It’s easy to take the music of Star Wars for granted. After all, that would mean no iconic opening fanfare. There would be no disco remixes nor any “Cantina Band” for future filmmakers to quote from. College marching bands would have to find something other than “The Imperial March” to tease the away team with, and Nick Winters would never treat his lounge audience to his timeless cover. A reality without Star Wars music would find a different soundtrack sitting atop AFI‘s greatest film scores.
Fortunately, John Williams’s original Star Wars score did happen, and in 1977 it was a big deal. Disco and R&B owned the pop music charts. For science-fiction and fantasy cinema — genres whose idealism had diminished in the wake of the Vietnam War and Watergate –soundscapes were defined by synthetic music that separated viewers from their fantastical worlds onscreen. Context is essential to appreciating just how great a leap Star Wars signified in filmmaking. More in common with composers like Franz Waxman and Erich Korngold, Williams’ compositions were one giant throwback, right in line with George Lucas’ space odyssey and his homages to swashbuckling Robin Hood stories and pulp serials.
At its core, Star Wars is romantic, and nowhere is that more apparent than in its opening overture. Opening with a monstrous blast from the London Symphony Orchestra, “Main Titles” soar with an intrepid spirit as powerful in its brass as it is wistful in its string sections. When paired with its unmistakable opening crawl, the first minutes of Star Wars can’t help but evoke old Flash Gordon episodes or Miklos Rozsa’s theme from Ivanhoe (1952).
And this is par for the course. Williams took an old school approach to scoring duties, connecting with references much older than the classical Hollywood composers Lucas had in mind. Gustav Holst’s belligerent “Mars” comes on the heels of Star Wars‘ opening fanfare, as Princess Leia’s blockade runner is engulfed by an Imperial Star Destroyer. Igor Stravinsky’s primordial ballet The Rite of Spring is all over the reedy textures of Tatooine and its savage desert that droids C-3PO and R2-D2 contend with. The first movement of The New World Symphony even shares a kinship with the soul-stirring “The Throne Room,” which triumphantly celebrates the Rebel Alliance’s destruction of the Empire’s Death Star superweapon at film’s end.
It’s hard to overlook the similarities, too. More inflammatory criticism has even postulated that Williams ripped off these composers — criticism that conveniently ignores Lucas’s direction and the temp music used to guide the project along in the editing booth. Williams’ applications win out in the end as he repeats and varies his themes. The “Main Title” comes to stand for adventure throughout Luke Skywalker’s journey from farmboy to hero X-wing pilot. Its classic fanfare is echoed in horn passages during a rendezvous with The Millennium Falcon. Later, the same theme becomes cluttered and distressed during the Rebel Alliance’s Death Star trench run. Music heralding the return of fallen Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi first pops up as Luke gazes wistfully out at Tatooine’s binary sunset. Belligerent barks for the Galactic Empire and the headstrong fury of the Rebellion’s music stand in for pivotal action beats, reminders of the galactic civil war Star Wars‘ characters have stumbled into. And then there’s Princess Leia’s leitmotif, which while never getting its full due in the film, sounds absolutely breathtaking on any number of recordings.
Like the archetypal figures Lucas is riffing on, the music of Star Wars speaks to audiences through a time-honored tradition. None of Williams’s moments are rip-offs. They’re defined by universal principles and empathy. Luke Skywalker’s whining might grate 40 years later, and certain special effects may show wear and tear, but the music is timeless, recognizably heroic or nefarious regardless of the generation listening to it.
16 years and two sequels later, George Lucas would return to Star Wars, this time by looking back. The story of Luke’s father, Anakin Skywalker, and his fall to the Dark Side to become Darth Vader raised some new questions, chief among them: Would that galaxy far, far away sound the same?
In some respects, John Williams’ answer was a resounding yes. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace begins with the same opening crawl as the previous trilogy’s films, but like the music, it’s easy to take the saga’s formula for granted. Prior to 1999, the original trilogy told a complete story and — outside of assorted games, novels, and comics of the “Expanded Universe” — there was no precedent for how to tell an entirely new chapter of the saga. Williams would bring back a number of pre-established themes, too. With its namesake still a Jedi padawan in training, Obi-Wan’s leitmotif becomes the sound of “The Force” itself in Episode I. The music swells when Anakin leaves his mother behind on Tatooine and turns up again when Kenobi cuts down the Sith apprentice Darth Maul in battle. And as for the Sith, their guttural, male chorus is quite literally a repurposing of the Emperor’s theme in Return of the Jedi — albeit with some added whispers.
The music of the original trilogy changed in The Phantom Menace, with character themes getting stretched or expanded across storylines. Williams’ music had formed its own inter-filmic language where a space fantasy saga that once riffed on prior influences had created its own mold to which future stories would adhere.
Winding back the clocks to 32 years before the Battle of Yavin also required exploring new territory, and Williams would introduce busier, less morally obvious compositions to do so. “Anakin’s Theme” skips along to a winding curlicue of a melody, ostensibly less hummable and yet full of adolescent precociousness. And full of his tortured personality. That same airy sweetness gets curdled with teases of Vader’s “Imperial March” and a fall from grace yet to come. In hindsight, Anakin’s eventual fall to the dark side wasn’t really on George Lucas’ mind when writing Episode I, despite ominous teaser posters or the inclusion of labored breathing during credit sequences. It’s a prime concern for Williams though, and the music proves it.
“Duel of the Fates” alone proves it. As a sweeping, mythic juggernaut of ostinatos and flourishes, the crown jewel of The Phantom Menace‘s score features heavily in the film’s four-part climax. A grandiose chorus bellows out ominous lines in ancient Sanskrit — non-diegetic lyrics in Star Wars are a first here — as Obi-Wan and Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn exchange lightsaber blows with Darth Maul. With a music video to boot, it’s a legitimately epic composition, with calls of “Korah/Rahtahmah” harkening back to a time when, to quote a much older Kenobi, “the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic.”
Episode I‘s music functions somewhere between ancient and hallowed, with Wiliams taking his classical approach to scoring the original Star Wars and dialing it up a few notches. An increase in traditional fanfares and marches preserve a kind of regalness, where the shiny edifices of Coruscant’s spired skyscrapers and domed council halls are still intact — and where any mentions of trouble on the horizon are just whispers. By comparison, A New Hope is worn down, with sounds that squeak and wheeze in step with the battered “used future” of its production design.
The Phantom Menace repackages familiar themes across character arcs while introducing a sterling new standard for the prequels. It nails its multiple responsibilities with aplomb, so it’s no small feat for a film that features fart jokes and more than one delivery of “Yipee!” to be this complex. As Queen Amidala and the native Gungans celebrate a new alliance and the defeat of the Trade Federation’s blockade, “Augie’s Great Municipal Band” rings out over a grand procession. On its surface, the cue is sugary sweet, with a children’s choir joyously singing out victory. Underneath though, Williams has made one last nod to the original trilogy, changing Emperor Palpatine’s dirge-like theme with a single key change — and all while a younger Palpatine looks on as a celebration in his honor rolls on in secret.
Countless theses and video essays have been dedicated to George Lucas’s assertion that the prequel trilogy mirrors or “rhymes” with the original films. Actions repeat, characters recur, and lines are repeated again and again. In beginning this second chapter, John Williams doesn’t stay cyclical. By and large, he’s starting anew, keeping references small while working his way chronologically with fresh ideas. The story of Star Wars may repeat, but its music tells a narrative all on its own.