John Williams composed the score for Episode VII just as he did for all other previous Episodes. The score came out the very same day as the movie and hence it is about time that we review this score on its own merits and not just in conjunction with the movie’s imagery. To get the main comment out of the way right at the start: I like this score that however is far from perfect.
I will organize this review in two sections; first comes a part-by-part review of the score and then I will look at the overall picture that we can extract from this. Is the score more than the sum of its parts? For the first time in the Star Wars franchise … it is less than that.
Part by part review
Main Title and The Attack on the Jakku Village
After the standard opening movement of any Star Wars score is where this part only really begins to become interesting. The harp sounds so cleverly embodying the emptiness of space as well as the promise of events to come give way to atmospheric music that creates suspense. There are some vague hints in there of some of the themes to come later in the score. As none of the characters in that opening sequence have a theme of their own there is also nothing Williams can actually quote here musically. As a result the opening part feels like a cleverly meshed execution of many movements and elements that harken back to all 6 previous scores.
Starting off with a sense of riddle and wonder this part then quickly changes atmosphere and mood. This then gives us the first version of Rey’s theme which is a beautiful sweeping theme. It has a distinct ‘Potter-like’ ring to it but it also reminds me very much of the ‘feels’ of the Attack of the Clones score’s pieces playing on Naboo. The lonely horn that speaks after two-and-a-half minute expresses the loneliness and solitude of the scavenger very well. As the part picks up further orchestration it becomes a wonderful pastoral and almost idyllic soundscape.
I Can Fly Anything
This starts out quietly as well but picks up pace and drama after a mere 20 seconds. Given however it’s action-sequence background there is very little that it can develop melodically. It is an indication of a wider truth of this soundtrack: it contains no melodic battle music.
Rey Meets BB-8
I love the instrumentation on the start of this part which reminded me of one of my favourite parts of the score to Knights of the Old Republic II, the Manaan theme. BB-8 has no theme of its own and no real musical reference is made to Rey’s theme either.
Very much like the previous part, this part too consists essentially of beautifully executed mood music. It is a good moment to listen into the warmth of the recording and the mix used for the different instruments. Although I sometimes would wish for a slightly better distinction between copper and strings in the recording I do think the recording captures the orchestra’s dynamic very well.
Then we finally come to what is really the scores main new theme. It is a multi-piece theme unlike, for example, the Force Theme or Across the Stars. It does not have the punch of the former nor the grand sweeping sense of longing and belonging of the latter. But it does have a wonderful melodic ‘journeying’ character to it, perfectly for Rey’s character. It is a beautiful piece and a very worthy addition to the Star Wars universe of musical themes. In a very concrete way it is a theme that has three separate themes packed into it. I think it is the best piece of the score.
Clearly being an ‘action sequence’ type of mood music it is also the first instance where we hear extended quotes from other Star Wars scores. In the previous sequences these quotes would sometimes be as short as 3 or 4 notes, now here we hear fully executed references. Interestingly there is also a lot here that reminds one of the chase and action sequences from Attack of the Clones as well as from Empire Strikes Back’s Asteroids field sequences.
That Girl with the Staff
This part starts out with soft reminders of parts of Rey’s theme. The multi-part structure of Rey’s theme really pays off here. But it is evident that then the piece returns to its function as atmospheric music.
This is another action-sequence piece of mood music. As a result of JJ’s choices regarding the pacing and structuring of The Force Awakens is was clear he needed a lot of that. There are lots os references here to similar pieces in the other 6 scores, and actually to similar pieces in other John Williams scores. It contains a nice diversity of percussion instruments.
Finn has no theme of his own but this comes closest to it. It starts off with what is an exact quote of parts of the Revenge of the Sith score and then weaves in variations from parts of Rey’s theme and again the arrangements feel like the Naboo sequences of Attack of the Clones. The music is suggestive of courtship but it is not anything like a love theme.
Maz Kanata does not have a theme either which contributes to the overall theme-poverty of this score, to which I will come back later. This part is the first time we get some variations of quotes of the Force theme, before we get a signle fully rendered citation of it quickly followed by a sweeping element from Rey’s theme.
