Continuing the Musical Saga of Star Wars

ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY

Update: If you’d like to hear more about what I thought about the movie itself, I recently joined the folks on the Talking Stars Podcast to talk about ROGUE ONE.

With the recent release of ROGUE ONE, I figured what better way to kick off this blog than with a discussion of the score to that film. In addition to being the first “anthology” film in the Star Wars saga, ROGUE ONE also marks the first time a composer other than John Williams was tasked with scoring a film in the series.

starwars_premiere_1-768x1152Originally, the filmmakers decided on Alexandre Desplat to compose the score for ROGUE ONE; however, owing to the significant number of reshoots that occurred in postproduction, Desplat became unavailable. To replace him, the producers turned to Michael Giacchino, who, in my humble opinion, is one of the hottest composers working in Hollywood. I’ve been a fan of Giacchino’s work ever since his score for THE INCREDIBLES (2004), and he had already made a mark in another iconic science fiction franchise in scoring the recent Star Trek reboot films.

Even before Alexandre Desplat was initially attached, my first thought had been that Giacchino would be an ideal choice should Williams be unavailable or unable to work on the film. Having seen it twice and listened to the score in isolation several times, I have to say that Giacchino showed that he was, perhaps, the ideal choice to take the reigns of Star Wars temporarily from John Williams.

A Unique Challenge

john_williams_dotf
John Williams conducts the score to STAR WARS – EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE

Unlike his entries into the Star Trek franchise, Giacchino had a singular challenge with ROGUE ONE. Despite the series existing for 50+ years, I would argue that the only truly universally recognized musical identities for Star Trek have been the original fanfare by Alexander Courage and the theme written by Jerry Goldsmith for STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE (1979). Other composers, including James Horner, Leonard Rosenman, and Giacchino himself, have provided quality music to the various films, but nothing that I would refer to as franchise-defining. As a result, the music of Star Trek does not fit within an established “style” per se, allowing each new composer to have considerable freedom to work and put their own stamp on the film(s) for which they are writing. Indeed, much of Giacchino’s music within the Star Trek universe has consisted of new thematic material, with only the occasional sprinkling of previous motifs (at least until the explosion of the theme to the Original Series over the end credits).

In contrast, the music of the Star Wars films has been solely the work of John Williams. Through seven films and nearly 40 years, Williams has written a myriad of themes and motifs, and many or all of them (depending on your level of fandom) are immediately recognizable. The presence of a singular composer has led to a series with a very specific musical voice. Thus, asking a new composer to add his/her distinct voice without seeming out of place in the series made for a challenge.

The closest situation to that faced by Giacchino that immediately comes to mind is John Ottman’s score to SUPERMAN RETURNS (2006). Both Ottman and Giacchino inherited a wealth of existing material written by John Williams and set out to honor those themes while creating their own as well.

And like Ottman, Giacchino produced a fantastic score that walked that fine line of sounding like a Star Wars score while also seeming fresh and original.

A Long Time Ago…

From the get-go, the cold opening punctuated by a single blast from the orchestra signals to the audience that this isn’t going to be your typical Star Wars film. Despite this, though his use of chord progressions and instrumentation, Giacchino’s score SOUNDS like a Star Wars score. In the opening cue, “He’s Here for Us,” Williams-esque fluttering flutes soon give way to Giacchino’s first new theme for Director Krennic and the Empire, one that is solidly rooted in the Williams tradition of villain motifs rooted in minor chords.

The theme for Jyn Erso, in contrast, is introduced by a solo flute later in the cue during a quiet moment between Jyn and her mother. This theme, which forms the backbone of the entire score, proves to be extremely adaptable, serving emotional moments just as well as more action-oriented beats later. In a strange way, it reminds me of the Anakin/Padme love theme from ATTACK OF THE CLONES.

In addition, the cue “Trust Goes Both Ways,” picks up Jyn’s Theme from the get-go, but also shows one of Giacchino’s true strengths as a composer: as Jyn’s Theme begins to resolve, the music seamlessly transitions to Williams’s Force Theme (below I’ll debate the merits of the use of that theme, but the flow works perfectly here).

Easter Eggs

Just as the film itself is full of Easter Eggs to satisfy Star Wars fans, the score also contains many references to the scores that preceded it. Most obvious are the uses of the Rebel Fanfare, Imperial March, Force Theme, and Main Theme. Giacchino doesn’t stop there, however, and he makes many references to past motifs and even dusts off some that hadn’t been used since the original STAR WARS (1977).

krennic-vader

Popping up a couple times, first in the cue “When Has Become Now” right as the new Krennic/Empire theme concludes is the four-note Death Star Motif, which had been prominently featured in STAR WARS. Even more surprising to me is the use of the original theme for the Empire and Darth Vader, which plays twice during “Krennic’s Aspirations,” first over the scene featuring Vader in the bacta tank. I almost cheered when I heard this, similar to how I actually did pump my fist 20 years earlier when Jerry Goldsmith used his Klingon theme for Worf during the opening battle in STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT (1996) – what can I say, I’m a sucker for these sorts of call-backs.

The instrumentation and harmonies in “Cargo Shuttle SW-0608” are a great call-back to the Shuttle Tydirium cue in RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983).

There’s a fantastic brief quote of the Imperial March in “Hope” that seamlessly comes in and out from Giacchino’s material.

A Slight Disturbance in the Force

However, Giacchino’s work is not perfect, and I do have a few niggling issues with the score. My major concern going in had been whether the score would sound more like a Star Trek film than Star Wars, but for the most part Giacchino was able to successfully differentiate between the two franchises. However, there are at least two moments that positively scream “reboot Star Trek” to me:

  • The end of “A Long Road Ahead” transitions to the title card for the film. The fade-out and the slow build into that moment are almost direct lifts stylistically if not thematically from the STAR TREK (2009) main title card. It doesn’t help that I’m not a fan of this particular theme either.
  • This one really pains me, because I think the music is wonderful and plays well against the emotion of the scene. The penultimate cue for the movie, “Your Father Would Be Proud,” which plays over the destruction of the Scarif shield and eventually the deaths of Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor, just…doesn’t sound like Star Wars music. Rather, it reminds me a lot of the “Labor of Love” cue from STAR TREK (minus the choir). Again, I really like the music, it just took me out of the film for a moment because it didn’t really fit with what I was expecting to hear in a Star Wars score.

Another thing that occasionally bothers me is Giacchino’s writing themes that almost, but not quite, sound like classic Star Wars themes. This is probably why I’m not a fan of the Rogue One Theme (the one that plays over the title card). Also, while I do like the Krennic/Empire theme, I don’t think it was a good idea to feature it so strongly during the establishing shots of the Death Star (in “When Has Become Now”). It almost feels like a knockoff that can’t afford the rights to the real theme, so it’s used something that sounds “close enough.”

Rogue Won

All in all, though, Giacchino is more than up to the task for ROGUE ONE, producing a score that is both respectful to the material that has come before it, while also injecting his own style in a way that (for the most part) compliments rather than clashes with the classic Williams scores.

What did you think of the film/score to ROGUE ONE? Any favorite/least favorite moments that I missed? I’d love to hear your thoughts as well.

 

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