Music

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (John Williams) – Film Score Review

Soon after Disney got their Mouse-paws on Star Wars, they announced plans for a new trilogy and an assortment of side-films, effectively signaling a yearly saturation of films for the foreseeable future. This has elicited concern, especially as Disney has become larger and larger as a company, that eventually Star Wars would lose its popular status as a special event and become ordinary, simply expected fare. And most notably, there has been concern that because of a decided lack of competition in this space for Disney, the quality of the films could decline over time. While these all may prove to be valid concerns eventually, they do not appear to be too much of a factor yet. The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi are both genuinely excellent films, with the latter, current film one-upping the former in terms of originality, plot, intelligence, and sheer spectacle.

Central to the plot of this new trilogy is the character of Rey portrayed in the films by Daisy Ridley. Central to composer John Williams’ continued involvement with the franchise is also the character of Rey, as he has said in numerous interviews and live performances that her character is the primary, perhaps even the only reason he is keen to return. He has somehow connected with her character above all others and the results have thus far been spectacular. While this sadly means that the upcoming Episode IX will likely be Williams’ last ever entry in the Star Wars universe (Daisy Ridley has said that Episode IX will be her last), it is simply amazing that 40 years after the first film hit theatres Williams is still hard at work expanding and expounding upon the Star Wars musical universe and canon.

For The Force Awakens, Williams introduced a number of new themes while bringing back a few key classic themes. The same formula generally holds true for The Last Jedi, as we hear the return of Rey’s Theme,  Kylo’s theme, the ‘March of the Resistance’, The Jedi Steps, and Snoke’s material, as well as faint hints of Poe’s theme. Returning classic themes include (of course) the Force theme, Luke’s theme, Leia’s theme, the Rebellion theme, a brief reprise of the ‘Luke and Leia’ theme, and the most subtle hints of Han and Leia’s love theme and the Imperial March. Williams has also introduced a few new themes as well, including a new one for Luke and Rey, new purple-haired character Admiral Holdo, and a great new theme for the spunky, adventurous new character Rose Tico. As you can see, this is quite a balancing act for the Maestro as there are many themes both old and new to juggle.

Things get off to perhaps the most thrilling start of any Star Wars score ever in ‘Main Title and Escape’. Luke Skywalker’s iconic theme of course begins the album and it is as energetic and vibrant as ever (same recording as The Force Awakens). Following that main title you will have to fight the urge to check that you didn’t accidentally pop in the old A New Hope disc (or play it on iTunes or Spotify or whatever it is you modern kids do these days). Following that familiar flute refrain comes the most thrilling action set piece since ‘The Battle of Hoth’ from The Empire Strikes Back. As the resistance, with a very small group of under-powered ships, makes a desperate attempt to escape The First Order who is attempting to wipe them out, Williams’ music storms the castle with fast-paced, repeated brass hits and a rapid-fire succession of familiar themes.

First up is a recognizable rendition of Kylo’s theme: spiky, imposing, and punctuated with big brass stingers. The old Rebellion theme returns on horns before we get an utterly electrifying rendition of the new Resistance march as Poe hatches a plan to destroy what is quite possibly the largest, most visually impressive space ship ever seen on the big screen. What is uniquely striking about this variation is that the march begins in a much more turbulent state than normal with an unusually different tempo before exploding into the heroic, victorious theme we all know and love. A few fragments of the Force theme and a somewhat confusing but very clear callback to ‘Battle of the Heroes’ from Revenge of the Sith brings this exciting, spectacular opening cue to a close.

Things calm down considerably in ‘Ahch-To Island’ in which we are reunited with Rey and a grizzled, world-weary Luke Skywalker. The fantastic Jedi Steps theme from The Force Awakens makes a mysterious, string-led appearance at the top of the cue before the familiar solo horn-led Force theme takes us into a gorgeous, soaring, full-throated string arrangement of Rey’s still-stunning theme. Williams then introduces us to one of the new themes for The Last Jedi. It is a theme consisting of two parts, the first slow and solemn, the second more rhythmic and slightly militaristic. This one seems to be a reflection of the initially-tremulous, solemn, weight-of-the-galaxy relationship between Rey and Luke.

