No movie perhaps has ever been more widely anticipated than Star Wars Episode VII. After a decade since the last Star Wars movie, expectations were not only ridiculously high, but also came from more angles than had ever before.
Perhaps equally important for the new movie was the fate of the music of the Star Wars universe, a universe that has been so richly developed by John Williams over the course of 6 films, something that few franchises ever achieve. Many people were anxious initially about whether or not Williams would be asked to score Episode VII, after all, most of JJ Abrams’s recent movies, notably the Star Trek reboots, were scored by Michael Giacchino, and Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm meant that anything was possible. However, fans, and myself include, were nevertheless ecstatic when it was announced that Williams would be composing the score for The Force Awakens.
I won’t delve into specifics of the score and analyze every cue, as I have no desire to turn this into a review blog. It’s very time consuming - there’s no way I could possibly keep up with every new soundtrack amidst everything else going on in my life - and there are already very good review sites out there, such as Filmtracks and Movie Wave. All I wish to do is voice my thoughts on the music after both seeing the movie and listening to the album.
That being said, to be honest, I’m still not sure what to make of the music for The Force Awakens. It certainly doesn’t sound like the original trilogy, or the prequels, or for that matter, anything else that I’ve ever heard by Williams. I will not try to make a determination on whether or not the music is “better” or “worse” - I will simply say that it is different.
And of course that’s to be expected when one writes over a hundred film scores over the course of 60 years. People change, their writing style and abilities change. Of course The Force Awakens is going to sound different when it’s been 10 years since Williams wrote anything in the Star Wars universe and over 30 years since he wrote music for where this movie picks up (referring to the internal chronological order of the franchise). Overall, it’s really neither here nor there, it just is.
Undoubtedly the greatest components of the music that Williams writes are the themes and melodies. All it takes is the first few notes, and they are instantly recognizable, memorable, and associated with people, and places, concepts, and emotions. You see A New Hope, or Indiana Jones, or Superman and immediately after walking out of the theater, you’re humming or whistling the tunes.
Not so much with The Force Awakens, at least for me. After seeing the movie for the first time, I walked out of there and couldn’t recall a single new theme from it. Now, after the second time, and after listening to the soundtrack album, I can identify and recognize the new material that Williams has conceived just as well as any. If you look at the themes and motifs from all of the “classic” Williams scores, including the original trilogy, they are mostly simple. Now, I can’t really define them and say that they are rhythmically simple, or harmonically simple, or anything like that, just that collectively, each theme or motif overall is simple. The themes is The Force Awakens are more complex, more involved than the ones from the other Star Wars scores. Compare the Rebel Fanfare to the March of the Resistance, for example:
Whoa, right away visually without even studying the music you can see the difference. Even when writing this out I had to listen to the March again whereas I just knew the Rebel Fanfare intrinsically. It's still a phenomenal theme and piece on the soundtrack, I just personally feel that the memorability and simplicity of Williams’s prior themes makes them somewhat superior in a way. As Da Vinci said, “Simplicity it the ultimate sophistication”.
The only theme that I think comes close to this level of simplicity and memorability, and maybe even rivals Williams's prior Star Wars themes is Rey's Theme, and the accompanying ostinato. That one has stuck with me much better than the others and is very distinctive compared to the rest of the material in The Force Awakens.
The other thing of note that I wanted to mention is the style of the music, especially the action sequences, such as in “The Falcon”. Compare that to “The Battle of Yavin” from A New Hope. To me, the action sequences sound kind of like if John Williams scored an Avengers film. That most certainly doesn’t mean it isn’t good. In fact, it’s a hell of a lot better than most of the stuff that’s been coming out of those Marvel movies. But already I get a bit of that feeling from some of the action music in The Force Awakens; the constant running pulse throughout the entirety of “The Falcon” as opposed to “The Battle of Yavin” which has different characters over the course of its duration. Now granted, one is 3 times longer than the other.
That’s not to say at all that there isn’t much to enjoy here. My favorite cue from the soundtrack and one of my favorites in the whole Star Wars franchise is “Scherzo for X-Wings”, featuring an incredible blend of themes. Also, people have criticized Williams's motif for Kylo Ren as being “boring” or “ineffective”, but I happen to like it a lot. It follows very much like the development of Darth Vader in the original trilogy - in A New Hope, Vader only gets a brief motif and it isn’t until The Empire Strikes Back that he gets a full blown theme. I expect Williams to develop Kylo Ren musically just as he has done with all the other characters in the franchise.
As I said before, things change over the course of 30 years of writing film music, even if you’re John Williams. Even though The Force Awakens is a Star Wars movie, it is still a modern movie too, and it seems only logical that the music would just that as well - still John Williams and still Star Wars, just modern.