My Top 10 favorite tracks from the Star Wars Prequels soundtracks
Let’s face it: while many came down on the storyline and acting in the Star Wars prequels, I’ve never heard anyone say, “the music was terrible!”
I think when it comes to Star Wars, for most of us, the music is one of its key components. With the prequel trilogy, John Williams had to take on a new task regarding the series: reverse-engineer the themes and motifs that he had created almost 2 decades before. A few would remain, but Williams would instead create new themes, and material for the battles that happened before the days of the Empire, and the Rebellion.
One downside to the prequel music, is that much of what Williams composed, is often chopped up like confetti, and sprinkled over various parts of the films. It seems that The Phantom Menace is the only score of the prequels that one could consider “complete,” as many of the musical motifs from that film are interspersed into Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith.
Given that this is the month of May (a key month in the history of Star Wars), I decided to pick my top 10 tracks, across all three films. Some might wonder why I don’t focus on just one film, but I think back to when people consider the music from the original trilogy. There’s moreso a love of the music spread across all three of those films, and that is also the case here.
10 – Battle of the Heroes (From Episode III)
Those who had heard the lore of Anakin becoming Darth Vader, had known for years that we’d end up seeing Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker, tiptoeing around some lava pits in Revenge of the Sith, and sure enough, we got it…albeit drawn out a bit.
Though there was the track Anakin vs Obi-Wan in the Sith soundtrack, I feel Battle of the Heroes moreso typifies the music for the epic clash between Master and Pupil.
The track definitely feels like a mash-up between the prequels and the original trilogy. During the music, we can hear themes related to Obi-Wan Kenobi, The Imperial March, and even part of Luke and Vader’s confrontation in The Empire Strikes Back.
9 – Zam the Assassin and the Chase through Coruscant (From Episode II)
The first high-energy sequence in Attack of the Clones, comes when Anakin and Obi-wan pursue bounty hunter Zam Wesell through the cityscape of Coruscant. During the chase, Williams’ score is a driving force behind much of the action on screen, barely letting up during the high-speed pursuit.
The track is one of the longest on the soundtrack album, running a little over 11 minutes, with numerous staccato beats, from brass and percussion. A fun moment is around 4:20, when the main orchestra drops out for 30 seconds, and Williams turns it over to some tribal drums and whip-cracks.
One of the most unique things about this track, is the rather shocking use of electric guitar in a few areas. The first time I heard this instrument, I had hit repeat on my Discman to be sure my ears weren’t playing tricks on me. Zam’s speeder has a sound based on an electric guitar, so it may have inspired Williams to add in the little flourishes here and there.
This isn’t the first time Williams has used electronic instruments. For Steven Spielberg’s A.I., Williams added electronic beats to the track titled, “The Moon Rising.”
8 – Anakin’s Betrayal (From Episode III)
Surely when it came to the extermination of the Jedi, not many could have fathomed the “Order 66” moment within Episode III, where Palpatine triggers the clone troopers to turn on their Jedi Generals.
The track’s mood is one of somberness, with some soaring brass in places…but none of it really meant to perk one up from the sad turn of events. Williams relies quite a bit on his french horns and strings, but also intersperses a choral melody throughout, making it sound like a lament for the demise of the Jedi.
7 – On the Conveyor Belt (From Episode II)
This could almost be considered a “lost” track for Episode II.
The summer the film was released, this track could only be found on copies of the soundtrack being sold at Target Stores.
The piece covers the scene in the film, where Anakin, Padme, C-3PO, and R2-D2 end up in a droid factory on Geonosis.
Much of the piece has a madcap romp to it with numerous staccato beats, along with a few harmon-muted trumpets to make it a little more light-hearted in the beginning.
The track gets props from me, as its finale builds into a major fanfare, with some punchy flourishes of action, almost akin to Williams’ “Forest Battle Suite” from The Return of the Jedi. When that fanfare takes off, it gives off a burst of fast-paced energy. The last 30 seconds of the piece was utilized in several television sports for Episode II, showing various characters, and their occupations.
5 – The Sith Spacecraft and The Droid Battle (From Episode I)
During Episode I, John Williams developed an ominous orchestration for the Sith. Strangely, though the track does mention the music when Darth Maul pilots his Sith Infiltrator to Tatooine, the cue for this moment only lasts 20 seconds, before the music then segues straight into the major music during the Gungan/Droid battle, and the attack on the Trade Federation control ship.
The quick beats of the battle are rather infectious with the drum cadence, and even the trumpets chiming in with a rat-a-tat-tat sound of staccato “laser-fire.” It could be unintentional, but if you listen closely, it almost sounds like snippets of The Imperial March’s orchestrations are hidden in here.
5 – Confrontation with Count Dooku, and Finale (From Episode II)
Of all the finale pieces for the prequels, I love the feeling of uncertainty this one gives us, though at under 11 minutes, it’s only the second-longest piece in the soundtrack.
The track is a veritable goulash of themes, as it wraps up the final moments of the film: a time that seems very much like the uncertain future in The Empire Strikes Back.
