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REVENGE OF THE SITH – John Williams

revengeofthesithOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

After 28 years, six movies, and almost $2 billion in combined grosses, the Star Wars saga has finally come full circle with the release of the third installment of director George Lucas’s “prequel” trilogy, Revenge of the Sith. Essentially acting as a bridge between the last film, Attack of the Clones, and the events of the original 1977 classic Star Wars, Revenge of the Sith tells the story of the Empire’s rise to power: how the Imperial Senate becomes the sole domain of Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), how the last of the old Jedi Knights are driven from power and vanquished in battle, how Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) betrays his former master Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and is turned to the dark side of the force by Darth Sidious, eventually becoming the evil and feared Darth Vader; and how Padme (Natalie Portman), Anakin’s wife, secretly gives birth to twin children – named Luke and Leia – who will ultimately become the only hope for a galaxy in the iron grip of its new, ruthless rulers.

All this, of course, is what must transpire in order for the events of 1977 to take place – the details, hows and whys will become clear when the film opens on general release on 20 May 2005. Only then will the full extent of the plot be revealed: the new character General Grievous, the long-awaited Wookiee battle and the appearance of Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), and the ultimate fates of Jedi warriors Yoda (Frank Oz) and Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson). The one word George Lucas has continually used to describe Revenge of the Sith is ‘dark’, and certainly that term is applicable to large parts of John Williams’s score.

More than any other Star Wars score, Revenge of the Sith is a celebration of the dark side of the Force. Whereas The Empire Strikes Back – until now the darkest score in the series – ended on a note of brief Imperial triumph, this score sees the Emperor conquering all before him, at the height of his power, and becoming the dominant force in the galaxy. You can hear in Williams’s music a sense of awesome and supreme confidence, depicting a regime most definitely in the ascendancy. This Empire is not to be messed with.

The new main theme for the film, “Battle of the Heroes”, is quite frankly disappointing. Lacking both the raw power of Duel of the Fates and the emotional heights of Across the Stars, it seems un-focused and hurried. Its central performance in the third track is nothing if not impressively staged, accompanied as it is by all manner of large-scale orchestral and choral backing. However, the core of the piece is wholly unmemorable, without a tangible thematic hook to define the film.

Its major recapitulation during “Anakin vs. Obi-Wan” is agreeable enough, but is offset by a clever musical reference to The Empire Strikes Back, specifically the climactic Luke/Darth Vader lightsaber fight in Cloud City. The allusions to the duality of the story, and to history repeating itself, are unmistakable, and the portentous performances of both the Imperial March and the Force Theme during this cue is one of Williams’s most welcome touches to the musical heritage of the entire series, and almost rescues the theme from oblivion.

By and large, Williams’s action music is loud and extravagant, but as has too often been the case in recent years seems to be distinctly lacking in focus and direction. The level of intricacy and depth of orchestration remains faultless, as always, but on occasion Williams does tend to over-egg the pudding when music a little simpler and less flowery would have made more of an impact. Cues such as “Revenge of the Sith”, “General Grievous”, “Grievous and the Droids” and “Enter Lord Vader” are relentless in their construction, a barrage of brass fanfares, racing strings, prominent xylophones and ostentatious, ever-changing tempos in the percussion section. The theme-led linearity in Williams’ action writing 20 years ago seems to have been abandoned in favor of sudden changes in direction, harsh staccato performances by the brasses and a general feeling of ‘everything including the kitchen sink’ which somehow seems over-played. It’s certainly exciting enough, but sue me if I prefer his older stuff.

The only exception to this is the truly monumental “Anakin’s Dark Deeds”, which weaves a menacing 8-note brass motif around a more resolute choral element and rich orchestral performances, and eventually develops into a new theme full of commanding potency and malevolent power. It is during these moments that you realize why, at the age of 75, he is still considered to be the premier film composer of our age.

In direct contrast to the action sequences, the quieter moments which explore and reflect upon more internal emotions are scored flawlessly, and more often than not with that overarching sense of darkness and foreboding that permeates the entire score. “Anakin’s Dream” opens with a heartbreaking viola solo that segues into a lovely performance of Anakin and Padme’s love theme from Attack of the Clones. The hugely emotional “Anakin’s Betrayal” brings the choir fully into play, allowing Williams’s reaching strings to reach truly spine-tingling heights.

“Palpatine’s Teachings” is a quite remarkable piece of mood music which makes tremendous use of electronic atmospherics, glass percussion, lonely-sounding horns and a group of throat singers humming down in the very lowest depths of their vocal register. If anyone had any doubt before about the nefarious Senator’s intentions for young Anakin, Williams dispels them all here – he even rams home the point with a sinister bassoon performance of the Imperial March. Continuing the trend, “Padme’s Ruminations” embraces electronic scoring in a way no Star Wars cue has done before, with a distinctive and dark synth pedal underpinning the entire cue. To complement this, Williams brings in what can only be described as a ‘wailing woman’, adding another level of musical emotional torment to the proceedings.

