I’ve known two types of music geeks in my life: those who look down on John Williams for writing overblown plebian tripe that all sounds the same, and those who actually get it.
Of course Williams’ soundtracks appeal to the masses. They do exactly what movie music is supposed to do: draw you into the world on the screen. Grab your emotions and make you feel. Paint epic pictures in your head.
When you sit down to watch a Star Wars movie, and that blast of brass bursts through the black screen, your body reacts immediately. “This is going to be BIG,” your heart tells the rest of you, speeding up accordingly. If it isn’t your first time, you smile, too, because all your happy memories of watching these movies before is tied up in the iconic fanfare. Heck, even the “20th Century Fox/Lucasfilm” fanfare that opens this clip adds to the iconic experience:
It’s not just one iconic theme song, it’s multiple iconic themes. This track from the original soundtrack, “Binary Sunset,” I always think of as “The Tatooine Theme,” at least the part that comes in around two-and-a-half minutes into this track, because it winds its way through all the tales of lowly moisture-farmers dreaming of something bigger (note the pic this YouTuber chose as a background is from Revenge of the Sith, not A New Hope, but the theme still belongs). It feels like the emotional main theme of the series, as opposed to the more bombastically triumphant main title theme… except when it sneaks into the last scene of A New Hope in a completely different style (we’ll get to that).
Speaking of a completely different style, what about this song that doesn’t wind its theme into any other scenes, but instead instantly conjures up one particular dive bar in a most wretched hive of scum and villainy? The “Cantina Band” song is iconic on its own: instantly catchy, instantly recognizable, instantly… iconic. Really, I can’t stop using the word “iconic” in this post, because it all is.
I mean, what’s the most iconic Bad Guy theme song you can think of? The very first one to come to mind? What’s bewildering is that “The Imperial March” didn’t appear in its full form until The Empire Strikes Back, a full three years after Star Wars had entered the public consciousness.
Likewise, Yoda didn’t show up until Empire, either, so we had to wait to get his beautiful theme, too. I had a dream once where I knew I’d found a safe space to hang out because the establishment there was playing this over their speakers:
“Luke and Leia” from Return of the Jedi is the song in my John Williams Easy Piano book I play over and over. While I play it I tend to have imaginary conversations with a pre-Star Wars time traveler in my head, who has no context but can’t help cooing over the beautiful song. They look over my shoulder at the sheet music. “Luke and Leia. Are they famous lovers in your time?” “No, actually, they’re siblings. Twins.” “Oh. I thought it was a love song.”
The music has made later additions to the movie universe feel like they belong, too. The Phantom Menace may be the least popular Star Wars movie, but even it gave us “Duel of the Fates”:
And “Across the Stars” is so lovely, I admit I forgot I’d never actually heard it before Attack of the Clones, after seeing that movie for the first time. It’s still one of my favorite themes:
Sorry, if you didn’t cry during Order 66, you are a heartless Sith, what with Williams blaring “Anakin’s Betrayal” at your temporal lobes:
And then, as he battles with Obi-Wan, several familiar themes wind their way into “Battle of the Heroes” in a huge climax :
And here’s Rey’s theme from The Force Awakens:
Poor Michael Giacchino had some huge shoes to fill, taking over the soundtrack of Rogue One. But you can listen to how he managed to pull it off, by incorporating Williams’ iconic themes and making them his own.
And we go back to the roots: there’s only one way to close out this post. Once I saw a puzzle in GAMES Magazine where you had to identify famous movies by their last line. Star Wars stumped me. It’s actually C-3PO offering his own spare parts to repair R2D2 if necessary. Does that feel remotely like the end of the movie to you? Of course not, because there is no dialogue (beyond some beeps and roars) in the final scene of A New Hope. It’s all this triumphant reprisal of the Tatooine Theme (i.e. “Binary Sunset”) in “The Throne Room”:
I always love the way the trumpets race back into the main theme at the start of the credits. Some movies you watch the credits in case there’s a bonus scene. Star Wars movies you watch the credits just to listen to the music some more.
PS: Speaking of some of the greatest composers of the 20th Century and Star Wars, did you catch this pointer post Ken did the other week? Did you in fact watch it, and then watch the entirety of the Princess Leia’s Stolen Death Star Plans album (yes, the whole album)? As it is currently my favorite thing on the internet, I insist. With today’s anniversary and the 50th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper coming up in the next week, too, there’s no better time for this!