STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS – John Williams
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS PLOT SPOILERS. IF YOU HAVE NOT YET SEEN THE FILM, YOU MIGHT WANT TO CONSIDER WAITING UNTIL AFTER YOU HAVE DONE SO TO READ IT.
When John Williams first sat down to write the score for the original Star Wars over the winter of 1976, I doubt that even he could have imagined that he would still be writing music for those characters, and that universe, some 39 years later. There aren’t many film scores you can point to as being an actual turning point, a watershed moment in the history of the genre, but Star Wars was unquestionably one of those, and it went on to inspire a generation of filmmakers, composers, and fans. To say that The Force Awakens, the seventh film in the Star Wars franchise, is an eagerly awaited film would perhaps be one of the greatest understatements of all time – I don’t think I have ever seen a film with this much marketing, pre-release hype, and fevered anticipation – and, thankfully, it does not disappoint in any way. More than any installment in the prequels did, The Force Awakens feels like a proper Star Wars movie, a return to the fun and crowd-pleasing filmmaking of the original trio, and director J. J. Abrams should be congratulated for returning the franchise to its roots, and going some way to banishing the ghost of Jar Jar Binks forever.
The film takes place 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi, in which the Galactic Empire was defeated and Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader were killed. The former rebellion has become the new government in the galaxy, with its military arm – the Resistance – still fighting against the remnants of the Empire, now known as the First Order. However, Luke Skywalker, the hero of the rebellion, has vanished without a trace, with the only hints to his whereabouts being the fragmented pieces of a digital star map, which both the Resistance and the First Order are searching for. From this starting point we are introduced to our new main characters: Rey (Daisy Ridley), a young girl eking out an existence as a scavenger on the isolated desert planet of Jakku; Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the masked and cloaked leader of the First Order who sends a platoon of troops to Jakku after a tip-off that a missing piece of the map is there; Finn (John Boyega), a disillusioned Stormtrooper who deserts from his platoon; Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), a hotshot Resistance pilot whose latest mission also takes him to Jakku; and BB-8, Dameron’s adorable droid companion. As the film progresses the young protagonists encounter several characters from the original trilogy, including Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), and the droid C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), and the adventure unfolds.
Nostalgia undoubtedly plays a big part in the success of The Force Awakens, and this of course extends to the music. The fact that John Williams, at the age of 83, was capable not only of writing music for such a large-canvas science fiction epic, but making it as good as it is, is something for which we should all be thankful. Health issues necessitated some of the music to be conducted by his long-time collaborator William Ross, as well as classical conductor Gustavo Dudamel, but despite this The Force Awakens remains a Williams score through-and-through, a tremendously exciting combination of several themes from the original trilogy and a handful of new themes for the new characters, anchoring several spectacular set pieces that lie firmly within his contemporary action music style.
Thematically, The Force Awakens adopts the same leitmotivic structure as all the previous Star Wars scores, with different themes and motifs dodging and weaving around each other as characters and concepts are seen and referenced on-screen. Of the existing themes from the original trilogy, fans will be pleased to know that several of them appear, including Luke Skywalker’s legendary theme in the main and end title, the Rebel Fanfare, the love theme for Han Solo and Princess Leia, the famous and spine-tingling Force Theme, a couple of very brief allusions to Leia’s theme, and a prominent in-film statement of the Imperial March which, sadly, does not appear on the album.
Unlike in previous incarnations, where the theme was an all-encompassing motif for the heroic rebels, the Rebel Fanfare in The Force Awakens is related specifically to Han Solo and his Millennium Falcon spaceship; we hear it initially in “Follow Me,” and you think it’s a musical in-joke, but then it forms the entire thematic core of “The Falcon,” a spectacular action sequence that follows Rey and Finn as they desperately try to escape from the TIE Fighters pursuing them across Jakku’s desolate surface, and continues to appear in cues like “The Rathtars.”
Han and Leia’s love theme, ‘Han Solo and the Princess,’ is a wonderfully poignant reminder of the great romance the two of them shared in The Empire Strikes Back, and I’m personally ecstatic that Williams brought it back. We don’t hear it until “Han and Leia,” and tellingly the orchestral arrangement is different, noticeably slower in tempo, and in a lower key, commenting on the pair’s sad estrangement and their advancing years. Its conclusive appearance, in “Farewell and the Trip,” has a heartbreaking quality that is hard to ignore. Finally, the Force theme, which everyone has felt as the true heart of the Star Wars universe ever since the iconic ‘Binary Sunset’ scene from the first film, makes its impressive first appearance toward the end of “Maz’s Counsel,” a prophetic moment relating to a long-lost relic. It appears in fragments in several cues thereafter, including “The Abduction,” “Han and Leia,” and “Torn Apart,” before receiving its triumphant final statement at the end of “The Jedi Steps,” just before the credits roll.