Two of the finest moments come during the finale, “The Immolation Scene” and “The Birth of the Twins and Padme’s Destiny”, during which Williams allows his string section to take over almost entirely, performing what can only be described as a funereal adagio, filled to the brim with a combination of barely-contained grief and simmering anger. When the choir enters the fray, in a clever echo of Qui-Gon’s theme from The Phantom Menace, the music reaches heights that rival the best goose-bump moments of Williams’s career. The stately pace, tolling bells, and performances of the Force theme only add to emotional weight.

One of the surprising things about Revenge of the Sith is how little musical overlap there is between it and the other five Star Wars scores. Of course, the famous main title is there, and both the Imperial March and the Force Theme are heard frequently, albeit skewed by orchestrations or hidden under the thickness of other music. Across the Stars crops up just once or twice, and there is one telling recapitulation of the amazing “Princess Leia’s Theme” from the original Star Wars which acts as a primer for things to come. But there is no Duel of the Fates, no Yoda’s Theme, no “Luke and Leia”, no Death Star motif (which would have made great sense had it been included) and no Emperor’s Theme (except very briefly at the end of “Enter Lord Vader”) – although, of course, their exclusion from the album does not necessarily mean that these themes are not heard in the film.

The final cue, “A New Hope and End Credits”, provides a fitting conclusion to the score, a nostalgia-filled 13-minute extravaganza which runs through Princess Leia’s theme, the Force theme, the Star Wars main theme, Leia’s theme again, the new Battle of the Heroes theme, and finally the concert arrangement of “The Throne Room” from the original Star Wars, before finishing with a final flourish.

One other unexpected thing about Revenge of the Sith is how much it sounds like other scores. On occasion, one could be almost forgiven for wondering whether Lucas temp-tracked the film with non Star Wars scores, or even non-Williams scores, as the number of subtle stylistics and similarities are great: from Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings (in “Anakin’s Dark Deeds”) to Hans Zimmer’s Thin Red Line (in “Anakin’s Betrayal”) and James Horner’s Aliens (in “Battle of the Heroes”, although of course this in itself was a variation on the Battle of Yavin finale from the original Star Wars…) and previous Williams scores such as Hook, The Lost World, and especially the Harry Potter franchise. I can’t quite decide whether this is a bad thing or not: the resemblances are superficial to the point of inconsequence, but it is sometimes jarring to be suddenly taken out of the Star Wars universe and plonked into Middle Earth.

In addition to the music CD, Sony Classical’s release of Revenge of the Sith also includes a specially created 70-minute DVD featuring 16 new music videos, each introduced by actor Ian McDiarmid, set to selections from all six Star Wars scores, and which have been designed around a timeline that takes viewers chronologically through the entire saga.

It may be unfair to dismiss Revenge of the Sith as something of a disappointment, because John Williams’s disappointments tend to be better than many composers’ best works. But the truth of the matter is that Revenge of the Sith is slightly disappointing in that the new musical element is so bland, and the action music is generally so spotty and disjointed. Where it excels is in its quieter moments of sadness and reflection, in suggesting the sense of danger that surrounds Palpatine and his minions, and in its sense of nostalgia, especially in the End Credits. I have no doubt that this score will be a huge commercial success, and that in many respects this review is redundant: everyone will buy it anyway. Nevertheless, I’d probably place it fifth in the all time list: better than Return of the Jedi, but no match on the other four.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • Star Wars and the Revenge of the Sith (7:37)
  • Anakin’s Dream (4:52)
  • Battle of the Heroes (3:48)
  • Anakin’s Betrayal (3:59)
  • General Grievous (4:13)
  • Palpatine’s Teachings (5:31)
  • Grievous and the Droids (3:33)
  • Padme’s Ruminations (3:23)
  • Anakin vs. Obi-Wan (4:03)
  • Anakin’s Dark Deeds (4:11)
  • Enter Lord Vader (4:20)
  • The Immolation Scene (2:48)
  • Grievous Speaks to Lord Sidious (2:55)
  • The Birth of the Twins and Padme’s Destiny (3:43)
  • A New Hope and End Credits (13:06)

Running Time: 72 minutes 02 seconds

Sony Classical SK-94220 (2005)

Music composed and conducted by John Williams. Performed by The London Symphony Orchestra. Orchestrations by John Neufeld and Conrad Pope. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Album produced by John Williams.

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