Snoke’s material makes a return in the form of a dark male choir in “Revisiting Snoke” as well as a brief, menacing, snaky quote of the Imperial March. Kylo’s theme is revisited in both of its parts in this cue. All very dark and brooding before things pick up towards the end. This leads us into ‘The Supremacy’, an action cue that returns us to Kylo’s theme in full force. Accompanying one of the more ridiculous parts of the film, the Force theme is sandwiched in between two utterly gorgeous reprisals of Leia’s theme as she uses the Force for the first time ever on screen and resurrects herself after getting blown into space.

Williams finally introduces his best new theme for the controversial character Rose Tico in ‘Fun with Finn & Rose’. While not quite the equal of Rey’s theme, Rose’s theme comes pretty damn close with its effervescence, charm, and refreshing major-key positivity. In certain cues it is the very definition of action/adventure, recalling perhaps the heroic motif in ‘The Asteroid Field’ from The Empire Strikes Back. In spite of its greatness, it is unfortunately not the most original of themes. Astute fans will note how it hews very closely, especially in its opening notes, to Anakin’s theme from The Phantom Menace. And unless we have some gigantic, absurd, out-of-left-field plot twist coming, I doubt the two themes are meant to be related. There’s also some light, playful variations of the resistance march in this cue as well.

We hear a slightly playful version of Luke’s theme in ‘Old Friends’ before a brief but enchanting rendition of Leia’s theme on flute and high tremolo strings. Rey’s theme gets a somewhat turbulent treatment before the cue goes into creepy, dissonant material with shades of Ren’s theme. Rose’s theme then gets an adventurous, almost bubbly rendition in the concert suite ‘The Rebellion is Reborn’, which alternates between Rose’s theme and the Luke and Rey theme. ‘Lesson One’ sees a more wistful Rey’s theme and the Force theme before once again becoming harsh and turbulent.

Things brighten up considerably in the slightly-out-of-place but still hugely enjoyable ‘Canto Bight’. Williams reaches into Star Wars‘ distant past to bring us some very quirky cantina band-style music. Very enjoyable and boatloads of fun, but still sticks out like a sore thumb. After a troubled quotation of Rey’s theme in ‘Who Are You?’ there is more dark and brooding underscore before we return to Canto Bight with the spectacular ‘The Fathiers’. Filled with racing string triplets and the fast paced brass rhythms, ‘The Fathiers’ is the most downright Williams-esque action cue on the album. It is truly exciting and breathless, with an incredibly fun and adventurous arrangement of Rose’s theme to cap things off.

Ominous, dissonant string material once again comes to the fore in ‘The Cave’, a dark, psychological cue which will remind many of Williams’ harsher music from A.I. Artificial Intelligence. The scene in the film becomes very emotional, which leads to what is perhaps the saddest, most dejected development of her theme on album. After this sadness and gloom we are treated to the return of Yoda’s theme in ‘The Sacred Jedi Texts’, as the green Jedi master counsels his old friend about letting go of the past and embracing the future. Yoda’s theme, quoted almost verbatim from The Empire Strikes Back, is a joy to hear again even if it’s a near-direct quote from the past (ironic given that the entire message of the scene is letting go of the past).

‘A New Alliance’ sees a return to action with Rey’s theme taking center stage on horns. This leads us to perhaps the loudest, most resounding action cue on the album, ‘”Chrome Dome”‘, as Finn battles Captain Phasma. Pounding drums with synchronized brass and string hits will give your high-end stereo system or headphones a workout, especially in the bass.

