Friday, July 1, 2005


John Williams. Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith. Sony Classical. "Though there are vocal dissenters, most film critics and Star Wars buffs seem pleased with the last installment of the epic. . . . Music plays almost throughout the entire movie, and much of the emotional resonance critics are finding is stoked by Mr. Williams's surprisingly subdued and murky score, especially during the scenes of intimate human drama, such as they are. . . . Although Mr. Williams became a household name for "Star Wars" in the late 1970's, many critics poked fun at him for the comic-book excess of his scores. True, he was no Bernard Herrmann or Elmer Bernstein. But even in Mr. Williams's pre-Jaws days, when he was churning out disaster-flick music (The Towering Inferno), his work was thoroughly professional. At a time when synthesized film music was ascendant, he re-embraced the symphonic film score. Still, with all their bombastic blather, the early Star Wars scores invited kidding. . . .Mr. Williams has grown since then. . . . [E]vocation is one way to practice the film music craft, and in "Revenge of the Sith" Mr. Williams demonstrates his acute evocative skills. The film begins, as it must, with his swashbuckling Star Wars theme playing as the credits roll by. But soon into the story (the second track on the Sony Classical recording of the score) you hear the haunting music for Anakin's Dream. Seized with nightmarish premonitions that his pregnant wife will die in childbirth, Anakin sleeps fitfully while the quietly ominous music stirs primordially in the background. There are hints of Ligeti-like atmospherics (surely Mr. Williams's homage to 2001) and echoes of Samuel Barber in the pungently chromatic harmony. A lacy theme is passed back and forth between solo string instruments. You may not remember this elusive melody when you leave the theater, but it conveys Anakin's inner doubts and longing for repose. In an episode called Battle of the Heroes, Mr. Williams has his Carmina Burana moment, complete with pummeling rhythms and a distant chorus intoning mournful ah's and ritualistic oh's - a hokey device. In Palpatine's Teachings he evokes, or so it seems, Tibetan Buddhist chanting, with sustained moans in low male voices, tinkling percussion (like finger cymbals) and ruminative string writing. The whole Star Wars epic has been likened to Wagner's Ring cycle. . . . In the new film, when Anakin is on the brink of becoming Darth Vader, you know what's coming, and it comes: the treading Darth Vader theme, as much a trademark of the Star Wars enterprise as Han Solo action figures. But in general, Mr. Williams uses the leitmotif technique with greater subtlety here. Hints of themes thread through the score - in inner voices, in wayward bass lines. There is even an episode called The Immolation Scene, an overt reference to Wagner's Götterdämmerung. Having lost the ultimate light saber duel to Obi-Wan, Anakin starts slipping into a molten pool of volcanic muck. The Jedi master watches in despair as he allows the student he once loved, the chosen one who has turned to the dark side, to meet his fate (or so he assumes). Mr. Williams sensitively underplays this scene, writing wistful, aching music, a sort of sci-fi Sibelius. . . . Some film composers command your attention - with sweeping grandeur (Maurice Jarre's score for Lawrence of Arabia), with wistful lyricism (Elmer Bernstein's melancholic music for To Kill a Mockingbird). Mr. Williams is at his best when he thinks no one is paying much attention. His concert pieces, like Soundings, composed for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, tend to be bustling, extroverted and eager to please. But film music can offer a composer an artful way to stay in the background. Mr. Williams practices that art admirably in Revenge of the Sith" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 5/23/05].