The Music of Star Wars - The Prequel Trilogy
There’s some considerable argument that the Star Wars prequel trilogy was the biggest let-down in movie history. After following Luke Skywalker’s quest to defeat the evil Intergalactic Empire in the originals, we ended up going back in time to see his father become a Jedi, fight in the Clone Wars, and… get embroiled in a trade dispute? If there’s one thing that the name The Phantom Menace doesn’t inspire images of, it’s people sitting around talking about politics – but that is precisely what the film gave us.
Nevertheless, whatever you may think of the prequel trilogy, composer John Williams is a man who (unlike George Lucas) always lives up to the high standards expected of him. His work on these three films has a different flavour – a cleaner sound that matches the visual design – but it can never be called poor. If you’re inclined to say the prequels should never have been made, at least try to see the silver lining: we still got three fantastic soundtracks out of them.
Episode I: The Phantom MenaceThe cleaner sound of this score is obvious from its opening moments, shining through in “The Arrival at Naboo” and the wonderfully eerie “Passage Through The Planet Core”. However, there are plenty of nice cues and throwbacks to the old soundtracks, most notably in Anakin’s theme. An otherwise gentle and childlike theme of strings, its final phrase echoes “The Imperial March” of The Empire Strikes Back, foreshadowing the villain that the boy will one day become. It’s a nice touch which fans will appreciate, but subtle enough that it doesn’t come across as a gimmick.
There are plenty of meatier tunes to give The Phantom Menace a touch of excitement. The droid theme, heard most strongly in “The Droid Invasion and The Appearance of Darth Maul”, is a blast of brass and bass rumblings, a mechanical counterpoint to “The Imperial March”. The action set pieces of “The Sith Spacecraft and The Droid Battle” and “Panaka And The Queen’s Protectors” give the music further momentum, written in the usual frenetic style that Williams has used throughout his career.
There’s no doubt, however, that the greatest triumph for The Phantom Menace is the choral piece “Duel Of The Fates”. Used to score the lightsaber duel between the evil Darth Maul and the two Jedi, Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi, it’s a far cry from Williams’ usual work for action scenes but nevertheless one of his best. Inspired by such classical pieces as Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna”, it has a more epic feel that perfectly matches the events on screen for grandeur and power, and helps define the score’s new flavour.
Episode II: Attack of the ClonesThough it builds on the cleaner tones of the first instalment, the music for the second also contains more of the traditional Star Wars sounds from the original trilogy. As the story splits in two, so does the soundtrack, the first part following Obi-Wan Kenobi’s investigations into the planet Kamino. Sinister and yet beautiful, the ebb and flow of strings first heard in “Ambush on Coruscant”, which gives way to an ominous bass tune, leaves you in no doubt that something mysterious is happening on the ocean world.
Without a doubt, however, it is the other half of the score which steals the show – and perhaps for the entire prequel trilogy. The dialogue between them might have been clichéd and painfully stiff, but Anakin and Padmé’s love is brought to life by one of John Williams’ most beautiful pieces ever. “Across The Stars” is the perfect embodiment of forbidden love, starting small – secretive – before building to gorgeous, tragic crescendo. It’s a spectacular piece which, despite the film’s various failings, could single-handedly justify the making of Attack of the Clones.
There isn’t as much variation to the rest of the score as you might find for other Star Wars films, but there are some other tracks that are worth paying attention to. The frenetic sounds found in “Jango’s Escape” and “Bounty Hunter’s Pursuit” are good fun, and “Love Pledge and The Arena” weaves “Across The Stars” together with the Droid Theme from Episode I to give the soundtrack a fittingly epic end.
Episode III: Revenge of the SithArguably the best film of the prequel trilogy – and, according to some, the best Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back – the score to Revenge of the Sith is also probably the best of the prequels. From the opening moments, when the Force Theme is given a militaristic arrangement for the space battle over Coruscant, it is clear that this is Williams at his finest. Highlights include the choral and brass arrangements for General Grievous, which provide most of the fun and frenetic moments for the soundtrack.
The greatest action sequence of the film is partnered, however, with its score’s greatest track. “Battle of the Heroes” was written to be a tragic version of “Duel of the Fates” and it perfectly encapsulates the clash between Anakin and Obi-Wan, a glorious tune of choir and strings which inspires horror and sorrow as much as excitement, building all the while until the Force Theme re-enters in an ominous minor key. It is a real triumph, a perfect demonstration of Williams’ talent for capturing the essence of a scene in musical form.
Elsewhere, the sounds of Revenge of the Sith are dark, emotional, and similarly tragic. Williams once more puts the choir to good use in “Anakin’s Betrayal” and “Anakin’s Dark Deeds”, letting us feel the full force of his actions, but the feeling in such tracks as “Anakin’s Dream”, “The Immolation Scene” and “The Birth Of The Twins and Padmé’s Destiny” keep the horror from becoming overwhelming. When at last the score, in its finishing moments, gives way to well-known themes from A New Hope including “The Force Theme” and “The Throne Room”, it is a fitting end for the prequel trilogy, which did not always impress but ultimately returns us to where it all began.