George Lucas had a lot to answer for in 1983. Would audiences ever see Han Solo again? Was there any chance for Leia and the Rebellion to come back from such a crushing defeat? And was Darth Vader really Luke Skywalker’s father? As the third chapter in the original Star Wars trilogy, Return of the Jedi would answer all of these questions, but not without controversy — even at the time.
Among Lucas’s three original films, Jedi is the turning point for the series’ creator and his subsequent kid-ification of a saga that had, up until that point, been accessible to both children and adults alike. Part of Jedi‘s scattered tone is artificially inflated by the “series of down endings” in The Empire Strikes Back. On the other hand, there’s something about the cuddly nature of the Ewoks and the broad hamminess of Jabba’s Palace that doesn’t jibe with patricide and robotic prosthetics. Tonally speaking, Return of the Jedi is where Star Wars starts to make less sense.
The same can’t be said of John Williams’s music. Williams’s score leveraged George Lucas and director Richard Marquand’s tonal shifts and a scattered vision with a balancing act of leitmotif and texture — a continuing theme in this series. After two monumental scores for the franchise — and a resume that by 1983 included Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T. the Extra-terrestrial — “the Maestro” coming through yet again was hardly shocking. For all the anticipation the Original Trilogy’s conclusion brought, great music seemed like all but a given.
That didn’t exclude any surprises, though. The music for Jabba’s Palace is a prime example of Williams surpassing expectations while also subverting them. The ruthless crime lord that had sent Han Solo into hiding receives a tuba-centric melody that peacocks in and out of Jedi‘s opening action sequence, stomping on our heroes’ rescue attempts with gassy flutters. Depending on whether they saw the 1997 Special Edition (or any subsequent home video releases), Jabba’s reveal to audiences was a punchline in and of itself, a rotund, Sydney Greenstreet-styled slug whose grand entrance felt more like a moment fit for a trombone slide. Or some member of the low brass family.
Applying a nimble melody with an instrument that’s often the butt of marching band fat jokes is indicative of Jedi‘s musical subversions. As the theme of the Rebel Alliance’s reluctant allies, “Parade of the Ewoks” has a lithe wooden hitch that compliments the underestimated persistence of its subjects. The Rebels receive a new horn-based flurry too, an upgrade from A New Hope‘s rag-tag cue that brushes up against the fleet flying into a trap with nobility and confidence. “The Emperor’s Theme,” which Williams would later tease throughout Palpatine’s rise to power, makes its understated debut with the arrival of the Empire’s hunched, hooded despot. Short of key, it’s the opposite of “The Imperial March” in nearly every way, gliding along a spooky male chorus with a deliberate, painstaking pace.
Williams creates another new theme for the late revelation that Luke and Leia are twins separated at birth. Like so many of the Original Trilogy’s heroic motives, “Luke and Leia” is legato and idealistic, rich with emotion and, true to Williams’s calling card, a theoretical continuation of the franchise’s music footprint. As has been wonderfully illustrated on the Star Wars Oxygen podcast, “Luke and Leia” isn’t just a new theme for a redefined relationship; it’s a musical redefinition of the series’ Main Titles themselves, a fragmented version of the classic overture’s upward motive. Like growing Han and Leia’s romance out of an earlier piece of music, Williams once again matures themes from existing themes, conducting characterization with the stroke of a baton.
Return of the Jedi is comprehensive in ways unlike any other Star Wars score. For the death of Yoda, Williams weaves in diminished reprises of the Jedi Master’s theme alongside moodier versions of “The Force Theme.” As the ironic golden god of the Ewok village, C-3PO recounts the previous two films’ events with a reedy underscore that matches the protocol droid’s sound effects with tribal versions of familiar cues. When Luke gives himself up to the Emperor in hopes of turning his father back to the light, his confrontation with Vader is matched with fragile iterations of “The Imperial March” and a distressed take on the Main Title.
Even more than in Empire, the music fires on all cylinders, pulling from and tweaking existing musical vocabulary. For its climactic three-part battle, Jedi cuts between the Rebel’s surprise attack on the Death Star, Han and Leia’s ground assault on its shield generator, and Luke’s duel with Vader and the Emperor. Williams shuffles in cantankerous new battle medleys with nods to the series’ main theme, A New Hope‘s “The Throne Room,” and even “Ben’s Death/TIE Fighter Attack.” When Luke finally snaps at the thought of Vader turning his sister against him, the score breaks into another new melody, a wailing cry of a chorus that moves in tandem with the London Symphony Orchestra. As the last of the Jedi strikes a fatal blow to the Dark Side, Williams locks in with his music, crafting a melody as pervasive and mystical as the Force itself.
