Joel McNeely – Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire

Contrary to popular belief, the Star Wars Expanded Universe (now known as Legends) was never considered official canon in the years before the Disney buyout.  But what if I told you that one novel in that entire line was very nearly elevated to that elite status by the Maker himself, George Lucas?  What if I told you this novel was on the verge of becoming a feature film, and even though that didn’t happen, that book still got its own soundtrack as part of a multimedia blitz to reinvigorate the Star Wars brand?

In the early-to-mid 90s, Lucas was turning his attention back to the Galaxy Far, Far Away in the hopes of revitalizing the franchise.  The franchise had three successful films in the primary saga, two spin-off movies featuring the Ewoks, two cartoon series, and a Holiday Special that had found bootleg circulation on VHS.  The current legacy of the franchise had gained a foothold in print; Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire kickstarted a new line of novels set in the era after Return of the Jedi, and Dark Horse Comics launched its Dark Empire series very nearly in conjunction with it.  These weren’t the first novels or comics for Star Wars, and by far they wouldn’t be the last.  Lucas paid little attention to the stories these told, but he was looking at the potential and at the renewed audience interest.  The time was right, he decided, to bring Star Wars back to the big screen.  Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire was initially going to be used as a test.  But then the bottom fell out of the idea as a big screen release as the 20th anniversary of the films loomed, and it was discovered that a hefty restoration process would be needed if these films were ever to be preserved for future generations.

Shadows of the Empire, however, didn’t die; it merely shifted gears.  Between the mass media market that Star Wars had already begun tapping and the resources of the fledgling internet, the dynamic of the project was focused on exploring all of the commercial possibilities just shy of a feature film release.  This venture would, in turn, become the on-ramp to generate interest in the return of the original trilogy to the big screen in the form of the Special Edition releases, which in turn would springboard the prequel trilogy.  In 1996, Shadows of the Empire saturated the market with a new story set between the events of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, a point on the timeline not previously explored.  Spearheading that blitz was the original novel by Steve Perry and the video game released on the new Nintendo N64 platform, with the PC version arriving a year later.  Along side these products, we also saw a junior novelization, a comic book series, trading cards, tie-in manuals for Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game, model kits, statues, posters, and of course… toys.  Action figures, vehicle playsets, dolls, figurines, Micro Machines toys… it was truly the return of Star Wars as a marketing engine the likes of which not seen since the mid-80s.

In the middle of it all, Varèse Sarabande records published a score composed by Joel McNeely, performed by the 90-piece Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and backed by a 150-member Chorus.  McNeely had been suggested by none other than maestro John Williams, and he’d been a major contributor along with Laurence Rosenthal on the Emmy-winning scores for The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.

The score is roughly 51 minutes, with the following track list:

1.  “Main Theme from Star Wars and Leia’s Nightmare” – 3:41
2.  “The Battle of Gall” – 7:59
3.  “Imperial City” – 8:02
4.  “Beggar’s Canyon Chase” – 2:56
5.  “The Southern Underground” – 1:48
6.  “Xizor’s Theme” – 4:35
7.  “The Seduction of Princess Leia” – 3:38
8.  “Night Skies” – 4:17
9.  “Into the Sewers” – 2:55
10.  “The Destruction of Xizor’s Palace” – 10:44

Track 1 features the “Main Title” and “Carbon Freeze” by John Williams, track 8 quotes from “The Imperial March” and Williams’ theme for the Force, and track 10 again quotes from “The Imperial March.”  Everything else on this score is original music.  I’ll even point out, the track “Imperial City” is the first time anyone scored for the Imperial homeworld of Coruscant, a location that would feature prominently in the prequel trilogy.  Original music from a new composer doesn’t seem quite so scary to us today, with feature films now being scored by someone other than John Williams, and after a combined ten seasons of The Clone Wars and Rebels from composer Kevin Kiner.  But in 1996, the notion of anyone other than Williams creating the sound of Star Wars was a completely alien concept.  The hesitation was palpable.  Even so, the crossover audience of Star Wars fans and film score fans were curious to hear what Joel McNeely would bring to the soundscape.  And…. what does a soundtrack album for a book sound like, anyway?  How does that even work?

