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.
I’ve been trying to break free of the recent release of Frozen, but much like Elsa finally letting her powers go, the long-dormant Disney fanatic inside of me is just bouncing off the walls. Not that my apartment is decorated in Frozen paraphernalia, but I’m taking a more low-key, “adult” approach to my fandom. Along with having seen the film over 3 times (with plans to see it several more!), I have also been an early adopter of the film’s soundtrack. But then again, I was already sold on the film’s music quite some time ago.
My first taste of the music, came during my attendance of D23’s Destination D event in 2012. During a small segment about upcoming productions, those of us in the room were treated to a small presentation regarding Frozen, from concept art, to names of various characters. We were also clued in that it would be a return to the classic musicals, with the names of Robert & Kristen-Anderson Lopez given to us as the film’s main song writers.
The Frozen segment was concluded with a demo singing of the song Let It Go. I only remembered a few scant lyrics of the song, but the rhythm and the strength of it defining the character of Elsa, kept it stuck in the back of my head long after the event was over.
A year later, I returned to Anaheim for the D23 Expo, where we were given more information on Frozen, with not only final images from the film, but two songs: one with actual imagery from the film, and another that was performed live. The live performance, was Let It Go, this time performed by Elsa’s voice, Idina Menzel. Needless to say, that excitement I had felt a year ago, had leaped from the pinnacle of “can’t wait,” to “I want this song now!”
Once the soundtrack was released the weekend before Thanksgiving, the song was mine in no time. But, I soon after bit the bullet, and went for the full, 58-track, Deluxe Edition soundtrack.
Online, the general thought seems to be that it’s been ages since we’ve had a Disney Musical. In truth, we’ve had 2 within the last 5 years, with The Princess and the Frog in 2009, and Tangled in 2010. While they had some decent songs, neither really stuck with me. Even in the realms of PIXAR, Randy Newman just has never really pressed my buttons with his orchestrations and lyrics, and only a couple from Princess made me take a little notice. Tangled felt like it would be a perfect return to form for Alan Menken, but overall, the film felt like it just didn’t utilize his talents to their fullest. When I listened to Tangled, I felt that Alan did more (and better work), with 2007’s live-action film, Enchanted.
With 2011’s release of Winnie the Pooh, a new songwriting team made the scene within a Disney film: Robert & Kristen-Anderson Lopez. Prior to his work with Disney, Robert had been turning heads for the last decade, with his tongue-in-cheek work on Avenue Q, and The Book of Mormon. Personally, Lopez’s ability to get “cheeky” in his work, put me in mind of one of my favorite theatrical persons who worked at Disney: Howard Ashman. Ever since his death in 1990, it’s felt like something was missing from all post-Aladdin lyrics, and the Lopez’s work was some of the first that really got me excited. Going in to see Winnie the Pooh, I was sure I was going to get a fun story, but I didn’t expect to be tapping my feet so much during the songs. There was even a whimsical musical number about a devious creature called The Backson, that quickly ended up on my iPhone.
The songs in Pooh, coupled with Robert’s work on Mormon and Q, were in the back of my mind when it came to keeping the faith regarding Frozen, in the face of one of the most atrocious marketing campaigns since Tangled. It was almost like Disney was ashamed to tell the public they were releasing a musical. In fact, it wasn’t until early October did we even get a trailer that had some of the Lopez’s musical work in it.
For the final film, the Lopez’s have crafted 9 songs. Each one has its own distinct style, with examples including a shanty-style song (Frozen Heart), and even a syrupy-sweet love song (Love Is An Open Door). Some have complained that Love is a little too sappy, but the more I listened to it, it grew on me. It best exemplifies a feeling of young, innocent love.
For those that are fans of Wicked, Idina Menzel comes through with bells on, and delivers with the film’s centerpiece song that I’ve gushed over above (Let It Go). But, if there’s one person that just surprised me, it’s Kristen Bell. At the D23 Expo, Bell spoke of how she would sing along to her Little Mermaid cassettes as a kid, and here, she gets to do speaking/singing double-duty, in the same realms of Jodi Benson (the voice of Ariel), and Paige O’Hara (the voice of Belle). When she begins to let loose with the song For The First Time In Forever, she’s able to keep the same vocal intensity and characterization, that helps make her character Anna, have a well-rounded personality.
If there’s one song that seems wedged into the final product, it’s Reindeer(s) are Better Than People. With Jonathan Groff’s vocal talents available, it felt like they had to find some way to get in his talents, and this 51-second piece definitely seems to fit the bill.
Another song titled Fixer Upper also has me on the fence. It’s not that bad of a song, but much like Reindeer, it feels a little too much like “filler material,” given the scene it’s included in.
One song that may seem a little off-kilter in its execution, is a reprise to the song, For The First Time In Forever. It starts out with spoken-word dialogue, and then segues into lyrical speaking tones. It’s rather unconventional, and I think when Bell’s first lines go down that route, some audiences will either be invested in the film enough to buy it, or roll their eyes.
