With all the excitement surrounding the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it’s a good time to look at the function of music in the cultural phenomenon that George Lucas started back in the late 1970s.
Beyond its huge financial success, Star Wars had a lasting cultural impact, defining and popularizing the hybrid science-fiction/fantasy film genre, but perhaps more importantly, the film brought film music out of the background and into the ears, hearts, and minds of movie-goers. Sure, there were lots of great film scores both before and after the 1977 debut of the original Star Wars trilogy, but few (if any) have entered the cultural consciousness to the same extent as John Williams’s iconic score for A New Hope (with the possible exception of Howard Shore’s scores for the Lord of the Rings trilogy).
Evidence for this is not hard to find. A recent skim through FaceBook or YouTube finds numerous amateur and professional tributes to Williams’s landmark score. Perhaps it all started at the American Music Awards with the cringingly sentimental and overly stylized Star Wars tribute introduced by a clearly less than enthusiastic Harrison Ford, and over-dramatically performed by park-n-bark a cappella group Pentatonix accompanied by a symphony orchestra of truly Imperial proportions (above). Personally, I’m more a fan of Jimmy Fallon’s Brady Bunch version featuring the cast of The Force Awakens.
As a long-time fan of the original films, however, I can’t help but miss Mark Hamill in all of this fuss. After all, Star Wars is above all else the story of Luke Skywalker: his past, present, and future. No matter how much we may like and identify with the other characters, they are only participants in his saga.
Luke’s primacy as the hero in Star Wars is telegraphed in both the narrative structure (based heavily on Joseph Campbell’s heroic monomyth theory), and in the film’s scores. Williams constructed the music for the original Star Wars film (now cumbersomely know as Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope) around two central themes: the Overture (or Main Theme), which immediately gets linked to Luke Skywalker, and the Force Theme, which appears at key moments in the heroic journey.
The overly catchy fanfare of the Overture (see the clip above) is the main musical motive that most people associate with the films. But, what most people may not catch is that when we are introduced to Luke when he and his uncle purchase R2D2 and C-3P0, the first time Luke’s name is called, the Main Theme sounds lightly in the background, played by a solo french horn.
The moment clearly identifies Skywalker as the central character, and the use of the french horn links him with the long history of heroic fanfares written for the instrument. Likewise, the first time we hear the Force Theme is when Luke ponders his inability to escape the confines of his seemingly miserable and monotonous life.
The Force Theme pops up at all the important moments of the narrative and links the characters with one another, but the Main Theme accompanies no other character but Luke throughout the entire original trilogy.
The musical style of both the Overture and the Force Theme is overtly Romantic (that is, the musical epoch spanning the mid-19th century and early-20th century, not a reference to any kind of sentimentality—though that’s there, too). Almost all of Williams’ scores draw heavily on 19th-century musical idioms, and for good cause. During the late 1800s symphony orchestras took on gargantuan proportions—some with well over 100 musicians. The music written for these small musical armies frequently relied on epic fanfares and intricate lyrical passages, coupled with a complex harmonic language. This marriage of large performing forces and loose approach to harmony is an ideal fit for blockbuster films, and was popular during cinema’s golden age in the 1940s and 50s. Beyond basing his style on late-Romantic orchestral music, particularly the works of Stravinsky and Dvorak, Williams is known for “borrowing” from other Romantically inclined composers.
One particularly talked about instance is the striking similarity of the Star Wars Overture to Erich Korngold’s music for the 1942 film King’s Row. But it is Williams who resurrected interest in the Romantic sweeping orchestral score, and it is this style of music that still forms the backbone for almost all science-fiction/fantasy film.
While I happen to love the sweeping orchestral scores of film franchises like Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, etc. there is an inherent problem with relying on music trapped in a 19th-century view of the world. Despite a sumptuous musical richness, at its heart lies a dangerous binary reduction of society, gender, and class. For example, Luke Skywalker is accompanied by a heroic fanfare, while Princess Leia (his sister, and an equally important character in the rebellion) is underscored by a gentle, lyrical theme.
Arguably, there is some hint of heroic fanfare, but by and large Leia’s music has a much softer character than her brother’s brash overture. Likewise, the “scum and villainy” of the city of Mos Eisley are musically separated from the rest of the “civilized” world. Here, instead of the sophisticated background music that accompanies the rest of the film, the viewer is plunged into a world of live “jazz” music.
Today, this kind of music seems benign, but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this was the underground music of “dangerous social pariahs,” and people with “loose sexual morals.”
As fun as it may seem, the use of this music only helps to reinforce these ideas and prolong already outdated modes of thinking.
A quick glance at the official trailer for The Force Awakens shows that while much has changed, some vestiges of the 19th-century refuse to be swept away.
Musically, we’ve moved away from a complete reliance on Romantic idioms. In the years since the original Star Wars, the world has changed. Superheroes are now darker, and hope is a much more precious commodity. The evolution is nicely exemplified in the scores for the Harry Potter films: by Deathly Hallows, the lush symphonic language of Williams’ Philosopher Stone has been almost completely replaced by Alexandre Desplat’s dark atmospheric dissonance.
You can almost discern the sound of Williams’ Overture theme, but it’s been twisted and distorted. Romantic innocence has been subsumed by stark desolation, but it hasn’t been replaced; Desplat’s haunting opening eventually fades into a Williamsesque orchestral accompaniment. The same progression shows up in the score for the trailer.
It begins with slow haunting dyads on a solo piano, and moves inexorably to more traditional orchestral scoring. The result is both chilling and exhilarating, but despite this musical progress, 19th-century ideology still lurks in the shadows.
Like Jimmy Fallon and the rest of Star Wars fandom, I’m excited about the new film. But more so, I’m interested to see how Williams, who was chosen to craft the seventh film’s score, builds on his music from the previous films. It’s been 10 years since the last instalment of the disappointing prequels, and I’d like to think fan expectations have shifted regarding the unabashed use of dated Romantic idioms. Williams’s most recent work all lends itself to this kind of scoring; The Adventues of Tintin, War Horse, Lincoln, and The Book Thief are all films that call out for lush orchestral scoring. And make no mistake, there is a place for soaring violins and sweeping melodies in The Force Awakens, but in my opinion this needs to be tempered with more modern idioms. Just how will John Williams interpret the sonic landscape of Star Wars for the next generation of viewers? I can’t wait to find out!