Where to begin when talking about the most influential score in film history? Not necessarily with the long and storied career that John Williams enjoyed before Star Wars. No, you begin with George Lucas. He’s the creative well that all things Star Wars springs from, and will continue to spring from for many years. And you begin with the most daunting task a filmmaker ever laid upon the shoulders of a composer: “Give me a body of work comparable with the greatest masterpieces of symphonic history.”
Lucas originally cut his film, then entitled just Star Wars, only to be renamed later as Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, culling the works of such musical masters as Beethoven, Bach and Tchaikovsky, among others. Then he handed that cut of the film over to Williams – who won the job thanks to the recommendation of Steven Spielberg after Williams delivered the most iconic horror score since Psycho for his fish movie Jaws – and said: “That. But better.”
While Williams’ grand symphonic Star Wars main title is the most recognisable of his work, the other compositions that make up the score are equally ambitious in scope, and the diversity in styles makes it hard to believe it came from one man. Star Wars truly was visionary in a visual sense, but without its signature score the movie feels like a different beast entirely.
Have you ever watched Darth Vader board Princess Leia’s ship in the first few moments of A New Hope stripped of the score? It’s… odd. You see the man in the suit and sense how clumsy and lucky he was not to have tripped over his flowing cape as he marched onto screen, encased in a bulky, burdensome helmet in head-to-toe leather. In short, you see the flaws. But watch it with the music on and something happens to Mr Vader. He instantly becomes the threatening, menacing, villainous monster audiences all know and came to love.
One of the true strokes of unexpected genius is Williams’ choice for the famous galactic bar scene. Close your eyes and imagine what sort of music a gin-soaked dive bar on the far reaches of the universe would feature and what do you hear? Not the synthy disco-tinged music that underscored many futuristic visions of 70s filmmaking, but instead the uptempo, jazzy tune Williams composed for A New Hope called simply called ‘Cantina Band’, a natural choice for the former jazz pianist turned film composer.
Apparently, Williams wrote the song after Lucas told him to “imagine several creatures in a future century finding some 30s Benny Goodman swing band music in a time capsule or under a rock someplace… how they might attempt to interpret it”. Speaking of disco, music producer Meco became obsessed with Star Wars and proposed the idea of doing a disco version of the film’s score to Casablanca Records, resulting in ‘Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band’ a disco mash-up cover of the two tracks, which appeared on the collection Mercury Inspired By Star Wars And Other Galactic Funk and went platinum.
Employing the same exercise as before and watching the cantina scene sans music, this bit of film history is reduced to what appears to be a rollicking Halloween party. The scene is one of the major reasons George went back to “fix” the original trilogy once his company ILM had mastered computer graphics special effects works. One thing that didn’t need to be touched one bit, however, is the score.
If forced to choose a favourite piece from, not just A New Hope, but all of the Star Wars films, it would be difficult to not choose ‘Luke’s Theme’. This didn’t originally feature on the soundtrack. It’s the swelling piece of music that plays behind Mark Hamill’s naive, wondering gaze as he stares off toward the sunset of his home planet Tatooine’s twin suns. It’s come to be known as ‘Luke’s Theme’ but it was first dubbed ‘Binary Sunset’ and later referred to as ‘The Skywalker Theme’. It’s a beautiful, lonesome and haunting section of the score that’s the calm in the eye of the storm. Not just in the soundtrack itself, but in the story, the galaxy and the adventures of Star Wars. This is where the audience – thanks to the golden hues of the picture, the look on the actor’s face, and the artful touch of a master composer – takes a pause and breathes.
It’s the last breath they get to take before the most dashing on-screen pirate since Errol Flynn strapped on a pair of tights makes his entrance: Han Solo. Despite his bravado, his importance to the story and his epic turn at the end of the film, this beloved character does not have his own theme. Not in A New Hope, not in The Empire Strikes Back, not in Return Of The Jedi and not in The Force Awakens. This is where Williams’ true brilliance lies: the only hint of a Hans Solo theme is when he finds some humanity and a modicum of humility by falling in love with Princess Leia. But, that’s not until The Empire Strikes Back. Which means in A New Hope, Han’s only musical signature is when he’s faced with danger, and the moments of triumph when he vanquishes his foes.
John Williams’ score for Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope was the beginning of the modern American film score. Not only would he go on to shape how we “heard” our favourite movies by providing the music for films such as the Indiana Jones series, the original and yet to be topped Superman films, the Harry Potter franchise, smaller films such as The Book Thief and , and every single Steven Spielberg film, but his influence on every other film composer cannot be denied. Wherever there’s a film projecting on a screen, his legacy helps carry the story and enrich its emotional depth. If there’s ever such a thing as a musical master Jedi, there’s no better man to wear the robes and wield the lightsaber.
Walt Disney Records has released remastered editions of the original motion picture soundtracks for the first six Star Wars films: A New Hope (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Return Of The Jedi (1983), The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack Of The Clones (2002) and 2005’s Revenge Of The Sith available now.