By Sabrina Fried
Published: August 10, 2008
As one of the first orchestral soundtracks I ever listened to, Star Wars sparked a lifelong love of such music in me. I have more orchestral soundtrack CDs in my library than I do music of any other kind. The soundtracks for the Original Trilogy were essential for setting the mood of the films, and bringing to life that old pulp style feel. Each major character has their own theme and each pivotal moment of the films had its own suite. In comparison to other soundtracks by other composers in my library, the soundtracks for the Original Trilogy was different in that the songs also stand up to repeated listening, even when you are not watching the movies. This music is not just accompaniments to a few hours of moving pictures. It tells its own story, but that story could be anything you want as easily as it could be Star Wars. The soundtracks for the original trilogy inspire the imagination. The music of the saga, heavily influenced by everything from Holst's The Planets to Chopin's Piano Sonata No. 2, to modern-day military marches is instantly recognizable. It may take you a few minutes to identify specifically which soundtrack you are listening to, but you know it's Star Wars. The soundtrack of the saga takes the best parts of its historical influences and uses them to create something that, for its time, was considered fresh and unique. The main Star Wars themes have become so deeply embedded in mainstream culture that you can walk down the street humming the Imperial March, and even a person who has never seen Star Wars will be able to join in. Assuming they don't think you are insane.
The familiarity of the Star Wars themes has been both the strength and weakness of Star Wars music for thirty years. The themes provide an audible consistency to the saga. The Imperial March for example, has been interwoven into all six movies. In the Prequels, it was used as a subtle cue to indicate major turning points in Anakin Skywalker's life where he was pushed closer and closer to the dark path. Before the Prequels were scored, it was also used in the "soundtrack" for Shadows of the Empire, the movie-without-a-movie multimedia extravaganza. Here, it was restored to its original intent as a basic theme for Darth Vader to identify him in the story the music was telling.
The problem with such a thematic style of musical storytelling is that inevitably it all starts to sound the same, no matter how good it may be, which means that any attempt to freshen up the score with distinctly different music immediately sticks out like a sore thumb. Themes from the prequels such as Duel of the Fates stand out the way they do simply because they are not music that is even remotely similar to anything else that has ever been heard in a Star Wars soundtrack before. Duel of the Fates is a fine piece of music, Star Wars or otherwise. It is the only piece of Star Wars music in recent memory to not only get its own music video, but to actually chart as a single. But in the hindsight of the ten years of movie music I've listened to since Episode I came out, it has more in common with the soundtrack to the Lord of the Rings or any one of a dozen non-Star Wars video games than it does the rest of the scores John Williams composed for the saga. The main difference between Duel of the Fates and the chanting music of Lord of the Rings, composed by Howard Shore is that in the former, the choir chants in Sanskrit, a historical, if nearly-dead language, instead of Elvish and other Tolkien-created languages. The music of the Clone Wars movie is much the same. Much ado is made about the different musical styles represented in the soundtrack And there are many fine pieces of music here. But they are also about as far away from anything composed by John Williams as you can get. And in such a tightly woven franchise like Star Wars, deviating from the orthodoxy can be a very risky move.
Living up to the expectations of three decades of movie music in one franchise is a daunting task for any composer. So it is no surprise that Clone Wars composer Kevin Kiner is pulling out every stop he can to come up with a score that is distinctively Star Wars, and yet not simply a rehash of the same old, same old. He was helped in this effort by the fact that few of the characters appearing in the Clone Wars movie have pre-existing John Williams-composed themes of their own. In a recent audio interview with the website ScoreNotes. Mr. Kiner was quoted as saying that he has recorded over 400 minutes of music so far for the Clone Wars television series, including some 85 minutes of music that will be used in the movie. According to the Official Site, the soundtrack for the Clone Wars movie will contain 67 minutes, representing 32 tracks. Mr. Kiner calls the soundtrack for the Clone Wars more "ethnic" in feel, as it makes use of instruments not often employed in your traditional movie orchestra, at least not in Hollywood. The musical styles represented in the soundtrack reflect everything from music that would fit right in with a John Williams score, to jazz, big band, rock, and the traditional music of at least three or four exotic (to Hollywood) cultures. The instrument list includes everything from taiko drums to electric synthesizers and guitars.
My first impression of the soundtrack for the Clone Wars movie is that it sounds perfectly suited to a television show. Right down to the "rad" sounding Star Wars theme where drums, electric guitars and other novel instruments have been used to spice up the otherwise unchanged theme, as if to say "Hey! This ain't your dad's Star Wars, dude!" Most of the tracks are around two minutes in length, and most sound like they would be easily looped or remixed to fit into a TV episode. This should not be interpreted as negative criticism. Remember, the Clone Wars movie is in essence a pilot for the television show, so I think it is actually to the movie's benefit to be an accurate representation of what we can expect in the forthcoming show. Unlike previous Star Wars movie soundtracks however, I found that few of the tracks really work at all without visual accompaniment, and having retreated into my anti-spoiler bunker in anticipation of the release of the movie, I've yet to see any scenes in which any of this music plays. The music of the Clone Wars just sound like generic action-movie music to me, and it's not doing much to inspire my imagination. I can effortlessly tune out the soundtrack as it plays while I write, even with the CD being so new to my library that I haven't worn out the novelty factor of owning it. The mark of a strong movie soundtrack is when it grabs your attention to the point where it distracts you from whatever you are doing.
Time will tell if this soundtrack becomes a timeless classic that will stand beside the best of John Williams' contribution to Star Wars. But I imagine that the timelessness of the soundtrack in my library will entirely depend on my opinion of the movie once I see it, because aside from the main Star Wars theme, there is little distinctly Star Wars about this soundtrack. Listening to track 19, Jabba's Chamber Dance, my favorite track at the moment, I had to double-check my CD player to ensure that I was indeed playing the Star Wars soundtrack and not one of my Kodo CDs. It is a fitting soundtrack for a movie that is attempting to be as groundbreaking as the Clone Wars movie is promising to be, yet at the same time remain strictly orthodox Star Wars. But I have a hard time imagining any of this soundtrack as a suite played at a concert. Mr. Kiner's body of work is mostly in television, a medium where music beyond the opening and closing themes is largely considered disposable. And that influence on his career shows, with the opening and closing themes being the two most powerful tracks on this CD.
Sadly, both tracks are comprised mostly of music composed by John Williams nearly thirty years ago, with a fresh, kickin' beat.