It’s the highlight of every trailer or teaser for Star Wars: The Force Awakens—that unmistakable theme. It’s so famous by now that composer John Williams only has to play a few notes of it to make us go wild. Williams is so much a part of the global mystique of Star Wars that he’s more important than its creator: The Force Awakens is the first film in the franchise without George Lucas, but director J.J. Abrams knew it was essential to have Williams compose the score.
One reason the Star Wars music has such a nostalgic glow is that it sounds different from most of today’s film music. Today’s movies, even the blockbusters, don’t usually have iconic theme music, or scores that we’re supposed to walk away humming. The music of the new Star Wars might be the end of an era that began with, well, Star Wars.
Because Williams is 83 now, he’s not able to score as many movies as he used to, and so one of the upcoming Star Wars movies, after The Force Awakens, will be the first without original music by Williams. The stand-alone adventure Star Wars: Rogue One will be scored by Alexandre Desplat, the most prolific and popular composer in mainstream film today (The King’s Speech, Argo), whose music sometimes seems like the opposite of Williams: subtle instead of bombastic, often depending on unexpected instrumental combinations and eclectic sounds rather than big tunes. He can write a tune when needed, but in many of today’s films, it isn’t needed.
It was the type of scoring that many composers—including Williams, in some of his early scores—went for in the years leading up to Star Wars. “If you look at the late ’60s and early ’70s period in film scoring, it was an era in which they were actively trying to get away from what they thought of as that old-fashioned Hollywood sound,” says film historian Jon Burlingame, author of such books as The Music of James Bond.
Everything about the score of the first Star Wars movie was, deliberately, a little old-fashioned, right from the first chord. Instead of starting the score quietly, Williams began with an orchestral blast, leading into the big tune. This was an unexpected sound for a movie in 1977, especially an outer-space movie. Author and composer Neil Brand, who hosted the BBC Radio series Sound of Cinema: The Music that Made the Movies, says science fiction filmgoers expected “electronic music and avant-garde textures, which suggested an otherworldly landscape,” and Star Wars was nothing like that.
But the style was a delight for fans of Hollywood composers of the 1930s and 1940s, especially the Austrian expatriate Erich Wolfgang Korngold, whose themes for movies like The Sea Hawk and Kings Row were direct models for Williams. “John Williams has his own signature style,” says conductor and musicologist Gillian B. Anderson, but it was “a continuation of a long symphonic tradition used in films from the mute film period.”
“Lucas specifically wanted a retro sound for Star Wars because the film itself hearkened back to an earlier era,” Burlingame explains. “He wanted themes for characters, which were already kind of outmoded as a concept and had not been used much in the previous 10 or 15 years.” Not only do characters and ideas have themes, like the famous march for the evil Empire, but Brand says the score is built around developing those recognizable tunes: “A character or issue’s theme will grow and change over the time of the film, helping the developing subtext, and giving us helpful information as to the changing relationships in the film.”
This is a technique that old Hollywood composers like Korngold brought with them from Europe, where they were influenced by the symphonic music of Richard Strauss, who wrote musical motifs for everything from bleating sheep to a baby in his bath. The connection between movie music and late-romantic Europe was so strong that there’s a yearly festival, Hollywood in Vienna, devoted to celebrating the symphonic, lush, big-orchestra style of film music written by the likes of Korngold and Max Steiner (King Kong, Gone With the Wind).
After the success of Star Wars, Williams continued to write operatic music for his most important clients, Lucas and Steven Spielberg, and many other composers followed his lead: Alan Silvestri’s score for Back to the Future, celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, is built around a big, brassy tune in the tradition of Korngold, nothing like the film’s teen hero would listen to. Even a film like Die Hard, set in a modern skyscraper, is full of a heavy orchestral sound and traditional musical forms like marches.
Today, movie music tends to be closer to what it was before Star Wars. Big movies have a style of music that, if you like it, is more understated and suggestive, or if you don’t like it, is what Brand describes as “miles of unchanging sub-electronic drones.” If Star Wars helped revive the idea that movies should be built around big tunes, today’s music is often built more around distinctive sounds. In the score of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the soldier of the title is represented by music that sounds like screaming, and many other scores emphasize harmony and orchestration over obvious melodies.
Even movies that are scored traditionally may try to sound like they’re not. Burlingame says that Sicario, Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s film about the war on drugs, “has a 65-piece orchestra, but it’s all been processed electronically.” If a movie has a big, loud, tuneful sound, it’s sometimes a deliberate throwback, like Michael Giacchino’s James Bond-style score for The Incredibles—or, for that matter, hiring John Williams to write a John Williams-style score for Star Wars.
What happened to make this type of score old-fashioned again? One thing that may have happened is simply that more options became available to composers. In 1977, apart from early forms of electronic music, there weren’t many alternatives to a full orchestra and the traditional ways of using it. Today there are any number of combinations you can use. Burlingame points to Daniel Pemberton’s score for the recent Steve Jobs, which divides itself into three distinct sections: “it has early ’80s synths in act one, operatic and classical music in act two, and the final part is entirely created in the studio on Apple software.”
Romantic music also can seem too fusty for modern directors. Lucas and Spielberg were interested in that kind of music because they’d been brought up on the movies of the 1940s, when it was the style for every film: even film noir, which we associate with jazz, rarely had any jazz on the soundtracks. Today’s director may be more interested in pop music, or music from outside America and Europe. Even with orchestral music, the default style is no longer that Viennese late-Romantic approach. Burlingame points out that Desplat is “steeped in the classical tradition,” and that his Academy Award-winning score for The Grand Budapest Hotel is “quirky, but it’s still orchestral, it’s just using unusual eastern European instruments.”
Because the old Hollywood style is so heavily influenced by opera, it also has one of the obvious weaknesses of opera: lack of subtlety. The clear-cut melodies and obvious musical signals are perfect for movies where the characters themselves aren’t too complicated. Brand says that Williams’s style worked particularly well for Star Wars because it made the characters “into recognizable icons—Luke Skywalker was a new messiah, Han Solo a gunslinger, R2-D2 a nerd, Princess Leia a tomboy, Obi-Wan a Zen master, Darth Vader a Nazi. It was if we knew these people, even though the whole world of the film was new to us.” For a movie that has more moral ambiguity, it might not be helpful to have a score that tells us exactly how to respond to everything.
That doesn’t mean the techniques of old Hollywood music have vanished from the cinema; composers just use them in less obvious ways. Burlingame says he did a Q&A with Harry Gregson-Williams, who scored this year’s hit The Martian, and was told that “there is a theme for the astronaut stranded on Mars, but it’s small and it’s subtle—it’s really just a few notes.” Brand sees the current trends in a more negative way: “Directors are terrified of music that says too much.”
Because composers’ toolboxes are so much larger, we can’t expect the new Star Wars to revive an older style the way the 1977 version did. But it may at least revive it in one highly profitable corner of the commercial cinema. Burlingame thinks Desplat (who successfully took over for Williams on the Harry Potter film series) can be counted on to get this kind of film right without sacrificing his own sound. And if the producers hire other composers for other stand-alone movies, “they’ll stick with the symphonic tradition. Because that’s what Star Wars is. It’s the sound of Star Wars.”
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