The Force is Strong with… Star Wars: Episode 1’s music
Ivan Radford | On 13, Nov 2015
In the run-up to The Force Awakens, we take a weekly look back at each episode in the Star Wars saga – and where you can watch them online.
Ok, let’s get this out of the way. Star Wars: Episode I is not bad. There. We said it. The Phantom Menace? The Star Wars film that everyone says is terrible? It’s not.
Has there been a better example of hype boom and bust? The 1999 prequel was one of the most anticipated movies in history, thanks to the 16-year wait after Return of the Jedi. It was a long time ago and hopes weren’t just high: they were galaxies far away. That led to the highest grossing Star Wars movie so far, taking $983.6 million worldwide at the box office, as people clamoured to see it.
All that time and all those expectations? The bump back down to Earth was inevitable. And yet 16 years was nothing compared to the 22-year gap on George Lucas’ CV. The last time he directed a movie was the original Star Wars, A New Hope. While everyone else got excited, he seemed to forget how to make a brilliant Star Wars flick.
That’s what people say, anyway. But The Phantom Episode is an underrated piece of family fun – a solid, if flawed, reintroduction to the world of Star Wars.
Yes, it’s a piece of light entertainment that starts with several long paragraphs about trade disputes. Yes, it features Jake Lloyd as the titular menace, a child actor whose interminably upbeat delivery is made even more irritating by the lines he’s given, from “Mom, you said the biggest problem in the universe is no one helps each other…” to “Yippee!” being said more times then a desperate Bruce Willis impersonator. And yes, it features Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor, who won’t find his Jedi mojo until Episode III) delivering the worst joke in the history of the franchise (which is saying something) with hair that keeps changing sides.
But it’s also a blockbuster that boasts Liam Neeson as a wise, world-weary Jedi (one of the franchise’s best, despite his heavy-handed dialogue), a pod-racing sequence that was fun enough to spawn an enjoyable N64 game and a whole host of creatures and planets. The misguided comic relief Jar-Jar Binks (and the stereotypical Watto) aside, Naboo is a wonderful piece of world-building, from its bumblebee-yellow Starfighters and underwater kingdom to Sebulba and Darth Maul.
Ray Park’s Sith warrior – one of the saga’s most memorable villains, despite only having around 20 minutes of screen time – is marvellous, largely thanks to the battle with him at the end, which ranks among the series’ most beautiful, brutal and emotional. The secret to that fight’s impact, apart from the choreography by Nick Gillard (a fluid ballet after the static broadsword of Episodes IV-VI)? It’s the same thing that underpins the rest of the action, that adds to the immersive nature of each new location, that brings colour to the characters, that nurtures the sense of returning back to the same universe fans left 16 years before: John Williams’ soundtrack.
The music has always been right at the heart of Star Wars, creating a deceptively diverse soundscape. For every beat of Korngold’s Kings Row that resonates through the signature tune – upward leaps of fifths to emphasise the heroic idealism of our rebels – there’s a hint of Prokofiev or Holst’s Mars (those ominous stabbing chords, breaking Williams’ usual time signature, at the beginning of Episode IV). Even the range of the notes in the main melody used speaks volumes about the franchise’s vast, operatic scope.
Williams, returning to by now old territory, hooks up with his old friends with typical flair and style, nodding to classics such as the Force Theme in Qui-Gon’s Funeral and Jabba the Hutt’s theme. There’s a masterful blend of old and new in Anakin’s Theme, a soaring, moving composition that cheekily dips into the Imperial March with a whisper of that familiar, three-note minor phrase at the end of the line – a musical shadow looming behind the diminutive figure in front.
That minor third is later echoed again in Across the Stars, the romantic theme for Episode II, which blossoms from Anakin’s Theme, dropping a semi-tone from its bottom note to add more drama and growing into a swooning, heartfelt ditty – a rare example of Williams composing a waltz, rather than his straight-down-the-line military marches (hello to the triplet-driven fanfare of Trade Federation March The Droid Invasion).
This musical cohesion is key to Williams’ work, also giving Darth Maul the weight of the Dark Side in a matter of moments through the guttural groans of a male chorus in The Appearance of Darth Maul, who growl the Emperor’s Theme from the original trilogy.
But the crowning glory of Episode I – and, indeed, the source of many of the strengths named above – is Duel of the Fates. Single-handedly the most exciting thing in the film, let alone the whole prequels, it’s an electrifying action theme and arguably the most thrilling piece of music from the entire Star Wars saga.
The intimidating lyrics, which overwhelm the eardrums, come from the Celtic epic poem Cad Goddeu, translated into Sanskrit. Why Sanskrit? The beautiful sound of the vowels. They rocket between minors and major sevenths at a pace that rivals the Millennium Falcon doing the Kessel Run, the back-and-forth leaving you constantly waiting for the next bar. The tiny steps of the four-note riff (a huge contrast to jumping expanse of Star Wars’ main theme, here moving down not up) only add to the sinister, close-quartered intensity.
Combined with the blistering speed of the Lightsaber battle – and the sheer volume of those vowels – the result is as scary as it is exhilarating. (The poem’s words mean something appropriately unnerving, like “Under the tongue root, a fight most dread, and another raging behind, in the head”.) And yet even then, the Sanskrit tactic is reused to feed a translation of another poem into Qui-Gon’s sad funeral theme, something that subtly ties together the villain and the martyr.
It’s no coincidence that Duel of the Fates comes back again in Episode III for Anakin’s final showdown with Obi-Wan: the peak of the prequels relying on the groundwork laid by the first of the trilogy.
The result gives The Phantom Menace one heck of a send-off – and leaves the prequel sounding light years ahead of the other two chapters. As Qui-Gon says in one of many cheesy speeches, your focus determines your reality. Away from the short-term perspective of hype and disappointment, focus on the soundtrack and the reality of Episode I is far better than its reputation would have you believe. Whatever your opinion of Jar-Jar et al., we can all agree on one thing: The Force is strong with this music.
All six episodes of Star Wars are available to stream on NOW TV, as part of a £9.99 monthly subscription – just enough time to binge the whole thing for free.
Planning to catch up with George Lucas’ saga before The Force Awakens? For range of buying and downloading options, see our guide “Where can I watch Star Wars online?”