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LABEL: Sony Classical
MUSIC BY: John Williams
I don’t know if controversial is the right term, but John Williams’ scores for the Star Wars prequels have certainly provided the material for much discussion over the previous six years since 1999’s The Phantom Menace. Of course, the music for the original trilogy is beloved by many, and it was inevitable that despite the fact that these films were starting the saga off in a new way, and in an older time period, the new would be aggressively compared with the old.
The reaction to The Phantom Menace was reasonably predictable. Mostly, it seemed the main complaints came from the lack of recognizable Star Wars themes. Aside from the Force theme, the Emperor’s theme and the occasional snippet of Luke’s theme, this was full of new thematic material for us to chew on. And in the long run, I think it worked. Both Anakin’s Theme and Duel of the Fates were worthy additions to the canon, along with more action-orientated cues such as the Trade Federation March, and the musical landscape was embellished even more with Across the Stars from Attack of the Clones, a beautiful almost-medieval sounding theme that provided that flick with way more emotion than it deserved.
I think Williams perhaps gets a bit too much flak for just churning his stuff out, and while sure, there’s definitely a case for a lot of similar material, it’s never as bad as the recycling from folks like James Horner. Saying that, looking back I think that – Across the Stars aside – Clones is a pretty uninspired work. There are a couple of decent moments, including the sinister Kamino theme, but overall, as a listening experience it doesn’t really work that well outside of the film. So I’m happy that Williams was able to bring himself back up to a peak for Revenge of the Sith.
I suppose the thing with Revenge of the Sith is that it has by far the most emotionally satisfying material of the trilogy, despite the flawed way that it’s presented. The first two movies were simple precursors to the main event, essentially a surplus of backstory that could have been told in a much more efficient way, thus providing us with a more emotionally solid base from which to tell the story. In effect, it could have been explained away in Sith’s crawl, along with a bit of expositional dialogue.
But this isn’t about the films persay, it’s about the music. For all intents and purposes, Revenge of the Sith really opens the musical pallet for the saga, and provides some genuinely great moments that eclipse the work composed for the previous two. It still doesn’t come close to his scores for A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, but as good as he’s been over the years I don’t think he’ll ever live up to that classic period from 1975 to 1981, which gave us that amazing run where we had Jaws, Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Superman and the aforementioned first two Star Wars movies, a great achievement in anyone’s eyes.
As with all of the Star Wars albums, Revenge of the Sith begins with the Main Title. As probably 99.9% of people reading this would be able to hum it from memory, I don’t think it’s worth really going any more into this. The second half of the track is The Revenge of the Sith, and is mainly constructed of music from the opening spaceship battle over Coruscant. It’s worth noting that – like the previous two records – the album is only in a very basic chronological order, although without access to the maestro’s scoring notes, I can’t say what was in the right place originally and what wasn’t.
I say this because this portion of the track opens with a brassy fanfare that, in the film, is used to score the arrival of Obi-Wan’s clone troops on Utapau. Here, it almost interrupts the end of the main title, instead of the usual sinister descent and pause featured on the previous albums, and in the actual film. Whereas in the movie we get some heavy war drums that score the arrival of a Republic Star Destroyer, here the fanfare segues straight into a very militaristic and heroic version of the Force theme, which in the film is played straight from the drums without the fanfare to score the arrival of Obi-Wan and Anakin in their Jedi fighters.
Judging from the way it plays on the album, I’d say that perhaps the fanfare was originally scored for this section, as it’s blended pretty seamlessly, instead of the slightly clumsy way it’s presented on the film. It’s a reasonably enjoyable track to listen to overall, but I can’t help feeling that it’s one of the few filler tracks on the album, as Williams doesn’t really write his space battle music as well as he did for the original trilogy. Even the weakest of the three, Return of the Jedi, had some great music written for the battle over Endor, but here it just gets a tad dull, especially since the album lacks some of the better cues in the film, such as the reprise of the Rebel Fanfare when Artoo defeats the ludicrous buzzdroid thing.
