This Star Wars article contains spoilers.
As a franchise Star Wars is inseparable from John Williams’ dazzling musical tapestry. Many credit the veteran composer with re-igniting the Golden Age orchestral film score with the Oscar-winning A New Hope back in 1977. Forty years later he’s still capable of sustaining the same levels of excitement with his scores for the new Star Wars trilogy.
It’s not hard to see why: the composer weaves together a symphony of action, intrigue, and romance that effortlessly elevates the viewing experience. Here’s our analysis of Williams’ new and pre-existing trilogy themes deployed in The Last Jedi, and their importance to the burgeoning trilogy narrative.
The Main Title Theme
Arguably the most famous piece of brass-led music in soundtrack history, this is one of the key connective pieces of musical tissue between the Original, Prequel, and Sequel Trilogies.
When it resounded once again at the start of The Force Awakens (conducted by Gustavo Dudamel at Williams’ request, and also for the end credits), it was as if we’d never been away. The opening of The Last Jedi re-affirms this feeling of nostalgia. (Also listen out for a reprise of A New Hope‘s “Rebel Fanfare.”)
The theme was stated piecemeal throughout The Force Awakens (most notably in the spectacular “The Falcon” and “Scherzo for X-Wings”) and The Last Jedi follows suit. Its most monumental statement comes in “The Battle of Crait,” set to go down as one of Williams’ most sensational action tracks as the themes for Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the Resistance, and Rey (Daisy Ridley) interweave around the brassy main title refrain and the electrifying reprise of “TIE Fighter Attack” from A New Hope. Truly it’s a piece comparable to The Empire Strikes Back‘s “The Battle of Hoth.”
Then of course there’s the rousing “Finale” suite, preceded by an arrestingly delicate rendition of Luke Skywalker’s theme.
Williams says Daisy Ridley’s performance as the plucky Jakku scavenger was the lynchpin for The Force Awakens‘ score (“I felt a lot of empathy for that girl, and I think Rey’s theme needs to illustrate that”), anchoring it in a sense of delicate wonderment, compassion, and burgeoning heroism.
Her beautiful theme is the core of both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi soundtracks. Whereas in the former it built from a gorgeous War Horse-esque flute solo into a noble statement for full orchestra as Rey comes to embrace her Jedi powers, the latter movie applies the theme in ever-more complex ways. After all Rey is now at a crossroads, the Jedi mantle having been passed to her by the ailing Luke, and Williams’ increasingly emboldened music mirrors her ascent into the annals of Jedi history.
Its initial statements accompany the hesistant introduction between Rey and Luke, the theme still possessing some of those naive, bucolic qualities in lieu of the heroism that emerges later on.
“Lesson One” interweaves Rey’s music around the material for the Force, signifiying how her destiny is becoming bound up with the mystic Jedi arts. Of course, the path to becoming a Jedi isn’t easy. Just as Rey struggles to piece together the Luke/Kylo Ren history, so too does she struggle with her own inner emotions, allowing Williams to unleash his underrated penchant for atonal, dissonant music in “The Cave” as Rey’s theme is turned inside out.
From wistful woodwind to major key brass statements: Rey’s theme can only get bigger and bolder in Episode IX.
The Force Theme
Imprinted in viewers’ minds ever since the classic “Binary Sunset” cue in A New Hope, the noble horn/string theme anchors the entire saga in profound, mysterious gravitas. Its appearances in The Force Awakens are relatively sparing but impactful: after all this is our introduction to these new characters and they are variously grappling with (and being introduced to) the Force as a concept.
Of course, The Last Jedi controversially expands our understanding of the Force as we know it, from space-gliding Leia (Carrie Fisher) to Luke’s ability to Force-project himself. For this reason, the Force theme pervades this score more extensively than its predecessor, beginning with “Ahch-To Island.” “Old Friends” opens and closes with the Force theme, sandwiching some more difficult material.
Williams is brilliant at coloring the theme in a variety of different hues, from the wondrous “Lesson One” to the more understated “The Sacred Jedi Texts,” a key moment in both movie and soundtrack as the past (quite literally) burns in favor of moving the mythology forward.
Unsurprisingly, the theme’s most affecting statements come during the cathartic final stages, particularly in The Last Jedi that’s nothing less than the closing of a vital Star Wars chapter. Williams’ music sees Luke disappear into the Force, the composer wringing every possible ounce of emotion from the symphony.
