Saturday, May 13, 2006

HIGH NOTES: The Empire Strikes Back

When the original “Star Wars” film was released, John Williams delivered a score that redefined movie music, even as the film itself forever changed the film industry. Williams deserves a lot of credit for the success of the “Star Wars” films, so he also faced high expectations on the first sequel, “The Empire Strikes Back.”

Not everyone may agree, but I think Williams topped himself and then some with the score to “Empire,” if for no other reason, then for the theme he introduced to highlight the bad guys: “The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme).” Out of all the themes (without vocals) Williams created for “Star Wars,” none of them hold a candle to this song. For many years, I had a tradition for any new stereo I bought, whether for my home or my car, I always “christened” it by playing this song.

Of course, one song does not a great score make. Even as Williams introduced a great song for the bad guys, he offered a little something new for the heroes. He gave us “Yoda’s Theme.” Where “The Imperial March” is all military with its brass and drums, “Yoda’s Theme” belongs to the string section and woodwinds. Much as I praise “The Imperial March,” it’s this great contrast Williams gives us for Yoda that makes the former song so powerful.

Both of these themes dominate the score, but they never grow tiresome because of the variety in which Williams employs them. Perhaps the best subtle use of “The Imperial March” comes within “Carbon Freeze/Luke Pursues the Captives/Departure of Boba Fett.” As Han Solo is frozen in carbonite, “The Imperial March” is unleashed to full effect, followed by a sad rendition of the Han and Leia love theme. The focus shifts back to Vader, though, and when that happens, Williams makes it a gentle transition by toning down the horns and adding in a soft play of the drums and cymbals. This might well be my favorite use of “The Imperial March” in all of the films.

I did mention the love theme, and it wouldn’t be fair to offer a critique of this score without a mention to that. The music is powerful and romantic and also closes out the film. It’s a great touch to remind everyone that Han is still very present in spirit at the end, and to a degree foreshadows that his rescue will be the beginning of the next film. My only complaint about the love theme is that we don’t get an orchestral version of this theme as we do with “Yoda’s Theme” and “The Imperial March.” It’s a great piece of music, but it’s forced to play second fiddle to the two big ones.

Oddly enough, while Williams neglected an orchestral treatment for the love theme, he did take time to write one for “The Asteroid Field.” I can’t complain about that, because this really is stirring music. Years ago, I bought a collection of music from the original trilogy, and it included this piece. Idiot that I am, I got rid of this CD since I had the anthology set mentioned in my previous entry for “Return of the Jedi.” The orchestral version really was great. In many ways, it follows the film version of this piece, but it starts and ends differently. The film version gives us another pounding rendition of “The Imperial March” before moving into the theme for the chase within the asteroid field. I can’t tell you how badly I want to get my hands on this CD again just for that one song!

Other Scores by John Williams:

This really was the best score within the original trilogy. Williams introduced four themes that improved on what he’d started in the original film and still managed to make them fit in with the first film’s themes.

As with my critique for “Return of the Jedi,” I should mention the titles I refer to might not match the track titles on the special edition release of this score. The titles I use were taken from the “Star Wars Anthology” I purchased long ago back in college.

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