The climax of the film and its score essentially begins with ‘The Battle of Crait’. Both the on-screen visuals and the accompanying music are simply stunning on multiple levels. In this one action cue Williams juggles no less than five (5!) themes. Few working composers today can compose such brilliantly complex, multi-layered action music without it feeling like an unfocused mess. But Williams makes it look easy, going from the Force theme to a pounding, militaristic rendition of the Resistance march before some propulsive strings give way to a spectacular quote of Rose’s theme. Those two themes intertwine once more before we are given a thrilling redux of the ‘TIE Fighter Attack’ sequence from A New Hope. This call back to the past was a completely unexpected but welcome development as the Millennium Falcon performs some familiar maneuvers on screen. Is this derivative or even lazy writing from Williams? Perhaps, but in this particular case one cannot deny its effectiveness in context and its great nostalgic value.

Speaking of nostalgia, die-hard Star Wars fans are likely to get a tear or two in their eye when Williams recalls one of his most beautiful themes in ‘The Spark’. As Leia is finally reunited with Luke in a tremendously emotional, tear-jerking scene in the film, Williams tugs relentlessly at the heartstrings with a solemn, gorgeous statement of Luke and Leia’s theme. Williams keeps the emotions flowing with a brief statement of Han and Leia’s love theme before some pounding action takes the fore as Luke goes out to face Kylo Ren one last time to buy time for the remaining remnants of the resistance to escape from the ‘Helm’s Deep’-type situation in which they have found themselves. This is one of the most musically powerful moments in the score, as Williams piles on layer upon layer of brass and string lines, building volume and pathos with each passing note until it reaches a crescendo that is incredibly effective in context and no less so on album.

‘The Last Jedi’ concludes the battle in dramatic fashion. Kylo’s theme comes to the fore as he bears down on Luke only to discover that Luke is not actually present. Big brass blasts and choir cap off the final battle with a suitably massive conclusion. In ‘Peace and Purpose’, some light, whimsical music gives way to the only complete statement of the force theme on the album, recalling both in film and on album the binary sunset on Luke’s home planet of Tatooine. It is another highly emotional moment as the Star Wars universe bids farewell to one of its most important, heroic, and central figures. Williams, of course, scores the scene perfectly by intentionally making a call back to the ‘Binary Sunset’ rendition of the Force theme from A New Hope. Following this moment, we get a final, snare-driven performance of Kylo’s theme. A tender reading of Poe’s theme, the only such appearance of this theme on the album, is followed by a final, light performance of Rey’s theme before the Force theme and finally the rebellion theme conclude the main story.

One might think they have wandered into one of Williams’ fantasy scores like Hook or Harry Potter with the light, playful start to ‘Finale’. Celesta and harp play Luke’s theme as a stable boy evidences his force-powers before the Force theme takes us into the customary end credits suite. The suite is unfortunately a little unfocused, shifting from theme to theme with seemingly very little coherence. It is still a good suite for those searching for cues to include on compilations, as it does hit most of the highlights. The new theme for Rose gets a disappointingly all-too-brief statement before a tender, piano-driven statement of Leia’s theme (for the on-screen dedication) leads into the new theme for Luke and Rey. There is still one surprise left and that is a theme that only appears in this one cue on album.

Immediately following Yoda’s theme, Williams introduces a big, bold theme for Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern’s purple-haired character) defined by propulsive, racing strings and urgent brass. It is unfortunate that this theme only appears here on album, as it really is very good and quite memorable. Be sure to pay special attention to this segment that begins at about 5:30 into the track. All in all, the suite sums up all the main ideas nicely even if it seems a bit unfocused at times.

Inevitable comparisons will be drawn between this and Williams’ score for The Force Awakens. Determining which score is better is a tough determination that is mostly subjective and arbitrary.  That prior score thoroughly surpassed all expectations and introduced the world to some wonderful new themes for the Star Wars musical universe while simultaneously integrating several classic themes into the fabric of the music. Williams did this with aplomb back then and surprisingly continues to do so very well here. However, while most of the time he juggles multiple themes in equal measure, there are a few which have inevitably gotten short shrift. Finn’s theme is absolutely nowhere to be found in spite of his large role in the film. Poe Dameron’s delightful theme is disappointingly only quoted once in part in ‘Peace and Purpose’, and even he had a very important presence in the film.

