Friday, June 17, 2016

The Force, Re-Awakened

When I reviewed The Force Awakens last year, one aspect I dinged was the musical score by John Williams. I commented that it was barely noticeable, and speculated that soundtrack fan though I am, I might not be adding it to my collection. As it turned out, I happened to catch it marked down cheap one day at Amazon, and decided it was a gap in my collection I probably had to fill. And while there is more going on in this score than I'd originally perceived, I generally stand by my original assessment: this is far from John Williams' best work.

That said, I have two big criticisms of this soundtrack, and one of them is not about the composition itself. The recording of the music is actually the weakest part of it. You can feel it right out of the gate, listening to the album or watching the movie, when that first blast of trumpets kicks off the Main Title itself. Compare it to the opening of any other Star Wars film, and it seems diminished. That first note should knock you back in your seat, but on The Force Awakens soundtrack, it feels almost casually lobbed in your general direction.

There are weird sound levels going on throughout much of the album. Bass notes are muted in the mix (particularly in the brass), while treble notes are strangely crisp and in the foreground (especially among percussion, like snare drums and ratchets). It's as though the microphones were positioned too far away within the recording space... or like there's something a little off in the space itself. Or perhaps it's the performers. Every previous Star Wars score was recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra, but this film was the first to use a freelance orchestra. And while certainly, any one member of it plays their instrument better than I could with years of practice, I think the lesser results here aren't a coincidence.

As for the music itself, I have begun to appreciate it somewhat as I listen to it in isolation. But I've also come to feel that it's often more clever than it is effective. John Williams definitely put a lot of thought into this score, and you'll expose many layers if you mine it intellectually. I just feel it's not as effective in awakening emotion as past Star Wars scores -- even the prequel films, with which I have no longtime (positive) emotional attachment.

For instance, take Rey's Theme. It's certainly the strongest new element of this score. It's also a quite dense piece of music, combining multiple distinct elements: a flighty ostinato in the woodwinds, a bell-like progression of chords, and the melody layered over it all by a soloist (different instruments in different contexts). It also seems to me that the theme's chord progression and main melody were created to be compatible with the classic "Force Theme" (played most memorably in the original Star Wars when Luke watches the twin sunset). I'm actually surprised you never hear the two melodies played simultaneously on the album, because the new one is forged in perfect counterpoint to the other. (Perhaps it happens somewhere in the film itself, in a queue that didn't make the album?) I've definitely come to like this music, but more for its craft than how it made me feel during the movie.

Another prime example of the more cerebral nature of this score is the theme for Kylo Ren. It's just five notes blasted from the horns, so you won't find a full "Kylo Ren's Theme" track anywhere on the album. The note intervals are absolutely evocative of Darth Vader's Theme, the Imperial March. This is a massively stripped-down treatment of that classic music, which perfectly fits Kylo Ren as a character: he's in the shadow of Darth Vader, a deliberately pale imitation. Intellectually, I get it; it's very clever. But on a gut level, it's such a short and stunted burst of melody as to leave little impression. (And it didn't on me, when I saw the film. Only in listening to the album did I even come to realize that Kylo Ren even has a "theme.")

There are moments throughout the album where the music does more effectively appeal to the gut more than the brain. There's a solid action melody in the tracks "Follow Me" and "The Falcon" (possibly intended as a theme for Finn?) that uses an unusual time signature to create the feeling of movement faster than the orchestra's "feet" can carry it. "March of the Resistance" is another good queue, and well-suited to its subject for having less of a military feel than most of Williams' past marches.

But there are also plenty of tracks that just sort of amble around with no clear direction, not really appealing to the mind or the gut. "Maz's Counsel" is a strangely shapeless piece that only generates a sense of movement by how it passes through isolated sections of the orchestra -- yet that isolation makes the piece feel incomplete. The "Snoke" theme takes the idea of echoing earlier Star Wars music a bit too far, using a chanting mens' choir much as the Emperor's theme did (but with a less discernible melody).

And ultimately, it's telling that some of the most impactful moments of the score are the ones that use Williams' themes from the original trilogy. "Han and Leia" revives the two characters' love theme introduced in The Empire Strikes Back, "Scherzo for X-Wings" cites bursts of the Star Wars main title itself, and best of all is "The Ways of the Force" -- powerfully bookended by the Force theme.

I'd give The Force Awakens soundtrack a C+. Though it has one or two highlights worthy of an A, they're few and far between... and sadly swallowed up by an orchestra that doesn't seem to be giving it their all. More than anything, listening to the score has made me quite curious to see what another composer does with the upcoming Rogue One... even though for his previous work, John Williams would get my standing ovation as he left the Star Wars stage.

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