The main new theme is Rey’s Theme, which appears in a stunning concert suite arrangement in the sixth cue, but is heard all throughout the score. Her theme is light, playful, energetic, and optimistic, just like her character, but also has an inner core of strength and determination that belies its whimsical outward appearance. Instrumentally it is built around strings, piano, and woodwinds, and as a basis for comparison one could reference Viktor Navorski’s theme from The Terminal, or perhaps something from War Horse or a Harry Potter movie. Structurally, it has an initial rhythmic 5-note phrase (0:01 in “Rey’s Theme”), a secondary 7-note rhythmic idea (0:14 in “Rey’s Theme”), and a lush, more elegant primary melody (0:34 in “Rey’s Theme”) that emerges from out of the second rhythm.
These three key elements develop against each other, sometimes individually, sometimes contrapuntally, in several cues across the score. In “The Scavenger,” Rey’s theme has a lonely, mysterious quality to it, with flutes and pianos playing the two rhythmic ideas off each other, before segueing into a brass version of the primary melody accompanied by chimes. The second full statement beginning at 2:58, on solo flutes accompanied by harps, is wistful and full of longing and regret, clearly speaking to her isolated existence on Jakku. The performance in the warm and glittery “Rey Meets BB-8” has a touch of E. T. magic to it, its appearance in “That Girl With the Staff” is gently romantic, and it anchors Rey as the center of the narrative through subsequent cues like “Finn’s Confession,” the latter part of “Maz’s Counsel,” and the conclusion of “Kylo Ren Arrives at the Battle.”
Speaking of Kylo Ren, his theme is a more menacing motif that reminds me a little of the similar motif Williams wrote for the original Star Wars as a herald for the Death Star; it’s a clever bit of musical linkage, considering Kylo’s obsession with Darth Vader and the Empire, as well as his familial lineage. We first hear it, performed on deep, bleating horns, at 4:20 into the “Main Title and the Attack on the Jakku Village,” announcing his malevolent presence, and it is used in a similar fashion throughout the score; it’s subsequent appearances in “Kylo Ren Arrives at the Battle,” “The Abduction,” “On the Inside,” “Torn Apart,” and “The Ways of the Force,” are especially powerful. A secondary Kylo Ren theme, apparently concerning his damaged relationship with the Force, appears as an intense 9-note brass fanfare at 0:15 in “The Abduction,” and later in “Han and Leia” and “The Ways of the Force,” underscoring several particularly intense moments where Kylo’s past crimes are discussed, or where his wicked use of the Force is clearly demonstrated. It’s very clever of Williams to have created what is, essentially, an ‘alternate Force theme’, specifically relating to the power of the Dark Side, and now that I think about it I’m surprised he has never done it before. Darth Vader’s theme from Star Wars, the Imperial March from Empire, and the Emperor’s theme from Jedi were all specific themes for individuals, not specifically linked to the darker side of the ancient religion.
Finn’s theme is rhythmic and energetic, and just a little chaotic, which is a perfect representation of his character; as a Stormtrooper rebelling against his masters, Finn has never before experienced life outside the strict regimen of the Imperial military, so his sense of bewilderment and wonder at his new circumstances is quite rightly overwhelming. It also tries slightly too hard to be heroic, just as Finn himself does during several key moments, giving the theme a very subtle comedic bent, underpinned by a puppy-dog eagerness. It first appears at the 1:12 mark of “Follow Me,” runs through the rest of that exciting cue, and appears later in cues such as “The Falcon,” and “The Rathtars,” accompanying Finn’s most prominent action moments. The way Williams jumps between Finn’s theme and the Rebel Fanfare in “The Falcon” is breathless and brilliant.
Poe Dameron’s theme is heroic and uplifting, as befitting the handsome and charismatic X-Wing pilot. It first appears in “I Can Fly Anything,” appearing in little hints and fragments during the action build up, before receiving its first fanfare flourish at 1:19, bold and sweeping. Unfortunately Dameron’s theme is not as prominent as the other themes, but it is harmonically linked to the “March of the Resistance,” which receives a spectacular concert arrangement in the track of the same name. Stylistically, the Resistance March is a fugue, and it reminds me of the Droid Invasion theme from The Phantom Menace, or something from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, or perhaps even Black Sunday, but it’s a wonderfully exhilarating piece nonetheless. The thrilling “Scherzo for X-Wings” uses both Dameron’s theme and the Resistance March as its basis, but heads off in a completely different direction, blending them with several magnificent statements of Luke Skywalker’s theme – the Star Wars main theme – in a manner not heard since the Battle of Yavin, when Luke, Wedge and Biggs started their trench attack run against the original Death Star. Williams is clearly using the theme here as an all-encompassing depiction of Star Wars heroism, rather than anything specifically related to Luke, but the end result is just terrific, one of the standout pieces of the entire score.
