Star Wars: the soundtracks are now complete

Picked up the soundtrack to the new Star Wars film today, more for the bonus DVD than for the actual music. Perhaps it’s premature to post my first impressions, as I have given each disc just one spin each so far today, but comment I shall.

The bonus DVD is a nice little trinket — completely superfluous, of course, but an interesting attempt to meld all six films by setting music videos to individual John Williams tunes, with each music video mixing scenes from the various films.

I think it’s rather telling that only 4 tracks from the prequels are given the music-video treatment on this bonus DVD, versus 11 tracks from the original trilogy; the music in the original films was as dynamic as the films themselves, but the music in the prequels has rarely done more than sustain the style of the earlier films. Even two of the prequel tracks presented here (Episode I’s ‘Anakin’s Theme’ and Episode II’s ‘Across the Stars’) are basically just reworked versions of themes from the original trilogy.

Interestingly, in his introduction to ‘A New Day Dawns’, Ian McDiarmid says Anakin Skywalker “found redemption through love for his son”. This reminds me of the tension I probed in my review of Episode II, between the Buddhist rejection of attachments as the pathway to suffering in the prequels and the Christian embracing of attachments (and suffering!) as the pathway to salvation in the original trilogy. As I wrote at the time:

So where does Lucas, a self-proclaimed “Buddhist Methodist”, stand on all this? If he were writing this story today, which sensibility would come out on top, in the end? In The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda insists anger and fear are of the Dark Side — even, it seems, when such feelings are legitimate — and as an alternative to these things, he recommends not love and hope, but being “calm” and “passive”; instead of having bad emotions, Yoda does not say have good emotions, but have no emotions. However, the Ewok song at the end of the original version of Return of the Jedi concluded with the words, “Celebrate the love!” No one in the films ever promotes “love” as an alternative to hate, not in so many words — but if you think about it, it seems pretty clear that that element is there in the story. Then again, this song was cut from the “special edition” of Jedi five years ago, and Lucas has said he will tinker with the film some more. Did he decide “Celebrate the love!” is now the wrong note on which to end his six-part story? Or did he simply find the singing Ewoks embarrassing?

So, in this light, I find the reference to “redemption through love” in McDiarmid’s introduction quite interesting. The Ewok “love” song may have been deleted from the films, but that theme is underscored on Episode III’s bonus DVD, at least.

As for the music itself, I regret to say almost none of it has made any impression on me yet — except for those moments where my ears perked up and I said, “Hey, that’s practically note-for-note the same as that tune from that other Star Wars movie!”

Major culprits here include passages in ‘Padme’s Destiny’, which totally brings Episode I’s ‘Qui-Gon’s Funeral’ to mind, and ‘Anakin vs. Obi-Wan’, which totally brings Episode V’s ‘The Clash of Lightsabers’ to mind — the notes in the latter case are so close to the original that, when I finally see Episode III, I half-expect to see either Anakin or Obi-Wan send the other person flying backwards through a window on Cloud City.

Actually, someone on a film-soundtrack listserv that I subscribe to made some very interesting criticisms of the Episode III CD, and I can sort of see what he means — give these tracks a whirl and see if the same things occur to you, too. Initially, he wrote:

I’m really enjoying the score, but that may be because my expectations were so low after the sordid affair that was Episode 2 (a score that I enthusiastically embraced until I heard it clash hideously with the film – now the album leaves me cold). He’s given us some of his most emotionally rivetting music in quite some time here, and I really like the way he gradually kills the love theme, far more potent here than it was in it’s overblown form from Episode 2. The new theme, while far simpler than what we usually expect from Williams, is an emotional powerhouse, and I really love the way he melds it with his “Clash of the Sabers” material from Empire Strikes Back in “Anakin Versus Obi-wan,” by far my favorite track of the new trilogy. Granted, their are a few cringe-worthy moments – the blatant lifts from other film scores like The Thin Red Line, Matrix Revolutions, Passion of the Christ, and Lord of the Rings are nearly Horner-worthy, and the massive reprise of the triumphant material from A New Hope in the last track is a both a lazy excuse for a finale and an insult to the tragedy we’ve just experienced. Nevertheless, I’ve been listening to this CD constantly – I only pray that the score cooks as well in the film as it does on the album, and that the editors don’t mangle the score once again.