In wrapping up one trilogy, John Williams incorporated a previously unparalleled eclecticism, uniting lighthearted Ewok music, grim and ominous Dark Side dirges, clanking intermezzos and swirling intergalactic arias. Jedi moved the series’s music forward, yet when it came time to conclude the new Prequel Trilogy in 2005, the composer moved in the opposite direction, and not without reason. In completing the fall of Anakin Skywalker, George Lucas once again had a lot of dots to connect, syncing up two uneven installments with a status quo that was nearly 30 years old.
The shadow of the Original Trilogy is all over Revenge of the Sith, from a production design that melds the sleek shapes of the Republic with the boxy tech of the Rebel Alliance to more hamfisted insertions of familiar characters and starships. Williams would follow a similar pattern with his music, calling back to the original Death Star trench run with battle music that blends taiko drums with the Force Theme and classic Rebel fanfare. “The Emperor’s Theme” looms over discussions of The Prophecy and the Jedi Council’s fears that Anakin may not be the Chosen One as Qui-Gon Jinn had foreseen. “The Force Theme” also makes repeated returns in the aftermath of Anakin and Obi-Wan Kenobi’s lightsaber duel. And in no surprise for a film whose marketing campaign was dominated by Darth Vader, “The Imperial March” underscores much of Sith‘s cataclysmic back half — although paradoxically, it’s used for more of Palpatine’s sequences than Vader’s.
With all of Sith‘s predetermined connective tissue, there’s little room for anything new. General Grievous, the movie’s awkward Darth Vader placeholder, gets a lumbering theme that fits with the film’s martial, brass-heavy arrangements, and “Padmé’s Ruminations” finds Williams working outside of his comfort zone with ambience and vocal echoes that weigh down Anakin’s betrayal.
Indisputably, “Battle of the Heroes” is the film’s most notable addition to the saga’s musical repertoire, a rapid-fire waltz propelled by a doomsaying chorus and the impending sense of inevitability. As the most prominent of any of Williams’s new themes in Sith, “Heroes” practically screams that it’s here to play under Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi’s fight to the death. The problem is that neither Williams nor Lucas ever justify the need for a new theme, not when the obvious choice for scoring this pivotal confrontation has been staring them in the face for four and a half hours.
The replacement of “Duel of the Fates” with “Battle of the Heroes” is a baffling creative decision, especially given how much Lucas himself talked up the importance of “Fates” while in post-production for The Phantom Menace. Rather than returning to the mystical cue that has underlined Anakin Skywalker’s path for two films, Revenge of the Sith merely teases it in its final battle, relegating “Fates'” prominence to a far less compelling duel between Palpatine and Yoda and a lesser piece of music. “Battle of the Heroes” is a serviceable composition but an inferior one, and its prominence in the Prequels’ final chapter violates what had been up until that point the saga’s broader musical credo. For five films, John Williams would use existing themes to new and interesting ends. To have the final piece of a six-part story feel so sloppy and ill-conceived is, at the very least, a missed opportunity.
It’s a perplexing decision given the prevalence of Sith‘s wish fulfillment, where moments often call too much attention to themselves. Without “Fates,” Anakin and Obi-Wan’s duel comes off like overcompensation, a bloated and melodramatic realization of a moment fans could up until then only fantasize about. Other times though Sith plain goes out of its way in its indexing of the saga. “Qui-Gon’s Funeral” feels redundant when playing under Padmé’s own, and an ending which unabashedly recalls the Binary Sunset, is more fan service than thematic embellishment. Williams reprises his iconic cue from A New Hope before Revenge of the Sith‘s credits roll, but they’re credits that reprise themes with virtually no attachment to the Prequels whatsoever.
Right down to its music, Revenge of the Sith is a simplistic reduction of Return of the Jedi, which wrapped things up in messier, open-ended fashion — depending on which version you watched anyway. Music for the film’s theatrical ending, affectionately nicknamed “Yub Nub,” kept the Rebels’ win small and ultimately uncertain. Later, John Williams matched Lucas’s tinkerings on the most altered film in the franchise with a new final theme. Subsequent editions of the film featured a final theme that’s cloyingly hopeful and a little too broad in its application. “Victory Celebration” plays under scenes of Coruscant, Bespin, Tatooine and eventually Naboo, as the planets cheer for the seeming downfall of the Galactic Empire. And unlike Williams’ original composition, “Victory Celebration” made one thing abundantly clear: This was the end.
Of course, with The Force Awakens now in theaters and the promise of a bevy of new films, the future of Star Wars is once again up in the air, and any finality to the conflict between the Rebellion and the Galactic Empire rests with the direction of this new, Disney-led franchise. Star Wars has long harbored a conflicting relationship with the past and its own dramatic table-setting but with John Williams returning for his seventh score in the series, perhaps one of its most essential creative shepherds is the series’ only hope at handing things off to another generation.