Elsewhere, away from the main thematic ideas, Williams offers a searing string lament for the imminent demise of several planets in “The Starkiller”; the destruction of Alderaan was nothing compared to this. Later, he gives the new, mysterious antagonist “Snoke” a brooding, oppressive vocal theme that clearly takes its lead from the Emperor’s doom-laden male voice choir from the Return of the Jedi, but with an even more increased sense of dark malevolence. Apparently, Williams had a Rudyard Kipling poem translated into Sanskrit and used that as the lyrics for Snoke’s theme, in much the same way as he used a Sanskrit translation of the ancient Welsh poem ‘Cad Goddeu’ as the basis of “Duel of the Fates” for The Phantom Menace. The deeper meaning of this may become clearer in Star Wars Episode VIII, if Williams scores it.
The action music is typified by aggressive, insistent rhythmic ideas, showcasing flashing string phrases and numerous brass triplets. Listeners should be aware at the outset that this Star Wars music is more closely related to the music from the prequels than that of the original trilogy; the action music, especially, is less rooted in his late 70s/early 80s style, and is instead more rooted in the music he wrote for films like Minority Report, War of the Worlds, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and The Adventures of Tintin. Key action scenes like “Attack on the Jakku Village,” “I Can Fly Anything,” “Follow Me,” and “The Falcon,” are scored in this manner, and are tremendously exciting. The varied tempi, the rich use of all parts of the orchestra, and the sheer bravado of some of the sequences, are all superb.
Towards the end of the score Williams intentionally pits Ren’s theme against Rey’s theme, underscoring the physical and mental battles between the two, as first one and then the other gains the upper hand. Their interplay in “On the Inside” and “The Ways of the Force” is outstanding. Meanwhile, the earth-shattering devastation of “Torn Apart” allows Ren’s theme to play against the Force theme, as well as an agitated variation on the 9-note Dark Force theme, with an overwhelming sense of shock and loss, while the strings churn and surge in what is the score’s emotional high point. The final two cues, “Farewell and the Trip” and “The Jedi Steps and Finale,” provide numerous excellent recapitulations of all the main themes, and even some new variations, including what sounds like a hybrid between Rey’s theme and Luke Skywalker’s theme at the beginning of “The Jedi Steps,” and a superb fusion of Finn’s theme and Poe Dameron’s theme 5:00 into the end credits. Interestingly, rather than finish with a flourish, Williams closes his end credits with a soft, almost child-like statement of Luke’s theme on a glockenspiel, possibly hinting at what Episode VIII will have in store.
I’ll go on record and say it now; for me, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the best score of 2015. Yes, I admit that my judgment may have been clouded a tiny bit by my love of the Star Wars universe in general, and that I may have reacted to it much more positively as a result, but even when you look at it objectively, what John Williams has achieved with this score is nothing short of remarkable. He has written five new themes, two of which – “Rey’s Theme” and the “March of the Resistance” – are wonderfully memorable, and can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the already bulging cache of memorable themes within the Star Wars universe. He has shown that, even at the age of 83, and even though his health is not what it used to be, his mastery of the orchestra is unparalleled amongst his peers. His dramatic storytelling capability remains as sharp as ever, as does his ability to convey complex emotions and character motivations with deceptively simple musical constructs. And, possibly best of all, he still has that sense of fun, that life and energy and unashamed heroism, that made the Star Wars music so engaging in the first place.
The first film I ever saw in a cinema was Return of the Jedi, at the old Gaumont cinema in Barker’s Pool in Sheffield, some time in the summer of 1983, when I was 8 years old. I know that when I left the darkened confines of that great old picture house on that day, having sat engrossed in the story unfolding on the screen for the preceding two hours, I had just fallen irrevocably in love with the movies, with Star Wars, and with movie music. Listening to and watching The Force Awakens made me feel like an 8-year-old boy again, and I can think of no higher praise to give.
Note: the CD image shown at the top of the page is the ‘exclusive edition’ cover specific to the US retailer Target. The musical content is exactly the same as with the regular release, but the Target Exclusive comes with two collectible trading cards, and the CD cover is slightly more colorful than the more restrained standard issue. I just like it more.
Buy the Force Awakens soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Main Title and the Attack on the Jakku Village (6:25)
- The Scavenger (3:39)
- I Can Fly Anything (3:10)
- Rey Meets BB-8 (1:31)
- Follow Me (2:54)
- Rey’s Theme (3:11)
- The Falcon (3:32)
- That Girl with the Staff (1:58)
- The Rathtars (4:05)
- Finn’s Confession (2:08
- Maz’s Counsel (3:07)
- The Starkiller (1:50)
- Kylo Ren Arrives at the Battle (2:00)
- The Abduction (2:23)
- Han and Leia (4:41)
- March of the Resistance (2:34)
- Snoke (2:03)
- On the Inside (2:06)
- Torn Apart (4:19)
- The Ways of the Force (3:14)
- Scherzo for X-Wings (2:32)
- Farewell and the Trip (4:55)
- The Jedi Steps and Finale (8:51)
Running Time: 77 minutes 08 seconds
Walt Disney Records (2015)
Music composed and conducted by John Williams. Additional conducting by William Ross and Gustavo Dudamel. Orchestrations by John Williams and William Ross. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Ramiro Belgardt. Album produced by John Williams.