Anakin’s Dream begins with a soft romantic yet pensive motif that segues into a beautiful violin rendition of Across the Stars, scoring Anakin and Padme’s talk on the balcony. This is a good example of Williams’ music enhancing the emotional quality of the film, as if you watch the film with the sound off and the CD playing alongside, the scene has a bit more of an emotional sense without being interrupted by the awful dialogue written for it.
The romantic music gives way to a soaring sinister string section as Anakin is awoken after a nightmare in which Padme dies. This leads into some amazing work which again is great at emotionally describing a character’s thoughts, scoring Anakin’s struggle with his dreams that have hurt him so much in the past. The scene ends with a reprise of Across the Stars followed by some sinister strings, which are interrupted by a small fanfare as we see Anakin talking to Yoda, which inevitably features a foreboding version of the Force theme.
The third track is the showcase of the major new theme in Revenge of the Sith, Battle of the Heroes. An epic choral piece that serves as a companion piece to Duel of the Fates, the track provides a more heroic tone and is much more appropriate as the thematic base for the titanic battle between Obi-Wan and Anakin. It’s presented here in concert suite form, as with Fates, Anakin’s Theme and Across the Stars on the previous albums, although it’s more or less used verboten during the last half of the duel, ending in a huge climactic crescendo that reminds me of the music scoring the Death Star’s final moments in A New Hope, which is used for Anakin’s final lunge at his former master, which as we all know, sends him to his doom.
Anakin’s Betrayal is where this score elevates itself from very good to magnificent, and comes close to single-handedly providing that sense of emotion that the films have previously lacked. It’s used twice in the film, once in its full version during the Order 66 montage as we see the Jedi slaughtered across the galaxy (well, okay, we only see four die, but it’s symbolic of it I guess) and later in an adapted version of the first half as Padme finally realizes how far Anakin has gone, which leads into Obi-Wan and Anakin’s climactic battle. Oh, how I wish that version was on this album.
General Grievous is the first track that musically introduces the pretty cool but ultimately unnecessary lesser villain of Episode III, although chronologically it’s halfway through the film, scoring Obi-Wan’s encounter with the psychotic cyborg on Utapau and subsequent chase on his lizard thing. It’s a reasonably tense action cue, and works well onscreen, but it’s not incredibly fun to listen to. It also doesn’t feature Grievous’ main theme at all, which is kind of strange, but you have to wait a bit later to get some of that.
Palpatine’s Teachings, like Anakin’s Betrayal, is another track where it seems to go in a slightly different direction to the previous five film scores. It begins with a very low frequency hum, with a slight choral tinge that makes it sound like Darth Vader in the Imperial choir. This is used in the film to score the scene in the opera house where Palpatine tells Anakin about the legends of the Sith, and it’s a suitably dark and foreboding track, working perfectly in the context of the scene, although not always that great to listen to separately.
It segues into a short version of the Emperor’s theme, before moving on to a repeating motif that illustrates a rise in tension, which is understandable as it scores Obi-Wan asking Anakin to spy on Palpatine, something neither really want to discuss. The track ends with a reprise of a piece of music originally used in Episode I as everybody leaves Coruscant to go back to Naboo, which here is used when Obi-Wan arrives at the Blockade Runner. Thematically, I don’t see much of a connection, and I remember reading on the Star Wars website during the recording of the score that the piece was being used for Yoda’s departure to Kashyyyk, which I suppose would fit better. But it’s a nice little bit of music, and reminds me of the original trilogy a lot.
Grievous and the Droids is another decent action cue pretty similar to General Grievous. I’ve been trying to place where this actually is in the film, and while I think it’s when Obi-Wan and Anakin are fighting the Magnaguards on the Invisible Hand at the beginning, don’t quote me on this. This is actually a good time to let you in on some of my methods when I do my reviews. My first rule is to actually see the film, because as good – or bad – as the music can sound on its own, when it’s a score for a movie, it’s important to see it in the context of the film. This is also the reason I have a few CDs waiting to be reviewed because I haven’t seen the movies, but at least you have something to look forward to.
In terms of Revenge of the Sith, I spent quite a while watching the film while listening to the score and trying to place everything. I didn’t bother with The Fellowship of the Ring (read that review here) because I know that movie inside and out, but Sith is still a little new. That said, while I watched it a ton of times, I can’t 100% say the aforementioned track is where I think it is, mainly because the mixing levels between sound effects and music on the film are horrendous, probably to cover up the poor music editing.
