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THE PHANTOM MENACE – John Williams

phantommenaceOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

At long, long last, the waiting is over. I don’t think I can ever remember a soundtrack being as highly anticipated as The Phantom Menace was – not even Titanic. Ever since George Lucas announced his intentions to make a second Star Wars trilogy, score fans the world over literally started drooling as they pondered the possibilities. Of course, John Williams would write the music, but what would he do? Would any of the familiar themes make an appearance? Would the full score be released? Would it be a 2-CD release? What would be the cue titles? Such has been the speculation and avid discussion, especially on the Internet, that with only a few weeks to go until its premiere, it has almost become a frenzy. As such, reviewing a score like this impartially and without bias is now virtually impossible – even I have been caught up in Phantom Menace fever, especially with the tantalizing glimpses of the trailer in my local multiplex.

I love this score. I always knew I would. Picking up from where Return of the Jedi left off all of 16 years ago, The Phantom Menace is a truly impressive work combining an enormous performance from the London Symphony Orchestra with some truly monumental choral sections. As before, Williams has developed several leitmotifs for recurring characters in the film, all of which weave in and around the various set pieces. In addition, there are two concert arrangements of the most prominent new themes heard in the second and third tracks, ‘Duel of the Fates’ and ‘Anakin’s Theme’. The former is probably the best track on the album, a dynamic, epic piece built around an intense, rapid five-note motif with a repeated nine-note theme and a massive choir singing in Sanskrit. Although it reminds me slightly of the opening march from Nixon, the theme’s fiery passion and unstoppable motion is unmistakable, and will surely go on to be a concert hall favorite in the future.

Although ‘Anakin’s Theme’ doesn’t have the same drive or sense of raw power as ‘Duel of the Fates’, it contains all the emotional and intellectual resonance. An attractive, childlike melody for strings, woodwinds and a harp, it sways sublimely for several minutes, until you eventually realize that the final four notes of the theme’s ultimate melodic line are in fact the final four notes of the Imperial March. This is a master stroke on Williams’ part. By interpolating the musical embodiment of evil into a theme full of innocence and beauty, the cue takes on a moving sense of foreboding and tragedy. Of course, we all know what will become of this cherubic little kid…

As one would expect, there are no less than five spectacular action sequences, into which Williams has seamlessly melded several of the leitmotifs. ‘The Sith Spacecraft and The Droid Battle’ and ‘Qui-Gon’s Noble End’, with their pulsating brasses and impressive, staccato renditions of the Fates theme, are short but fast, and breathless. ‘Anakin Defeats Sebulba’, the cue for the eagerly anticipated Pod Race sequence, begins with a heraldic grandeur reminiscent of Miklós Rózsa’s Chariot Race sequence from Ben-Hur, before heading off into a full-frontal string assault which simply buzzes with energy. ‘Panaka and the Queen’s Protectors’ is remarkable for the unexpected, but welcome inclusion of the Star Wars march into the action. ‘The Droid Invasion’ presents a rhythmic, increasingly chaotic-sounding sequence full of fierce, whooping brasses, before introducing a surprisingly brutal woodwind and chorus motif for the sinister ‘The Appearance of Darth Maul’.

As well as these action set pieces, there are also several other interesting cues, including a perkily playful woodwind scherzo for the film’s comic relief in ‘Jar Jar’s Introduction’, which then develops into a magical, twinkly, other-worldly set piece for ‘The Swim to Otoh Gunga’. ‘The Trip to the Naboo Temple’ is a funky jungle march with percussive strings a-plenty; ‘The Flag Parade’ is a joyously impressive cue reminiscent of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom; and ‘Passage Through the Planet Core’ is soft and eerie, again making good use of the choir.

As many score fans had hoped, familiar snippets of music from the original Trilogy appear in several cues. The ‘Main Title’ opens with a powerful refrain of the majestic Star Wars march before segueing into the light, exultant ‘The Arrival at Naboo’, and the ‘End Credits’ begin with a similarly passionate performance. The Force theme from ANH is hinted at during the stately ‘He Is The Chosen One’, comes fully into play during the first moments of ‘Anakin Defeats Sebulba’, and is afforded two lush, heart-breakingly emotional renditions during ‘Kids at Play’ and the poignant ‘Qui-Gon’s Funeral’. The glorious theme for Yoda from ESB is heard ever-so-briefly in ‘The High Council Meeting’, and finally the dark, malevolent choral motif for The Emperor from Jedi is surreptitiously introduced during ‘The Appearance of Darth Maul’, but in an even darker and more sinister fashion, if such a thing is possible. Cleverest of all, the Emperor’s theme forms the basis of the conclusive ‘Augie’s Great Municipal Band’, a bizarre rock track which, at first glance, might make anyone who hated “Lapti Nek” or the Ewok celebration tear out their hair in frustration, but which in actual fact gives a wonderfully disguised hint as to the dangers ahead.

Over time, and with repeated listenings, I feel sure that The Phantom Menace will grow on me more and more, and that it will go on to cement its place in Star Wars folklore, although whether it becomes as highly regarded as its predecessors remains to be seen. Taken as a standalone score, it is undoubtedly an impressive and accomplished work, with superb performances from the orchestra and a great deal of cleverness on Williams’ part. With all the brouhaha surrounding the release of this score, it is inevitable that some fans will find it a trifle disappointing – such is the way of things when a piece of music is built up so much that it is regarded a failure if it doesn’t align the planets and bring about world peace. In my opinion, though, this is going to take some beating as the best score of 1999.

Rating: *****

Track Listing:

  • Star Wars Main Title and The Arrival at Naboo (2:55)
  • Duel of the Fates (4:14)
  • Anakin’s Theme (3:09)
  • Jar Jar’s Introduction and The Swim to Otoh Gunga (5:07)
  • The Sith Spacecraft and The Droid Battle (2:37)
  • The Trip to the Naboo Temple and The Audience with Boss Nass (4:07)
  • The Arrival at Tatooine and The Flag Parade (4:04)
  • He Is The Chosen One (3:53)
  • Anakin Defeats Sebulba (4:24)
  • Passage Through the Planet Core (4:40)
  • Watto’s Deal and Kids at Play (4:57)
  • Panaka and the Queen’s Protectors (3:24)
  • Queen Amidala and The Naboo Palace (4:51)
  • The Droid Invasion and The Appearance of Darth Maul (5:14)
  • Qui-Gon’s Noble End (3:48)
  • The High Council Meeting and Qui-Gon’s Funeral (3:09)
  • Augie’s Great Municipal Band and End Credits (9:37)

Running Time: 74 minutes 19 seconds

Sony Classical SK-61816 (1999)

Music composed and conducted by John Williams. Performed by The London Symphony Orchestra, London Voices and The New London Children’s Choir. Choir directors Terry Edwards and Ronald Corp. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Ken Wannberg. Mastered by Patricia Sullivan. Album produced by John Williams.

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