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'Star Wars' Will Sound Different Without John Williams, But Maybe That's OK

The legendary film composer announced that he would retire from the franchise he helped define after the forthcoming Episode IX in 2019. That's both a good and a bad thing.

by Phil Witmer
Mar 7 2018, 6:36pm

Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez and Getty Images for Turner

Out of all of the many, many, many instantly recognizable themes and cues that John Williams has composed for some of the biggest films of all time, his work for the Star Wars films is probably what cements his legend the most. Drawing from the old swashbuckling pictures and heroic operas that George Lucas sought to infuse with futuristic tech, Williams' unapologetically romantic and sweeping scores are a big part of what gives the universe its mythic scope. Even if you hate the prequels, you have to admit that the music still stands up, doing the emotional heavy lifting for the awkward writing and undercooked conflicts.

That's why Williams' announcement that he will be retiring from Star Wars for good hits hard. As ClassicFM reports, Williams told California classical radio station KUSC that his final Star Wars score would be for J.J. Abrams' still-untitled conclusion to the ongoing sequel trilogy, due out in 2019. "I look forward it," says Williams in the interview, "It will round out a series of nine, that will be quite enough for me.”

This decision seems like a smart one. Williams won't have to face the dilemma of churning out increasingly lifeless versions of his music over the next several years of Disney and Lucasfilm's attempts to mine the Star Wars property for all it's worth. There's also the fact that his Star Wars scores have a pretty restrictive mold—blaring horns, dissonantly cosmic string parts, and chaotic, keening action scenes—and in his work outside of the galaxy far, far, away he's since branched out into using different instruments, composition styles, and even electronics as evidenced by his work for the capable, but award-baiting journalism drama The Post. That being said, if this next film is his last Star Wars, he'll be going out on a high; the score for last year's The Last Jedi was wonderful, seamlessly introducing strong themes for its equally potent new characters. It doesn't sound like Williams is out of ideas, which is why his retirement sucks and throws the sonic identity of the franchise into some disarray.

Not to say that it's hard to make a Star Wars-like score for a Star Wars work, especially if you're relying on Williams' existing motivic vocabulary. Drop "The Force Theme" in there for the profound moments, the Rebel Alliance fanfare to indicate triumph, and any number of Imperial marches to accompany bad guys skulking about. That base of motifs is rock solid and will likely never be deviated from.

But Williams didn't stop there. Every relationship and concept over the previous six films was given a motif. In particular, the themes for Han and Leia's romance and Luke and Leia's familial bond are some of the most gorgeous and harmonically complex pieces Williams wrote for any movie he worked on. Certain set pieces also had their own bespoke themes that were developed and interwoven with others. The tense standoff in Bespin's Cloud City near the end of The Empire Strikes Back is powered by a recurring, bolero-like rhythm through which the themes of Vader, Yoda, and more are incorporated. Through motifs, the music tells us who's involved and what's at stake without a single image.

Understandably, this kind of heavily programmatic film composition is out of fashion for genre films, long since replaced by Hans Zimmer's blood-pumping synthetic orchestras and Ramin Djawadi's mournful washes of deep strings. Both write themes but don't capitulate on them or use romanticism to elevate their worlds beyond what's seen on the screen. Though neither has been publicly asked to step in for future Star Wars films (yet), this is a good indicator of what could be next for the franchise: blandness. It happened when Williams left the Harry Potter movies early on due to scheduling issues, his evocative and memorable themes for the characters and even the school of Hogwarts itself replaced by competent but forgettable work from various composers. Star Wars scores will just sound like regular film soundtracks with the main fanfare spliced in every so often so that people don't forget what movies they're watching. It's kind of dire.

There is hope, however. Pixar composer Michael Giacchino did a fine job on the messy but daring Rogue One, staying true to that larger-than-life Williams sound while creating new themes for its heroes and villains. Outside of Star Wars, Alexandre Desplat dove headfirst into pretty, old-school romantic composition for The Shape of Water, giving us a hummable main motif for the ages. He joins a host of younger composers like Jonny Greenwood and La La Land's Justin Hurwitz who are in thrall to that Old Hollywood swoon but know that it can modernized. Also, there are a bunch of very good Japanese women composers like Yuki Kajiura and Michiru Oshima who have been making orchestral, emotional scores for fantasy and sci-fi epics for years. Just saying; it doesn't have to be another white dude who makes Star Wars music. It'll never be the same after John Williams takes his bow, and that hurts. But it can be something new that touches that same feeling of adventure.

Phil is on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Noisey CA.

Star Wars
film scores
John Williams