Star Wars: The Force Awakens- Score Review

Release Date: December 18th 2015 (PHYSICAL RELEASE)
Composer(s): John Williams
Length: 77:08
Recorded At/By: Sony Pictures Studios’ Barbara Streisand Scoring Stage
Label: Walt Disney Records UMGI

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episode 7 cover

Release Date: December 18th 2015 (PHYSICAL RELEASE)
Composer(s): John Williams
Length: 77:08
Recorded At/By: Sony Pictures Studios’ Barbara Streisand Scoring Stage
Label: Walt Disney Records UMGI

Why You Should…
If your patience favours to be rewarded, for Williams conducts a diligent, noble new entry into the saga.

Why You Shouldn’t…
If your expectations are set too high, or your fondness of the prior offerings is too great.

 

***

At long last, the Force returns.

The ever-lasting, illustrious legacy of the beloved space opera phenomenon would be resurrected in J.J. Abrams’ STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS. Rumoured development of the franchise’s continuation had circulated long before any creative groundwork had begun effectively taking place. Even after the seemingly definite ending that the third chapter gave to the saga, there was still a notion of doubt that the timeless story still hadn’t matured and reached full circle. This was eventually proven to be true, with news of confirmed instalments in the franchise in the form of a sequel trilogy spreading waves of anticipation worldwide. Abrams, known for his primary yet similarly-orientated sci-fi efforts for the Star Trek reboot was tasked in January 2013 with helming the directorial mantle, soon after the original creator George Lucas had no choice but to sell his sole production company Lucasfilm to Kathleen Kennedy and Disney (a surprising, polarised insight into the ever-hungry, ambitious world of business within cinema). Lucas attended story meetings and offered what little he could to the team at hand, but eventually, his involvement in the project to any permeable degree was ousted. Lucas was the decisive reasoning behind Abram’s involvement, and his removal from his own creation resulted in further personal heartbreak and a solidified retraction from the very thing that had elevated him to imperial heights, not so long ago, in a galaxy not too far away.

With an initial screenplay draft written by Michael Arndt, preparations for the project had begun. However, with the inclusion of Abrams, as well as Lawrence Kasdan and Simon Kinberg as project consultants, Arndt too was removed from the project, and longtime franchise regular Kasdan and Abrams himself replaced him as the script writers. The two had fleshed the eventual continuation of the saga over brotherly walks in public, using emotion and sweeping nostalgia to help the conventionalized audience feel truly at home. A new cast was  integrated alongside veterans Mark Hamill (in a rather innocuous yet pleasing role), Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher, and even Peter Mayhew returning to voice Chewbacca once more. The inclusion of John Boyega, Daisy Ridely and Oscar Isaac, alongside Adam Driver helped seamlessly integrate old with new, so as to help the narrative propel forward whilst paying respect to the days of glory.

The story itself takes thirty years after the events of Return Of The Jedi; the Galactic Empire has now renamed itself the First Order. Resistance (aptly titled) comes in the form of the Rebels, now led by an older and wiser General Organa. Indeed, Leia’s aging torments her as she searches for her brother Luke, the last remaining Jedi who has mysteriously disappeared. When Poe Dameron (Isaac) is captured by the vengeful Kylo Ren (Driver), his loyal droid BB-8 escapes unto Rey’s (Ridley’s) grasp. Together, with the help of a digusted Stormtrooper repulsed by the ways of the First Order, Finn (Boyega), the new trio must call upon Han Solo and Chewbacca to help lead a gruesome fight against the growing nature of the Force’s Darker Side.

The Force had aged well, as the reviews from both critics and audience alike were tearjerkingly positive, with immense gratitude for preserving the wonder of the franchise and cleverly adapting it for modern times. The new cast and writing, as well as complex production design were lauded, and many praised composer John Williams’ return to the franchise. For the maestro, returning was akin to “adding paragraphs to a letter that’s been going on for a number of years. Starting with a completely new film, a story that I don’t know, characters that I haven’t met, my whole approach to writing music is completely different—trying to find an identity, trying to find melodic identifications if that’s needed for the characters, and so on.” Williams used his emotive, ground-shattering Force theme to weave hype into the trailers, with initial wiring beginning in December 2014, and final chords were struck in mid-November 2015. An undulating yet exhausting experience, Williams revisits several of his themes earlier explored in the original trilogy, much to the listener’s delight. Williams’ longtime friend and conductor William Ross returned to aid his efforts in the scoring process, with the help of a freelance orchestra. The actual recording process was a “luxurious” affair, scattered between June and November 2015. 175 minutes of music were recorded by the 90-piece orchestra, with at least an hour’s worth discarded for editing pleasure. Perhaps those lost suites would find its way onto a future release for an expanded edition- with this franchise, there is no completion of musical acquiring.

