A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, French composer Alexandre Desplat scored a Star Wars spin-off…wait, what? Do you know this is wrong? It is Michael Giacchino we are talking about, right? That guy who has already written music for J.J.Abrams’s “Star Trek” reboot, various Disney animation features and who was even chosen to step out of Williams’s gigantic shadow by providing the score for “Jurassic World”, the pun-guy? Never mind, here we go.
Back in 2012, when the Walt Disney Company bought Lucasfilm, it immediately became clear that they did not only want to continue the regular series with a truckload of new episodes, but that the Disney executives also wanted to release a handful of Star Wars spin-offs focusing on only loosely-connected side stories to the original main saga in a serious attempt to make even more profit. Or to entertain us. Whatever.
Based on an early idea by John Knoll, visual effects supervisor for the prequel trilogy, “Rogue One” marks the first stand-alone film in the Star Wars Anthology series which is chronologically set after the events of “Revenge of the Sith” and immediately ending before the events taking place in “A New Hope”. Telling the story of how the Rebel Alliance managed to retrieve the Death Star plans to destroy it, “Rogue One” can be seen as a direct prequel to the original 1977 Star Wars film. Starring Felicity Jones as the main protagonist alongside Diego Luna, Forest Whitaker, Ben Mendelsohn and Mads Mikkelsen amongst others, the story centers around Jyn Erso, daughter of Galen Erso, the designer of the Empire’s superweapon, who – together with a group of rebels opposed to the Galactic Empire – wants to end the Emperor’s reign of terror over the galaxy.
With director Gareth Edwards attached to the project, French composer and Academy Award winner Alexandre Desplat, with whom he had already collaborated on the 2014 film adaption of “Godzilla” was set to compose the music, being the second person ever to write an original score for a live action Star Wars movie next to the legendary John Williams. However, due to the Disney executives’ demands, immense re-shoots became a necessary part of the film’s troubled post-production process. Considering Desplat’s recent output, it is understandable that the composer reportedly could not find enough time to rewrite the material he had already composed at this stage which then resulted in his depart from the prestigious project.
Filling in the gap was another popular Academy Award winner, Michael Giacchino, who has become the go-to composer on nearly every huge blockbuster movie over the past few years, providing music for “Inside Out”, the “Planet of the Apes” reboot, “Star Trek”, “Zootopia” and the newest Marvel productions. His colorful and thematically rich compositions have earned him the title as “the next John Williams” in an comparatively short period of time – a title Giacchino’s works could not live up to because there is absolutely no mainstream composer nowadays who understands the handling of a symphony orchestra in film music better than the now 84-year-old maestro (who is currently scoring Episode VIII). Nevertheless, chosing Giacchino as a replacement for Desplat is only a natural choice. Not only is he a huge Star Wars geek knowing the old movies and especially the Williams scores by heart, but his music also shares some stylistic similarities with Williams’s writing.
Looking forward to the Desplat score himself, the American composer never thought about being involved in the spin-off as well. After having finished scoring Marvel’s “Doctor Strange” in London, the producers reportedly asked him to come out to Pinewood Studios. A few hours later, he got the gig. Being a very late addition to the “Rogue One” crew, Giacchino was left with a tight schedule of only four and a half weeks to write an entire score for the epic sci-fiction space opera after that meeting:
Aside from all that it was really fun to do. It was really fun to come in every morning and just look up at the screen and see Stormtroopers running around. And I thought, “This is pretty cool actually…” Part of me was stressing out about the timeline. But the other part of me was just like, “This is the greatest thing ever! This is so much fun!” So I really tried to just keep all the negativity, whatever, or be away from it, just so I could look at it and enjoy it. I wanted to make something that I would be happy with – even though I’m usually not happy with anything I do. [Laughs] But, you know, always at least to try and shoot for it.
Michael Giacchino, talking about the “Rogue One” scoring process
Quality-like, despite the massive re-shoots which brought in Tony Gilroy to finish what director Edwards had begun, the film is a huge success. Although the first half clearly suffers from slightly chaotic storytelling and an only fairly existent character development, the movie remains entertaining all the time, while simultaneously showing a new, darker side of the Star Wars universe, and finally leading into a fulminant battle sequence on the planet Scarif which makes up for a truly breathtaking final act.
