The Star Wars universe is gradually moving beyond its original composer, who was a whopping 83 when The Force Awakens opened, and ceded composing duties to another for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
But when they first got this thing off the ground—10 years after the last Star Wars movie and with the tang of Episodes I-III still lingering in everyone's mouths—there was no way they'd trust this baby's music to anyone but the guy who'd been there since the beginning.
John Williams, legend of legends, stepped up to continue the legacy he started in 1977…and, along with screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, was the biggest reason for the Star Wars faithful to breathe a sigh of relief.
The Man, the Myth, the Legend
Williams began composing movie soundtracks as early as the 1950s, moving out to Los Angeles where his family lived after attending the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City.
He mainly did a lot of television, where he came into contact with producer Irwin Allen. Allen moved into movies in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and he brought Williams along. He composed the soundtracks to a lot of Allen-backed disaster movies like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno. They were bad movies—so very, very bad—but they had great scores, and Williams earned a lot of street cred along the way. He even picked up an Oscar for Fiddler on the Roof, all before hitting the streak that turned him from a good composer into a living legend.
The starting point for that? Jaws, a movie that fit the disaster-movie mold in more ways than one.
Director Steven Spielberg suffered through all kinds of production delays, interference, crabby actors, and a mechanical shark that sank to the bottom of the ocean at one point. He needed something to pull it all together and make it work. Enter Williams, who delivered…well, if you haven't heard the Jaws theme by now, please take us with you back to your alien planet.
That ominous theme saved the movie, and a couple of years later when Spielberg's friend George Lucas needed a soundtrack to hit all the right notes for a little sci-fi flick called Star Wars, Williams was recommended to give all the special effects a little more emotional pep. Williams hit it out of the park, and again, we're pretty sure everyone out there can hum his themes by heart. It goes almost without saying that he won Oscars for both.
From then on, he pretty much marched from triumph to triumph. The Indiana Jones theme? His. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Jurassic Park, Superman, Harry Potter? His, his, his, and his.
He even gave us the NBC News theme and the Olympic fanfare. With a few tiny exceptions, Steven Spielberg never made another movie without him, and, of course, he came back to compose the awesome themes to the Star Wars prequels.
He was 80 when Disney bought the rights to Star Wars, and most of us figured he'd be happy to take a pass on this one. Luckily, most of us were very, very wrong.
Tackling Episode VII
Frankly speaking, it's not the most innovative Star Wars soundtrack he's done. It's has a similar problem that faced the creation of Kylo Ren: with so many great themes and ideas out there already, how do you either top it or do something different?
Williams opts for something safer: nostalgic, leaning heavily on earlier pieces, but finding enough distinction to give the score its own identity (if not the pure slice of awesomeness that is, say, "The Imperial March," or "Yoda's Theme").
Still, it's good stuff. It's new enough to be thrilling while still connected to the larger musical canvas that is Star Wars. These stories are very straightforward, by design. There's not a lot of musing about the depths of the characters or the emotional significance of a given moment in the dialogue. That's Williams' job.
For example, listen to "Rey's Theme" from the soundtrack. It's understated. It uses a lot of woodwinds, which Williams doesn't usually lean on (he's a John Philip Sousa kind of guy: brass, brass, and more brass), and it's very quiet, at least at the beginning.
But it develops into something stronger and bolder as it goes on, letting you feel the journey she takes without leaning on the script.
Kylo Ren gets similar treatment, though he's much louder and scarier. With Ren it's all brass and minor keys, as befits a bad guy. Williams wants to stress the Darth Vader vibe this guy's got going on (and indeed leave him in Vader's shadow to a certain extent) while still making sure we see him as his own character, not just a clone of bad guys past.
It's a bit of a balancing act, and it gets trickier when the old guard enters the picture. Han, Luke, and Leia all have their own themes already, and yet they're doing new things here. So Williams has to respond by weaving their existing themes into new material.
You can see that here, in Han and Leia's theme. It starts out with the established theme from Empire, then goes off in different directions (reflecting Leia's role as a general and the things she has to get done to stop the First Order), then goes back to their theme, then cuts to Luke's theme when they talk about getting their friend back.
That shifts gears more than the owner of an old VW, but Williams makes it all sound smooth and organic. The best always make it look so easy, and at least some of the incredible power of the film's finale belongs to the guy with the conducting baton.
It may seem surprising that Williams could still bring it 40 years after Jaws. But as the subject of one of his scores once said, "I'm full of surprises."