8. August 2020

John Williams and “Star Wars” – a phenomenon


Film music // Cinema Musica

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Thursday, November 21, 2019, Sony Pictures Studios, Culver City USA. The music has faded. But the corks pop, lasting applause roars through the Barbra Streisand Scoring Stage, tears and champagne flow at the same time. The room features more than 100 musicians alongside Maestro John Williams and Hollywood legends such as director Steven Spielberg, Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy, Disney CEO Bob Iger and director J.J. Abrams, as well as “Star Wars” stars Mark Hamill, Daisy Ridley and Kelly Marie Tran. They all came to celebrate – John Williams and “Star Wars.” For on that historic day, Williams completed the music recordings for “Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker” – his ninth score for the “Star Wars” saga, which brings a memorable finale to a 25-hour cycle in “nine movements”, composed between 1976 and 2019. This is how monumental one can see this unparalleled film music event – for now and probabely forever.

“It’s not my style, but I’ll do the best I can.”

John Williams.

In the beginning director George Lucas (1944) would not even have dared to dream of this “Star Wars” success story – as a multibillion-dollar franchise. In fact, Lucas “fled” to Hawaii in May 1977. There he met director Steven Spielberg (1946) at the Hotel Mauna Kea. Spielberg recovered for a few days from his work on “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977). Lucas, on the other hand, wanted to hide in the island paradise, because he feared an unprecedented flop with the upcoming world premiere of “Star Wars” (1977) on May 25, 1977. It is now well known that things were different. “Star Wars,” as it was simply called at the time, broke box office records, contrary to expectations. He dethroned “Jaws” (1975), the biggest theatrical success to that time. “Star Wars” held this title until the beloved alien “E.T. – the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982) arrived and pushed him away from the box office throne. Several aspects are remarkable about this episode: on the one hand, the feared flop “Star Wars” turned out to be an international phenomenon that still has a substantial influence on the Hollywood film landscape; on the other hand, John Williams composed the film music for all the films mentioned so far in this article, each of which has masterpiece status. And as a nice anecdote on top of it: In the said May 1977 in Hawaii, the two gentlemen Lucas and Spielberg not only built sandcastles together but also talked about the story of an archaeologist who travels the world and discovers exotic treasures in breakneck adventures. This is said to have been the birth of Indiana Jones and his first adventure “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981). Lucas had the idea for the Indy story, but during those Hawaiian days, he is said to have inspired Spielberg as a director for the project. For this purpose, too, John Williams wrote an iconic film score. And with that, only a handful of unforgettable film music works from Williams’s breathtaking legacy are mentioned, to which, at the age of 87 (!) with “Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker”, he has now added another powerful, dynamic and diverse composition for 106-piece orchestra and 100-piece choir. All that remains is amazement.

How it all started

When “Star Wars” was released in May 1977, science fiction was not a particularly popular film genre. Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and Franklin J. Schaffner’s “Planet of the Apes”, both from 1968, now enjoy cult status, but they were not granted this success from the beginning. George Lucas had to make the rounds in Hollywood’s studio landscape for a long time before 20th Century Fox finally took up his project. Lucas’s original plan is said to have been to follow the model of “2001: A Space Odyssey” and to equip the soundtrack with a selection of classical works. But Steven Spielberg is said to have succeeded in convincing him of an original, orchestral film score. George Lucas recalls: “Steven told me, “The composer you have to talk to is John Williams. He composed the music for ‘Jaws’. I love him, he is one of the greatest for me.”

Williams entered the “Star Wars” saga in 1976. “I was allowed to watch an early edit of the film at George Lucas’ Ranch. I felt like I was looking at a world none of us had ever seen.” In the ensuing conversation with George Lucas, he is said to have expressed the wish that he wanted to have a score in the “old style”, with a large, powerful orchestra. Originally Lucas wanted to set the film to music with classical works by Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky and other composers. He wanted dramatic music with a penchant for theatrical expression and operatic flair. John Williams’ response is said to have been: “That’s wonderful. It’s not my style, but I’ll do the best I can. It’ll be fun.” Note on the sidelines: at that time Williams already had some experience with orchestral music with scores like “The Cowboys” (1972) and “The Towering Inferno” (1974), dramatic film music, but he was still mostly on the road as “Johnny Williams” in the jazzy music milieu, among others with soundtracks to movies like “The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing” (1972) or “How to Steal a Million” (1966) and countless projects for smaller movies and partly with folkloric characteristics.

