eyelights: its exploration of the ‘Star Wars’ musical universe.
eyesores: the discrepancy of the montages. its lack of insight into the music’s creation and importance.
‘Star Wars: A Musical Journey’ is a 71-minute documentary that explores the ‘Star Wars’ saga through a selection of key musical themes by John Williams. These themes are backed by video clips from the series, virtually transforming the programme into a sort of audio-visual trip down memory lane.
The programme consists of 16 distinct chapters, each separated by a brief introduction by a somewhat dispassionate Ian McDiarmid (who plays Senator Palpatine/The Emperor in the series). It can also be viewed without these introductions, which reduces the total runtime to approximately 61 minutes.
As a great fan of the music, this was an intriguing notion to me. I remember scrambling to get my hands on ‘Star Wars Trilogy: The Original Soundtrack Anthology’ 4CD set back in 1993 and listening to it on a continuous loop while reading some of the new Star Wars books that were being published then.
To me, the music is not just an integral part of the series, it’s an essential ingredient: without John Williams’ unforgettable ‘Main Title Theme’ and the brilliant music he slathered ‘Star Wars’ with, it wouldn’t have been nearly as successful; his compositions heightened the picture beyond measure.
Then came the most dramatic theme of them all, ‘The Imperial March’, which cemented the tone of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ and proved that the original’s success wasn’t just a fluke. In fact, both this theme and the movie are now highly regarded by fans as equal -if not superior- to the original.
With ‘Return of the Jedi’, both the film and its music seemed to lose some of the ingenuity and urgency that had sparked the series. Although they still offered some of cinema’s greatest moments, ‘ROTJ’ fell prey to the notion that follow-ups have to outdo their predecessors. But sometimes more is less.
Even more so, this would plague the prequels: with the exception of a few key moments (ex: “Duel of the Fates”), the scores, as with the films that they accompanied, were over-saturated with all sorts of arrangements and failed to stand out in any notable way. They were slicker but way overblown.
One might argue that Williams responded to the images on screen (and perhaps the instructions of their creator, George Lucas) and provided scores that reflected back the tone of the movies. I would certainly agree with that theory, simply because that is what a decent composer should be doing.
And Williams is one of the best.
So I blame George (after all, it’s in fashion).
‘Star Wars: A Musical Journey’ begins a long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, opening with the ubiquitous “20th Century Fox Fanfare” and then the original ‘Star Wars’ theme, to a montage of behind the scenes images and clips from throughout the series. Then it begins to tells its story.
Chapter 1 – A Long Time Ago: Featuring the “20th Century Fox Fanfare” and “Star Wars Main Title Theme”, this is a quick montage of behind-the-scenes pictures from ‘Star Wars’ (fyi: the original film – ‘A New Hope’ is merely a revisionist subtitle!) and then bits and bites from the series.
Chapter 2 – Dark Forces Conspire: This is a montage of scenes from ‘The Phantom Menace’ and some parts of ‘Attack of the Clones’ cut to the unforgettable “Duel of the Fates”. Frankly, I wish they had just used the original “Duel of the Fates” video, because it worked as is.
Chapter 3 – A Hero Rises: To “Anakin’s Theme” this one speaks for itself – it’s about the rise of Anakin Skywalker. Except that he’s not a hero, so I guess it’s a misnomer. But since it focuses on his pre-Vader days, I guess it’ll pass. Just barely.
Chapter 4 – A Fateful Love: Rooted in the beautiful, sweeping, “Across the Stars”, from ‘Attack of the Clones’, this one is all about Anakin and Padme’s relationship, including the syrupy, tacky bits. Great music, but the clips are for only the most unrepentant romantics.
Chapter 5 – A Hero Falls: Obviously, this one’s about Anakin’s downfall, and the misnomered ‘Revenge of the Sith’ track “Battle of the Heroes” is supposed to embody this. Although it’s praised in some circles, I thought that it was an oversaturation of choirs and brass at a frenetic pace. To me, it’s too self-important and yet indistinct.
Chapter 6 – An Empire is Forged: “The Imperial March” is the inspiration for this segment, which is all about Vader, featuring iconic images as well as production and concept art. I’m a huge fan of this theme, but it felt weakened by the visuals here (more on that later).
Chapter 7 – A Planet That is Farthest From: “The Dune Sea of Tatooine” and “Jawa Sandcrawler” (both from ‘Star Wars’) form the basis for this segment, which mostly represents R2D2 and C-3P0’s journey on Tatooine. The first theme is mysterious, if not eerie, whereas the second is a playful delight. Very nice. Classic stuff.
