When I first saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it was such a blue of ‘oh shit oh shit poe dameron’ and ‘ahhhh rey is coooool’ that it took me a day days to realize that I hadn’t paid attention to the new score — which is a crime, because I would argue that John Williams’ contribution to Star Wars is THE most important thing about Star Wars. There is no Darth Vader without ‘dum dum dum dumdada dumdada’ and there is no two moon wistful stare on Tattooine with out ‘doooodwoooodododwooooodooooo’ and so on.
I don’t need to rehash the music of the original trilogy. It’s perfection, and even after 20 years of listening to it there is always some new gem of a measure to discover, and some phrase that sends me back to being a trombone playing kid that wanted nothing more than to play in an orchestra recording a Williams score.
Williams’ work in the prequels is fascinating, because it really feels like he watched Phantom Menace, sighed a deep sigh, and put his god damn work boots on. Someone was going to make these movies watchable, and apparently it had to be John. His score is one of the only redeeming things about Star Wars: The Sitting and Standing and Sometimes Slowly Strolling Saga. In fact, he turns in some of the greatest pieces of the entire franchise: there’s an argument to be made for Duel of the Fates over the Imperial March, and the love theme for Anakin and Padme is so beautiful that it’s easy to forget it’s the love theme for Anakin and Padme.
Which brings us to The Force Awakens. Nothing grabbed me in the theatre the way that Duel of the Fates did — that is to say, picking me up in it’s jaws and shaking me like a dog toy. So, I initially left disappointed by the score. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was unfair to judge something that I was too busy processing that I was even watching a good new Star Wars movie to even pay attention to, so I started listening to it on Spotify. I started listening to it a lot.
In those listenings, I realized something kind of cool. Duel of the Fates is John Williams unhinged. It’s brash and it’s angry and it lashes out at you. The stand out of Force Awakens is quiet, reserved, and and sad: Rey’s theme.
Our new hero’s score (heard most prominently in the cleverly named track ‘Rey’s Theme’) is a soft whisper of loneliness. It’s the music of Rey’s eyes as she watches ships leave Jakku- isolated, sad, but ultimately hopeful. The opening moments of the piece oddly remind of me a sad Christmas score, of someone alone during the holidays, calm and reflective and on their own in the snow.
Interestingly, Williams plays a similar card for the First Order, and ultimately for Kylo Ren. Kylo’s music is jumbled and confused throughout the film, and only really comes into focus on the bridge — because that’s when Ren himself finally focuses on what he is as well. The track ‘Starkiller Base’ is haunting, and paints the portrait of the First Order as a tragic inevitability.
Rey’s theme, meanwhile, grows and swells as her confidence does, and by the time we reach her confrontation with Kylo Ren, it has built itself into the franchise’s new heroic fanfare. Pay attention ‘The Ways of the Force’, and you’ll notice the classic Skywalker score build and give way for Rey’s. If I have any criticism, it’s that Williams doesn’t slam us over the head with it enough to really announce his intentions: The key sell when Rey fires up the lightsaber lacks the boldness it needs to really cement the legacy of the piece. A little more force push here, and people would have been leaving the theaters humming it and shadowboxing Knights of Ren.
I really can’t recommend making this score your day job listening music enough. After spending some time with it, my second viewing of Star Wars was completely different: it worked in tandem to tell the story, and just with the original trilogy, was the perfect emotional compliment to the film.