Following The Force Awakens and prior to The Last Jedi, theories raged about Andy Serkis’ villain – namely is he the notorious Sith Lord Darth Plageuis? Of course, we all know how said theories turned out…
The bone-chilling male voice throat choir deployed by Williams (echoes of Seven Years in Tibet) didn’t slip past eagle-eared fans, who were quick to point out its similarity to the “Palpatine’s Teachings” track from Revenge of the Sith. It may ultimately be just a tonal and textural similarity (J.J. Abrams has himself shot down the theory), but it’s fascinating to note how such an eerie theme can prompt all kinds of fan speculation on its own.
Given Snoke’s curtailed screen time in The Last Jedi, his growling vocal textures make only two noteworthy appearances, the first in “The Supremacy.”
It then reaches even more brooding heights at the start of “A New Alliance” as Snoke’s evil reaches its zenith, whereby he coaxes Luke’s location from Rey. There appears to be an indirect allusion to the Emperor’s theme from Return of the Jedi before the terror is abruptly interrupted by the invasive textures of Ren’s theme, signalling Snoke’s abrupt, shocking depature from the movie.
Kylo Ren’s Theme
Operating in stark contrast to the delicacy and beauty of Rey’s theme is that of her First Order nemesis. Introduced in The Force Awakens, it resounds as a five-note theme for trombones and low-register horns, communicating Ren’s brutal, rage-fuelled sense of menace (especially the introductory “Attack on the Jakku Village”).
Williams intended the theme to initially sound incomplete, indicating that Ren hasn’t yet fulfilled his dark destiny. Given his increased sense of inner conflict in The Last Jedi, his theme initially arrives in tortured clusters while playing in counterpoint to the grace of Rey’s theme – light vs. dark. This is evident in “Revisiting Snoke,” and also “The Supremacy.”
Midway through the album comes the terrific “A New Alliance,” underscoring the death of Snoke and the complex series of allegiances and betrayals that ensue in Ren and Rey’s battle with the Praetorian Guards. Williams plays off major and minor key variations of Ren’s theme with Rey’s theme as our feelings towards him oscillate wildly, muddying the water as to whether he’s embraced the light or dark side of the Force. The primal taiko drums and woodblocks only add to the dynamic orchestral mix.
Of course, Ren ultimately uses the opportunity to become the new Supreme Leader. Williams’ theme consequently steps up a gear in terms of tonal menace and militaristic aggression during “The Battle of Crait,” relentlessly driving forward like an AT-M6 walker.
Our first indication of what Ren’s theme might sound like in Episode IX comes in the brief, snare-driven statement 1:10 into “Peace and Purpose” – it seems Ren’s formerly inconclusive music has finally matured into something truly dangerous, anticipating his growth into the trilogy’s new supervillain.
Han and Leia’s Theme
Tempering the darker aspects of The Force Awakens‘ score is the purely nostalgic pleasure of the Original Trilogy’s love theme. (Just think of the famous “I know” exchange from Empire and it’ll come flooding back.) The flutes and strings communicating Han and Leia’s deep-seated affection make appearances, but the piece isn’t given much of an airing aside from the climactic “Farewell,” where it alludes to Leia’s sudden, heartbreaking bereavement.
Given Leia’s increased prominence in The Last Jedi‘s narrative, this piece makes regular appearances, while also touching a nostalgic nerve as we realize this is the last time we’ll see Fisher in the Star Wars universe. Notable iterations, include the shimmering statement in “The Supremacy,” accompanying the notorious Mary-Poppins-in-space moment.
Perhaps the most moving is its recap 2:40 into “Finale,” coinciding with the on-screen credit for the late, lamented Carrie.
Luke and Leia’s Theme
Just one appearance from this masterful piece, its first appearance in the Star Wars musical canon since Return of the Jedi. But given the wider context of the scene, it’s one of the most impactful moments in the entire score. Appearing at 0:57 in “The Spark,” it’s a tender balm amidst the musical chaos of the score’s action material, binding Luke and Leia together one more time as he Force projects onto Crait to inspire her Resistance fighters and distract Kylo Ren in the process. Once more, Williams’ intricate interweaving of his various musical ideas cannot be understated: it’s the beating heart and soul of the franchise.
The Imperial March
Darth Vader’s theme only appears once in The Force Awakens, and then only briefly, when Ren invokes his grandfather’s presence by cradling his devastated helmet. Nevertheless, so iconic is the theme that a few sparing notes resound with the monumental weight of franchise history, while also deepening our understanding of Ren and how he longs to live up to Vader’s legacy.