Another potential weakness (depending on the listener’s disposition to utilizing past material) has to do with how much Williams relies on his older music, sometimes quoting directly from past cues. While it is always good to hear again, it is slightly disappointing that the quotations of Yoda’s theme are ripped directly from his Empire Strikes Back suite. The instrumentation is identical, so there is no variance and very little creativity here. Also of note are the direct quotes from the ‘TIE Fighter Attack’ music from A New Hope. Some will find the incorporation thrilling, others might see it as laziness or the product of an oppressive temp-track.

So while not quite The Force Awakens’ equal, The Last Jedi still has several things going for it that put it over the top. The three new themes are all fantastic, with special recognition given to the great, high-flying, adventurous new theme for Rose. Williams’ incorporation of prior themes is very well done without ever completely overshadowing the new material. For a film all about letting go of the past, this is appropriate. The action music is energetic, vibrant, fast-paced, and just so damned exciting and fun. The three big set pieces (‘Escape’, ‘The Fathiers’, and ‘The Battle of Crait’ through ‘The Last Jedi’) are all breathlessly exciting, colossal, and full of classic Williams compositional techniques. As usual, Williams knows how to score scenes of high drama and emotion, yanking every last tear from your eye, especially in those latter cues.

What will strike some viewers is just how necessary and essential the music is to these films. This is without a doubt one of the better Star Wars films. But there are still multiple portions of the film that cut rather rapidly from scene to scene portraying events happening simultaneously. Consistently holding the picture together is John Williams’ music. Like the late James Horner, Williams is almost unmatched in his skill of being able to string multiple scenes together with one through-composed piece of music and still make it into a single, coherent cue. The film is full of these types of transitions, particularly in the faster-paced moments.

Many of my own and later generations will never know what it was like to look forward to multiple John Williams scores per year. He has always scored films with intelligence and class even if some of those scores end up being less enjoyable than others. He has had far more hits than misses over his illustrious career and almost literally defined film music for an entire era. In his old age he has understandably slowed his output, which is why every new score from him must be paid attention to and cherished. Not every score of his is a classic, and many like this one have some weaknesses. But he still has something to say, more to add to the musical conversation. His musical journey is not quite over yet. He continues to work mainly with Steven Spielberg, and we (hopefully) have at least one more Star Wars score from him in two years.

So until then we still have his other scores to enjoy, including the first two scores in this new trilogy. Great new themes, intelligent interpolation of classic themes, gorgeous dramatic scoring, and fun, greatly exciting action music make The Last Jedi a winner on nearly all fronts. With this score, Williams pushes the musical franchise ever forward and into the future. Given that the film’s central plot point has to do with letting go of the past and moving into the future, it will be interesting to hear what new musical ideas Williams comes up for the ninth installment, and which classic themes will return if any. Either way, with both this score and The Force Awakens, one can be assured that we’re in good hands and that Williams has laid brilliant groundwork for the future of the franchise both musically and on film.

What did you think of The Last Jedi score? Let us know.

2 comments

  1. Excellent review, thank you. Glad I’m not the only one who’s noticed the apparent reliance on callbacks this time round. It took a while for Williams’ The Force Awaneks score to bed in with me, and even longer with Giacchino’s Rogue One. But in both cases that was because there were strong themes on the disc that I just wasn’t used to in Star Wars. If anything, the lack of standout pieces in The Last Jedi soundtrack is bothering me at the moment. But time (and more replays, viewings and replays) will tell.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for the kind remarks. The callbacks have grown on me, to be honest, especially the TIE Fighters Attack reference. Yoda’s theme is really the only somewhat sore spot for me right now, but it is slightly offset by the fact that the theme is so lovely and I do love hearing it again. Thanks again!

    Liked by 1 person

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