Chapter 8 – An Unlikely Alliance: Also from ‘Star Wars’, “Binary Sunset” and “Cantina Band” are backed by visuals of Luke. The first is a beautiful, memorable theme. And then there’s the Cantina track. That bit features conceptual art, shots of Han shooting (first? second?) and… scenes of “Jedi Rocks” (from the bastard child version… ahem… I mean, Special Edition of ‘Return of the Jedi’).
Chapter 9 – A Defender Emerges: Given that the highlighted piece is “Princess Leia’s Theme”, it only makes sense that the whole thing revolved around her. There was more concept and production art here. Maybe to make up for the fact that the character has less and less to do as the series moves along.
Chapter 10 – A Daring Rescue: McDiarmid introduces “Ben’s Death” and “Tie Fighter Attack” as being all about the Death Star rescue in ‘Star Wars’. But then there are scenes of Cloud City. Then Hoth. It’s a bit random, really. I’m not sure what they were going for, given the song titles.
Chapter 11 – A Jedi is Trained: Inspired by “Yoda’s Theme”, this one is all about Yoda, including concept art. It mostly goes to show that CGI may be more animated, but it doesn’t replace good old puppets – the Yoda from the original trilogy looks much better than the prequel one.
Chapter 12 – A Narrow Escape: Although this is called “The Asteroid Field”, is from ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, and it’s set up by McDiarmid as such, this one begins with the Falcon’s escapades, then broadens to asteroid field sequences in general, and then it’s just random stuff about spaceships. Whatever.
Chapter 13 – A Bond Unbroken: Try to guess what this one, centred around “Luke and Leia”, is about! Although it’s from ‘Return of the Jedi’, it picks scenes of the pair from the whole series (including the infamous kiss) and throws in concept and production art.
Chapter 14 – A Sanctuary Moon: “The Forest Battle (Concert Suite)” from ‘Return of the Jedi’ is the basis for this vignette that naturally is all about the battle on Endor. Until it’s suddenly about the battle on Naboo. Uh…
Chapter 15 – A Life Redeemed: “Light of the Force” (from ‘Return of the Jedi’) highlights Vader’s final moments, and also recollects his past.
Chapter 16 – A New Day Dawns: Thankfully, this one ends with the epic “Throne Room / Finale” number from ‘Star Wars’, not the grating “yub nub” song from ‘Return of the Jedi’ -[ but the footage takes in all of the films’ finale celebrations and takes a final look at key characters. It works.
Honestly, it was stunning to me to see scenes from both trilogies woven together this tightly because it highlights the problem with the prequels: they are cold, artificial. When you watch the originals, with the real sets, real effects, …etc., and compare them to the overindulgence of CGI, they look much better.
At least, the original theatrical versions do (if you know what I mean).
What’s unexpected is that there is dialogue interspersed throughout this programme. While it provides more context, it limits the replayability of the intro-less programme to some degree. I would have liked to spin this as a “greatest hits” disc, but the dialogues frequently interrupt Williams’ music.
And it’s too bad, too, because the music was completely remixed to be played in 5.1 surround, and given that it’s DVD, not CD, it’s in higher resolution. So it would have made for a terrific showcase disc if it had been entirely instrumental (or if, at least, it had been available as an option).
But the biggest problem with this disc, is the fact that John Williams composed his music to certain visual beats and moods. Whoever created the video montages didn’t -probably couldn’t- respect Williams’ intentions, which means that the music often lacked punch, taken out of context as it was.
All the more reason why a dialogue-less version would have been crucial.
In any event, the fact remains that John Williams’ music is as important to the series as the characters, story, mythos and eye-catching visuals. His contribution to the series (and, consequently, to pop culture) is incalculable, and it’s great that someone decided to pay tribute to his musical creations.
Now if we could only get ‘Star Wars: Music by John Williams‘ on DVD or if someone could produce a more definitive exploration of John Williams’ work on the series, in documentary form, that would help to fill in the blanks that this musical journey can’t possibly fill. Lord knows it’d be well-deserved.
And, no doubt, well-received.
Post scriptum: ‘Star Wars: A Musical Journey’ was first released on DVD in 2005 as an accompaniment to the motion picture score to ‘Revenge of the Sith’ and has long been out of print. However, it is being repackaged in the 2016 ‘Star Wars: The Ultimate Soundtrack Collection’ (which, ironically, doesn’t include everything. Ultimate! Pfft!).
Date of viewing: November 23, 2015