Same can be said about Giacchino’s score: While paying hommage to Williams and imitating some of the legendary composer’s compositional techniques, Giacchino did not simply write a rehash of Williams’s Star Wars scores, but maintained his own musical voice with some passages of the suspense and action scoring recalling the mood of his popular “Medal of Honor” game scores. Recorded with a large orchestra and choir, the mix is, as typical for Giacchino, very dry which, in this case, is not as distracting as on Gia’s other scores because of the original Star Wars score being recorded this way as well. And despite the enormous pressure on the composer’s shoulders – it is only logical that his music will be compared to the Williams scores, some of the finest music ever written in the history of cinema – and while it is certainly never as good as Williams’s own complex orchestral writing, Giacchino still managed to provide a very satisfying, entertaining score containing some of the best music he has ever written.
Giacchino’s score is built around three new major themes and one minor one, the most important one of them being Jyn Erso’s theme which the composer himself is actually very proud of and which is sparkled throughout the entire score – especially in the album’s first half – in a variety of different arrangements to illustrate what is happening to the character on screen. Despite sharing some minor similarities with Giacchino’s own “Yorktown Theme” from this year’s “Star Trek Beyond”, it is a very welcome addition to the already existing Star Wars thematic canon, an elegant, almost hopeful-sounding six-note motif building the basis and further expanding as the story demands. A minor theme is the so-called “Hope Theme” representing the Rebel Alliance’s fight against the villaneous Empire and their hope to finally bring peace to the galaxy by ending the current reign of terror. Which is especially brillantly done is the fact that the theme’s first three notes are the exact same as the famous Star Wars opening title, Luke Skywalker’s theme, referencing not only the general feeling of hope but also referring to the “new hope” as being portrayed by Luke in the original 1977 Star Wars movie, “A New Hope”.
The second major Giacchino theme represents Orson Krennic, the Empire’s Director of Advanced Weapons Research, and the Empire as a whole. Flashy brass, aggressive string rhythms and percussion give the theme a feeling of power and supremacy that is slightly diminished by the fact that it does sound like a simple pastiche of the original Imperial March. Fortunately, Giacchino makes the best use out of it – and the more you are actually listening to it, the more infectious it becomes.
Finally, the third major theme – although largely absent from large parts of the album, at least in comparison to Jyn’s theme – concentrates on Chirrut Imwe, a blind sword fighter belonging to the so-called Jedi-like “Guardians of the Whills”, whose aim it is to protect the original Jedi temple on the planet Jedha. Given the character it is related to, the theme carries a deeply religious feeling, an effect that is further enhanced by its lush choral accompaniment. Featuring some minor melodical allusions with the Force theme and Williams’s “Across the Stars”, the love theme for Anakin Skywalker and Padme Amidala introduced in “Episode II: Attack of the Clones”, the theme itself really feels at home in the Star Wars universe.
Apart from that, Giacchino incorporates a multitude of Williams’s original themes by giving them a couple of short cameo appearances within the score. The most obvious ones are surely the famous Force theme, heard in “Trust Goes Both Way” where it suddenly emerges over a powerful statement of Jyn’s theme, “Rogue One”, “Scrambling the Rebel Fleet” and the concluding track “Hope” where it closes the entire score. Furthermore, Giacchino finally gets to do his own take on the legendary “Imperial March” (check out the video below to see a very alternate take, hehe…), first introduced by Williams in “The Empire Strikes Back”, which can be heard in “Krennic’s Asprations” and “Hope“. Even the Star Wars main title melody, Luke Skywalker’s theme, receives a little cameo appearance on woodwinds in “Scrambling the Rebel Fleet”, reminding us of two all too familiar robots.
Last but not least, among the brassy Rebel Fanfare which appears multiple times in “AC-ACT Assault”, Giacchino offers various surprising interpolations of Williams’s lesser-known thematic ideas from the original Star Wars scores such as the four-note “Death Star motif” and other cameo appearances of previously heard Williams material – it really showcases Giacchino’s love for that specific project and his immense knowledge of the musical Star Wars universe (fun fact: the orchestra even played the Star Wars main title as a warm-up for the “Rogue One” recording sessions!).
WARNING: THE FOLLOWING PARAGRAPHS MIGHT CONTAIN SOME HEAVY PLOT SPOILERS!
Unlike the other Star Wars movies, “Rogue One” does not start with the legendary card that, up to this point, has accompanied every single Star Wars film ever released. As such, the popular John Williams main title is missing from the movie as well. Instead of opening “Rogue One” with the spectacular fanfare, Giacchino’s score immediately fades into some vibrant action scoring before he unleashes the Krennic/Imperial theme for the first time as the Empire’s Director of Advanced Weapons Research confronts Galen Erso with his aim to want him working on the Death Star. As the scene progresses, the edgy suspense scoring intensifies, Jyn’s theme appearing at 1:57 for the first time. As Krennic openly menaces the Erso family and the tragedy reaches its height by Jyn seeing her mother being murdered by the Stormtroopers who then get the command to look for herself, an aggressive suspense motif illustrates the search for her. Underlining her safety in a secret den in which she is hiding from the enemy and then discovered by Saw Gerrera, Jyn’s theme receives a lovely woodwind statement, leading into a swashbuckling iteration of the composer’s spectacular “Hope theme” during the movie’s title card. The following cues provide some further variations of Jyn’s theme, the one featured in “Trust Goes Both Ways”, as Jyn takes flight with the Rebels, leading into an epic statement of the Force theme.
