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Comments about the soundtrack for Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (John Williams)

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Filmtracks Sponsored Donated Review
• Posted by: Todd China
• Date: Monday, July 21, 2008, at 7:45 p.m.
• IP Address:

(The following donated review of the original 1999 album by Todd China was moved by Filmtracks to this comment section in July, 2008)

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace: (John Williams) In Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, John Williams makes a successful return to the Star Wars saga with a score that works brilliantly as Star Wars music while reflecting recent changes in his style. Although the score to The Phantom Menace contains no truly memorable themes, such as the force theme and "The Imperial March," that the general public will recognize ten years from now, it works extremely well in the film as an operatic accompaniment for the action. What Williams has produced is a score that, on film and on CD, is musically fresh and complex, a worthy addition to the Star Wars canon. True to the leit-motivic nature of the Star Wars film scores, bits and pieces of Emperor Palpatine's theme, Yoda's theme, the force theme, and Darth Vader's theme all make brief appearances. Anakin Skywalker's theme, while not as distinguished as its successor, "The Imperial March," nonetheless conveys the emotional complexity of Anakin's character; the youthful innocence and naivete are present as well as a foreshadowing of his dark future. Williams' juxtaposition of innocence and darkness is reminiscent of his main title theme to 1996's Sleepers.

The true highlight of the album, however, is "Duel of the Fates," an amazingly dark and fast-moving piece that draws a little from elements of Nixon's "The 1960's: The Turbulent Years" as well as Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana." In my opinion, "Duel of the Fates" is more dramatic and entertaining than either of those pieces. In "Duel of the Fates," the two "false endings" suggest the changing rhythm of the climactic light saber duel. The furious clashing of light sabers, alternated with momentary lulls in the fighting, is followed stepwise by the rising and falling tide of Williams' music, and the cue is doubly appropriate for a scene with such epic and far-reaching implications for future events. Throughout the rest of the score, Williams always provides the right musical commentary for the film. "The Flag Parade," "Panaka and the Queen's Protectors," and "Qui-Gon's Funeral," respectively, convey all the pomp and bombast, the high adventure, and the mournful, tremendous sense of loss in the scenes they are attached to. Even the much-reviled "Augie's Great Municipal Band" is strangely rousing in the film's finale. On CD, the opening synth effects and choral "ya-ya's" are downright embarrassing, yet in the film, the celebration scene is so wild, giddy with cheerfulness, and intoxicated that Williams' music is completely appropriate.

In terms of originality, The Phantom Menace bears some similarities to previous Williams scores but rarely approaches the blatant derivation that some critics have charged. "The Droid Invasion" motif, however, is a pretty obvious descendant of "Belly of the Steel Beast" from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. There are also some stylistic similarities to Hook and Jurassic Park; specifically, Williams' liberal use of high woodwind runs in "The Droid Battle" harks back to his action music in Jurassic Park. Like the original Polydor release of Star Wars: A New Hope, The Phantom Menace has been sequenced all out of order, with unrelated cues hacked and pasted together in a bewildering arrangement. Some cues have even been mislabelled; "The Arrival at Naboo" is actually used during the arrival at Coruscant. Part of the problem for the album lies in film's story and editing, especially for the final sequences. Since there are so many cuts between the scenes involving the Jedi, Anakin, Amidala, and Jar Jar at the end, it was almost necessary that the soundtrack have a concert version of "Duel of the Fates," given the sparse amount of time allowed for any sustained, uninterrupted development of action cues. As with the original Star Wars release, there have been complaints about the incompleteness of the soundtrack ever since the 74-minute length Sony album was announced.

Most of the music worth having is already on the CD; an expanded release, given the history of the Star Wars scores, is likely but not completely necessary. Notable cues that did not make it onto the CD include the emotional farewell scene between Anakin and his mother and the bombastic rendition of the force theme when Anakin destroys the droid mother ship. Interestingly, whenever Darth Maul appears on screen in Tatooine, one can hear sinister whisperings of, presumably, the lyrics to "Duel of the Fates." The end titles piece has many alleged "flaws": the stilted transition to the Star Wars theme, the "lazy," verbatim repetition of "Duel of the Fates" and "Anakin's Theme," and the lack of a brassy fanfare at the end. Lost in all of this is the fact that, in the film, at the very end of the credits, one can hear the sound of Darth Vader breathing. Now why the hell is this not on the CD? Failure to include this amusing sound effect is a great loss indeed; I won't rest easy at night until this disturbing lack of vision is rectified. Bring on the expanded edition! *****

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