John Williams conducts "Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi"
John Williams in 2017 while filming “Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi.” Photo: copyright 2017 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

The “Star Wars” sound

However, the first in-house screenings of “Star Wars” did not trigger as much enthusiasm everywhere as with John Williams. Lucas has shown the film to fellow filmmakers, including Spielberg, and received mostly critical comments. Spielberg was one of the few who also believed in the film’s success. In an interview with “Die Welt” in 2015, Spielberg told the following anecdote: “The other colleagues had all sorts of criticisms. But the criticism of others was helpful. Brian De Palma, for example, had named several weak points after the screening: he did not have the palest glimmer at the beginning of the film, what was going on; who the guy with the helmet is and what all the other guys around him have to do there; he would not understand what was shown. George also didn’t know what to answer. Brian de Palma then suggested opening the film with a good old-fashioned crawl text explaining all this. This was the birth of the famous “Star Wars” opening crawl titles, invented by Brian De Palma and created by George Lucas.” And set to music by John Williams. With the Main Titles – or Fanfare, as this iconic main theme is called on the CD for “The Rise of Skywalker” – resounds at the first second of each “Star Wars” film set to music by Williams, one of the most famous film scores ever. Williams: “Because the opening of the film was visually so stunning, it was clear that the music also had to show this force. I have tried to compose opening music with an idealistic, uplifting, but also a military character. It was to be a fanfare that set the tone with powerful, confident trumpets, horns and trombones. I wanted to contrast this explosive prelude with a second, lyrical, romantic, adventurous theme. In addition, this title tune should also have a ceremonial quality – similar to a march – something that is almost intended to encourage the listeners to stand up and set a salute.” The result is the well-known Main Titles. These melodies have always and immediately catapulted listeners across generations “into a galaxy far, far away”. Here, a first reference to a Golden Age master is also made: Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s opening of his music for the mystery drama “King’s Row” (1942).

With the success of “Star Wars”, plans were quickly made for the filming of the other parts. In 1980, “Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back” followed, and the first part of the upcoming series was renamed “Star Wars” to “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope”. The “Skywalker” trilogy was to conclude with “Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi” (1983). George Lucas, at the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement award in 2016, said: “Look, “Star Wars” should be a simple heroic journey, a fantasy film for young people, and then John Williams wrote the music for it. And he raised it to a level of art, popular art that would withstand the course of time. What I want to say is: You made life so easy for me! I had so many ideas for other movies, but I couldn’t take care of them, because you made sure that “Star Wars” would last forever.”

For “A New Hope”, John Williams composed about a dozen memorable, easily recognizable themes, each assigned to a particular character or situation. These ideas could be taken up and worked on again in the unfolding musical texture. In doing so, he applies the leitmotif approach that, as we know, was used as a structural and narrative element in Richard Wagner’s operas – works with which the “Star Wars” films are often compared.

Photo: Lefterisphoto.com.

In accordance with the leitmotif ideas and the renowned father of this technique, as well as the expressed wish of George Lucas, John Williams has orchestrated his film music for a large symphony orchestra based on the Wagnerian line-up and with the resulting unmistakable power and nobility. The aim was not to emphasize the futuristic aspects of the film with electronic effects. Instead, Williams wrote a score that was inspired by the great masters of earlier symphonic works such as Wagner, but also Anton Bruckner, Igor Stravinsky and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and wanted to make no secret of it. In this sense, the music also made it possible to emphasize the completed bridging of the film, which is unmistakably located in the sci-fi genre but also combines elements from traditional Hollywood genres such as the so-called Swashbuckler epics and the lead-containing westerns.