Josh Gad (the voice of the snowman named Olaf) has spoken of how inspired he was seeing Robin Williams’ performance as the Genie in Aladdin, and Gad gets to follow in that sidekicks’ musical footsteps. Much like the song Friend Like Me, Olaf’s song In Summer has visuals that break into modern-day visuals, yet it also has some rather clever lyrical bits. I’m sure it will remind some of Lopez’s work on The Book of Mormon.
It should also be noted that while the Lopez’s are the main songwriters of the album, one should not sell the film’s composer Christopher Beck short. Chris came to my attention when I first heard his haunting music for the animated short, Paperman, and his score compliments the Lopez’s song work very well. It never gets super-bombastic like some composers, but has a nice underlying structure of care and heart to it. There are even times where the tone sounds decidedly retro, like we’re listening to something made in another time.
The filmmakers also manage to intersperse some Saami and Norwegian culture into their music, with the track Vuelie. It’s a very beautiful piece that is both a chant, and an aria, but it almost feels like there could have been a little more of these bits interspersed throughout the music.
If you are a big fan of extra material, than you owe it to yourself to buy this 2-Disc set. The 2nd disc is a bonus disc the likes of which we rarely see these days!
The majority of the songs feature some opening commentary by Robert and Kristina Lopez. Their work on the album definitely helps show the evolution of their music. There are 9 tracks by them, two of which are demos of them singing music that made the final cut.
The other 7 tracks are songs that didn’t quite make the cut, yet provide a great little insight into the evolution of the songs they made for the film.
The song We Know Better is a very sisterly song, meant to show Elsa and Anna growing up, and is sort of a princess/anti-princess song about what is expected of one. I think it’s good they didn’t pursue this song further. It felt a few shades too close to Brave in my mind, and a little too “cutesy” at times.
The Spring Pageant song tells about a prophecy, that was eventually dropped from the final script of the film. The song got a chuckle from me, when they mention the words “our little play.” For those of you who were raised on Sesame Street, I’m sure you’ll chuckle/giggle as well.
In developing Anna’s character, the Lopez’s came up with the song, More Than Just The Spare. While older sister Elsa is considered “the Heir,” Anna is considered “the Spare.” Listening to the song, one can hear the underpinnings of the rhythm that would go into For The First Time In Forever. It also has a feel similar to Wicked’s song, The Wizard and I. It’s a song that builds up into one of determination. Kristen Lopez’s vocals add some wonderful heart to the piece, and is one of the bright spots in the unreleased pieces.
You’re You is a precursor to what would eventually become Love is An Open Door. It definitely has the air of a song being sung as a serenade to a pretty girl, yet one can understand its evolution into Love.
In regards to these outtakes, I think the ones that will most impress some, are the songs Life’s Too Short, and its reprise. Both songs are duets sung by Anna and Elsa, with Kristen pulling double-duty on vocals for both sisters. The main song feels a little too “dramatic” for the scene that eventually happened in the final film, but it drips with so much “drama,” that one can almost wish they could have gone there. The reprise functions as an aftermath/lament, and one can almost see both of the girls in separate spotlights, singing their sad duet.
The final song has Robert Lopez singing a longer version of Reindeer(s) Are Better Than People, in an outtake that was meant to be a end credits song of Johnathan Groff singing in a more modern-day Glee-style. It’s a fun little piece, but I feel it was best left as a musical “Easter egg” on this second disc.
There’s also some misleading titling on this second disc, with 12 tracks composed by Christophe Beck. In truth, these are not demo tracks (as their subtitling reads), these are additional cues from the main score that weren’t included on the first disc! In a sense, this 2-disc set gives us the full score from the film. Just arrange properly in your iPhone’s playlist, and you can listen to the entire film from start to finish musically!
And if those extras aren’t enough to entice you, how does the promise of karaoke tracks make you feel? That’s right, 5 songs get the treatment, including the Demi Lovato cover of Let It Go.
I’m already seeing videos of people singing to Menzel’s Let It Go on Youtube, and I’m sure the album is going to mean continued success and big things for those who had a hand in it. If the film has needled its way into your cranium as deep as it has mine, than skip out on the 1-disc set, and get the Deluxe Edition. After all, you want a clean karaoke track to sing along to…don’t you?
After this album release, I think all that’s left to wonder is: what will the Lopez family tackle next for The Walt Disney Company?
Music Review: The Music Behind the Magic – The Musical Artistry of Alan Menken, Howard Ashman & Tim Rice
After going to see Beauty and the Beast last weekend in 3D, it made me a little sad at the end to remember the passing of one of Disney’s “legends”: Howard Ashman.
After working with Composer/song writer Alan Menken on Little Shop of Horrors, Ashman came to Disney, where he was offered several projects to work on. Out of all of these, he set his sights on the upcoming animated feature, The Little Mermaid. However, Howard saw the film as a way for Disney to return to its roots, where music often helped tell part of the story and moved the plot along. Reteaming with Alan Menken, the two embarked on a collaboration that would carry them through 3 films, and very soon, make the two as synonymous with the Disney company’s music as Richard and Robert Sherman (the brothers who are best known for their work on Mary Poppins and Winnie the Pooh).