As the setting changes to the planet Jeddha, the score gets an even edgier, harshier sound, the nervous string passages illustrating the dilapidated townscape and the ever-present fear of being discovered by the Empire’s agents. With “Jedha City Ambush”, Giacchino gives us the first real action cue on the album that recalls the composer’s early action writing for the “Medal of Honor” game scores which first helped him launch an extraordinary Hollywood career.
However, the dynamic brass writing and especially the orchestrations are strongly reminiscent of Williams’s usual action scoring (thanks, William Ross!).
Things get way more emotional as Jyn, after being captivated by a band of separatists under the command of Saw Gerrera, who have successfully established a basis on the planet, finally gets to meet her old mentor again. A beautiful simplistic piano variation of Jyn’s theme, accompanied by magical string chords, underlines the moment she is shown an old message by her father explaining her what has happened fifteen years ago and why he agreed to work as the Empire’s engineer. A long crescendo line musically reflects the character’s escape from the Jeddha as Krennic releases the Death Star’s power for the first time (as if he just wanted to wait for that specific moment, hehe…).
Next up is the score’s by far longest action set piece, “Confrontation on Eadu”, Jyn’s theme forming the cornerstone of the 8-minute cue. String ostinati and a three-note action motif, at first introduced for woodwinds and then taken over by brass, are dominating the cue’s first half with an explosive statement of the “Guardians of the Whills” theme accompanying the Rebel Alliance’s presence during the final confrontation between Galen Erso and Orson Krennic. A moving variation of Jyn’s theme, holding her dead father in her arms, ends the cue on an emotional high point. As Krennic meets Darth Vader on the planet Mustafar, “Krennic’s Aspirations” plays during the audience. Menacing string writing builds up to the first huge statement of the legendary Imperial March as the most-feared Sith in the galaxy enters the scene – with Krennic’s theme being omnipresent all over the score and Vader’s theme now emerging, things cannot get more “imperial”.
The film’s final act undoubtedly contains its strongest moments – and Giacchino’s score gets to shine even more as well. Starting with “Rebellions Are Built On Hope” presenting Jyn’s theme in a very tentive variation until the noble “Hope Theme” receives its first truly outstanding rendition since the opening title card, brilliantly playing as a counterpoint to Jyn’s theme while pouring an infectious feeling of optimism and heroism at the same time, Giacchino shows off all his skills.
Contrasting “Cargo Shuttle SW-0608” mostly building up tension for the subsequent, action-packed finale, the fugue-like “Rogue One” (seriously, “Fugue One” would have been such a brilliant Gia pun!) – which involves a noble statement of the Force theme – and “Scrambling the Rebels Fleet” feature some rousing string and brass writing strongly reminiscent of Williams’s own compositions, the latter incorporating a martial, forebonding variation of Jyn’s theme before unleashing the Force theme in all its glory and then, as a nice little surprise, giving Luke Skywalker’s theme a wonderful cameo appearance, reminding us of two all too familiar robots.
“AT-ACT Assault” again revisits Giacchino’s stirring action writing, giving the brass section a real workout. The composer graces the cue with some thrilling performances of the Rebel Fanfare as we see the Rebel Alliance being engaged with an army of Stormtroopers on the beach of Scarif. “The Master Switch” continues the energetic battle finale: After the “Hope Theme” being counterpointed by Jyn’s theme, the “Guardians of the Whills” theme appears in a tentive, emotional variation accompanying Chirrut Imwe’s moving moment of self-sacrifice as he enables Jyn and Cassian to send the Death Star plans to the Rebel Alliance.
