John Williams’ Score brings the Western genre back to Star Wars: The Force Awakens

At last! More Star Wars!!

I had waited for that moment for so long. Like most Star Wars fans who watched the original trilogy during childhood – well, in my case, the Special Editions – I always wondered what would happen after the destruction of the Death Star and the death of the emperor. Sure, good times celebrating with the Ewoks sounded fair enough for a child, but as I grew older (and hopefully wiser) I couldn’t help but to wonder how the galaxy would reorganize – outside, you know, the uninteresting stuff that Coruscant’s C-Span would cover…

 

Star Wars Senate

By the time The Phantom Menace was released, Industrial Light and Magic was allegedly still working on special effects good enough to make it seem like representatives showed up to congress sessions at least in a galaxy far away…

 

There were plenty of answers in the expanded universe, but when Disney declared the expanded universe to be outside the official canon – long after we were told about episodes VII, VIII, and IX coming out in the years following Lucasfilm’s acquisition – many of us wondered what happened to the galaxy. Would the Empire reorganize as a New Republic? Where would the New Republic’s threats come from?

As a composer, I also had my own questions about how the musical score would be: Would Disney and/or Abrams give John Williams the freedom to do what he does best? Could we expect another operatic score full of leitmotifs, like we’ve heard in every other Star Wars film? If so, what would these leitmotifs represent?

My analysis answering those questions is coming up, but first let’s talk a little bit about the film…

[SPOILER ALERT: Stop right here if you haven’t seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens! MAJOR SPOILERS ahead…]

Finding Skywalker

What an exciting opening crawl. We read nothing about the “taxation of trade routes” and instead get a satisfying “Where the hell is Luke Skywalker?”. The whereabouts of beloved hero act as the force driving the film? You have my full attention! But there’s a problem: As much crap as the world loves giving George Lucas’ prequels, even those films had moments when we could admire the landscape and let everything sink in. Like feudal Japan in samurai films, Tattooine served as a meditative backdrop to its foreground. Flashback to the 70s, the original Star Wars was a really fast-paced film, and so is The Force Awakens, but I feel like there was room for meditation in the previous films! Flash forward to December 2015, I left the movie theater complaining about the lack of such element, present in all Star Wars films including the prequels. It wasn’t after I received The Force Awakens’ soundtrack album as a Christmas present that I realized where it was…

Samurais and Cowboys, Modern Roles, and Rey’s Jakku

rey_longing

The Force Awakens does a good job at getting rid of old cliches such as the feudal princesses of Japan and the western damsels in distress. How do samurais and cowboys come into place in this analysis? Well, Japan loved Westerns and created the very successful Samurai genre as a Japanese response to the Western Genre – which was ironically, part Italian, and remember that all this took place after WWII. The American Wild West? Here’s Rural Japan. Horses? Why not! Intriguing warriors? Enter the Samurai. The main elements seen in the American Western genre had a Feudal Japan counterpart, and they worked so well in Samurai films that the American Western would later borrow those elements back – creating phenomenal films like The Magnificent Seven, based on the also phenomenal Japanese film The Seven Samurai. 

Wait, there’s more: Jakku

Sure, the filmmakers are trying to reference the original Star Wars – perhaps even a little too explicitly, like many people around the web keep pointing out – but there wasn’t a need for Jakku to be so similar to Tattooine – remember how everyone thought it was Tattoine in that first trailer? A reason for Tattoine being the way it was in A New Hope is that (like we pointed in the paragraph above)  there is a predominance of Western themes in the movies. But here’s a statement: When our heroes visit Maz’s castle, with that cantina inside, it doesn’t look like a Western cantina, does it? It’s more like an old Irish bar. Yet Jakku had to feel like the west, because it is Rey’s playground. That’s more evidence of a Western reference and how Rey fits the role of a Western’s hero. They could have chosen any type of environment in the universe for Rey to live in, but they chose one that resembles the old West.

Rey hops onto her horse-sized speeder

Were the production designers unable to think of a better way to carry stuff, like a trunk? Perhaps they are trying to tell us something…

 

 

That’s how the audience is supposed to feel when seeing Rey for the first time. When she hops on her horse horse-sized speeder – notice how different from Luke’s boat-looking speeder – full of trinkets she scavenged, and rides away to the sound of a horse galloping – the good ole’ “eight note + pair of sixteenth notes” used in music, that echoes the sound of a a horse galloping. Remember that the music is there to make us feel what the rest of the stimuli on screen can’t, and surely, Rey’s speeder is unlikely to sound like that. So give the speeder an animal noise for its engine – Ben Burtt still makes Star Wars sound like Star Wars, along with Matt Wood, who was one of the most admirable aspects of the prequel trilogy – and let the music do the rest.

Remember how I said that The Force Awakens gets rid of old cliches by updating the story’s plot? Our young, beautiful girl can’t be a damsel in distress! In a story that is pretty much a rehash of the original Star Wars (A New Hope) – and unlike a many people around the web, I have no problem with that – the girl from Jakku plays the role of our hero: a scavenger – a lead role formerly reserved for men. John Williams noticed this. And he scored it in such way…

Rey’s Theme 

OK, so we now know that Rey is our protagonist, and that she plays our Western hero. We need a Western hero’s motive!

Let’s develop it over a IV(Major) chord in a minor scale – this is known as a modal interchange – and add some of that Western color.

Moving on…

Sounds Western, right? As a comparison, here’s Ennio Morricone’s famous theme for The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly played in A minor (Rey’s Theme’s key) which instantly makes us think of a Western.

Almost too similar! Isn’t it?

Finally: In the Star Wars world, Rey also a Force-sensitive character, so let’s add that to the mix, bringing in some of that mystery in Star Wars! It’s not a classic Western, after all, it’s a Space Opera. Why don’t we use the chord progression from Star Wars’ Force Theme? Here are both themes played together, for your listening pleasure:

Voilá. That’s what (we) composers hear.

Conclusion

That was quick! And hey, it’s a great score all around. The Resistance’s theme is awesome! It represents just what it is without me saying a word. It’s an exciting, brave march, like it’s supposed to be. I just thought that Rey’s theme was a more relevant choice of a theme to study in detail.

I hope you feel a step closer to knowing why the score from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, is a great candidate to receive an Academy Award. We’ll see what happens tonight, at 7pm East / 4pm Pacific, live on TV on ABC, from the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles. Feel free to share your thoughts below!

[Note: I’d like to dedicate my first post-surgery post to my very inspiring Film Music professor at LSU, Blake Howe, and the two neurosurgeon heroes who saved my life, Joung Lee, and Sun Lee. If you are interested, this is what kept me out of the loop for the past few months.]


 

Diego Delfino
Diego Delfino
Diego Delfino is an Argentine-Italian composer living in the United States, a film sound instructor at SAE Atlanta, and a former student of LSU, SAE, and the School of Music of Buenos Aires (EMBA). You can find out more about him at www.diegodelfino.com, as well as listen to some of his musical compositions.

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