Once again, Williams resists laying it on too heavy in The Last Jedi, but its chilling appearance in “Revisiting Snoke” again hints at Ren’s identity crisis, as he’s mercilessly taunted by his manipulative master.
The Resistance March
Again, another piece that makes infrequent appearances in The Force Awakens, no doubt owing to the fact that the Resistance first appears quite late into the story. Its first fragmentary appearances are related to swashbuckling X-wing pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), whose abilities are spectacularly reinforced by Williams in “I Can Fly Anything.”
Somewhat disappointingly, Poe’s theme is absent from the commercial release of The Last Jedi soundtrack, although its film appearances are more frequent. (Also absent is the thunderous brass motif for Laura Dern’s self-sacrificing Admiral Holdo.) Nevertheless, the increased frequency of the Resistance fanfare more than makes up for it.
Notable statements include the second half of “Main Title and Escape,” “The Rebellion Is Reborn,” “Chrome Dome” (which also contains a blistering Stravinsky homage), and the conclusive, hopeful “The Spark,” alluding to a brighter future for the beleagured fighters as they look to seek help from the outer rim in the wake of Luke’s sacrifice.
The contentious reunion between Luke and the Force ghost of his old Jedi master (Frank Oz) leaves us with more questions than answers. Nevertheless, the return of the delicate, wistful theme for Yoda himself invokes more than a few chills and tears, bridging old and new as Luke is reminded how important it is to fail in order to move forward. It’s a powerful reminder of how important Williams is in forging our emotional connection to these mythical characters.
The most significant new piece in The Last Jedi is for Kelly Marie Tran’s Finn-worshipping Resistance fighter. Clearly feeding off the infectious enthusiasm of Tran’s performance, Williams introduces a sprightly theme full of wonder (akin to his Harry Potter work), one that initially appears in fragments as Rose cradles one half of the pendant shared with her late, dreadnaught-obliterating sister. Its concert arrangement comes in “Fun with Finn and Rose.”
Its most rambunctious statement, however, is in the magnificent “The Fathiers,” as Rose releases the imprisoned horse-like creatures from their Canto Bight stables. Barrelling forward and mirroring the movement of the creatures, it’s a brilliantly swashbuckling piece.
Alluding to Rose’s increased importance within the resistance, Williams incorporates her piece into “The Battle of Crait,” where it surges forward against the driving rage of Kylo Ren’s theme. It then gets one ultimate reprise in the summary “Finale,” alongside the multitude of other musical ideas.
The aforementioned city gets treated to its own 21st century update of the classic “Cantina Band” music as a whole host of steel drums, saxophones, and jazz trumpets immerse us in Canto Bight’s murky criminal underworld. (It’s somewhat akin to “The Knight Bus” cue from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.) We’ve been waiting years for Williams to rekindle this particular style, and it makes for one of the film’s – and soundtrack’s – most delightful surprises.
The Jedi Steps/Luke and Rey’s Theme
The last piece of The Force Awakens‘ puzzle kicks in right at the very end of the score, a brand new, surging Jedi theme that ascends in rhythmic and tonal majesty to mirror Rey’s own climactic ascent of the Jedi steps. Given Luke’s absence from much of The Force Awakens, Williams is limited to a single usage of this theme, but it’s certainly a beautiful one.
This theme is reprised briefly at the onset of The Last Jedi in “Ahch-To Island,” as Rey discovers Luke. Of course, that scene culminates in a tossing out of the old, both literally and figuratively, as Luke throws away his lightsaber, paving the way for an expansive new theme that bonds tortured veteran Jedi and wide-eyed fledgling warrior together. This is later reprised in “The Rebellion Is Reborn” where it sits alongside statements of Rose’s theme.
“Old Friends” sees another reprise, the soothing beauty of the Luke/Rey material rudely interrupted by turbulent textures alluding to the possible end of the Jedi Order, before harmonic peace is restored again at the end. It’s the emotional arc of the movie in one sweeping package.
Given the emotionally charged climax of The Last Jedi, with Luke having passed into the Force and Rey having helped lead the Resistance ‘spark’ to victory, it remains to be seen whether this piece will be invoked again. Maybe Williams will deploy it as a legacy piece, alluding to the influence Luke has had on Rey’s development as a Jedi. Either way, we can’t wait to see how the score for Episode IX progresses.