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Soundtrack review: Star Wars episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker

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Soundtrack review: Star Wars episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker

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Soundtrack review: Star Wars episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker

“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” (also known as Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker) is a 2019 American epic space-opera film produced, co-written, and directed by J. J. Abrams. It is the third installment of the Star Wars sequel trilogy, following The Force Awakens (2015) and The Last Jedi (2017), and the final episode of the nine-part “Skywalker saga”. It was produced by Lucasfilm and Abrams’s production company Bad Robot Productions, and was distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. The film’s ensemble cast includes Carrie Fisher,Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Anthony Daniels, Naomi Ackie, Domhnall Gleeson, Richard E. Grant, Lupita Nyong’o, Keri Russell, Joonas Suotamo, Kelly Marie Tran, Ian McDiarmid, and Billy Dee Williams.

It’s customary for me to start a review with a few words about the movie but every now and then they seem to dry, too little for what they are meant to present. The end of the Skywalker saga…This year, 2019, we saw the end of the Marvel Infinity Saga and it was a huge deal for a lot of people and this only meant 10 years of continuous movies that meant a lot to one single generation. Star Wars, with its good and bad, with the highs and lows, meant a lot to almost three generations and has been in the centre of the film world for more than 40 years. Directors and actors came and gone, stories started and ended, critics loved and hated and here we are at the end of the third trilogy, the next generation of Star Wars. And if the first trilogy was almost universally loved and the second one almost universally hated, this third one was the most polarising of them all. The first movie was enjoyed by most because it was almost a play by play remake of “A new hope”, the original movie, just with new characters to introduce the world to a new generation. The second movie generated rivers of hate but I was among the ones who absolutely loved it; I loved the story, the epic visuals, the tension, the dilemmas of Luke. “The rise of Skywalker” meant the return of JJ Abrams, a man who notoriously, as he admitted himself, misses the landing on endings and as the movie came out so came the critics with their venomous pens or keyboards to dismiss it. I didn’t care about those reviews either way (ironically, right, since I’m a reviewer myself) because – and this is or should be valid for every movie but it’s even more applicable for a series like this one – I think that for a story like Star Wars, like the Skywalker saga, a thread that has been unraveling for 40 years and 9 movies, the journey of each viewer is personal. Nobody can or should affect that journey and the perception of the movie because each one of us has had his separate and personal experience with this series be it 40, 20 or 4 years long, each of us has seen this movies a number of times and in a different or special period of his or her life and maybe this story or parts of it meant something more at one point or less at another and one single article cannot change that and should not mean much because it’s the reflection of somebody else’s personal journey and feelings about the story. It’s like they say about high school, it was different for everyone.

I wrote this lengthy introduction because in this case my experience with this last movie ranks amongst the most emotionally rewarding and fulfilling I’ve ever had with a story regardless of the medium. JJ Abrams managed to write one of the best finales in movies or TV ever and do justice to such a complex and hard saga. It is so easy to miss the mark at the end (I’m looking here at the two guys who were penned to write the next Star Wars chapters before they opted out and how they messed up Game of Thrones), to rush or to leave questions unanswered but the tears in my eyes at the end say that JJ Abrams achieved the unthinkable with “The rise of Skywalker”. I must have entered the wrong cinema and entered the 6D one where they shake the chairs and spray you with water because my eyes started to get misty right about when that epic battle scene took place in the stormy sea.

The experience of this story, of these 9 movies, would have been half as intense and rewarding if it hadn’t been for John Williams (who got a well deserved blink and you’ll miss it cameo in this movie) and his immortal themes. From the first notes of the Star Wars theme that always accompanied the opening lines to each separate theme he wrote for old or new characters, for the Force or for the Evil, his music was the one thing everyone always agreed on, regardless of the faults of the movies or stories. And he always came back at got the chance even at this age to complete his masterpiece; directors and writers came and gone but the one constant in this story, alongside the Force, was John Williams’s wondrous music. The Star Wars theme, The Force theme, the Imperial March are cues that everybody knows and loves and the master wrote his own story, separate in evolution from the one in the movies. He decided to have his take a bow moment with the score for “The last Jedi” where he just reprised almost each of his old themes, to remind us of them or to introduce the new generation to them; that score was a greatest hits type feast and I remember listening to it and going with the excitement of a kid seeing his favourite characters around him, “oh here’s that theme”, “oh this one as well”. Ironically the one theme missing was my favourite of them all, “Across the stars”, the love theme for Anakin and Padme but it make sense since their heirs have their own special cues and we heard them plenty.