While the dynamic duo of Menken and Ashman made The Little Mermaid a highly-entertaining film, it still feels to me that Beauty and the Beast was the pair’s zenith while working for Disney. Every song is so memorable, and the lyrics include some really interesting words (how many other songs have you heard that use the word expectorating?), not to mention a Macbeth reference. Plus, there’s the one moment where Belle (Paige O’Hara) channels Streisand.
After Menken and Ashman won Academy Awards for their work on The Little Mermaid, Ashman revealed to his musical collaborator that he had been diagnosed with AIDS. Howard worked as best as he could, helping to shape and finish his work on Beauty and the Beast, and still trying to do what he could regarding Disney’s next film, Aladdin. Sadly, less than a year later (on March 24, 1991), Howard Ashman passed away at the age of 40. In tribute to the contributions he made, a tag was added to the end of Beauty and the Beast when it was released that fall, saying how grateful the filmmakers were for him giving a mermaid her voice, and a beast his soul. With Howard’s passing, Tim Rice joined the crew of Aladdin, and helped to finish the final songs.
Back in 1994, The Walt Disney Company released The Music Behind the Magic – The Musical Artistry of Alan Menken, Howard Ashman & Tim Rice, chronicling the music of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, & Aladdin. The release served as the equivalent of both a behind-the-scenes music set, and a tribute to the three films that were graced with Ashman’s presence. As the world of aural stimulation was still at a crossroads, one could obtain the set in two forms: as a 3-audio cassette release, or a 4-CD set.
Each boxed set came with a ‘companion booklet’ that told about the making of the films, as well as notes and remembrances from the times gone past. Along with story sketches from the animators, the booklet also contains notes from Alan Menken regarding various pieces of music. What’s funny is one story where Alan Menken in his younger years questioned if he’d want to actually become a serious composer. The other alternative? Dentistry, which almost every single male in his family pursued. Surely this possible career choice was what inspired Orin Scrivello’s ‘psychotically happy’ song about his profession in Little Shop of Horrors.
Even with the 50+ page booklet, the highlights of this boxset are the songs. The set contains almost all the music we had come to find from the original motion picture soundtracks, but with some added goodies.
We hear original worktapes and demo tracks, several with added lyrics we haven’t heard before. The evolution of some songs is also interesting to note, such as how there was an attempt to give Jafar his own song in Aladdin. Ashman and Menken originally considered a song where Aladdin is exposed in a humiliating way (Humiliate the Boy), before Tim Rice and Menken tried a song that starts as a lament, and builds to a triumph (Why Me). In the end, they settled on a reprise of Prince Ali, which worked as Jafar exposes Ali’s true identity.
If there are downsides, to this set, it’s the following:
1) There are a couple songs where we start with 1-2 minutes of a demo-track, and then segue into the final music piece. One can’t help but want to hear those complete pieces as separate entities, instead of a mish-mash.
2) When Aladdin originally came out in theaters, there were a couple lyrics that were frowned on by several groups, and later soundtrack and home video releases included rewritten lyrics. Sadly, the original, uncut track is not included here, with the only trace of it being a small blurb telling of its omission from the boxset release.
When it comes to singing on the temp-tracks they worked on, Menken and Ashman were almost like a straight-man/funny-man double-act. Menken’s voice rarely changes whether singing as Ariel or Aladdin, but it’s Ashman who really gets into his character roles. His voice oozes machismo while singing Gaston, pitches higher and Jamaican as Sebastian, and (my favorite) sounds fiendishly slick as Ursula trying to pursuade Ariel in Poor Unfortunate Souls.
By now, some of you may be wondering why a set chronicling these three films has 4 CD’s. Well, that fourth CD contains 10 tracks to what was the original concept that Menken and Ashman envisioned for Aladdin. In it, Aladdin was a poor kid who wanted to make his poor Mother proud of her son. As well, he often hung around with three friends named Babkak, Omar, and Kassim. By the sound of the tracks, the original concept strayed a bit from the regular boy-meets-girl storyline, and focused more on Aladdin’s family and friends. However, after a story meeting, it was felt that the concept wasn’t working out, and a major overhaul took place.
At this point in the review, it should come as no surprise that I’m a big fan of both this set and Howard Ashman. Some claimed in various making-of documentaries, that working with Howard was probably the closest to working with Walt Disney: both were men of vision, and much like Walt would push his artists to make meaningful art, Ashman would often push his collaborators to make meaningful songs that weren’t just ‘filler.’ As an aside, if you want to see a bit more of Howard Ashman at work, I recommend the film Waking Sleeping Beauty, where we see him working with Jodi Benson (the voice of Ariel), along with snippets of a lecture he gave to the artists at Disney about musical theater and Disney musicals of the past.
In 2006, the title The Music Behind the Magic reappeared again as a music compilation. This time however, it was to celebrate 50 years of Walt Disney Records. While that release acts as a spiffy best of regarding Disney’s musical heritage, I still prefer The Music Behind the Magic from 1994: a reminder of a period that helped revitalize animation, with music that is still remembered fondly 2 decades later, and shows no signs of being forgotten.