great many things and the bass clarinets are the cue that hint at the somberness of what she sees. The callback to “The Force Theme” from the original Star Wars tells the audience so many things; that Maz is to be trusted, that she is wise and most importantly, that she is directly connected to the Force. The song ends on a serious note that takes listeners directly into unabated and unstoppable tragedy as the music and the strings simply play out the utter decimation of an entire system.
The passiveness of the strings only makes “The Starkiller” all the more heartbreaking. In non-stop Action style, the bad guys arrive yet again, on the trail of the droid and its mysterious companions. The First Order’s theme quickly picks up into an all out battle and “Kylo Ren Arrives at the Battle” is heralded by trumpets. The tension Williams creates here is palpable. The strings are moving quickly in a staccato-like fashion which makes it easy to pick up the more fast-paced portions quickly. As the prey is cornered, the music dies down and moves into the confrontation. “The Abduction” is another show of Ren’s power and the music is similar to that of “The Attack on the Jakku Village.” Once captured, the music slows down and becomes more calculated. After a time though, while not “Rey’s Theme,” there is what seems to be a cue tied to her destiny. With hints of it in “The Scavenger,” here and even later on in “The Jedi Steps and Finale,” it seems to be an important piece tied strongly to her character. It almost screams, “What is happening is happening for a reason.” It ends in despair as Finn watches Rey being carried off.
The next act is introduced by “Han and Leia.” Of course, their main cue remains, but the song is a little heavier with the weight of the strained relationship. One thing Williams has always done well is militaristic fanfare, and with Leia’s new role as general, this definitely comes across as the song moves on to the disciplined side of Han and Leia (that would be Leia’s side). We then get a bit of play during the reuniting of Finn and Poe. The level of their friendship is clearly supplanted by the strong bottom end, but serious matters abide, and as Leia and Han’s theme comes back in, it is tinged with a minor key that foreshadows the darkness that must be owned up to by themselves.
“March of the Resistance” is the new “Imperial March.” While it does not feel like it carries quite the same weight, this feels largely tied to the fact that Abrams has kept many important plot details secret, even now. The song is definitely strong and mighty, but unlike the “Imperial March,” it feels a bit more generalized without a clear spearhead as we had in Darth Vader, who at the time this was first played, was the only bad guy the audience knew about. A key thing here is near the end of this track there are subtle hints, similar musical steps, heralding back to Vader’s redemption at the end of Return of the Jedi. It can be heard in “Leia’s News & Light of the Force.” Obviously Williams spent a lot of time making sure this soundtrack was nuanced just right, and he likely knows even more about the story than most of the actors do.
“Snoke,” being what essentially seems to be a part-time cult leader, part time political figure head, is very appropriately given Gregorian style music as his theme. It is in the same style as the music used when Emperor Palpatine talks about Darth Plagueis. This lends some credence to fan theories about Snoke’s true background. As Snoke’s orders are carried out, the music takes us to “On the Inside.” Sustained strings and bassoon give the song a sneaking feeling. Because of the way Abrams directed the movie, there is a constant movement from sneaking to threat made apparent and inescapable. This song ends in direct confrontation and moves the audience very smoothly into what is perhaps the most emotional piece in the soundtrack, “Torn Apart.” This song starts off with a key interval from “Han and Leia;” it is very minor, making it sound very melancholy. At around 1:05, there is small motif of recovery that has been used before in previous trilogies. That ends quickly though as the low horns bring back the darkness. The crescendo is unbearable and seemingly unending until the soft let down. Delicate as a feather is the fall back into despair. Again, the movie never seems to want to put the brakes fully on and it turns straight back into action. Vestiges of feeling remain even at the end of the song. Inner turmoil can be felt and then, as it ends, there is an echo of recognition.
“The Ways of the Force” is one of the most direct confrontations yet. There is heroic struggle followed by bitter determination. The trademark of a fallen hero being avenged. There is a valiant struggle followed by a precipice, a life defining choice, calm, and then a renewed vigor. The cause of this renewed vigor is obviously the Force; its cue is clear in the middle of the track. After the tides have been turned, there is another choice, but this time things are taken out of the hands of the players and there is a retreat into darkness. Back up top, the “Scherzo for X-Wings” has new fan favorite Poe Dameron shooting down baddies. It is quite amazing how apparent John Williams makes it, that this is a fight taking place on land and not in the sky. The way it is interspersed with the classic Star Wars theme is craftily down without using it as a crutch. Of course, there is plenty of action to be had. In proper Star Wars tradition, there is more than one climax going on at any given time, and this one is given the proper musical attention as well.
“Farewell and The Trip” is the beginning of the closing chapter of the movie. The same way that The Empire Strikes Back ended with a clear cliffhanger, this movie already sets out to do the same. Though some assume that there is another twenty minutes at least, it is actually closer to five. The princess theme appears as a send off for the hero and listeners can feel the sad goodbye as she takes off for the unknown. The princess theme transitions nicely into more militaristic music, another cue as to Leia’s new role. The ending of this track is Rey’s classic adventure theme; the same one played when she left Jakku. It is, at once, a basic call to adventure and a reminder that there is still so much that Rey does not know. “The Jedi Steps and Finale” starts with the same mysterious chime that can be heard in other parts of the movie. There is also a new theme here- potentially Luke’s. This part of the soundtrack is best heard in tandem with the beautiful wide-panned spinning shots in the movie. The music played here is Luke’s realization and coming of age motif from the original trilogy. After the huge cliffhanger, the audience is blasted with the classic closing fanfare. After that fades away, what is left is a medley of themes from the movie; mostly the darker.
When viewed as a whole, this is another incredible win on Williams’ part. To be able to continue to build upon a world so reliant upon music, after six previous entries of two trilogies, is astounding. To do so without sounding stale is an achievement for the ages. What will be interesting is to see how the new themes are adapted into the second movie of this new trilogy. CrypticRock gives this soundtrack 5 out of 5 stars.