So we had the curtain call, the greatest hits for the previous movie and John Williams used “The rise of Skywalker” as an encore, as one last hurrah, as a sombre and almost elegiac farewell to the story we worked on the most. I sensed that in the tone of the music that he sprinkled with that golden age love story sound. I was quite impatient to hear the score so I first listened to it before seeing the movie and I was confused; I wasn’t too impressed but after I saw a movie it all made sense as if I had found the key to the puzzle which is the official presentation of the score. I can complain a bit about some of the best cues from the movie being omitted from the official score or, even more, about the fact that the score is not in chronological order and this is a common practice but for this particular music, it hurts the listening experience. For example we get climatic pieces like “Journey to Exegol”, “Destiny of a Jedi” or “The rise of Skywalker” at the beginning and they don’t make much sense. Also some of the best action music from the movie is missing. These are all administrative issues. Like I said, the score made more sense once I saw the movie.

There are also mild spoilers in the score and not in the cue titles but in the themes which are present. Once again John Williams masterfully weaves some of our favourite themes in the fabric of this score and then weaves another layer of more obscure motifs underneath them for nostalgics of Emperor Palpatine and not only. The musical easter eggs are everywhere but for me what stands out is that unmistakable feeling of a golden age composition where there’s nothing but the raw orchestra that takes me on a journey through an asteroid field, taking unexpected turns where familiar faces await and taking well known motifs and welding them together in ways that sound as if they had always been there. There’s a cue called “We go together” that feels just like the benevolent ghosts or projections of our favourite characters that guide Rey on the right path. The sweeping string section comes from another age and that image of the projections of the old characters helping Rey is transposed into music as “The Binary Sunset” theme follows a piece of “Rey’s theme”. Surprises like this one are present all through the score but unlike “The last Jedi” this scores feels new and original.

The tone of “The rise of Skywalker” is dark even in its most melodic moments. The climax of the battle between good and evil, the sacrifices, the deaths, they all demand this from the music. The innocence is long gone and each main character now knows the stakes and is all in regardless of the consequences. Emperor Palpatine’s return and influence is one of the main themes of the movie and the score is no different; it reminds me of how “Avengers: Infinity War” was all about Thanos and his larger than life presence and how Alan Silvestri incorporated that in his score. There are nuggets of John William’s genius in every cue, from the sudden choir at the end of “Approaching the throne” that reminds me of “Revenge of the Sith” to the sweet piano rendition of “Rey’s theme” in the middle of “The force is with you” that shows how little but central Rey is in the Force and in the lineage of the Jedi. It’s that last trace of innocence and warmth, the one that keeps her connected to the light side and helps her find her way. John Williams tells the story in his own way but he tells is right and with every new listen of the score I discover more and more reasons to enjoy it.

In a way, “The rise of Skywalker” with its tone reminded me of James Horner’s final score “Southpaw” which also had this grave shadow over it. I know he had no idea it was going to be his final score but who knows what he felt as he wrote it. I was listening to “Farewell”, another vintage John Williams love song and it made me think of loss and of James Horner for some reason.

The Skywalker saga talks a lot about prophecies and the way they come true. Prophecies are all about patience and finding your own path and this is how I view my experience with both this final movie and score; they helped the story come full circle and they gave me answers to a lot of questions I sometimes was too impatient to wait for. Then there’s “Reunion” which I also feel the need to mention as one of my favourite pieces from this score. Even before seeing the movie, this one hit me hard as it too me through nine movies worth of music in just over 4 minutes. I could listen to it on repeat forever and I count it as a contender for cue of the year; it’s a piece that could play as the guests come in at a gala dedicated to John Williams. It’s the equivalent of that scene at the end of episode 6 where all the ones that died join the living ones as benevolent spirits just to show their support.

I grew up with Star Wars. The saga had moments when it disappointed me but I never gave up on the story. The music didn’t. The music was the equivalent of the Force, always there, always strong, always good. Even when I found the movies lacking I still showed up at the next one curious as to where it might take me, excited to hear the music. I could never have related to these stories as much if they were perfect because my personal experience showed me that nothing is. Then came the final hour of “The Rise of Skywalker” and for my personal Star Wars journey, both as a movie and score, it was perfect. If you look up perfection in a dictionary, one of the meanings is “the action or process of improving something until it is faultless”. For at least that one final hour, JJ Abrams, John Williams and the actors managed to improve this story until it was as close to faultless as possible. They also restored my faith in creating a beautiful story that heals and inspires both visually and musically. From the actors to every member of the orchestra, they came together as a whole and resonated deep inside me, completing a place that’s been building up since a 7 year old kid saw the binary sunset for the first time and laid the first brick in the foundation.

Thank you JJ, thank you JW, your message will last me a lifetime.

Cue rating: 100 / 100

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Mihnea Manduteanu

I have been listening to film music for 25 years and writing about it since 2014. I've written over 1000 reviews and I can't imagine myself doing anything else. I am also a member of IFMCA (International Film Music Critics Association).

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