Home > Reviews > OBI-WAN KENOBI – Natalie Holt, William Ross, John Williams

OBI-WAN KENOBI – Natalie Holt, William Ross, John Williams

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The expansion of the Star Wars universe into live action episodic television began in 2019 with The Mandalorian – which introduced the world to the now ubiquitous ‘baby Yoda’ character – and continued in late 2021 with The Book of Boba Fett, a spin-off series focusing on the bounty hunter character originally introduced in The Empire Strikes Back in 1980. This third standalone series, Obi-Wan Kenobi, follows the adventures of the titular character in the chronological period between the events of Revenge of the Sith and the original Star Wars, after the fall of the Jedi and the rise of the Galactic Empire, when he is in exile on the planet Tatooine watching over young Luke Skywalker, the son of his former apprentice Anakin, now Darth Vader. The plot kicks into high gear when Kenobi is contacted by Bail Organa, the adoptive father of Luke’s sister Leia, after she is kidnapped by sinister forces related to the Inquisitors, Jedi hunters working for Vader.

The project originated as a spin-off film, written by Hossein Amini and intended to be directed by Stephen Daldry, but it was reworked as a limited series following the commercial failure of the Han Solo spin-off in 2018. It was directed by Deborah Chow and stars Ewan McGregor, reprising his role from the Star Wars prequel trilogy, alongside Hayden Christensen, Moses Ingram, Rupert Friend, and young Vivien Lyra Blair as little Leia. It had all the plot elements and potential to be a blockbuster but, much like its cousins The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett, has been the subject of unexpected amounts of criticism – much of which I actually agreed with. There is SO MUCH good stuff in Obi-Wan Kenobi: McGregor’s portrayal of the lead character as a broken, beaten man; Moses Ingram’s inquisitor Reva and her tormented past; the potential for a reckoning between Kenobi and Anakin after the events at the end of Revenge of the Sith. But, for me, it was all undone by terrible writing, terrible direction, and some utterly baffling choices which turn several characters into absolute idiots. Not only that, action sequences are staged clumsily and resolved poorly, with many of them ending with deus ex machina moments that stretch the bounds of credibility, or with characters inexplicably walking away at the last moment when ultimate victory was within their grasp. It left me incredibly frustrated, because I love Star Wars… but enough about that, as there are plenty of other places online to talk about the show’s shortcomings.

The music for Obi-Wan Kenobi has been mired in similar amounts of controversy. Both The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett were scored by Ludwig Göransson, who received equal amounts of praise and criticism for writing music that was, for the most part, vastly different from the sound established by the great John Williams across the nine Star Wars feature films. After months of speculation, the composer for Obi-Wan Kenobi was eventually announced as being British composer and virtuoso violinist Natalie Holt, a relative newcomer who had worked on numerous domestic projects in the UK – often with fellow composer Martin Phipps – but whose first project of international significance was the Marvel TV series Loki in 2021.

Then, in February 2022, it was announced that Williams had written and recorded a new main theme for the show, conducted and arranged by his friend and long-time collaborator William Ross. Williams apparently approached producer Kathleen Kennedy about composing a new theme for the series because, he said, “Kenobi was the only major character from the original film that he had not written a standalone theme for” (this despite the fact that the theme we now know as the Force Theme was named ‘Ben’s Theme’ by Williams in the album liner notes for the original 1977 LP of the Star Wars soundtrack, but that’s by the by…). Holt had apparently already written a main theme for the show, which she described as being ‘reflective, wistful, and having an element of hope which embodies the spirit of the show entirely’ – but this was nixed in favor of Williams’s original work, because you don’t say no to John Williams when he offers to write something.

The upshot of this is that Holt – who had apparently already written much of her score before Williams even entered the scene – now had to contend with a brand new theme that she did not write being the defining element of the project, and needing to be woven seamlessly into its fabric. To this end, William Ross himself was brought in to adapt Williams’s theme into a large amount of ‘additional score,’ which was recorded separately from Holt’s work, and then blended with it in post-production.

However, the other elephant in the room was the fact that, according to Holt herself, Williams was apparently somewhat reticent to allow his legacy themes to be used in Holt’s score. In an interview with Syfy Wire Holt explains; “When I first came on board, we didn’t know if we had permission to use any of the legacy character themes. And then, after a month of working on the show, [Williams] came on board. He watched it through and agreed for his themes to be used in Episode 6, so it’s kind of handing over to A New Hope territory.” Holt further stated, “Because of the history, everyone’s just so protective of John’s wishes. Everyone wants him to be happy about what’s going on. John watched the show and he identified the areas he wanted his themes used. That’s the power of Star Wars and the power of John Williams. John’s got this huge history of scoring the franchise, so it’s kind of his prerogative.”