Challenged to produce specific examples of these “blatant lifts”, he offered these:

In “Battle of the Heroes” the brass climaxes with one chord punched in a rhythm entirely identical to the climax from “Neodamerung” of the Matrix Revolutions. This is the admittedly the most minor of the examples, but it is quite noticable if you know both scores.

Near the beginning of “Anakin’s Betrayal,” Williams quotes Zimmer’s theme from The Thin Red Line (the theme that dominates “Journey to the Line”) verbatim – three descending notes (one half-step and one whole-step), then the same pattern 2 and 1/2 steps higher on the scale. It’s quite an outspoken moment in the cue – nearly impossible to miss and rather distracting if you’re at all familiar with Zimmer’s score.

“Padme’s Ruminations” opens with a faux-Middle Eastern vocal against an ambient synth background entirely identical to numerous passages of Debney’s Passion score. One might argue that Williams wasn’t lifting from Debney specifically as this is a pretty standard cliche in contemporary film music, but Williams even goes so far as to use the same 4-note motif Debney used in his score (in “Peter Denies Jesus” – also Elfman’s theme from Darkman, but in an enormously different setting) with identical orchestration – Williams even uses the same woodwind instrument to play the motif.

In the most shameless lift, “Anakin’s Dark Deeds” opens with Howard Shore’s “Seduction of the Ring” theme from all of his Lord of the Rings films (heard in the films when Boromir contemplates taking the ring from Frodo when it falls into the snow, when Faramir contemplates taking the ring from Frodo, and right before Smeagle kills for the ring in the flashback). The orchestration, complete with boys’ choir, is identical, the melody and chord progression is nearly identical, and this part of the cue about as close to direclty tracking Shore’s piece as you can legally get without risking a lawsuit.

I hope that is satisfactorily specific – I’m sorry if I did not provide track times, but that’s a bit obsessive even for me. And for the record, I am not the only person who noticed these – the writers at Film Score Monthly, Movie Music UK and Music on Film made a few of the same observations. I apologize if you still feel this is fan boy rubbish, but I’d appreciate an equally specific concrete counter to my observations if you wish to argue this further.

To this, one other subscriber added the example of “the driving timp and string march from Silvestri’s VAN HELSING in track 1. Can’t provide an exact time, but I just heard this in the car this morning on the way to work. John… Why!?!?”

Make of all that what you will!

About Peter T. Chattaway

Peter T. Chattaway was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011. In addition to his film column, which won multiple awards from the Evangelical Press Association, the Canadian Church Press and the Fellowship of Christian Newspapers, his news and opinion pieces have appeared in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Bible Review and the Vancouver Sun. He also contributed essays to the books Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on (Continuum, 2005).

  • Trent

    [quote] As for the music itself, I regret to say almost none of it has made any impression on me yet — except for those moments where my ears perked up and I said, “Hey, that’s practically note-for-note the same as that tune from that other Star Wars movie!” [/quote]

    Interesting quotes on William’s lifting from other film scores; I’ve always had a mind to start a website dedicated to tracking downWilliam’s classical musical swipes (Dvorak’s New World Symphony, andyone?), but this would just expand the project.

    However, nothing about the prequels, including the music, have left that big an impression on me, so I haven’t felt the need to get the soundtracks.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14715376140228118442 Jeffrey Overstreet

    This is a cynical response, I suppose, but for all of the composers who have shamelessly ripped off Williams over the years, I wouldn’t invest too much energy into going after Lucas for echoing some of them. Horner especially has made a career of being a Williams imitator, in my opinion.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07395937367596387523 Peter T Chattaway

    Horner especially has made a career of being a Williams imitator, in my opinion.

    Actually, I think Horner was alluded to by the person I quoted above.

    Just wondering, which specific Williams scores do you think Horner has ripped off? I know his score for Enemy at the Gates was uncannily similar to Schindler’s List, but I can’t remember any other parallels; the alleged plagiarisms of which I am aware would be things like the opening tune in Aliens, which is uncannily similar to the Khachaturian tune that Kubrick used in 2001: A Space Odyssey (and the rest of that score is uncannily similar to Horner’s own Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan).

    The deeper problem with Episode III — indeed with all the prequels — is that Williams is constantly rehashing his older themes. In the original trilogy, Williams was constantly inventing new themes; indeed, some of his signature tunes, like the Imperial March or Darth Vader theme, were created specifically for the sequels! I think Williams’s music for the prequels has been okay, but that kind of creativity just isn’t there.


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