Saturday, 17 December 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Score

Cover of the Soundtrack to Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Music by Michael Giacchino

When Alexandre Desplat was originally announced as musical score composer for Rogue One, I was intrigued. Here was a very accomplished, Academy Award-winning composer — whose work to date could has been powerfully rhythmic, but pretty low-key — being asked to write in the tradition of one of the most iconic film scores of all time. Not an easy task. To me, hiring Desplat was a very positive sign that the filmmakers wanted to take these Star Wars anthology films in a very different direction from the saga. Alas, Desplat's place in the Star Wars canon was not be be. In September, it was announced at the last minute that Star Trek composer and J.J. Abrams favourite Michael Giacchino had replaced Desplat.

I felt bad for Desplat, but knew Giacchino is a safer choice for this type of film. Rogue One was touted as a war film, and Giacchino has spent more time writing for World War II-themed properties than almost any other living composer on the planet. Desplat ostensibly departed the project due to 'scheduling' conflicts, but given the talk of reshoots (and the evidence of many scenes in trailers not present in the final film) it wouldn't be surprising if the departure was also due to changes in the film's tone.

Michael Giacchino is a pioneer in multimedia music scoring. The first gig that brought him to wider attention was as composer to the score of the maligned Lost World Playstation game. The game sucked, but the music was great and was indeed the first video game to feature a recorded symphonic score. Giacchino's work on this game led to him scoring the first Medal of Honor game, a game produced by Steven Speilberg and his studio Dreamworks Interactive. Giacchino went on to score the game's sequels, MoH: Underground, Frontline (my personal favourite), Allied Assault (using the pre-existing scores from the other games) and — after a hiatus from the series — Airborne. He also scored the first Call of Duty game, bringing the composer back to World War II yet again. These scores are truly great works in any medium. Giacchino's scored a heap of films and television series since his Medal of Honor days, but it is these early scores Rogue One most closely resembles. The games' heroic themes for the Allies and bombastic goose-stepping marches for the Axis are transplanted into a galaxy far, far away, with a great effect.

The Star Wars series is a natural fit for Giacchino. In fact, he's seemed destined for this role for a long time, with his work on films such as Abrams' Star Trek franchise, Jurassic World and others positioning himself as a natural successor to Williams as the composer who can meld bombast with nuance. Abrams, naturally, opted for John Williams to score The Force Awakens so Giacchino — a long-time Abrams collaborator — was cast as a stormtrooper in the opening on Jakku instead.

Which brings us to Rogue One. Fans looking for a rehash of themes from the original trilogy will be disappointed. This score is almost wholly originally. The cover of the album may credit John Williams as the "Original Star Wars music" composer, but this is mainly a marketing exercise. Just as the film uses iconic characters sparingly, so too does Giacchino quote Williams' themes infrequently, but judiciously. Instead of dumping in the Imperial March every time a Star Destroyer appears on screen, Giacchino very smartly develops his own Imperial themes, derived from those of A New Hope, rather than the Imperial March of the Empire Strikes Back.

There was disquiet about Williams' use of the Imperial March in the prequels, owing to the fact that in the timeline of the films, neither the Empire or its theme had been established. Giacchino wisely quotes from it sparingly and instead chooses to develop the Death Star's four note motif (duuh duh-duh DUUUUUUH) and even employs Darth Vader's original motif (sometimes called the 'Imperial motif', but referred to a pre-ESB Williams as 'Darth Vader's Theme') of bassoons and muted trumpets which has not been heard since the original 1977 film.

Imperial Motif or Darth Vader's Original Theme from the 1977 film Star Wars. Music by John Williams

All in all, this is a very good score that serves the film exceptionally well. The same people who threw the banal critique at The Force Awakens soundtrack as not having a 'hummable' tune will probably dislike this score. There probably isn't enough Williams for the casual viewer's liking, and interweb-based film score forums (yep, such things exist) will issue keyboard criticism after keyboard criticism, but this is a very good score. As Gordy Haab (Battlefront), Mark Griskey (The Force Unleashed), Joel McNeely (Shadows of the Empire) and other composers have shown, there can be exceptional Star Wars scores without the original maestro at the helm. Sooner or later John Williams won't be around to compose a Star Wars score; we were very lucky to get a seventh saga score from him. I can't think of anyone better than Michael Giacchino to inherit the Star Wars musical mantle.

Krennic's Aspirations — The re-emergence of a very familiar character and some very familiar themes.
Hope — Once you've seen the film, the opening of this track will probably give you nighmares. It's instantly iconic and will be a track long remembered, to paraphrase a certain memorable villain.
The Imperial Suite — a concert version of Giacchino's new themes for the Empire, like an ur-Imperial March. A lot of similarities to some tracks from MoH: Airborne.

Other Albums You Should Listen to:
Medal of Honor: Frontline (Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube)
Medal of Honor: Airborne (Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube)
Battlefront OST, Gordy Haab (YouTube)
The Force Unleashed OST, Mark Griskey (YouTube)
Shadows of the Empire, Joel McNeely (Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube)