Home > Reviews > ATTACK OF THE CLONES – John Williams


attackoftheclonesOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

Talk about pressure. Could any composer other than John Williams ever write a Star Wars score successfully? After the mixed critical reception of The Phantom Menace, it would be difficult for Attack of the Clones NOT to be a better movie; but Williams’ score was roundly praised, and to improve upon the incredible choral power of Duel of the Fates would be a task indeed. As the second installment in the trilogy, speculation was rife about how the middle Star Wars movie is always the best, dramatically and musically, adding further expectation upon Williams’s talents. Fortunately, all the doubts and worries are groundless. Attack of the Clones is a monster, surpassing The Phantom Menace on almost all counts.

George Lucas has repeatedly stated that Attack of the Clones was always intended to be a more adult movie than The Phantom Menace. At its core, it is a tragic love story, telling of the courtship of Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) and Queen Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) who, by Episode 4, have borne Luke and Leia, she has been killed, and he has turned into Darth Vader. What is fascinating in all this are the why’s and how’s of it all… we all know what happens in the end, but it’s the details that count. How does Anakin become tempted by the dark side of the Force? How does Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) orchestrate all this, and eventually turn into the evil Emperor? What are the events leading up to the beginning of the overwhelming Clone War, which eventually allows the massive Galactic Empire to replace the decaying, corrupt Republic. And how do Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson), Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), and Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison) fit into it all? It’s a delicious mix of plot stands, the bringing together of which will surely make compulsive viewing for Star Wars aficionados such as myself.

In tandem with Lucas’s vision, Williams’s score is also necessarily different to its predecessors. First and foremost, one has to realize this is a modern Star Wars score, not an old one, and that John Williams has, for better or worse, changed his composing style since he wrote Return of the Jedi in 1983. This is not to say that it doesn’t fit in with the rest of the saga in musical terms – it’s still huge in scale, predominantly orchestral in nature, and features many of the familiar themes and motifs from the original trilogy, moreso in fact than The Phantom Menace did. What this does mean is that, in terms of musical technique, it has much more in common with scores like Nixon, The Lost World and even Harry Potter than anything from his late 1970s heyday.

Having said that, one of the things that will please fans of the older Star Wars scores is the way in which Williams weaves the more familiar themes into the fabric of the new underscore. This combination will both frustrate and delight Star Wars fans, giving them satisfying glimpses of the Williams of old, while still allowing them to lament the fact that Williams does not compose in the way he used to. The famous Star Wars theme is given the full treatment in the main title and finale. The playful yet noble theme for Yoda appears in a setting for woodwind and harp in ‘Yoda and the Younglings’. The soaring Force Theme takes center stage in ‘Return to Tatooine’ where it recalls the majestic “binary sunset” sequence from the original movie. We even get a brief flash of Duel of the Fates towards the end of the cue, making the link between Episodes I and II complete. And, towards the end of ‘The Tusken Camp and the Homestead’, there’s an almost subliminal echo of The Imperial March, hinting at things to come.

More than anything else, though, Attack of the Clones is a romantic score  – and this is the one thing that may frustrate admirers of Williams’s large-scale action the most. The centerpiece of the score is the new love theme, ‘Across the Stars’, heard in a large-scale concert arrangement in Track 2 and in several mid-cue settings throughout the score. Initially written for solo oboe, it finally grows to be performed by the massed ranks of the string section, at which point it becomes one of the most beautiful themes Williams has written in recent years, for any movie. A gorgeous cross between Nino Rota’s Romeo and Juliet and his own “You Are The Pan” theme from Hook, ‘Across the Stars’ is the score’s emotional core, and continually reminds the listener (and viewer) that, despite everything else that transpires, the story is centered around Anakin and Amidala, and their ultimately doomed relationship. There are various recapitulations of the theme  – ‘The Meadow Picnic’ has an idyllic, almost child-like attitude with its proliferation of xylophones and glockenspiels, while the opening moments of ‘Love Pledge and the Arena’ reverberate with passion and heightened emotion.

The other most noticeable change in Attack of the Clones’s music is in the style of its action. Cues such as ‘Zam the Assassin and the Chase Through Coruscant’, ‘Jango’s Escape’ and ‘Love Pledge and the Arena’ are not the free-flowing, theme-driven opuses Williams wrote for the original trilogy. These action cues are darker, more frantic, more dissonant and – dare one say it? – much more impressive in musical terms. Williams obviously listened to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon before writing ‘Zam the Assassin and the Chase Through Coruscant’, as the same rambunctious percussion elements from Tan Dun’s Oscar-winning score are present here. These are mixed with a great deal of complex (and aneurysm-inducingly fast) orchestral carnage throughout its 11-minute running time. I found the extended double-tongue brass performances most impressive, as well as the brief electric guitar riffs, undoubtedly used to illustrate the seedy underbelly of life on Coruscant. ‘Jango’s Escape’ and ‘Bounty Hunters Pursuit’ are all flashing string-work and pulsating brass phrases, the former concluding with an unusual, vaguely Middle-Eastern passage that will hopefully make more sense in context. ‘Love Pledge and The Arena’, the big action finale, is built upon a superb internal ostinato that recalls the best moments of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

However, by far the best cue on the album is the last one – ‘Confrontation with Count Dooku and Finale’ – in which Williams confirms beyond any doubt why he is still a master dramatist and emotionalist, even at the age of 70. On the whole, voices are also less prominent in this score than others, adding only a cooing accompaniment to the aforementioned ‘Yoda and the Younglings’, and blasting out 35 seconds of Duel of the Fates. In this cue, however, Williams incorporates a glassy, evil choral element into the underscore, alluding to the ominous Emperor motif from Return of the Jedi, and draping the cue in overwhelming treachery and danger. Unexpectedly, and brilliantly, this low-key treachery suddenly explodes into a spine-tingling, re-orchestrated version of the Imperial March – the first blatant appearance of this motif in the new trilogy. As if that was not enough, the cue develops once again into a spectacular performance of Across the Stars, reaching its zenith with a plethora of cymbal clashes and powerful string work. These two transitions, and the transition from Across the Stars to End Credits music are truly awe-inspiring. When I first heard them, I was grinning like an idiot.

As a standalone score, Attack of the Clones is the best thing to appear in 2002 to date – creative, emotional and highly enjoyable. As part of a new trilogy of films, it cleverly builds upon the groundwork set by The Phantom Menace and, in musical terms, sets the scene for Episode III perfectly, where surely many more themes will weave and intertwine. As part of Lucas and Williams’s overall Star Wars vision, it’s a masterpiece of leitmotif and long-term thinking. I can’t recommend this score highly enough – it more than meets ever Star Wars fan’s expectations, and bodes well for the future.

Note: A special edition soundtrack, with a fourteenth “bonus track” entitled ‘On the Conveyor Belt’ is also available, although the circumstances surrounding where you can get it from are confusing to say the least. In any event, the cue is not really that important – merely a frantic, three-minute action cue centering around an unusual percussive rhythm.

Rating: *****

Track Listing:

  • Star Wars Main Title and Ambush on Coruscant (3:46)
  • Love Theme from Attack of the Clones (Across the Stars) (5:33)
  • Zam the Assassin and the Chase Through Coruscant (11:07)
  • Yoda and the Younglings (3:55)
  • Departing Coruscant (1:44)
  • Anakin and Padme (3:56)
  • Jango’s Escape (3:48)
  • The Meadow Picnic (4:14)
  • Bounty Hunter’s Pursuit (3:23)
  • Return to Tatooine (6:56)
  • The Tusken Camp and the Homestead (5:54)
  • Love Pledge and the Arena (8:29)
  • Confrontation with Count Dooku and Finale (10:44)
  • On the Conveyor Belt (Bonus Track) (3:07)

Running Time: 76 minutes 34 seconds (73:27 without the Bonus Track)

Sony Classical SK-89932 (2002)

Music composed and conducted by John Williams. Performed by The London Symphony Orchestra and Metro Voices. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Ken Wannberg. Album produced by John Williams.

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