Although this is not a theme, it is a hauntingly beautiful piece of strings-only orchestration. It accompanies one of the more harrowing sequences in The Force Awakens. With just under 1m50s in length one would wish that both this music as well as the sequence in the movie would have gotten more time. It resonates strongly with the Order 66 music from Revenge of the Sith and is beautifully emotional but too short.
Kylo Ren Arrives at the Battle
The emphasis here is on Battle although you might be forgiven when believing that what the horns are playing here is something akin to a Kylo-Ren-theme. However, the villain of this movie has no theme of his own and so what remains is mood music.
Once the horns come into this piece it becomes a variation of the last half of ‘Anakin’s Dark Deeds’ from Revenge of the Sith and later on quotes various elements of Rey’s theme repeatedly.
Han and Leia
Han & Leia was a theme very well-known and much loved from Empire Strikes back. It features heavily and successfully in the trailer. This is a short but beautiful rendering of it that, like on the Empire Strikes Back score gives way a little too quickly to my taste to more martial music used to fire up the audience for a battle sequence. Given the weight this theme gets in The Force Awakens it would have deserved a separate rendering of it in a more fully developed song. The piece moves on to quote several other pieces of Star Wars score, such as for example ‘Departing Coruscant’ from Attack of the Clones before briefly returning to Han & Leia’s theme while echoeing elements from The Abduction and closing with The Force theme and a wry note.
March of the Resistance
Once you here this you will recognize that it was foreshadowed in the Han & Leia part as well. But don’t expect anything like the Imperial March from Empire Strikes Back. With just over 2m30s there is hardly enough time to develop this into a proper ‘march’. But despite all of that I think it is a beautiful piece of music that plays on some of the notes of Imperial music in A New Hope.
This is not really a theme but yet a very evocative piece of music. It is a little puzzling that no consideration was given into developing this further. The way it stands now it is a ‘good idea’ but not much more than that.
On the Inside
This is essentially just a piece of atmospheric music with references to the entire Star Wars catalogue of John Williams mood music. At the end it becomes interesting but that is really just the ‘intro’ for the next piece.
This is a beautiful piece of music and yet it falls short of what it could have been. Had there been a sufficiently subtle Kylo-Ren-theme here and/or a more developed phrasing of Han & Leia’s theme then this could have been a powerful piece of the score. There are short fragments here that, to me, seem to harken back to Attack of the Clones’ piece ‘The Tusken Camp/The Homestead’ which is very nice by itself. The piece then really ends with a quote of the Star Killer part before it descends into action-sequence accompaniment including a bold Force Theme statement followed by parts and bits of several other elements including parts fo Rey’s theme.
The Ways of the Force
Is basically just a collage of mood musics with a Force the statement combined with Rey’s theme elements and elements of ‘The Abduction’. But melodically there is nothing very interesting here. It is, despite its title, not a piece you would put on repeat on your mp3-player or pod.
Scherzo for X-Wings
This nicely paced piece of music varies around the Main Theme of Star Wars and turns it into a nifty little scherzo. It makes for a perfectly more symphonic piece of score to be used during dog-fight sequences. With a recounting of the Force theme and a proper ending it is a really nice piece.
Farewell and The Trip
The last two pieces of this score have a liberating grandeur to them that we have not yet encountered in this score. It almost seems as if the score finally has been allowed to elevate itself from the tight constraints of dialogue and action sequences to tell a story of its own. It contains probably the best citation of Leia & Han’s theme beautifully followed up by a statement of the Force theme and wonderful citations of Leia’s & Rey’s themes. It then builds up to a nice mix of the Star Wars theme and Rey’s theme.
The Jedi Steps and Finale
Then finally, before the standard finale rips through the speakers, we get the second best piece of this score. I love the slow progression there is in the Jedi Steps theme. This is a theme in its own right, even when it is not called a theme. But it is beautifully developed and unfortunately agonisingly short. It then flows into the moving Force Theme rendition that was also used to underline the end of Revenge of the Sith before the Star Wars finale kicks in.
