Business as usual for John Williams with sparkling sound design adding to the magic
Perhaps the most anticipated film release of 2017, Star Wars: The Last Jedi has finally reached the big-screen and the world is watching – but we’re listening. Immediately following on from events of the previous film, scavenger Rey seeks training from the long lost, but recently found, Luke Skywalker, while the Resistance prepares to do battle with the First Order. John Williams is once again at the helm of the music. For over 40 years, his iconic underscore has brought a wealth of vitality and depth to the film series that celebrates music and sound arguably just as much as its stories.
In this, his eighth soundtrack for the franchise, Williams upholds this sonic tradition; he builds on the music composed for 2015’s The Force Awakens, introduces fresh themes for new characters and settings, and welcomingly reignites material that is seemingly long forgotten.
As expected, the underscore is luscious in its grandiose late romantic style and visceral charm, asserting itself with tact and prowess during all of the key moments. Musical themes for Rey, Kylo Ren and the Resistance resurface with colourful variation, driving the action forward with palpable force that will leave you breathless in those climactic moments. There’s also an incredibly fun underscoring for the casino planet our heroes visit in the track ‘Canto Bight’. Think 1920s New Orleans jazz mixed with intergalactic calypso vibes. It’s Williams at his most quirky since the original trilogy of films.
However, while a substantial amount of cherished music returns, delivering a spectrum of emotions in the process, it is noticeable that the newer orchestral compositions written for TLJ aren’t quite as stirring as previous sound signatures.
With so much pre-existing music to choose from, it sounds like Williams has slipped into autopilot mode; the general underscore appears less sharp and angular as the first six films in the saga. But this is only a minor complaint. Williams has such a high standard of musical output, the orchestral accompaniment still seamlessly interrelates and grows in brilliance with the unfolding plot.
The sound of silence
It’s in the sound department where cinematic sparkle is added to the film. The saga has always been blessed with an accomplished team of sound designers working to elevate every aspect of the awe-inspiring on-screen spectacle that Star Wars is so well recognised for. And The Last Jedi doesn’t disappoint in this area. In fact, this film arguably showcases the most impressive sonic mastery in the whole saga to date.
While nothing has drastically changed for the sounds of the iconic tie-fighters, x-wings or lightsabers, the experimentation takes place in the realms of surround sound, best utilised when accompanying the track ‘The Cave’, and most ironically, silence itself.
This is silence in its most unconventional form; it’s not calm – it’s nail biting, drawing the audience in with unbounding hypnotism. From providing atmosphere to the intimacy of inter-character conversations, to moments where you can hear a pin drop from one corner of the galaxy to the other, it’s used in a tasteful, tangible way, and adds a special flair of diversity to the arsenal of sound effects already seen throughout the film.
“Sound and music are 50% of the entertainment in a movie” – George Lucas, creator of Star Wars
In today’s film industry, sci-fi is a genre that would flop without the help of special effects and impeccable sound design. From its conception in the 1970s, Star Wars has proved, time and time again, that it’s a master of its craft, and the TLJ soundtrack is an embodiment of this pursuit of sonic perfection.
The musical depth that Williams continually creates across the 40-year history of the saga is just as compelling and explorative as the journeys the heroes and villains embark on themselves. And as I left the cinema humming the Resistance theme, I knew the long wait for Episode IX had begun.
– Alex Weston