As tradition dictates, the score opens with “Main Title and the Attack on the Jakku Village”. The newer, evolved theme is fabulous, with more fluidity in woodwinds, brass and striking percussive statements heard clearer than before. It feels wonderful to be able to hear this joyous heroic fanfare yet again, with more brass statements and rips heard in the second statement. The celesta opens the mysterious tertiary statement, with a panicking horn and strong choppy string statements. Williams beautifully uses his trademark sixteenth trumpet personae, with curious strings evoking both romanticism and terror. A little over the three minute mark, we hear things take a turn for the worse; the brass becomes violent and dominates over the helpless strings with fearful oboes and clarinets muffled under its muscular weight. An evil identity of sorts takes sadistic 4-note clearings on the horns, marking Kylo Ren’s entry onscreen, and usage of crescendos and diminuendos are aptly handled. With this cue, fear and frantic tension are the underlying emotions to be felt. The tonality is masterfully written, with the main idea weaving powerfully within several illusive chord progressions, into longer lined ideas. The six and a half-minute track ends with the brass’ horrific victory, as the stormtroopers (minus FN- 2187/Finn) ruthlessly murder all the innocents of the village. “The Scavenger” demonstrates vintage Williams woodwind creativity, with a beautiful flute thematic identity for the new female protagonist, Rey. The piano and strings are aided by tinkling flute puffs. Anyone could mistake this track for a hidden Harry Potter suite, with its reliance on the flute and wistful atmosphere set in stone. This track could very well serve as a selling point for the main score release itself. A soaring subtheme is heard in the third minute, with B-minor and A-minor transcendency sparkling well.

“I Can Fly Anything” holds a more elusive tone, with bouncing trumpets and cymbalic slaps, with a powerful rhythm engaging the listener in mid-flight, and fluid string work enunciates the motion of the spacecraft particularly well. Heroism serves as the theme of this cue, with lively, energetic work with the brass movements, evoking the weaving and ducking of the tie fighter that Poe Dameron and Finn use to escape from Starkiller Base. A shorter, sweeter tone is taken for “Rey Meets BB-8”, and the lighter, mellow touches help carve the cute, bumbling nature of the spherical, rolling droid. Gorgeous strings and harp twirls take the cake in this cue, as it nears a particularly villainous conclusion. “Follow Me” is patented for woodwind enthusiasts, with their presence highlighted by pizzicato plucks. Classic emotive reaches are felt, and the harsh stabs of the lower strings time well as Finn and Rey escape from the First Order, running wild across the desert of Jakku. It’s definitely a better action cue of sorts, with the underylying tempo free enough to suit the chase-like mode. It’s good to also hear the “Imperial Attack” statement from the original entry, towards the end of the cue.

 

“Rey’s Theme” continues with the childlike idea first heard in The Scavenger, the track drenched in ephemeral optimism with lush, hopeful string work. The tonal changes are rather nostalgic, to be integrated with cautious horns, and some of the more beautiful portions does come with Rey’s presence onscreen. By the time you finish listening to this cue, the identity for her will become ingrained well in the mind, absolute proof that William’s pursuit of newer, memorable character themes are well and truly valid even today. Tense, oscillating strings are heard in “The Falcon”, with a sense of excitement and eclectic adrenaline dictated by the flight that the orchestra takes us on. Volatile brass work stabs away as the tubas come into play. The glockenspiel fruitfully taps as the timpanis and cymbals smash with vigor. A victorious 3-note idea dominates the track, with muscularity and dramatic flair, and the echoes of a flute ringing out into space is an added innovative touch by the composer. We enter more melodramatic territory in “That Girl With The Staff”, before frantic pacing occurs. Offbeat trumpet blaring and rumbling celli are heard, and a singular villainous horn takes control. Dissonance is continued in “The Rathtars!”, and one can’t help get the feeling that these two tracks could function as a single cue better. The main theme is finally heard in soft horns, before things turn awry again, with the sinister brass ripping and tearing everything in range. The percussive display is a rare item to hear in a Williams score, albeit so openly exposed, even in shorter periods. A tingling metallic effect alongside low piano octaves is a highlight, indicating the sight of aliens that are synonymous with the films. The timpanis are struck harder, with flurry and change of meter proving ideal. Another flourish of the Imperial Attack theme ends the cue. Things turn bittersweet in “Finn’s Confession”,  a well-rounded emotional cue that should grasp the tears out of one’s eyelids, with its intimate string and horns perfectly conveying Finn’s embrace of a singular identity with a name, a poignant narrative touch considering his prior collective movement as a Stormtrooper, whilst painfully revealing the lie he concocts to impress his newfound companion. A plucky woodwind idea is heard much in the vein of Rey’s Theme, perhaps to suggest their unison.