The Star Wars finale is always the part where all the great themes of the score of that Episode are put up for exposition once again. It is usually the one part where all these themes are brought into wonderful and celebratory melodic conjunction. So this is a great point to start out general overview. The Star Wars finale to the Episode VII score evidently recounts Rey’s theme as it does The Abduction part. But it is striking that, apart from a quote from the Resistance March this Episode’s musical finale has little else to show than mood and atmospheric music.
If we look at the scores of Episodes I through VI each and every of them had at least two fairly lengthy remarkable pieces of melodic and symphonic music that served also as a characteristic piece of token-music for the entire episode. Where A New Hope gave us ‘Leia’s theme’, the ‘Force theme’ and of course the main theme, Empire Strikes Back had ‘Yoda’s theme’ and ‘The Imperial March’ to name just two apart from ‘Han & Leia’s theme’. Even Return of the Jedi delivered full on with ‘Luke & Leia’ and the Emperor’s theme in ‘The Emperor’s Throne Room’. If you look at the Prequel Trilogy, of which some feel it offered less new thematic and melodic music, you will also see every episode actually contains plenty of it albeit in a more darker tone that the Original Trilogy due to the story. But let’s recall that The Phantom Menace score not only contained the superb ‘Duel of the Fates’, a beautiful and haunting ‘Anakin’s theme’, that isn’t easy to hum but very absorbing to listen to, and a funeral pyre theme that also has become an instant classic. Attack of the Clones enriched the musical universe of Star Wars with Across the Stars which I consider to be one of the best and most beautiful pieces in the catalogue but also gems such as the ‘The Meadow Picnic’ and the music around Anakin’s loss of his mother. Revenge of the Sith finally poured in with the ‘Battle of Heroes’, several beautifully melodic pieces surrounding Anakin’s dark deeds and betrayal and an exquisitely original piece of mood music in ‘Padme’s Ruminations’. The score for The Force Awakens cannot show up with a list of memorable music that equals the previous episodes.
I absolutely love Rey’s theme and I think it is a very fine addition to the Star Wars musical universe. It would have deserved more than just a 3-minute song on the score, rather something like the 5-minute ‘Across the Stars’ would have been wholly appropriate. I equally am very happy with the ‘Jedi Steps theme’ although I think it’s rendition in the score is dramatically short. These two pieces are enough for me to say: I really like the The Force Awakens soundtrack. Yet among all the Star Wars soundtracks, that I all love, this one does not stand out in any particular manner. That is a pity and a missed opportunity.
Both previous trilogies started with stand-out scores that brought in a variety of new themes, soundscapes and other musical elements. The Sequel trilogy has not started on par with that musically. The two bits we have been given, ‘Rey’s theme’ and ‘The Jedi Steps’ are wonderful. But I think no one can escape the conclusion that the scores of A New Hope and The Phantom Menace had a lot more to offer than just two pieces, they set the (sound)stage for new trilogies. This Episode VII score does not, which can only mean that there is a lot of work left to be done for Episode VIII’s score.
I think that the ‘theme- and melody-poverty’ of the Episode VII score is potentially partially due to the fact that a change of generation in the music-section was avoided for nostalgia reasons. Something that Star Wars: The Clone Wars dared to do with great success and being living proof that it can be done successfully. It will be up to Star Wars: Rogue One to show that cinematic live-action Star Wars can do the same. But another reason for the slightly anaemic score of The Force Awakens is to be found in the film itself. All previous six episodes allowed for plenty of quiet, dialogue-free and low-action moments that allow the music to tell a story. Abrams and Kasdan seemed to have been so focussed on offering a fast-paced and successfully humorous Episode that between the battles and the banter there simply is too little time for musical story-telling.
Some people reported leaving the cinema wondering which piece of music they could recall and having trouble to be able to hum anything. Rey’s theme is superb, but multi-pieced and thus not easy to recall after a first viewing (unlike the ‘Imperial March’ or ‘Across the Stars’, for example). The Jedi Steps is audible for less than a minute and while wonderful, that is to short given its slowly progressing melody. But then, Rey’s delightful ‘cooking and dining sequence’ as well as the walking up the Jedi Steps are really the only contemplative, banter or dialogue free moments in the film. Abrams and Kasdan have made a film that has a score and not allowed for a score that tells the story every bit as much as the visual imagery.