There’s a new Star Wars film. Perhaps you’ve heard something about it by now. A new film means a new score. For me, that’s as exciting as the film itself, perhaps better.
Solo: A Star Wars Story is the second in the series of anthology films set outside of the numbered Skywalker films that comprise the core of the saga. Following in the footsteps of Michael Giacchino’s epic score for Rogue One, composer John Powell stepped up to the daunting task of honoring the legacy of the great John Williams. Mixing in original themes with new adaptations of Williams’ classic motifs, Powell creates a musical soundscape worthy of both Star Wars and his own increasingly daunting repertoire.
Star Wars scores are known for their leitmotifs, or character themes. It’s interesting to note that when one looks back at the original scores for A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi, a great many characters have themes or lesser motifs that signify their presence. The droids, the Ewoks, the Jawas, the Tusken Raiders and even the Force itself all got themes. Han Solo did not. The closest we ever really got to that was the cue from Empire called “The Asteroid Field.” Apart from that, he and Leia shared a prominent love theme, “Han Solo and the Princess,” which evolved from A New Hope‘s “Princess Leia’s Theme.” Solo’s new character theme, “The Adventures of Han,” is a brand new motif for the galaxy’s favorite smuggler composed by none other than John Williams himself. What’s interesting is that the tone of this piece does not fit in with the original trilogy. It has more of a prequel era sound to it, which serves to remind us that this film takes place a good ten years before the events of our classic films. And yet, the theme still fits in with the larger Star Wars soundscape. Having a talented genius like Powell weave in this new theme among his original compositions is just a treat to the ear. It’s easy enough for me to separate the styles of the two maestros, and at the same time their work complements one another so well, not unlike Han and Chewie.
The tracklist looks like this:
As you might expect with characters like Solo and his Wookiee copilot, the score is largely pushed forward at lightspeed, offering an exciting and seemingly unrelenting musical thrust to the film’s action. Like the film itself, it rarely slows down. Trust me when I say that it makes for good driving music. When it does take a breath, the majesty of the slower themes offer a soothing counterpoint. “Chicken in the Pot” is this film’s “Cantina Band” theme, and while it falls a little flat for me, it does capture the alien nature of its onscreen inhabitants with some intonation so odd it takes a couple of spins to get used to it. When the Falcon is revealed to Han (and to the audience) in “L3 & Millennium Falcon,” she gets a brief but majestic motif that injects to my mind the same effect as Goldsmith’s theme for the Enterprise when Kirk first lays eyes on her in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. We don’t get that kind of luxury to linger in the moment, however. The heist awaits, and both film and score surge forward once more.
The theme for the Marauders likewise stands out for me, though for completely different reasons. The “wailing woman” vocal used for this motif recalls for me the music Joseph LoDuca used for the Amazons on his scores for Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and especially Xena: Warrior Princess. This is unexpected in a Star Wars score, but given the visuals of Emfys Nest and her band, with the tribal-looking masks and accouterments, it makes perfect sense to me. It’s actually the look of the costuming that helped me to make the connection to those LoDuca television scores.
The track “Reminiscence Therapy” underscores the Kessel Run with nostalgic tastes of some of the classic action cues from the original trilogy, recalling some of Han Solo’s greatest piloting maneuvers. At first listen, it would be embarrassingly easy for those without a discerning ear to accuse Powell of needle dropping. Listen closer, if you will. These original themes are modern performances with slightly different accents in instrumentation, woven together specifically for this sequence.
When Michael Giacchino presented his score for Rogue One, I knew that the legacy of John Williams was in good hands. To my mind, he is the natural successor. But after hearing John Powell’s work on Solo… I think it’s safe to say the Galaxy Far, Far Away is gifted with an embarrassment of musical riches. May it be the will of the Force that this continues to be so. It’s my fervent hopes that the Star Wars saga continues to offer us scores of this caliber once Williams steps down following his final outing with Episode IX. This soundtrack from Powell is old school scoring in the neoclassical tradition Williams helped to reinstate in films, the sort of score that so few composers are allowed to create anymore. John Powell is one of the very best in the film score business. If you’ve never heard his scores for How to Train Your Dragon and its sequel, start there. Those will be more than enough to prove that Solo is more than just a one-hit wonder, and it’s enough to prove that Powell brings as much and more to the soundscape as Williams for this score. In terms of sound matching, reinforcing, and calling back screen imagery to the mind of a listener, Solo‘s score could not be better. Multiple listens will only secure that belief. It certainly did all of that for me.