I’m witnessing two contrary reactions as members of the Orchestration Online community start to report back from their viewing of the recently-released Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. One reaction claims that it’s pretty much the same as all the other films. The other says that it’s different, but the new themes aren’t that memorable.
Though I respect those honest perspectives and the composers who shared them, I disagree with both after listening to the soundtrack and viewing the film yesterday. The soundtrack was almost a perfect mirror of the film in terms of artistic reimagination. Without giving away any spoilers, the plot of the film has strong resonances with George Lucas’s original 1977 script, from elements of structure and character development to its awareness of Joseph Campbell’s monumental work of comparative mythology “The Hero’s Journey.” And yet it’s no carbon-copy. It builds on all the previous films toward a new set of situations and priorities, and the characters and their motives are allowed a great deal of independence from their progenitors.
The same is absolutely true of the soundtrack. I was in fact relieved at how little certain well-known motives were revisited. Yes, we got to hear Leia’s Theme, a bit of the Imperial March, and even touches of the March Majestic (commonly thought of as THE Star Wars Theme). But for the most part, composer John Williams applied his thematic brush to new motives for the evolving story. As characters evolved from (and in at least one case literally born out of) previous situations and personalities, so went the score. One might say that the style of application is similar to previous films – but one couldn’t say that the material was the same.
Likewise memorability. As to that, memory can play tricks. Listening to the original 1977 release (now titled “Episode IV: A New Hope”), it’s actually interesting that memorable themes are carefully set up, introduced, and briefly if lushly indulged before moving on. That was one enormous strength of the film: it didn’t dawdle and maunder over its love of the characters, which was one element that took a long time for other film composers (and/or their directors) to understand. The bulk of the music for the film is in fact NOT a string of catchy, compelling tunes. Williams knows how to pace his moments, and that pacing is a key element to understanding how George and Marcia Lucas and subsequent directors and film editors worked on Episodes IV-VI.
If anything, Williams and Abrams have followed the same structure here. Obvious character themes are reserved for rare moments in which the footage underlines a formational moment in which the action has led to a crux in which a character is defined or redefined. One thing that both director and composer had to deal with was, of course, the bulk of prior information and expectations coming from millions of viewers. So the strategy seems to be: make these fans work at fully understanding and appreciating the meaning and artistry of each scene. That’s another way of saying “Don’t make it cheap and obvious.” So I’m sorry, but even we composers will have to put some effort into getting our heads around some of the new themes. They will be memorable in the way that a Mahler symphony is memorable, rather than a Tchaikovsky ballet. They won’t effortlessly become our friends – but their friendship will be worth winning for ourselves.
I’ll say only one more thing about the music before moving on to the orchestration – it’s masterful film scoring. Williams has managed to stay in his prime. As the art and language of film music has moved forward, Williams has remained relevant while maintaining a recognisable voice. In fact, if one looks at his entire body of work, one recognises his ability to speak convincingly in many styles. The sudden success of Star Wars and Indiana Jones led to the demand of many such sweeping orchestral scores, and Williams of course delivered many. But up to that point and even beyond it, he indulged in other genres with equal ingenuity, such as the jazzy score of “Catch Me If You Can,” or the wonderfully French and jazz-tinged score of “Tintin.” It was as if Les Six had been ghost-writing for Williams in the latter effort – not in imitation, but apotheosis, as is his general approach when paying homage. The strongest influences of the 1977 Star Wars score were Howard Hanson, Stravinsky, Holst, Elgar, and a stable of golden-age film composers such as Newman, Tiomkin, and Korngold. Many of these elemental voices remain strong, but Richard Strauss and Mahler are also more in evidence, especially in terms of grandeur and pacing.
Analysis of the orchestration will follow in tomorrow’s release of Episode 2 of this review. Much more to say, and also I have to go see it again!