Encore Post: Continuing the Musical Saga of Star Wars

This post was actually the first one published when I launched this blog so many years ago. In honor of ROGUE ONE’s fifth anniversary, I’m republishing it with fixed links and some additional edits and thoughts about the film.

I honestly struggle with the fact that ROGUE ONE came out five years ago. I attribute that partly to the effects of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, during which all things seem to have become both recent and forever ago. I remember going to see the film, and I remember coming out of it feeling that I had just watched a very good, and occasionally brilliant, movie. I even recorded a podcast about it for a show that has, alas, since faded into the Land of Lost Digital Assets.

It’s important to remember that this was only the second Star Wars property released under Disney leadership, and while the subsequent years have somewhat lessened THE FORCE AWAKENS for me, the opposite is true of ROGUE ONE. In fact, it and THE LAST JEDI are the only two entries that I would even hold up next to the original trilogy. SOLO was a lot of fun, but it’s not what I would consider a great film. And the less I say about the abomination that was THE RISE OF SKYWALKER, the better. (Oh who am I kidding, I’m sure I will write a post about it at some point once I stop seething.)

At any rate, ROGUE ONE faced a number of formidable challenges from a story-telling perspective. First, you have what I’ve sometimes referred to as the Apollo-13 Problem: how do you create suspense and engage the audience in a story when everyone knows what the outcome is? Just like anyone who knows anything about NASA history knew that Lovell, Haise, and Swigert were going to make it back safely, anyone who knew anything about the original STAR WARS knew that the Rebels were going to steal the Death Star plans. In fact, the entire premise of the film was based on a single plot point from the first film.

Second, given the film’s placement in the overall universe of Star Wars, none of the newly introduced characters could be left in a position to play a major role in events going forward (sort of an inverse Chuck Cunningham Syndrome). This second issue was dealt with in the most direct way possible: all the new characters were killed off! While a relatively simple solution on the face of it, I think that this remains the most ballsy choice Disney/Lucasfilm has made during its stewardship of the franchise. This is doubly so in retrospect when you consider that this is the same studio that thought bringing back Palpatine was a good idea.

The approach to the first issue is more of a mixed bag, for me. At it’s core, this is an espionage/sabotage film in the vein of classics like THE GUNS OF NAVARONE. As is typically the case for those movies, you first build your team and then send them off to steal or destroy something that the enemy has. While the actual mission itself on Scarif is great, the forming of the team and the like is, to be honest, a bit of a mess. I attribute much of that to the fact that the film had a VERY difficult production, with Tony Gilroy having been brought in to do many reshoots that involved a near complete reworking of the climax of the film. The end result is an opening half that is Fine, but nowhere near as excellent as the final hour or so of the movie. I will also admit that I am at a bit of a disadvantage with some of the characters, like Saw Gerrera, because I’ve not seen any of the Clone Wars or other cartoon properties in the franchise.

The Music

The considerable reshoots and reworking of the movie also affected the score. Originally, the filmmakers decided on Alexandre Desplat to compose the score; however, because of the delays in postproduction, Desplat became unavailable. To replace him, the producers turned to Michael Giacchino, who at the time (and perhaps even now) was 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.

Michael Giacchino

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.

Unlike his entries into the Star Trek franchise, Giacchino had a singular challenge with ROGUE ONE. While Trek has existed for more than 50 years, the sheer number of composers who have worked on various films and tv shows has meant that, aside from the original fanfare by Alexander Courage and the Jerry Goldsmith theme from STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, there isn’t a single sound or style for the franchise. Each composer, Giacchino included, was given considerable freedom to work and was able to put their own stamp on the film(s) and shows for which they were 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).

The music for Star Wars had, aside from the animated shows and video games, been exclusively the purview of John Williams (remember, this is before Ludwig Göransson joined for “The Mandalorian”). 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.

From the get-go, the cold open kicked off 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.

“He’s Here for Us”

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 (later on I’ll debate the merits of the use of that theme, but the flow works perfectly here).

“Trust Goes Both Ways”

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 (Luke’s) 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.

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. 

“When Has Become Now”

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 in the theater 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 – what can I say, I’m a sucker for these sorts of call-backs.

“Krennic’s Aspirations”

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

Excerpt from “Cargo Shuttle SW-0608”
“Alliance Assembly” from RETURN OF THE JEDI (John Williams)

Finally, there’s a brief but fantastic quote of the Imperial March in “Hope” that seamlessly weaves in and out of Giacchino’s original material before fading into the same version of the Rebel Fanfare that we were first introduced to back in 1977, as the film completes the link back to the original film.


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. Specifically, there are at least two moments that positively scream “reboot Star Trek” to me:

  • The end of “A Long Ride 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.
Excerpt from “A Long Ride Ahead”
“Main Title” from STAR TREK (2009)
  • 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.
“Your Father Would Be Proud”
“Labor of Love” from STAR TREK (2009)

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 sounds “close enough” and is used because the filmmakers can’t afford the rights to the real theme.

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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