It’s hard to believe it’s been fifteen years. Fifteen whole years since our hopes and dreams were crushed with one swift stroke. Fifteen years since The Phantom Menace.
I have to admit, I spent several years in denial, and it wasn’t until a year or so after the release of Attack of the Clones that I really woke up, so to speak. Revenge of the Sith came and went and got a vaguely better reception than the previous prequels, but at the end of it all I just felt depressed. Was that it?
I’ve since gotten over it. They’re still not very good movies – and II is still dreadful – but they’re no longer a part of my life, and they certainly don’t have any effect on my enjoyment of the original trilogy. But the music is another matter. It’s not a rarity for most film score fans to have a fair amount of soundtracks to some pretty poor films – A few examples from my own collection include John Scott’s King Kong Lives, Jerry Goldsmith’s Star Trek V, and John Barry’s Octopussy. The majority of us have learned to love the music beyond what it was originally attached to, to give it a new lease of life beyond its original purpose.
What I’m trying to say, in a roundabout way, is while The Phantom Menace as a film has little worth to me any more, I still value the score very highly, both in terms of quality and as a work that I like very much indeed. But what’s great about the score is that it can make the film a much more enjoyable watch. Just grab the two-disc “Ultimate Edition” album, throw it on your ipod, and sit down in front of the film. One of the film’s problems certainly isn’t the production design, so watching the film with a DIY isolated score can make it much more palatable. Of course, the best thing to do is just to listen to the music on its own.
It’s not easy to think of Episode I without hearing ‘Duel of the Fates’ in your head. Written for the ultimate duel at the end of the film between the two Jedi and Darth Maul, it was considered the main theme for the film, even getting a music video for rotation on MTV. A furious piece driven by a curious building motif, the cue features a huge choir singing in sanskrit and while it went onto to feature in the second and third prequels, it only really appeared a couple of times in the picture – scoring the aforementioned duel, and as part of the traditional medley in the end credits. It was a bold new direction for Star Wars; while choral elements had certainly been used (Return of the Jedi in particular used a great deal of vocals to similarly represent the evil Sith) it was never with this intensity, and it certain gave Menace a signature sound.
More traditional – although certainly not in a negative sense – was the other major new theme of the film, Anakin’s theme, representing Anakin Skywalker as a child. A beautifully romantic and almost naive piece, it has the magical grandeur of cues such as ‘Yoda’s Theme’ as well as a sense of longing and dreaming, conveying not only Anakin’s dreams but also being torn between what he wants to do and his responsibility to his mother. There’s also a hint of foreboding in there thanks to a small snippet of ‘The Imperial March’, which at the time was a massive deal. Sadly, it was mostly ignored in the subsequent films.
Many themes from the original trilogy returned, with the obvious one being the main title – which in fact is Luke Skywalker’s theme – as well as Ben Kenobi’s theme aka the Force theme, the Emperor’s theme (which as well as appearing traditionally also turns up in a really odd place), and Yoda’s theme. Liam Neeson’s Qui-Gon also received a noble and forceful theme, as well as fan favourite Jar Jar Binks, whose quirky and jaunty theme recalls the Prokofiev-influenced ‘Parade of the Ewoks’. Evil Sith warrior Darth Maul, who became the poster boy for the film despite being in it for five minutes, got a very simple vocal motif based around the ‘Kor-ah Rat-a-ma’ lyric from ‘Duel of the Fates’. The evil Trade Federation also received their own theme, one which while not as menacing as the Imperial material, still packs a decent punch.
The score itself is absolutely mesmerising and full of great highlights. It’s safe to say that The Phantom Menace was the last time John Williams felt inspired enough by a Star Wars movie to write a consistently great score, and unlike the other two scores, the proof is on disc, even if it is a severely-handicapped album. It truly feels like the world has opened up, and while the music for each place the characters visit is unique, it all feels part of one unified work, albeit with a different feel from the original trilogy due to the evolution of Williams’ writing.