All this had apparently been anticipated by director Chow; in a different interview, with Screen Rant, Holt explained that “When I started up on this project, we weren’t sure that we were going to be allowed to use the Williams themes. Deborah [Chow] was saying to me, ‘I think we need to score the show as if we’re not going to be able to use them. I don’t want to find out that we can’t, so let’s make it work without. Let’s do our own thing.’ This was further justified by Holt explaining that she actually thought it made narrative sense to not use any legacy themes until Episode 6, because until that point ‘he’s still half Anakin, half Vader. When his mask cracks open at the end, and he says ‘You didn’t kill Anakin Skywalker, I did,’ you realize now he’s Vader, now he’s earned his Imperial March. Now when you hear it, it’s so powerful. Deborah didn’t want that theme playing every time you see Darth Vader, she wanted to explore his journey to get there.’

While I can sort of understand that way of thinking, when you look at the linear progression of the music through Star Wars, this actually makes no logical sense. Williams had already used several of his legacy themes – including the Imperial March, the Force theme, and Princess Leia’s theme – in the prequel trilogy scores, which chronologically occur before the events of Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars timeline. As such, intentionally not using the Imperial March until the end of the show because Vader has not ‘earned’ it yet, is an argument that doesn’t hold water, because Williams had already used it, both for the character and for the Empire in general, as far back as the final scene of Attack of the Clones.

Williams is understandably protective of the Star Wars musical legacy, and has earned the right to be so, but if what Holt is saying is true, about how Williams would only allow her to use his themes during the final episode, then he essentially hamstrung her from an emotional and dramatic narrative perspective. Throughout the score there were numerous scenes that screamed for a statement of the Imperial March, the Force theme, Princess Leia’s theme, or even a reprise of ‘Battle of the Heroes’ from Revenge of the Sith. However, instead, Holt was made to essentially create ‘almost but not quite’ replicas of these iconic musical motifs, which robbed the show of some potentially powerful moments of emotional and dramatic catharsis, as well as removing much of the internal musical continuity and leitmotivic consistency. It’s just another bad decision among a series of bad decisions that left the show failing to live up to its potential, and it’s very surprising that John Williams may be somewhat to blame.

With that all said, what about the actual music itself? Well, by and large, it’s very, very good. According to those same interviews, Holt says she “took influence from real-world cultural music to represent different planets in the series, including using Latin music for Alderaan, and more eastern sounds from Thailand and Hong Kong for Daiyu. Holt used a hunting horn and some unusual instruments played by percussionist Brian Kilgore to create the sound of the Inquisitors. In addition, Holt was able to leverage her replaced original theme for Obi-Wan into a scene in Episode 4 where Obi-Wan and Leia hold hands, while also creating recurring musical motifs for the Reva and Tala characters, and for the group of Force refugees. This was all rendered through a large orchestra augmented with synths, and then blended in the final mix with large-scale action sequences prominently featuring Williams’s theme, arranged and conducted by William Ross.

Williams’s main theme, heard in full in “Obi-Wan,” is the main draw. It’s a classic Williams piece that builds from a slow, pensive, haunting horn solo backed by the faintest tremolo strings, growing and growing until it finally encompasses the full orchestra. It shares chord progressions, rhythmic elements, and an overall sound with both the Force Theme and the main Star Wars theme, but is perhaps a little sadder and more restrained than both, indicative of Kenobi’s solitude and world-weariness at this point in his life. Essentially it has two parts – an undulating rhythmic idea and a more lyrical melody – that can play separately or in tandem to represent different facets of the character, as is usually Williams’s way.

The theme features prominently in several of Ross’s subsequent cues, receiving especially grand and moving performances in “The Journey Begins,” “First Rescue,” the lyrical parts of “Some Things Can’t Be Forgotten,” and the bombastic “I Will Do What I Must”. Perhaps the one criticism that can be made of the theme is that it undergoes very little real development outside of its action settings – most statements are identical in tone and orchestration, with little nuance or variation showing the emotional progression of Kenobi’s journey.

