Star Wars: The Force Awakens by John Williams

I haven’t seen the movie, so this is as good a time as any to comment on the music as a pure listening experience.

John Williams’ style has certainly undergone changes since 1977–no surprise there.  He is still a master at his art.  I really like “Rey’s Theme,” the centerpiece of the new score.

As someone whose love of film music was, in part, fueled by John Williams’ STAR WARS score, I’ve done as much delaying as I can before coming clean that this is the first of his Star Wars scores I found unengaging.  I think his first two–STAR WARS and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK–are two of the great film scores, period.  RETURN OF THE JEDI and THE PHANTOM MENACE (the underrated score of the series) are fine scores with great sequences.  I found both ATTACK OF THE CLONES and REVENGE OF THE SITH perfectly good for their movies, but lacking something to pull them together as whole listening experiences; this may be due to their being the only two of the series to that point not to have expansions available.

The score to TFA works hard to create the impression of excitement–it’s certainly active enough.  But aside from Rey’s Theme there’s nothing anchoring the score, no central themes.  His leitmotif approach was such an important element of the original trilogy, with each movie having strong, identifiable themes.  After several listens I can’t really identify new themes, only instrumental choices to identify the bad guys (low brass) and the usual key to identify the noble, struggling good guys (minor-key fragments to signify yearning and challenges).  But this sounds like…Movie Music to me, and could be used for a Superman movie, a war movie, a dinosaur movie…  It lacks character.  There is a cue I thought sounded like the evil guys on the attack, and it turns out the cue was titled “March of the Resistance.”  Maybe I’ve just heard Williams’ NBC theme too many times in its march form at the end of Meet the Press.

“Scherzo for X-Wings” is decent enough, I guess, but I don’t think the problem is that I’ve heard too much John Williams music.  Both John Barry and Jerry Goldsmith wrote late-career scores that seemed a bit lacking in fire.  Maybe some composers just lose bite over time, or they turn in another direction from the more propulsive music they wrote before.  I’m at a loss to describe my feelings about this because the music is certainly complex enough, there’s plenty going on.  But the whole thing feels like it lacks a center, a point.  It is strident and not very memorable, lacking in emotional power.  The moments when Williams brings back old themes work well enough; the use of instrumentation is varied and skillful–the man can still write.

Film music often doesn’t sound whole because it is missing the rest of itself, the movie for which it was written.  But Williams has always been a bit of an over-writer, much more of a forceful speaker, not a ‘background guy’ but a full participant in the movie experience, often going too far in telling you how to feel about a scene.  That’s not a criticism but a stylistic choice.  Now his music seems to have been pushed into the background, and he’s acquiesced to this directive and pulled back.

I’ve listened to this disc several times, but can only remember “Rey’s Theme,” probably because the disc includes the ‘concert arrangement.’  The rest just seems to be background music, well-composed, no doubt helpful in the movie, but drab on its own.  If this were the score to the first film, I can’t imagine it having the impact of the fiery, the full-bodied, theme-packed original.

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