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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

John Williams -- Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

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One time I wrote a really long comparison of the original and prequel Star Wars trilogies. I am not going to go deep into detail on that sort of thing now, except of course to say, duh, the original trilogy is better. John Williams was in his late 40's and early 50's when he composed the music for those original films. He was in his late 60's and early 70's when he composed the music for the prequel trilogy. Obviously, with the drop-off in the quality of the films, and Williams' advancing age, one would expect a similar drop-off in the prequel's musical score quality. That isn't the case, though, especially not here. Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) is a classic John Williams Soundtrack. Here's why:
Themes. It's what you want and expect from a Williams' soundtrack. He composes a remarkable, blood-pumping choral work, titled "Duel of the Fates," for the film's battle of light against darkness. He composes an absolutely heartbreaking and innocent theme for the child, Anakin Skywalker, all the while finding a way to call back to the previous trilogy, incorporating hints of Anakin's dark future. He similarly does interesting, but respectably minimal callbacks to the theme's of characters who pop up in both trilogies, such as Yoda or Jabba the Hutt. He creates a memorably mechanistic and militaristic theme for the droid army. He creates a light-hearted, but somehow not cloying theme for the bumbling (and nearly film-ruining) JarJar Binks. He creates a wistful, nostalgic, yet tentative theme for Anakin's mother (which is sadly underrepresented on this soundtrack). He also comes up with great cues that call back to his Indiana Jones days of giving each action scene its own distinct theme.
Atmosphere. Williams does an incredible job of creating a sense of mystery and wonder with this soundtrack. There's a childlike grace to this work, necessarily lacking in the other prequel scores--obviously this is due to the film's focus on a child, versus the petulant teenager of Episodes II and III.. Every time a new planet is visited, the score treats the moment as a major event, worthy of fanfare. Underwater settings receive more than suitable dark and aquatic rumblings. Preludes to lightsaber showdowns are scored with Japanese Samurai-film-like percussion work. Action scene music is fun and upbeat, yet epic. This sounds like a whole new galaxy, ready to be explored, and yet familiar all at once. Williams creates such a lush and diverse world here, one would think The Phantom Menace is an incredible film, even though it is one that leaves much to be desired. Perhaps Williams' was simply enthusiastic to be composing for Star Wars again. Whatever the case, the is a major, not a minor work in Williams celebrated discography.
Structure. The CD soundtrack also marks perhaps the best job Williams ever did at structuring one of his "concert-suite" style soundtracks. If you've missed references to this in my previous reviews, space limitations in the late 70's and early 80's forced Williams to find inventive ways to put out decent representations of his film scores. While he would often compose two full hours of music for the films he was working on, he would only have a 50-minute long vinyl LP to showcase it. This forced Williams to get creative, often having to splice together different movements to get the best work onto the record. He also included music unused in the films to create a better listening experience. As compact discs reached the mainstream, Williams often continued this practice, despite now having an additional 30 minutes of space with which to work. However, if Jurassic Park marked the nadir of Williams' album construction work, Episode I marks the absolute pinnacle. Williams really does create an excellent flow that represents almost all the best facets of his work for the film. In fact, here he actually bests a later released Special Edition of the soundtrack that includes most of the music from the film in order, as the chopped up versions of his cues from the film don't work as seamlessly as his concert suites do here. This may indeed mark the rare occasion where listening to a film's soundtrack album is a more enjoyable experience than watching the film itself. Of course, I need to make something clear here:
For as much vitriol as it has drawn in ensuing years, most viewers, myself included, highly enjoyed their first few theater viewings of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. It was new Star Wars after sixteen years of no new Star Wars. It was space battles and lightsaber fights after sixteen years of no space battles or lightsaber fights. It was Star Wars. I can guarantee, the first impression that led me to see The Phantom Menace five times in the theater was largely bolstered by Williams work.

How could you not wear a grin after listening to this?

1999 Sony Classical
1. Star Wars Main Title and The Arrival at Naboo 2:55
2. Duel of the Fates 4:14
3. Anakin's Theme 3:05
4. Jar Jar's Introduction and The Swim to Otoh Gunga 5:07
5. The Sith Spacecraft and The Droid Battle 2:37
6. The Trip to the Naboo Temple and The Audience with Boss Nass 4:07
7. The Arrival at Tatooine and The Flag Parade4:04
8. He Is the Chosen One 3:53
9. Anakin Defeats Sebulba 4:24
10. Passage Through the Planet Core 4:40
11. Watto's Deal and Kids at Play 4:57
12. Panaka and the Queen's Protectors 3:24
13. Queen Amidala and The Naboo Palace 4:51
14. The Droid Invasion and The Appearance of Darth Maul 5:14
15. Qui-Gon's Noble End 3:48
16. The High Council Meeting and Qui-Gon's Funeral 3:09
17. Augie's Great Municipal Band and End Credits 9:37

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