There’s the sound of an otherworldly chorus that accompanies Dooku on his journey away from Geonosis, followed by an eerily beautiful vocal solo upon his arrival on Coruscant.
Very soon, the piece segues into a a string and woodwind movement, that tells how unsure the Jedi are after the current events…before hitting us with a more “regal” representation of The Imperial March. There’s power in the music behind the images of hundreds of clone troopers, but it sounds almost “patriotic,” instead of the “dictatorial” feel we’re used to.
Williams then brings back the strains of Anakin and Padme’s love theme (“Across the Stars”), with a blast of brass instruments that seems to signify the life-altering moment between the two, who have chosen to live a lie, and give in to their passion.
The final half of the track gives us the typical Star Wars end credits fanfare, before giving us a full run of the “Across the Stars” theme. Williams definitely went for a medieval sound to the piece, though unlike the orchestrated version of “Across the Stars” that appears on the soundtrack, the track sounds “questioning” at the end. We hear a little of Anakin’s theme from Episode I (though slower), before some low strings give off a few notes of the Imperial March…hinting where Anakin might be heading.
4 – The Immolation Scene (From Episode III)
Next to “Padme’s Ruminations,” this track I feel is also one of the more emotional pieces from Revenge of the Sith. The string section of the orchestra paints an emotional picture of Anakin’s painful “consequences,” before Obi-Wan takes leave of his former apprentice (and “brother-in-arms”).
In truth, the track sounds similar to another track of Williams’ from Schindler’s List, titled “Immolation (with our lives we give life).” However, unlike the track from Episode III, the one from Schindler included a chorus as the string section soared. Such a thing is not done with this track.
3 – Anakin’s Theme (From Episode I)
Many tend to gloss over this track, as it mainly appeared half-way through The Phantom Menace’s credits. However, I think it’s one of Williams’ best works from the prequels.
The song sounds just right for an optimistic slave boy, who dreams of one day becoming a Jedi Knight. There’s something innocent, and rather stirring in how the music soars in places, but then…falters a bit, like something may not be completely perfect. Those places, Williams has worked in some up-and-down tempos similar to what we’ve heard in “The Imperial March,” just slower and a little off-balance.
In theaters, as the theme came to an end during Episode I’s credits, the sound of Vader’s breathing was heard, further enticing us to wonder what awaited us in 3 years, when Episode II would be released.
2 – Padme’s Ruminations (From Episode III)
Much like the startling use of a rock guitar in the Zam Wessell track, “Padme’s Ruminations” contains musical motifs that seem largely new to Star Wars. An eerie synth piece plays over this scene, with a singer whose vocals sound like a wailing lament, as the music seems to hint that something is unstable, or amiss.
This music accompanied a moment that showed Anakin and Padme thinking of each other, across the sun-drenched tops of Coruscant. As Anakin makes his decision, a (slight) haunting refrain of “Across the Stars” catches one’s ears, a musical sign that he has made his decision…and changed the course of the Galaxy, forever.
1 – Duel of the Fates (From Episode I)
As hard as I tried, there is simply no getting around it: Duel of the Fates is the one track out of the entire prequels that still holds up after all these years. The opening chorus almost demands that we listen, before plunging us into a mysterious mix of strings and french horns, before the chorus returns, guiding us into the the fast-moving excitement.
The song quickly came to prominence in early May of 1999. A making-of feature on 60 Minutes showed a few minutes of John Williams rehearsing with the chorus, and a music video for Episode I played on MTV, with clips and audio from the film mixed in with the song.
The song springs readily to mind whenever I’m on a project that requires quick-and-fast actions. If anyone sees me hunkered over a project with my earbuds wedged in, it’s most likely “Duel of the Fates” is guiding me along.
If the visuals and myriad toys got us hyped for the return of Star Wars, then “Duel of the Fates” pushed many of us over the edge into full-on drooling hound dogs, eager to see what all those clips of podracers, three-way lightsaber fights, and space battles would bring.
And those are the 10 songs from the prequels that stand out to me. As I’ve recounted on other lists, this is just my opinion, as I’m sure some would question the rankings of some of the lower-rung placements on my list.
Given how long we’ve been listening to John Williams score films, it is easy to get jaded, claiming we’ve heard many of his themes and motifs before. Oftentimes, it can be difficult to find gems in much of what he does, or when he shifts the music of certain pieces into new territory.
Williams did this in a major way in 2004, with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. The score he did for Alfonso Cuaron’s film feels more emotional, and not as bombastic as the first two Potter films. As well, Williams brings back his whacky, jazzy sounds in the track called The Knight Bus, putting one in mind of the jazzy beats of the Cantina Band’s numbers from A New Hope.
In the last decade, Williams has largely been privately composing, only coming out to do work with his friend Steven Spielberg, or score composing rarities such as The Book Thief.
Currently, many are wondering just what he will be cooking up for us this December, when a new Star Wars episode and new characters come our way…along with a few familiar faces, when The Force Awakens.