“Maz’s Counsel” is a rather quiet, eerie cue with solemn strings and low droning. Sadly, it sticks out as one of the weaker cues in this promising soundtrack, trembling strings accompanying the scenes where Rey first discovers the fabled Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber. The oboe does shine in its relaxed performance, and a more silent tone of sorts is kept, until the poignant reprisal of the Force theme towards the 2:30 mark. The eerieness is continued in “Starkiller”, with a more stronger classical touch in the romantic writing, its skillful traversion of human emotions a subtle highlight, and perhaps one of the more understated cues within the tapestry that Williams weaves. “Kylo Ren Arrives at the Battle” builds upon the tension offered by the villainous presence onscreen, and the villainous motif heard in the opening cue reappears, thus confirming his identity. Steady, intense strings and rumbling timpani punctuate the hurried movement of the First Order on Takodana. Dissonance opens “The Abduction”, with a repeated brass blast, and lower registers take precedence. The boiling crescendos rise to simmer, with Williams using an adhesive palette of strings, horns and timpanis.

“Han and Leia” settles some doubts about the lack of consistent thematic identities with a wistful rendition of Leia’s own tender material, incorporated into the longerlined concept well, with noble fanfare and woodwind complements backing the suite well. Restrained beauty shines in this cue, though there is bleakness offered by the clarinets. More darker territory is surprisingly reserved for the cue’s latter half, despite the Force theme’s return, emphasising the emotional distancy between the lovers, and how a choice their child made years ago mutated the innocence of their family… The obsession with dynamic brass fanfare and rhythmic satisfaction is powerfully handled in “March Of The Resistance”, a strong show that raises eyebrows as both a filmscore cue as well as a concert piece. The sheer energy in this piece is a delight, and we as listeners are left to tip our hats to the composer out of wondrous awe- can you believe this man is in his mid-eighties and yet is still perfectly capable of rattling complex movements? The score itself has brass inputs to die for!
“Snoke” sends the orchestra to a lower domain as the chamber music style that the composer has associated himself with for years dominates this cue. For the hidden, shroud-like figure of Snoke, Williams utitlised a 24-voice men’s chorus, the bass regions sublimely accentuating Snoke’s towering physical stature hidden in the darkness, and the influence he has upon Ren seen in the film. The slow, frightening field of play is intoxicating in its religious, hymnal mould, but is exactly what you’d expect for a character like this. The strings fleetingly toy with minor interspersions, so as to create the necessary tense proceedings. “On The Inside” takes a waltzy route, albeit one of terror and gradual gloom, with the sinister trumpets fluttering cacophonously. A tension cue, it makes use of glissandos and harp pluckings with fast-paced movement. “Torn Apart” is a dark, poignant yet turbulent cue that brings father and son together, even if the meeting is brought to an abrupt halt… The relaxed atmosphere that was formerly heard in Han and Leia returns, as Solo pleads for his son to abandon the ways of the Dark Side. Growing adamancy strikes in the strings as they suddenly become sombre again, in their higher realms of notes. The brass viciously cuts into the cue, with looming terror apparent. Another victorious statement of the Force theme strikes back, as the cue grinds to a tense halt.

