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Saturday, May 04, 2002

Evaluating a new John Williams filmscore is always fairly difficult, even for one where there is so much familiarity as there is with his already-extant Star Wars scores. Even with four previous films and filmscores to go on, it's still somewhat hard to judge Williams's score to Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. This is not purely due to the film having not been released yet; my strongly held belief (which is only getting stronger as the years go by) is that one should not hesitate to listen to film music even for films one has not seen. Good film music must be good music first, and good music by definition can stand alone.

The difficulty with a Williams score comes in its presentation. Williams has always tended to rearrange his score albums, taking cues apart and pairing them with other cues to form single tracks that (theoretically) are more listenable than the cues as originally written. Williams has continued to do this, even as the trend in filmscore releases in recent years has trended very strongly toward presenting the music purely in film order. Williams even did it with his initial score CD to The Phantom Menace -- for example, the track entitled "Qui Gon's Noble End" starts with the "dark fanfare" when the landing bay doors part, revealing Darth Maul; then the track presents the action music that accompanied the escape from Naboo, about an hour earlier in the film, before finally returning to the music that accompanies, well, Qui Gon's noble end. Good listening? Yes, but not exactly conducive to really judging Williams's effort. That CD was then supplanted a year and a half later by the release of a 2-CD set of the same score, which was labeled "The Ultimate Edition" and did present the entire score in film order. (Actually, it presented the score exactly in film order, which caused some consternation amongst filmscore afficionados because George Lucas had re-edited the film's final act after Williams had completed scoring, resulting in a few odd-sounding edits in the music.) Further, the Phantom Menace album -- while a delight -- also omitted a number of the score's best cues, including the entirety of the delicate music from the scene where young Anakin gains his freedom and says goodbye to his mother. Assuming that Attack of the Clones has roughly as much music as The Phantom Menace did (just about every scene in the earlier film was scored), and assuming that reports of the new film's running time -- roughly 130-140 minutes -- are accurate, then the new CD has probably omitted at least 45 minutes of score. It will be interesting to see what, exactly, has been left out.

What to make, then, of what we have been presented of Williams's Attack of the Clones score? I have read a number of reviews of it, some positive and some not. The dividing line seems to be how the reviewer in question responds to the score's "Love Theme", since it is by far the most dominant theme on the CD -- we hear it, either in part or in whole, on nearly every track. Critics who find the "Love Theme" gorgeous tend to give the score high marks; those who find it lacking (especially in comparison to the great "Love Themes" from the classic Episodes IV, V and VI) tend to rank this score lower. And me? I fall, quite solidly, in the former camp.

The "Love Theme from Attack of the Clones" is, to my ears, absolutely and utterly gorgeous. It is passionate, lyrical, and sad. It is perhaps the darkest Love Theme that Williams has ever created, which is certainly fitting given what we know of how the romance of Anakin and Amidala eventually plays out. The earlier Love Themes in the series -- most notably, that from The Empire Strikes Back -- are made to sound at times sweet and romantic (Han and Leia's first kiss, for example) or sweeping and desperate (the carbon-freezing scene, frex). By contrast, the Clones theme is almost unremittingly desperate, even when it is played in fairly innocent fashion. Williams seems to be pointing the way to the story's inevitable turn toward ever darker events. Particularly notable is how, in the concert version of the Love Theme, Williams incorporates a central section where the theme is interpolated with more rhythmic and darkly martial-sounding music. This treatment seems to note how, even as Anakin pursues his love, he is moving toward becoming what Obi Wan will later call "more machine than man". I find this treatment fascinating. The Love Theme, as noted earlier, crops up very often throughout this CD, never more remarkably than in the final track, when Williams segues from a full-bore statement of his famous "Imperial March" to the Love Theme before going to the End Credits music. It's impossible to ignore the dramatic implications of juxtaposing Vader's Theme (even though Vader doesn't really exist yet) and Anakin's Love Theme. And Williams does it once more, at the very end of the End Credits, when as the Love Theme fades away he quotes his theme for Anakin from The Phantom Menace before giving a very haunting last statement of the Imperial March.

After the Love Theme, the music that will likely make or break a person's opinion of this score is the third track, "Zam the Assassin and the Chase Through Coruscant". This is a pure action track, eleven minutes long, and it is almost entirely a study in rhythm with just about no melodic material whatsoever. It's a fascinating sound, especially a central portion that contains nothing but percussion (which sounds like some of the more frenetic percussion stuff one would encounter at a Drum and Bugle Corps competition). It is in this track that Williams employs an electric guitar, which riffs on a very brief motif two or three times for about twenty seconds altogether. This use of guitar -- an instrument that almost no one would expect in a Star Wars score -- has been the basis of a large amount of the discussion of this score around the Web, but hate it or love it the guitar isn't very loud (in fact, it's almost a background instrument) and it's only heard for a total of twenty seconds or so, out of an eleven-minute cue. What interests me more about "Zam the Assassin" is that it marks a point that Williams has reached that is about as far away from the action writing that he used to do, action writing that -- while always incredibly exciting -- was always melodically based. My heart still races when I listen to his "Battle of Yavin" track from A New Hope, especially the part toward the end when Luke's Theme is heard over steadily thumbing timpani and ever rising chords (as Luke is all alone in the Death Star trench, with Vader closing in on him). Williams also wrote melodically-based action cues for The Phantom Menace, so perhaps this is experimental on his part given that the chase in question is in a very urban setting, something which we haven't seen in a Star Wars film yet. I'm undecided as to whether or not I like "Zam the Assassin and the Chase Through Coruscant". But I'm certainly getting to know it well as I consider it.

Of course, a Star Wars score should contain a number of the earlier themes from the series, and Attack of the Clones doesn't disappoint. The "Force Theme" is quite prominent, and we also hear "Yoda's Theme" (mostly in a beautiful track called "Yoda and the Younglings"). There is also a big quote from "Duel of the Fates" (from The Phantom Menace), and in the final track we hear -- as noted above -- a big statement of the Imperial March, probably to signal that the Republic has irrevocably turned the corner toward becoming the Empire. The score opens with the Star Wars Main Title, in the same incarnation in which it has been heard in the other four films. Some commentators have complained about this; some think that the instrumentation should be changed to reflect the darker tone of Episode II (and Episode III to come); and some have even suggested that the Main Title be eliminated from the CD entirely to make room for another "new" track or two. Personally, I can't fathom a Star Wars score CD not starting with that theme, but that's only my opinion.

So, here we have a score that is in my estimation worthy of the tradition in which it stands. Time will tell if it will become as classic a work as its forebears. But then, that's the case with everything, isn't it?

(A couple of extra points: First, the versions of the Attack of the Clones score CD that are being sold at Target stores contain a bonus hidden track, an action cue apparently called "The Conveyor Belt". Secondly, the documentation annoyingly does not include track times. Finally -- and this is a piddling complaint, but it's my blog -- the picture on the CD itself is terrible. It's a muddy shot of Slave One flying through an asteroid field, firing its blasters. If I hadn't seen the film's previews, though, I would have absolutely no idea just what the picture is. I liked the picture of Naboo from the Phantom Menace CD a lot more than this one.)


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