The first point to remember is that film scores are really a modern extension of classical music, with sound being used as the medium of storytelling.  The idea of a program score being based from literature is nothing new in the world of classical music.  Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky… these masters and a great many others have all created works based on popular stories.  The difference is that none of these masters were tethered to a screen, writing beat-for-beat what plays out on film.  For them, the music came first, and if their work was for ballet or Opera, that was generally choreographed around their music, not vice versa.  For Star Wars, this part was a new concept as everyone knows the film comes first, then the score.

From the liner notes, McNeely writes, “Unlike with film music, I have been allowed to let my imagination run free with the images, characters and events from this story.  I have also had the luxury to loiter as long as I like with a character or scene.  Every passage represents some person, place or event in this story.”

That said, obviously the music is not intended to be heard while reading the book as it’s impossible to line up the two in perfect sync.  That means the music must stand on its own as an epic journey that evokes the imagery of the story without the benefit of words or pictures.  The first listen is always a little weird for first-time audiences because we all have pre-conceived notions of what Star Wars should sound like.  To that end, the themes from John Williams help to pull us into that now-familiar galaxy.  Subsequent listens breeds familiarity and acceptance.  The rest grows in time.  This is an album that has that advantage, that it’s allowed to grow with a listener who wants that experience.  Unfortunately, it’s also an album that’s been all but lost in the sands of time and the franchise’s forward progression.  It awaits rediscovery by a willing audience.  For that matter, so too does the novel, which for me really does go hand-in-glove as the novel is one of the very best of the line from that era.  Will you take your own steps into this forgotten world of Star Wars past?

Shadows of the Empire debuted in April 1996 on cassette and compact disc, featuring the same Drew Struzan artwork as the novel and other multimedia releases.  For those who owned the CD release, this was an enhanced disc with content for the PC showcasing artwork, liner notes, and commentaries from those involved.  The score would later be excerpted and used to highlight the audiobook release of the novel.

Upon its initial release, film score critics largely panned this score, saying it was too slavish to the romantic ideas put forth by John Williams.  Some lamented not enough John Williams, and a complete lack of “Princess Leia’s Theme.”  The general consensus at the time was that either Joel McNeely needed to be completely slavish to the themes of John Williams, or he needed to do his own thing.  It came down to the ridiculous idea that this score was part of a halfhearted money grab, not really intended for serious fans of the franchise or for music enthusiasts.  This lack of vision and understanding on the part of reviewers is apparent to those with ears to hear, and especially for those who are willing to really dig in and let the score speak on its own terms.  None of them realized that McNeely really was doing his own thing, just within the idiom of Star Wars as John Williams had outlined, just as he had done with The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, but with more freedom to flow.  Later reviewers throughout the years have recognized this album to be the gem that it is, noting the high points of the score’s original content and McNeely’s strong grasp on how to use familiar material such as the Force theme to advantage.

One point of deep geekery needs attention called to it for the uber-fans out there (you know who you are): McNeely also collaborated with veteran Star Wars sound designer Ben Burtt, who helped to develop numerous alien languages for the saga.  Burtt wrote a poem called “Dha Werda Verda,” which features in the score, sung by the chorus.  McNeely asked that the language be Germanic in style, “with hard syllables, very harsh and gutteral.”  The poem ties back to characters and events Burtt developed from the Droids cartoon series of the mid-80s (yes, really), detailing an ancient conflict between the Battalions of Zhell and the Taungs, primitives whose descendants would someday populate Coruscant.  The poem tells of the battle being interrupted by a volcanic eruption that wiped out the Zhell.  The site of the battle would become Imperial City a millennium later.

Suddenly this album doesn’t seem like such a halfhearted money grab, does it?  It takes love and understanding to make something like that work, and it comes across in the musical presentation.  Ultimately, Shadows of the Empire stands as a treasure from a bygone age, a look at what might have been as well as an insight into what might be again if more insiders embraced the idea of original program scores for the Galaxy Far, Far Away.  It’s no less beautiful and haunting today as it was in its time.  But don’t just take my word for it.  Give it a listen and judge for yourself.