Nobility takes flight in “The Ways Of The Force”, with all-too familiar vibraphone tapping and brass stabbing being put to another aerial chase scene. The darkness is truly strong with this cue, as the troubled, disturbed statements of the Force theme are helplessly against the growing might of the slippery strings and oboe. Worryingly, Williams does begin to lose some of his steam here, with too much reliance on that theme as a heroic construct. “Scherzo for X-Wings” works well against the tone of the previous track, using the main theme in a powerful ballad-like manner, more victorious and soaring than before, as the Resistance pour down in numbers to lower the superplanet’s planetary shields. The tubas and trombones are part of an otherwise effective brass ensemble, and they like most cues in this score take advantage of the time given. “Farewell and the Trip” dips well into the syrupy atmosphere that Williams indulges in, as the film reaches conclusion. Its joyous nature may divide some, but take shelter in its layered writing. Amidst the peaceful nature of the cue, the strings turn mournful with a sorrowful statement of Leia’s theme, her loss becoming all apparent. The cellos complement the fabric of the ensemble well, whining in pain. The theme gets translated for the horns in a beautiful manner, before the main theme takes control and Rey’s theme guides the rest of the cue, her future now set with blossoming optimism. We reach the end of this much anticipated output in “The Jedi Steps and Finale”, appropriately the longest cue overall at eight minutes. At the start, a coy trumpet toys with curiosity as Rey searches for a figure to complete the last part of the mission. The strings tinkle in progress and the horns grow with excitement, before the Force theme is beautifully integrated into the cue, with the fully-fledged statement evoking definite powerful nostalgia as the saga continues, before the lively rendition of the end credits material is reprised for listening pleasure. The latter half of the cue serves as a collection of all the different ideas Williams concocted for the film, mainly experimentation done with Rey’s theme. The cohesive in-built packaging of all these reprisal ideas does allow, however, for one final attempt at admiration.

It’s difficult to accurately and fairly rate this score- yes, Williams held true to his promise and engaged us with some familiar themes from the original trilogy much to our delight. But, save for Rey’s theme, much of the new material doesn’t make an impact as well as one could hope; her new identity serves as the calling card for The Force Awakens, beautiful and chirpy in its self-sufficient context. Snoke’s idea is short, much like his presence so perhaps Williams’ instructions were to save him for something bigger to be explored in the impending sequels, in this regard, little to complain about. What about Kylo Ren? Though masked for the majority of the running time, he certainly made an impression. The material for him is villainous, but could have benefited further from either a longer thematic suite or further exploration through multiple tracks. The fluency in which he normally writes his scores is lost towards the end, though thankfully he does retain it. This time round, there’s no memorable battle cry to behold either. The lack of battle material such as Duel Of The Fates, The Battle of Endor and Battle of the Heroes will serve as a personal letdown from the composer to willing enthusiasts.
Faults must not be held too strong, however. There is terrific writing to be heard, courtesy to his devotion for the brass. Some of the action cues are tantalizing in their woven proficiency, and their easy palatability continues to dictate the music for Star Wars as still being unparalleled in the modern era. Despite its inconsistency, if there’s anything this product proves, its that there lies music many leagues higher than what we normally hear today. At the age of 83, Williams overthrew worrying conditions of illness to dutifully return and engage with the franchise much like the days of old; there is no denying how grateful we should be to have received another Star Wars score by him. Then there are the comparisons to the existing six scores; inevitable as they be, perhaps the expectations were too high for this entry. There is nothing to be ashamed about in the soundtrack- the music wonderfully fits into the film, and makes a formidable product on listening experience alone. Devotion to his stronger material such as the fourth and fifth scores may serve as key to a listener’s appreciation. Much of his better material was within those scores, yes, and stronger work were even in the prequels. The final criticism to be offered to this raw beast of a score may, however, be resolved in the following months to come. If Williams reportedly used two hours of his music for the film, where did the remaining portions go? A total of 175 minutes were recorded, and an extended edition release/re-release may award us with some of the hidden material, such as the funkier Cantina Band rendition heard midway. The Force Awakens, but it’s still half-asleep. It’s amazing what Williams can do half-awake, though. Weaker or stronger, any fan of the franchise/composer should not miss out on this score.

[4.5/5]

***
Track Listing:

(all music written and composed by John Williams)

  1. Main Title and The Attack on the Jakku Village
  2. The Scavenger
  3. I Can Fly Anything
  4. Rey Meets BB-8
  5. Follow Me
  6. Rey’s Theme
  7. The Falcon
  8. That Girl With The Staff
  9. The Rathtars!
  10. Finn’s Confession
  11. Maz’s Counsel
  12. The Starkiller
  13. Kylo Ren Arrives at the Battle
  14. The Abduction
  15. Han and Leia
  16. March Of The Resistance
  17. Snoke
  18. On the Inside
  19. Torn Apart
  20. The Ways Of The Force
  21. Scherzo for X-Wings
  22. Farewell and the Trip
  23. The Jedi Steps and Finale

Author: Hari Haran

Fan of films, TV shows and film composers en general. I'm a fan of you too.

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