Padme’s Ruminations is another venture into a slightly non-Star Wars-ish world of music, but it works beautifully. If I was to make a comparison, it would probably be to the vocal stylings of Lisa Gerrard, as heard on the soundtracks for Heat and Gladiator. The sorrowful vocals score the best put-together scene in the film, where Padme and Anakin look out towards the Coruscant cityscape, helped by a very good bit of editing, and it works both on a straight level, and a foreboding level, as we pretty much know how everything is going to end up. The track then goes into a very interesting almost Eastern-sounding motif, scoring the tail-end of Anakin’s turn, ending on a slight crescendo. It’s a shame they passed over the music in between, as the score for both the Palpatine/Windu fight and the turn was quite good.
While being chronologically in the wrong place, Anakin Vs. Obi-Wan starts the final approach to the climax, and it kicks it off with a screamer. Immediately, we’re assaulted with an incredibly fast version of Battle of the Heroes as the two go at it, interrupted for a second by a snippet of the Imperial March as Yoda confronts Palpatine. Here, the music flows angry and fast, and is a perfect match to what we see onscreen (and is probably the reason I’m now typing at three hundred words per minute). Again, we are interrupted by the Imperial March, but in a form we geeks are familiar with.
Here, Williams uses a portion from the duel in The Empire Strikes Back, where Vader is hurling things at Luke, here to score Palpatine attacking Yoda. It even features a part of the brassy Bespin fanfare used in that scene, before going back to the full Imperial March. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what we came here to see. Or hear. But we’re not done. Once again, we return to a manificent rising choral version of Battle of the Heroes as we intercut between the two duels, before exploding into an amazing chorus of the Force theme as master and apprentice, well, use the Force against each other. Ending on a big note, which incidentally, on the actual film led straight into a rendition of Duel of the Fates.
Anakin’s Dark Deeds begins with an almost LOTR-sounding riff, evoking an almost Elvish feel as Obi-Wan and Yoda survey the damage done to the Jedi Temple. This is immediately interrupted by a loud and angry chorus as Anakin slaughters the Separatist council, while swirling strings and the chorus score Palpatine’s senate appearance, as he announces the creation of the Empire while people cheer around him, taking it to a huge crescendo. This leads into one of my favourite cues in the film, where Obi-Wan visits Padme to find out where Anakin is. It’s tinged with tragedy and sympathy, yet a sense of inevitability as Padme knows what is going to happen, especially now Obi-Wan knows about her pregnancy. This slowly builds to an amazing movement as we see Anakin staring out into the darkness of Mustafar, contemplating on everything that has gone before. Here we have the sense of where Anakin has gone, psychologically, and it works amazingly.
Enter Lord Vader technically should have come before Anakin’s Dark Deeds, as it scores both the Jedi’s return to Coruscant, and Anakin’s arrival on Mustafar. After a short brassy statement, it leads into a quiet moment of reflection as Obi-Wan and Yoda decide what must be done, before being interrupted by a pounding theme as Anakin arrives on Mustafar. A soaring string section scores the Tantive IV’s return to Coruscant, before we return to Anakin’s pounding theme as he confronts the Separatist council. Immediately, his theme stops, before the Imperial March kicks in as he prepares to slaughter them, while an amazing brass section illustrates Yoda and Obi-Wan fighting clone troopers outside of the Temple, before ending with the Emperor’s theme and a crescendo as he begins the senate session.
The Immolation Scene is, well, exactly that. A soaring and tragic piece that scores Anakin’s final turn from well-done Jedi to overly-crispy Sith Lord. I don’t know if it’s really music I’d expect to hear in a Star Wars theme, but then it’s because of this why this score works. Even with the lack of groundwork laid by George for the characters, this almost-operatic track captures the emotional severance between Obi-Wan and Anakin, and also the sense of tragic sympathy for Anakin, and the horrific sight of seeing someone burn to death.
