We’ve been looking at the work of John Williams in the last week of #Johnuary and now we come on to the big one. Star Wars.
To be quite honest I could easily spend a whole week just looking at the soundtracks of all the Star Wars movies. And that is something that I may well drill down into more in the future. But this Johnuary week is just to have a top level look across all of Williams’ work and then rank them, so I’m just going to give the Star Wars series one post. This is still going to be quite a long post though as there are just so many tracks to look at.
Even if I was just going to look at the soundtrack for A New Hope it would still be the longest post in this series, because there are just sooo many good tracks on that original soundtrack. It is noted by many people that later soundtracks such as Empire Strikes Back are actually better in some regards as Williams fleshes out these signature tracks that he introduced in A New Hope. But to be honest I’m not going to get into too much detail about which version is the best. I just want to look at the main themes, and the majority of them are from the original Star Wars so I’ll just look at those versions first and then I’ll introduce the key tracks from some of the other Star Wars movies.
To be honest I’ve just thought of a cool idea for a visual infographic based on all the Star Wars soundtracks. That’s something I might embark on one day, but I’ll keep it on the back burner for now.
I have very vivid memories of playing the Star Wars soundtrack on vinyl on a dodgy old record player I had in my bedroom when I was about 8 years old. I think we got the LP second hand from somewhere and I was extremely excited to listen to it. I didn’t really know what a soundtrack or score was at that age and I imagined the LP would contain lots of sound effects of lightsabers and TIE Fighters and some cool lines of dialogues, or maybe even the full movie in audio form. I remember being a bit disappointed initially when it had things like Princess Leia’s theme. That wasn’t what I wanted to hear. I didn’t appreciate the nuances of the slower tracks back then. I did, however, keep listening to it all and the more I played it the more I appreciated the beauty of all the tracks and how they were all part of this overall tapestry that gave the film such a vibrant atmosphere. I did, however, still mostly play the Main Theme and the Cantina Band tune.
One of the first things that strikes me about the main Star Wars soundtrack is just how rich it is. Often in films you get one main signature theme and the bulk of the rest of the soundtrack just repeats that audio theme in different ways. But Star Wars has multiple, instantly recognisable, leitmotifs. I can think of at least 4 or 5 lines of music right now which just evoke Star Wars in bucketloads and they’re all from different tracks. But because Williams uses them so well, and references them subtley in different places, they all seem like a natural part of a bigger whole, and not separate isolated tracks.
It’s also all just so iconic. Perhaps that is helped by the extremely unique visuals that help to make it memorable, but they certainly help each other. If Star Wars had a mediocre 70s space score then it wouldn’t be half the movie it is. Williams’ score elevates it into something majestic and if I wasn’t fully aware of why that was when I first watched it as a 6 year old kid I think I still certainly felt it. It’s hard not to.
The original Star Wars soundtrack elevated John Williams to being the no.1 composer in Hollywood and won him his third Oscar. It was voted the AFI’s Greatest American movie score of all time in 2005.
What can I say about the main Star Wars title. It evokes so much emotion. Majesty, triumph, optimism, adventure, nostalgia, fun. It’s a track that has got everything. It’s got brass and strings in roughly equal measure. It also almost seems to balance good and evil in its main line. The main line starts off seeming to evoke ‘good’ and then I always feel the ‘bah-bah-bah-bah’ at the end of the main line feels like it’s referencing the Empire. I’ll be speaking later this week about how Superman has a very recognisable first five notes, and I spoke earlier today how Jaws obviously has the recognisable two note motif, but I would argue that that first note of the Star Wars main title is just as recognisable. That one note just sums it all up. It’s so burnt into our brains with the yellow Star Wars logo bursting on screen with that note. It still gives me goosebumps every time I watch it.
Binary Sunset / Force Theme
This is a track that just totally exudes ‘Star Wars’ to me. I think this is the one that really becomes the fabric of the movie and helps elevate it to a serious piece of filmmaking rather than just a fun space romp. It’s an incredible track and is possibly used the most throughout all the films. Most iconically it was used when Luke was standing outside his workshop on Tatooine looking at the binary sunset, but since then it has generally been used to represent someone channeling The Force.
The Throne Room (Medal Ceremony)
I feel this piece of music often gets forgotten about by some but it was always a personal favourite. I absolutely love it and very nearly have it as my favourite Star Wars piece of music. Let’s see how it ranks at the end of the week. I’ve got a very cool memory around this music as well, from the Secret Cinema event that I went to when this music was played at full blast while I high- fived Luke, Han and Chewie was they marched past for their medals. More info at my blog post about My Immersive Star Wars Secret Cinema Experience.
Princess Leia’s Theme
Leia’s theme is used in some very poignant moments in all of the films. It’s a beautiful track which seems to signify sadness, but with a hint of hope. It was also reworked and expanded into Han Solo and the Princess for The Empire Strikes Back.
I bet John Williams had a lot of fun writing this piece of music. It always one of my favourite tracks on the album and I loved how despite only hearing a few seconds of it in the film there was a whole track available on the soundtrack to listen to. I could just imagine Figrin D’an and the Modal Nodes practising the music in their rehearsals.
This is arguably the second most iconic Star Wars theme, or maybe even the first to some people. What a piece of music. Perfectly representing the dread of the Empire marching towards you. It is one of those pieces of music, like the Jaws leitmotif, that people use in popular culture everywhere.
This was the other main new theme on the Empire soundtrack. Some people hold it up as being one of the best tracks in the series but I personally don’t really feel much attachment to it. I don’t find it very recognisable compared to some of the others.
Empire Strikes Back End Titles
I feel this piece of music perfectly sums up the best bits of The Empire Strikes Back. It’s very romantic and with a rising hope. The perfect way to end Empire.
Duel of the Fates
Some people say that the prequels don’t really have many new iconic tracks or themes in their soundtracks. There can be no denying, however, that Duel of the Fates is a behemoth of a song. It reminds me very much of O Fortuna from Carmina Burana. The singing is so evocative and emotional. It’s the perfect track for the highly charged fight between Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon and Darth Maul.
Other tracks worth listening to include:
The Asteroid Field – The Empire Strikes Back
The Emperor’s Theme – Return of the Jedi
Ewok Celebration (Yub Nub) – Return of the Jedi (yep, I like it! Maybe mostly nostalgia)
Victory Celebration – Return of the Jedi Special Edition (yep, I like this too – a dilemma)
Shmi’s Theme – The Phantom Menace
Across the Stars – Attack of the Clones
Battle of the Heroes – Revenge of the Sith