There is, arguably, no franchise which has produced more significant, recognisable or lasting musical stylings than Star Wars. Yes, of course the instant impact of the Jaws theme or the magical twinkle of ‘Hedwig’s Theme’ are worthy of note. Sure, the beautiful soaring instrumental that plays over that wide panning shot in Jurassic Park perfectly captures a sense of wonder. But in terms of both setting the cinematic atmosphere as well as providing immediately recognisable touchstones, truly no one has done it better.
Music is integral to the identity of a film. It acts to score scenes and characters, to provide ambiance, and to support plot and character movement when this ambiance changes. It can be a neon sign for the viewer, hitting you over the head: This scene is relevant! This action is dramatic! Remember when this happened before? It’s happening again! More so, however, music transcends the films it is contained within to represent them on a larger stage. The music of the Star Wars series is almost as instantly recognisable as its characters, and is played for laughs in other pop culture just as frequently.
We’ve all felt like humming ‘The Imperial March’ on our way into an exam, right?
John Williams’ name should be familiar to almost all film lovers, and even if it isn’t, his music certainly is. He’s composed every single piece name dropped here so far, not to mention countless others, such to become among the most beloved and acclaimed industry composers over his six decade career. Some 50 Academy Award nominations place Williams as the second most-nominated individual, right after Walt Disney himself. He’s played a part in the soundtrack to every Star Wars film, TV series, game and trailer to date. Not to mention, in 2005 Williams’ soundtrack to Star Wars: A New Hope was preserved by the United States’ Library of Congress into their National Recording Registry, for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
The score to a massive film or franchise – especially one as massively-massive in scope and legacy as Star Wars – plays a part in making it seem so grand and dramatic. But it also plays a part in smaller moments, and intimacies with the viewer. George Lucas felt that Star Wars would portray visually foreign worlds, such that the score should give the audience an emotional familiarity. He wanted a grand musical sound, peppered with leitmotifs to provide distinction and carry the viewer along- tiny twinkles, here and there in these operatic pieces, that hint at little bits of space-fairy-tale magic.
Walking out of the cinema after seeing The Force Awakens, my mother said that it felt as if she’d gone nearly 40 years back in time. The film had felt like “proper Star Wars”, she said. Like something grand, but also something warm and familiar. Like Williams’ balance of the bold and the bright. Pulling the dangerous tones of ‘The Imperial March’ in ominously whenever Vader rears his head, just as that same wistful spirit is present in ‘Rey’s Theme’ as it is in that one old title theme we all know and love.
Watch ‘The Imperial March’ being performed live by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra below.