Grievous Speaks To Lord Sidious upsets the final movements, being a track that scores a scene shown early in the movie, specifically when the metal monstrosity visits Utapau to get on the holo-phone to talk to the Emperor. It’s here where we finally get to here Grievous’ theme, and it’s a good one, bringing across a sense of moustache-twirling villainy, combined with a frightening choral section that sounds like it should be in The Omen. This follows with some quiet music as he lectures the council, before moving on with an interesting little movement that opens the scene of Anakin and Padme on the balcony.
The Birth of the Twins and Padme’s Destiny is another self-explanatory track. This basically scores the entire sequence where the babies are born, Padme dies, and Vader is reborn. It moves between being sinister and sweet, with a nice little fragile movement illustrating the birth that sounds almost like Williams’ music for Harry Potter. This moves up to a crescendo as Vader’s helmet is lowered down, and Padme slowly dies. Here we have a reprise of the Qui-Gon funeral music for Episode I, with the rising choral pattern giving way to the Force theme, before repeating itself as the operating table begins to rise and we have our first real viewing of Darth Vader since Return of the Jedi, with the chorus soaring.
A New Hope is the beginning of the end, and really brings home the connection between this film and the next one. It begins with a slight fanfare, before moving into Princess Leia’s theme as she is taken to Alderaan and her new home, then segueing into a gentle rendition of Luke Skywalker’s theme as we see Obi-Wan approach the Tatooine homestead, echoing the near-exactly same cue that introduced Luke to us in 1977. As this quietens down, we know what’s coming next, and aren’t at all surprised when the first notes of the Force theme call out, before rising into a huge climactic crescendo, another echo, this time of the original Binary Sunset, before the film, and the Star Wars saga as we know it, ends on a bittersweet, but hopeful note.
The End Credits, as expected, begin with launching us into that familiar end title fanfare, giving us a few strains of the popular version of Luke’s Theme, before moving onto the haunting second half of the concert version of Leia’s Theme, matching the first half which was presented to us in the end credits of Star Wars. It’s a beautiful theme, stirring and powerful, and when it moves up to that crescendo it’s a glorious example of how good John Williams really can be. This quickly segues into the concert version of Battle of the Heroes, which I went through earlier. After the climactic crescendo of that track, we go into something we really don’t expect: the concert suite version of The Throne Room, from the first movie.
This is an amazing piece of music, showcasing the normal version of the theme as it appeared in the original film, scoring the medal ceremony, but at the moment where it usually would go into the end credits, here it moves into another rendition of the opening fanfare, before segueing to a stunningly beautiful quiet version of the Force theme. This leads into a powerful rendition of the Throne Room motif which almost sounds like Pomp and Circumstance, before slamming into the triumphant version of the main title that closed Star Wars and Return of the Jedi, finishing off with a final reprise of the Throne Room before closing off with a final brassy crescendo.
And that’s it. The final Star Wars movie score, assuming George doesn’t get any more bright ideas. And it’s a fitting end. It may be a mix of great music and nostalgia for the past, but it works perfectly. Not all the tracks are amazingly good, but those that are (Anakin’s Betrayal, Anakin Vs. Obi-Wan, A New Hope et al) are so good that we can forgive old John. While Revenge of the Sith wasn’t the saviour we were hoping it would be, the score at least reminds us why we loved that galaxy far, far away in the first place.
This isn’t it, though. We seem to live in an age where every CD around comes with a bonus DVD, and Revenge of the Sith is no exception, although this is a little better than your usual music video and interview with the band. What we have on disc two is Star Wars: A Musical Journey, a literal summing up of the entire saga through music videos. It’s damn cool to watch, and while there are some stunning omissions (The Rebel Fleet from The Empire Strikes Back for example), it’s a very well put-together piece. You can watch every track as is, or with introductions by Ian McDiarmid, putting each one in context, but this is Star Wars, so we don’t honestly need them that much. The only real annoyance is the use of dialogue in the videos, as I’d prefer them to be just the music, but it’s a minor complaint.
So here we are. I’m not going to mark it down too much for the tracks that aren’t great, because they’re few and far between and it works beautifully as an album. As far as I’m concerned we’ve seen two legends of the past reclaim their former glories this year. George A. Romero for Land of the Dead. And John Williams for Revenge of the Sith.