Take the environment of Otoh Gunga for instance, or ‘Bubble World’ as it was called by Williams. At the forefront of the motif for the city is an ethereal choir, which suggests beauty as well as trepidation. Inside the city we hear low, distant strings, and curious woodwinds, conveying an alien feel while still making it feel ethnic so as not to be unfamiliar. Tatooine also receives an ethnic sound, although very different from the Gungans, mostly based around percussion and exotic stringed instruments, whereas Coruscant receives a huge brass-led sound, with trumpet fanfares and soaring strings, reflecting the concept of the city planet as the centre of the galaxy.
The setpieces, a big part of the previous Star Wars scores, were back in force, and Williams’ scoring here actually led to them being re-used for the following films. ‘Escape From Naboo’ is one such cue, an exciting piece with tense brass that ended up not only scoring the Queen’s spaceship evading the Federation fleet, but also the final section of the podrace, as well as part of the crash landing of the massive Federation ship in the first act of Revenge of the Sith. Likewise, the refrain of Luke Skywalker’s theme that accompanies Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan as they fight the droids at the beginning also scored the Republic gunship battle in Attack of the Clones.
The first lightsaber battle we see, between Darth Maul and Qui-Gon, is scored by a thrilling cue that uses a pulsating and intense rendition of Qui-Gon’s theme. Initially scored for strings, the full might of the orchestra comes in when the fight starts and it’s a wonderful moment, albeit short. Of course, the end duel that people usually talk about as the saving grace of the film is, as mentioned before, scored using ‘Duel of the Fates’. However, the final film version is quite different to what was originally composed for the scene, and really, that goes for much of the film.
The general treatment of John Williams’ music across the three prequels was nothing short of disgraceful, and the reasons behind it have been generally laid at the feet of Lucas and sound designer Ben Burtt. Throughout the score cues were trimmed, looped, dropped, and replaced, and it generally makes for a pretty poor listening experience (the “Ultimate Edition” is an example of this). Many fans out there have actually put together fan edits of the score, using music ripped from many Lucasarts video games, and these are all superior than any commercially available album.
To finish, I’ll go through some of the standout cues from the score. ‘Augie’s Great Municipal Band’ is an interesting one, not necessarily one of my favourites, but mainly because it’s a disguised version of the Emperor’s theme, recorded and arranged in an upbeat manner with vocals from children. ‘The Flag Parade’ is an undoubted highlight, a wonderful cue mainly for brass that has amazing brightness and flair, amazing considering it scores a bunch of aliens and robots holding flags. ‘It’s Working’ is another podrace-related piece, very short but with a big melodic orchestral swell that makes it a memorable cue, despite being twenty seconds long. ‘Battleship Destroyed’ is a great action setpiece with massive percussion and a great interpolation of the instrumental part of ‘Duel of the Fates’, before launching into a triumphant version of the Force theme, scoring Anakin’s victory as the enemy spaceship explodes.
But my favourite cue is ‘Anakin Is Free’, mainly because it features all the heart that the film needed and never really got from its writing and directing. It’s delicately scored as Anakin to’s and fro’s about whether or not he should leave his mother to become a Jedi. Featuring a lovely light version of the Force theme as well as a homage to Stu Phillips’ theme to Battlestar Galactica – which was originally thought to be a rip-off of Williams’ 1977 original – it easily tugs on the heartstrings with some beautiful woodwinds, as well as a sweet little section as Anakin says goodbye to C-3PO. But it’s the climax of the cue that really makes it, with some absolutely gorgeous strings searching as Anakin says goodbye, with a little noble fanfare before he leaves, accompanied by a massive emotional rendition of the Force theme that just soars.
The big shame about is that the commercial versions of the soundtrack in no way suggest the potential the score actually has. The original album is okay, but misses a lot of big highlights, and the “Ultimate Edition” gives us the film version of the score, complete with all the loops and tracking present, along with a barefaced lie on the packaging about it being “every note recorded”.
In the end, the only way for The Phantom Menace to get the recognition it deserves is to get it out there. Go and find the fan edits available and give them a listen; write Sony (who have the soundtrack rights) and Disney and demand they give it the proper treatment, and maybe in time people may realise that, once untethered from the film it belongs to, this remarkable score is one of John Williams’ greatest works.