Music in the movies: celebrating John Williams’ Star Wars prequel trilogy scores

This week’s Music in the movies sees Glen continues his look back at John Williams’ Star Wars scores — this time, it’s the turn of his work on the prequel trilogy…

Having covered John Williams’ scores for the original Star Wars trilogy last week, now it’s time to take a look at his work for the divisive prequels. Can his scores outclass the films they accompany?

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace 

The extraordinary level excitement that preceded the release of The Phantom Menace seems rather ridiculous now. A new Star Wars after more than 20 years: how could it not be the best thing ever? Well, we were shown exactly how over a period of 136 minutes. 

Even though George Lucas forgot that Star Wars was supposed to be, you know, entertaining, John Williams didn’t, as he managed to recapture the spirit of the original trilogy, and at least give a sense of the classics we all know and love by subtly introducing familiar themes from the earlier films, as well as using others in a more overt manner, such as the title fanfare. 

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The stand out, however, wasn’t the re-use of existing themes. It was the new piece, Duel Of The Fates, that proved to be the most impressive – as impressive, exciting and dramatic as anything the great man has produced, in fact, with its novel introduction of choral chanting. The result is enough to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, and it’s pretty much the finest thing to come out of Episode I. 

The choral elements and the devolution of cues established in the original trilogy set the prequel scores apart. By using this approach, it gives the films a sense that they were set in a different time. The look and feel of the films themselves derailed this somewhat, but listening to the score in isolation lets you imagine what might have been if Lucas applied a similar level of artistry as Williams.

As ever, Williams called upon the London Symphony Orchestra, as they recorded the score in Abbey Road. The quality of both the performance and the recording is magnificent, and in terms of audio quality, it’s one of the best releases available for the series.  It should be noted that the track listing for the score gave away some major spoilers, which would have been fine had it not been released in advance of The Phantom Menace’s release.

Star Wars Episode II: Attack Of The Clones

Williams’ return to the series resulted in some magnificent work, and saw the master introduce new layers to the score in Episode I to give it its own identity. A similar approach is employed in his score for Episode II, and it stands out as a great work in its own regard.

The last outing saw the introduction of choral chanting and African drums, and this time, we get some great electric guitar work, which is a welcome addition to the series. Episode II is my least favourite of the Star Wars films (I’d sooner re-watch Caravan Of Courage), but the score is another Williams masterpiece that makes the plodding politicking of the film bearable.

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He manages to create an amazing level of atmosphere and intrigue that the actors themselves fail to deliver. Such things shouldn’t be a surprise from a master of the craft such as Williams. The love theme is more saccharine than the one employed in the original trilogy, and given that the film focuses on the blossoming romance between Anakin and Padme, it’s used quite heavily.

There are tremendous action themes, though, such as Zam The Assassin, which at 11 minutes, is an epic cue that captures the spirit of the chase sequence it accompanies beautifully. For all the greatness of these new elements, though, it’s the appearance of the Imperial March in all its glory that steals the show. Also, this is another track listing that pretty much sums up the key plot developments of the film. Nice to see they learned from past mistakes.

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith 

John Williams’ final score for the series saw the London Symphony Orchestra return to Abbey Road to provide a fitting finale, accompanied by the London Voices to add choral elements. This film is by some distance my favourite of the prequel trilogy, and if I’m in the right mood, I’d rank this above Return Of The Jedi.

I love the dark tone of the film, and that there’s a sense throughout that it won’t end well. As with previous instalments, Williams doesn’t simply rehash existing material; instead, he uses it as a foundation, and introduces new pieces such as Battle Of The Heroes, which plays at the film’s climax.

While it doesn’t match Duel Of The Fates in terms of quality, it’s a fitting piece that perfectly encapsulates the collapse of Episode III’s central relationships, and the internal struggles of both Padme and Obi-Wan, who know that they must destroy Anakin, even though they still love him (perhaps this is how Lucas feels about the films themselves, as he continues to tinker with them).

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This is the pay-off to a number of pieces throughout Revenge Of The Sith that carry a sense of dread and mourning. It’s best enjoyed in the context of the film, as the soundtrack release has tracks arranged in a different sequence. The score is effectively a character study of Anakin, as he fully commits to the dark side of the Force. Much of the score is devoted to emphasising this change, and there are some stunning moments. It’s not the easiest listen by any means, but it’s an incredible piece of work, and is, by some distance, the best score from the prequel trilogy.

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