A cosmos full of themes and motifs

The film music for “A New Hope” will always have a special place in the “Star Wars” music universe. With it, John Williams not only presented the first key themes and motifs, which he incorporated into his “Star Wars” music and developed further to the present day, but he defined with it, in general, the unmistakable musical tone of this “space opera”. He himself skillfully expanded and expanded this musical world over a period of 42 years without ever becoming “unfaithful” to it. So far, “Star Wars” has had an unbroken musical consistency. Even composer Michael Giacchino heeded this musical cosmos in terms of sound and orchestration for his music for the spin-off “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” (2016). On the other hand, John Powell was less close to the classic “Star Wars” sound for “Solo: A Star Wars Story” (2018), and Ludwig Göransson has also recently been creating a substantial new style for the TV series “The Mandalorian” (since 2019; from the video streaming subscription service Disney+). Equally exciting, but just different. Where the “Star Wars” sound will go in the future will be unclear. But back to Williams…

Trying to show the thematic structure of all nine Williams compositions for “Star Wars” would be possible more within the framework of an academic dissertation than here in essayistic form. On the Internet, there are various websites and forums, which list and connect the main thematic ideas – 30 up to 50 main themes, depending on the definition of the term. Their reading ranges from illuminating to overwhelming, which is further proof of the remarkable, intertwined thematic framework of “Star Wars”. In addition, there are individual themes and concert arrangements such as the Main Titles/Luke’s Theme, the Imperial March, the Yoda’s Theme and the Princess Leia’s Theme, which became very well-known outside their respective film – similar to the Jack Sparrow’s Theme by Hans Zimmer or the James Bond Theme by Monty Norman.

The end of the Skywalker saga

And now director J.J. Abrams, who directed “Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens” (2015), has completed the “Skywalker” saga with a 2.5-hour spectacle with “Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker” (2019). A Herculean work with countless pitfalls, which could not be completely bypassed, as can be seen from the comments of fans and film critics. Just as the story wants to weave the individual storylines and character fates into a coherent finale, so does John Williams with his last “Star Wars” music: many well-known melodies return and form together with the new themes – The Rise of Skywalker, The Speeder Chase, Anthem of Evil and We Go Together – a sublime, action-packed, melancholic and ultimately solemn “coda”. Williams in an interview with Jon Burlingame in December 2019 for Variety: “Forty years ago, if you said to me, ‘Here’s a project, John, and I want you to write 25 hours of music,’ I would have dropped my pencil case and said, ‘It’s impossible. No one can do that.’” But over the four decades, and together with the respective developing films and storylines, John Williams has succeeded in doing just that. That fact, that he wrote more than 70 other scores in the same time – among them masterpieces such as “Superman” (1978), “Indiana Jones – Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981), “E.T. – the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982), “Hook” (1991), “Far and Away” (1992), “Schindler’s List” (1993), “Jurassic Park” (1993), “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” (2001), “The Terminal” (2004) and “The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn” (2011) – and concert works such as Air and Simple Gifts for US President Barack Obama’s inauguration ceremony in 2009 underscores his legendary status even during this lifetime. It doesn’t really take the mention of the 52 Academy Award® nominations and five Academy Award® wins anymore…

In the words of Mike Matessino, producer and essayist of numerous new soundtrack releases of earlier John Williams compositions for the label La-La Land Records, among others: “There is simply no frame of reference for what John Williams has accomplished with the ‘Star Wars’ saga. It has never happened before and will never happen again. ‘Star Wars’ is like all of musical storytelling history focused to a single point. You feel it when you hear the music and experience the stories, and you know it will never get old.” Director J.J. Abrams said: “It’s probably impossible to describe the impact that he has had on those movies. John created import and terror and heroism and bravery and a sense of adventure and romance. Had anyone else tried to do what he did, I don’t know if we would be talking about ‘Star Wars’ today. John Williams is as responsible for what ‘Star Wars’ is and has always been, as anyone.”

This article was published in August 2020 in the print magazine“Cinema Musica”. The corresponding PDF can be downloaded at the beginning of this blog entry (PDF only in German). Many thanks to the editor-in-chief of Cinema Musica and Jamie Richardson of the Gorfaine/Schwartz Agency (GSA) for the photos.

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Basil Böhni

In the summer of 2018, Basil Böhni (* 1985) founded Böhni Communications Ltd liab. co. He graduated with a Major in Media Science from the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Zurich. During his career, Basil Böhni has worked for a range of organizations gaining extensive experience in communications, digital marketing, cultural administration, event management, and journalism.