By Paulo Camacho
Christmastime is Here. Time for Jingle Bells, decorated trees, Santa Claus … and Star Wars.
The long-awaited 8th installment to the Star Wars saga — The Last Jedi — has just been released to theaters, and audiences everywhere will likely flock to their local cineplex, and return to “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.”
It was only two years ago that the film series picked up where “Return of the Jedi” left off, with the much-anticipated 7th episode, “The Force Awakens.” While the millions of fans who grew up on the previous six films were looking forward to the nostalgia of seeing familiar faces, the mystery of the new characters, and the delight of a classic movie series returning to theaters, the real test to whether “The Force Awakens” really felt like a genuine Star Wars film would come with something many wouldn’t even think about: the music.
John Williams’ timeless score — which served as the soundtrack to the original trilogy, as well as a plethora of Star Wars fans’ childhoods — helped make the films as classic as they are, today. So, it was only natural for Williams to score the final three films of the Star Wars Saga, starting with “The Force Awakens.” And, much like he used his music to paint audible pictures of the characters, action and themes of the previous films in the Saga, he accomplished the same goals for his music in Episode VII. Here are three examples from the film:
As one of the most prominent musical elements in the film, “Rey’s Theme” serves as the musical representation, or Leitmotif, for the film’s main protagonist, Rey. Portrayed as an orphaned scavenger on the desert planet of Jakku, Rey’s journey is one of self-discovery and adventure — one that Williams wanted to portray within the theme, itself.
The instrumentation starts out simply, with a single woodwind playing a basic, bouncy tune, almost reflecting Rey’s introduction to the Star Wars universe — a single scavenger, alone in the vast, empty ruins of a crashed Star Destroyer. The music almost hints at a timid, uneventful existence for Rey, prior to the events of the film.
However, a mysterious feel begins to build, as a glockenspiel melody appears. It then gives way to the string section, which repeats the single woodwind’s leitmotif. As the music continues to build, the tone slowly shifts from lonely curiosity to hesitant adventurousness. This is no accident, as John Williams admitted as much when he talked about composing Rey’s Theme:
Rey — her theme has a musical grammar that is not heroic and a sense of a hero’s theme; it’s kind of an adventure theme that maybe promises more than resolving itself in the more major triumphant resolutions … when we first meet her, she’s been alone, she’s been without her parents. I felt a lot of empathy for that girl, and I think Rey’s Theme needs to illustrate that.
The scene that accompanies this particular piece serves three purposes within the film:
- It advances the plot for the main characters Rey and Finn;
- It essentially inserts Rey and Finn into the main storyline of the Star Wars Saga; and
- It gives the audience a large sense of nostalgia for the original films.
In this scene, Rey and Finn are being hunted by First Order TIE Fighters, and the pair are looking for a getaway vehicle. After their first option — a Jakku Quad Jumper — is destroyed, they commandeer a ship that Rey initially refers to as “garbage,” but is revealed to be the Millennium Falcon — Space Pirate Han Solo’s signature ship from the original trilogy. After some initial bumps and bruises, Rey manages to pilot the ship off of the planet and escape the looming enemy squadron.
“The Falcon” accompanies this scene nicely, as it typifies the classic, fast-paced “movie chase scene” score, sprinkled with nostalgic references to music from the original trilogy. For example, in the actual chase scene, the viewer will be able to hear the recognizable leitmotif of the opening Star Wars theme — once when the Millennium Falcon is visually revealed to the audience, and again when the Falcon is shown in full frame, flying over Jakku during the chase scene. Not only do they serve as musical breaks from the fast pace of the score, but also as a cinematic device that allows the viewer to bask in the nostalgia of seeing the Falcon fly in theaters for the first time in 32 years.
Ultimately, the piece maintains its phrenetic pace as a complement to the scene, itself — its balanced use of brass and strings to exemplify the frantic feel of a panicked chase.
The Ways of the Force
The context to this piece is important, as it narrates the climax of the film. In a snowy forest on Starkiller Base, protagonists Rey and Finn make a last stand of sorts, against a pursuing Kylo Ren. Finn attempts to duel Ren with a lightsaber given to him for safekeeping by Maz Kanata on Takodana — the lost lightsaber of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker. After Ren strikes Finn down, he attempts to retrieve the fallen saber in the snow using his Force Grab.
However, much to his disbelief, Rey uses her own force grab to take the lightsaber for herself. The resulting lightsaber fight reveals Rey to be unexpectedly strong in the ways of the Force — hence, the title of the corresponding track. It begins the moment Rey takes the lightsaber from Kylo Ren’s clutches — a moment accentuated by the sudden appearance of the “Binary Sunset” Leitmotif, highlighting both the final “awakening” of Rey’s force powers, and the culmination of Rey’s journey in the film. It is a true turning point for both Rey and the Star Wars Saga — revealing the final trilogy’s true Jedi protagonist in all of her glory.
The dramatic flourishes of the orchestra are vital to the narration of the scene as it progresses — from the triumphant peaks in the music as Rey battles Kylo Ren, to the dipping minor-key turn as Ren seemingly overpowers Rey in the collapsing ruins of Starkiller Base. As the “Binary Sunset” leitmotif returns, Rey reaches a state of inner calm, even in the literal face of her enemy in Kylo Ren. She closes her eyes, and attempts becoming one with the Force. The melody quickly returns to a frantic pace, as Rey attacks Ren with tremendous vigor, eventually overpowering him as the fight draws to a close. It is a powerful scene — but the music gives it a sense of narrative purpose.