For better and for worse, the music of ‘Star Wars’ dominates its middle chapters

Among the many sweeping divisions that separate the original Star Wars trilogy from the Prequels is in how “used” the films feel; or to put it another way, how the Prequels don’t. The franchise’s earlier installments have endured trends of computer graphics and frenetic editing across several generations in part because George Lucas leveraged a tight production budget with rusty edges and sputtering engines. The Millennium Falcon needs a few loving punches to fire up its nav-comptuer. The Rebel base on Hoth looks more like a rundown snow fort than an outpost fit for a princess. And the most powerful being in the galaxy might actually be a Grover-voiced frog puppet, rubber lips and all.

As covered in the first volume of this series, John Williams taps into the charm of used futurism with his music, doubling down on A New Hope‘s distressed and worn out compositions for its first sequel, The Empire Strikes Back. In 1980, Lucas, Williams and incoming director Irvin Kershner made good on the title’s promise, sending Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia reeling from Imperial forces. The Rebellion fleet limps into hyperspace, Solo is shipped off to Jabba the Hutt, and Luke loses his hand in a duel with Darth Vader before learning the baddest Jedi in the universe is also his father.

The Rebel Alliance takes a beating in the Original Trilogy’s middle chapter, and this required more of Williams’s wearied arrangements. “The Battle of Hoth” undercuts any chance of victory with rumbly, discordant notes that bounce around in minor and even atonal patterns; it’s battle music that sounds like a grand piano is being pushed down a flight of stairs. The plunking cacophony that plays under the Falcon‘s escape through an asteroid field is at a similar unease, with errant bell percussion, squeaky woodwinds and a frenzied, stopped string section.

The trouble doesn’t end there either. Even the Force is taking a beating, as quotes from “The Force Theme” are slowed down and truncated. Williams tweaks his opening overture, too. The main crawl of Star Wars, which heralded adventure and a new hope in one film prior, gets minor key arrangements during Luke’s training with unlikely Jedi Master Yoda. As the latest and greatest source of Jedi wisdom, Yoda gets his own theme as well, a glimmering legato melody that’s still melancholy enough to dampen the possibilities of Luke’s new powers. Lucas may maintain that his space saga was only ever intended for children, but in Empire, its kid-friendly signifiers of a mystical destiny seem so dim in the shadow of Darth Vader.

And that’s because with “The Imperial March,” this is Vader’s movie. Replacing a serviceable, oft-forgotten cue from A New Hope, the Galactic Empire’s new calling card is instantly recognizable from its goose-stepping shudders. Blaring unison brass lines and an unmistakable downward chromatic pattern make for a shiny, new motif that’s nefarious, overstated, and even a little awkward. In short, it’s the Empire personified.

Any discussion of The Empire Strikes Back demands a dissection of its signature theme, and it’s everywhere. With over 40 separate quotes in Williams’s score, it’s the film’s most frequently recurring leitmotif by a golden parsec. “The Imperial March” gets a full-scale showcase in introducing the Imperial fleet, but its shadow is ubiquitous. It’s there after the main crawl, tucked inside of a solo piccolo and it’s slipped into the end credits, stamping the Empire’s seal of destruction with four final notes from the London Symphony Orchestra. Right down to the music, the Empire has indeed struck back — and hard.

Before 2002, The Empires Strikes Back held the distinction of being the only Star Wars film whose identity was so defined by a single theme. A New Hope laid the groundwork with classically romantic themes and as the Original Trilogy’s final chapter, Return of the Jedi represented a culmination of Williams’s sum total work in the saga. Even The Phantom Menace shirked an overlying signature in favor of repetition, variation and sleeker textures. Quite simply, Empire is as musically singular as Star Wars gets.

Until Attack of the Clones, that is. Set 10 years after the events of The Phantom Menace, the inevitable downfall of Anakin Skywalker begins when the Jedi apprentice is tasked with protecting Padme Amidala from a mysterious assassin. As a Padawan-turned-bodyguard, Skywalker’s feelings for the now-Senator Amidala are rekindled in the pair’s seclusion, hiding from Count Dooku on Naboo. As the weakest of the Prequels, Clones’ mileage depends on turning Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi into a space beat cop, teasing the mystery behind a secret Clone Army for the Galactic Republic, and seeing Yoda brandish his own miniature lightsaber. Ultimately though, it’s all about the romance between Skywalker and Amidala.

We know this because of the music. As the lilting and bittersweet center of Williams’s score, “Across the Stars” foreshadows the narrative trajectory of the Prequel Trilogy’s doomed heroes, as brassy rumbles tease the impending war between the Republic and Dooku’s fledgling Confederacy of Independent Systems. Like “The Imperial March,” “Across the Stars” dominates its respective film, returning and varying throughout the picture. It’s the only theme that receives a reprise in the film’s End Titles, a first for any Star Wars movie.

“Across the Stars” is as exclusive as Star Wars themes get, and not just for its prominence. It’s also the sole motivation for Anakin and Padme’s relationship. The orchestral arrangement on the 2002 soundtrack begins small in a solo oboe before swelling to melodramatic heights with a full orchestral arrangement, a size difference that embarrasses the underwhelming love story it’s here to prop up.

Nowhere is this more evident than before the film’s heroes are sent to their execution. Captured in their attempt to rescue Kenobi from the clutches of Count Dooku, Anakin and Padme pledge their love for one another as Williams’s love theme plays under the bloodthirsty cheers of the Geonosian coliseum. The moment is an expected one from Skywalker, who spends most of the film making his feelings plain. For Amidala though, her confession is a sudden change of heart. Inexplicably, the character shifts from viewing their forbidden romance as “not possible” to heartbreakingly obvious. This is Attack of the Clones in microcosm, where “Across the Stars” is less a romance theme than the romance, padding an undercooked love story and a lack of chemistry between two its leads.

By and large, the events of the Prequels become foregone conclusions in Attack of the Clones, sapping any tension as George Lucas begins connecting the dots. Nothing feels like a surprise. Rare character beats that evolve organically — Williams calls back to both “Duel of the Fates” and “The Imperial March” when Anakin returns to Tatooine in search of his mother — are too little, too late, playing third fiddle to digital tinkering and Lucas’s making good on the prophecy of “the Chosen One.”

As the older film by 22 years, The Empire Strikes Back‘s organic narrative also makes it the superior one, evolving Luke’s intrepid heroism and, more importantly, developing its own romance between Han Solo and Princess Leia. John Williams gives this arc its own theme, too, with a soaring melody that seems to stretches out with tempered optimism. If “The Imperial March” looms in the background of Empire, then Williams is planting “Han Solo and the Princess” squarely in the fore, the platonic ideal of the Rebellion and its embattled struggle for change.

It’s organic, too. Add another feather to John Williams’s cap because “Han Solo and the Princess” is rooted in the same two-note motive of its musical predecessor, “Princess Leia’s Theme.” Quite literally, the music in Empire matures out of the themes in A New Hope, embellishing the framework of its arrangements and moving in-step with George Lucas’s accompanying story.

Empire‘s music is both a ringing endorsement of the old and a damning indictment against the new. Attack of the Clones continues to operate outside of the Prequels’ cookie-cutter story beats, telling a different narrative altogether. Unlike The Phantom Menace, this time the music has become the story, a comparatively richer and more substantive opus than the flat intrigue and failed romance it’s meant to add to. In a film where armies are ordered in secret and intergalactic scandal runs rampant, the biggest conspiracy in Attack of the Clones might be that its music is the one pulling all the strings.

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