Some of my favorite moments of the score involve action. “Order 66” begins with pleasant, innocent music for the Jedi younglings in the temple on Coruscant, who are then ruthlessly slaughtered by Anakin Skywalker and his clone troopers – a flashback to scenes in Revenge of the Sith – to fast, aggressive string runs underpinned with pulsating electronics. Later, “First Rescue” picks up a terrific head of steam, layering the main theme through a series of flashy string runs and some swashbuckling brass writing, before finishing with a flourish that recalls the finale of the original Star Wars score. Later, “Hangar Escape” begins with tick-tock nervousness and a sense of impending danger, but ends with a spectacular flash of full-orchestral heroism and bravado that is quite thrilling, and again features an action setting of the Obi-Wan theme.

The music for the Inquisitors is harsh, aggressive, and imposing, a dark march for orchestra and synths that captures their ruthlessness and single-minded determination to capture and kill all the remaining Jedi in the galaxy. Cues like “Inquistors Hunt” and “Cat and Mouse” feature this idea prominently, and represent some of the harshest music in the score; some of the electronic manipulation and percussive patterns border on the side of stark dissonance. Eventually a new identity for Darth Vader builds out of this same basic idea, beginning as a brutal descending two-note motif in cues like “Sensing Vader” and “Parallel Lines,” and eventually erupting into a dark, ruthless march in the second half of “Some Things Can’t Be Forgotten,” and on into “Stormtrooper Patrol,” “Empire Arrival,” “Dark Side Assault,” and others. These cues take the rhythmic building blocks of both Williams’s Imperial March, and the Death Star/Stormtrooper motif abandoned after the first Star Wars score, and combines them in ways that are just different enough to be original.

The scenes set on the idyllic planet Alderaan have a pleasant, bucolic, natural sound filled with lilting strings, energetic percussion ideas, and lightly bubbling electronica, some of which has a definite John Powell vibe. This is the first time we have really seen the planet on-screen, and it makes its destruction by the Death Star during the events of Star Wars all the more poignant knowing what a beautiful, peaceful place it is. The recurring theme for “Young Leia” features strongly in these cues, feisty but wholesome, and can also be heard later in “Days of Alderaan” and the lovely, lightly mischievous “Bail and Leia”.

The cues set on the planet Daiyu – which has a visual style similar to Blade Runner’s futuristic Los Angeles – comprise “Daiyu,” “Cat and Mouse,” and “Spice Den,” and are mostly understated and rhythmic, concerned more with creating a treacherous atmosphere of suspense than offering bold emotional strokes. As mentioned above, the Inquisitor motif crops up frequently here, but some of the underscore between the motivic ideas tends to be a bit on the screechy and lumpy side. Later, the music for the planet “Mapuzo” has a world music vibe, perhaps with some influences from Africa or the Middle East, including a swirling woodwind figure and prominent tapped percussion. Eventually, this music coalesces into a recurring idea for the characters Tala and Roken, and their organization called “The Path,” which acts as a sort of underground railroad smuggling force-sensitive people away from the Inquisitors. Writing for cellos and what sounds like a glass harmonica gives their music an interesting texture.

As mentioned before, Holt’s original main theme idea – the one replaced with Williams’s theme – can be heard in the lovely “Hold Hands,” and it does indeed have some coincidental similarities to what Williams eventually wrote, and appears to also have some structural derivation from the Force Theme. Other one off moments that also stand out to me include the emotional duet between a cello and a violin in “Nari’s Shadow,” the optimistic combination of soaring strings and electronic pulses in “Ready to Go,” and the emotional strings in “Sacrifice.”

Perhaps the best cue on the album is William Ross’s “Overcoming the Past,” which underscores the climactic lightsaber battle between Kenobi and Vader. It features a choral version of the Obi-Wan theme, searching string writing filled with deeply tragic emotions, and some experimental harp textures that recall the haunting cave sequence from The Empire Strikes Back. The cue eventually concluding with the first full statement of the Imperial March as Vader tells Kenobi that he is not to blame for Anakin’s’ death – because he was already dead, metaphorically speaking, long before their volcanic duel on Mustafar at the end of Revenge of the Sith.

The 5-minute “Saying Goodbye” is a rush of nostalgia as Ross finally incorporates full statements of several legacy Williams themes – Princess Leia’s Theme, the Force theme – into the noble warmth and satisfying resolution of the new theme. Finally, the “End Credit” is a spectacular recapitulation of the main Obi-Wan theme, rousing and heroic, and a perfect way to conclude the album.

As you can see, in my opinion there’s a lot to like here, and it’s to the credit of both Natalie Holt and William Ross that their music exists side-by-side without much of a clear delineation between the two writing styles, beyond Holt’s more expansive use of electronic textures and synth sweetening. I have read criticisms of Holt’s music in numerous places, calling it ‘insufferably generic’ and other vague pejoratives, but I don’t hear that at all, and considering the creative handcuffs she had to wear while composing much of this, I am very impressed with how much variation, scope, and depth she brought to the project – from the lightness and prettiness of her Obi Wan and Leia theme to the crushing ferocity of her Vader/Stormtrooper theme, and the different textures and styles that represent the different planets. When you add this to the classic orchestral sound of Ross’s writing, and the numerous interpolations of Willliams’s brilliant and memorable main theme, there isn’t much to criticize in terms of it being good music.

In context, though, that’s a different matter, and I remain baffled by the creative decisions that the director, the producers, and seemingly John Williams himself took to limit the use of the legacy Star Wars themes. In the end it might have been better if they had simply gone fully one way or fully the other – either let Natalie Holt go full Ludwig Göransson and create an entirely new sonic world, or let William Ross score the whole thing using all the John Williams legacy themes in the classic Star Wars style. The hybrid model we have, while absolutely enjoyable as a listening experience, is ultimately damaging to the dramatic narrative development of the actual story, and that’s basically unforgivable.

Buy the Obi-Wan Kenobi soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Obi-Wan (4:06)
  • Order 66 (1:40)
  • Inquistors’ Hunt (3:09)
  • Young Leia (1:04)
  • Days of Alderaan (1:38)
  • The Journey Begins (2:57)
  • Bail and Leia (2:19)
  • Nari’s Shadow (1:14)
  • Ready to Go (2:26)
  • Daiyu (2:25)
  • Cat and Mouse (3:10)
  • Spice Den (1:10)
  • First Rescue (3:10)
  • Mapuzo (1:17)
  • The Path (1:35)
  • Sensing Vader (2:49)
  • Parallel Lines (2:12)
  • Some Things Can’t Be Forgotten (4:47)
  • Stormtrooper Patrol (2:34)
  • Hangar Escape (2:33)
  • Hold Hands (1:39)
  • Empire Arrival (2:04)
  • Dark Side Assault (2:37)
  • I Will Do What I Must (2:48)
  • Sacrifice (1:41)
  • No Further Use (3:39)
  • Overcoming the Past (4:28)
  • Tatooine Desert Chase (2:19)
  • Who You Become (3:36)
  • Saying Goodbye (5:26)
  • End Credit (4:02)

Running Time: 82 minutes 34 seconds

Walt Disney Records (2022)

Music composed by Natalie Holt. Conducted by William Ross and Mark Graham. Obi-Wan Theme and additional Star Wars themes by John Williams, arranged by William Ross. Orchestrations by Pete Anthony, Jon Kull, Jeff Atmajian, Philip Klein, Andrew Kinney and Gernot Wolfgang. Additional music by Peter Nickalls, Jon Opstad and Max Aruj. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy and Chris Fogel. Edited by Ramiro Belgardt and Nicholas Fitzgerald. Album produced by Natalie Holt.

  1. Ben Cooper
    July 28, 2022 at 5:45 am

    This is a fascinating and well written piece.

    I found myself here after trying to find an answer for why William Ross was so heavily credited on the album. Knowing Ross’s work, especially with Williams, I am aware of him and how great he is but it is rare to see him credited like this. I thought that, maybe, Williams had agreed for his new main theme to be used in the series but only if it was arranged by Ross, not Holt. Your article explains the situation well, thank you.

    I think that Williams’s new theme is really great, as you would expect, and captures Obi Wan well, and I think that Ross’s arrangements of it are also strong. I don’t agree that Holt’s work is “very, very good”. While I appreciate that she may have felt a little hamstrung by being unable to use the Williams themes, she knew this going in so should have been prepared to add to the Star Wars musical canon with her own themes. But, having watched the series and listened through to the soundtrack, I couldn’t hum you any themes or melodies that Holt composed. While composers can get away with weak melody writing when composing for other properties, you just can’t when you’re writing for Star Wars.

    Judging by her work prior, Holt was just a bad choice for this project. She is very good at creating a sound world, and using interesting sounds, instrumentation, and orchestration to create a feeling – she is not good at constructing themes and melodies, which puts leitmotif well out of her wheelhouse.

    Anyway, thanks again for writing this informative and well constructed article. It’s so nice to read music talked about in an educated way – not just the score but also the business behind it.

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