But the score’s most emotional moment undoubtedly comes with “Your Father Would Be Proud”, a heartbreaking elegy for orchestra and choir. Ignoring the Williams legacy and just roaming free, Giacchino releases beautiful string melodies and longing cello lines before a heavenly choir suddenly emerges. Unleashing Jyn’s theme in a huge orchestral-and-choir-statement, the composer perfectly captures the final moments of Jyn and Cassian after successfully having executed their plan to steal the secret plans and sending them out to the Rebel Alliance, with our heroes, now being completely exhausted, awaiting their self-sacrificing end as the Death Star’s wave of destruction slowly approaches, being fully aware of the fact that they cannot escape. The cue closes with some fulminant action writing for brass that is continued in the subsequent “Hope”, referring to the Episode IV title. Screaming choir and epic brass writing accompany Lord Vader’s brutal slaughterfest, the ultimate bad-ass sequence of the entire movie, as he murders a dozen of rebels obstructing the spaceships’s entrance all on his own (by the way, I absolutely love how you can hum along the Imperial March with the main melody). Giacchino then releases the Imperial March in all its militaristic glory before fading into short woodwind statements of the Rebel Fanfare and closing his score with a longing iteration of the famous Force theme as we get to see Princess Leia’s face, the new hope of ending the Empire’s reign of terror laying on her shoulders. After all the deaths and brutality, the composer now allows the music to show at least a glimpse of cautious optimism, preparing the stage for “Episode IV: A New Hope” which literally starts just a couple of minutes after the “Rogue One” ending.
During the movie’s end credits (SO awkward to see “Music by Michael Giacchino” over the legendary star sky), we get to hear the usual end title fanfare specifically composed by Williams which has been featured in every single Star Wars live action film ever released, and then followed by Giacchino’s own concert suite presenting all his new themes, preserving the Williams tradition. Instead of including this arrangement on the soundtrack album, the composer decided to present three theme suites as a whole.
The first of these concert arrangements is “Jyn Erso and Hope Suite”, a brilliantly-orchestrated 6-minute piece that simply blows you away with its outstanding violin and cello writing, a clear frontrunner for the “Cue of the Year” title. Especially the warm performance of the Hope theme on solo cello at the 3:17 mark is nothing short but perfect musical storytelling. Next up is “The Imperial Suite”, the flashy brass, aggressive string writing and rhythmic percussion relentlessly driving the main melody forward. While this martial march is very much in the vein of John Williams would have written, it actually reminds me of a darker take on last year’s “March of the Resistance”, especially considering its forebonding, pugnacious nature. With the “Guardians of the Whills Suite” that takes the unfortunately only sparingly-used motif for Chirrut Imwe to unknown heights, the heavy choir giving the piece a strongly religious touch.
Well, to summarize my thoughts, the first non-Williams score for a live action Star Wars film is certainly far, far away from being an ultimate disappointment. Despite having had only four and a half weeks to write and complete an entire score for the 2-hour-epic, Giacchino managed to provide a really strong Star Wars score featuring some excellent, highly memorable main themes, Jyn’s theme and the martial march representing the Empire’s strength being the highlight of the entire composition. And while it is very much written in Williams’s style thanks to Ross’s orchestrations, the composer still finds new interesting ways to walk in the already multithematic, deeply explored Star Wars musical universe.
Nevertheless, the score is also far away from being flawless. Apart from some of the themes sounding like a simple rehash of pre-existing material – although Giacchino perfectly managed to anticipate Episode IV with these melodic and harmonic similarities -, especially the action scoring suffers from interchangeability, other than variations of his own themes, the action set pieces do not develop an identity on their own. What cannot be ignored as well is the fact that the music is not nearly as well structured as the Episode I-VII scores.
Still, as the cue analysis might tell, there is a lot to admire in this score and despite not reaching the heights of what John Williams achieved with his original trilogy’s compositions, Giacchino’s score remains highly entertaining throughout its entire running time while simultaneously appealing on a technical level. The development of his own material combined with the re-use of Williams’s pre-existing themes, although involving some rather strange transitions, can be appreciated on an intellectual level and the composer gives his new thematic material enough time to breathe. Maybe if he would have had more time – and I am actually pretty sure, this would have been the case -, Giacchino could have written an even better score. Meanwhile, “Rogue One” makes up for a wonderful listening experience as an extremely solid score on his own, being the crowning achievement of Michael Giacchino’s already enormously successful 2016.
Oh, and if you find the album lacking in the more pun-filled track titles (I am rather disappointed he did not think of “Gone With the X-Wing” or “When You Wish Upon A Death Star”) the composer and his team usually provide, never mind: Alongside a note about his feelings during the scoring process, Giacchino included an alternate list for the listener’s enjoyment in the album booklet – to end this review with one of his legendary puns: Live and let Jedi!
Music composed by Michael Giacchino. Original Star Wars music composed by John Williams. Conducted by Tim Simonec. Orchestrated by Williams Ross, Brad Dechter, Tim Simonec, Jeff Kryka, Chris Tilton and Herbert W. Spencer. Album produced by Michael Giacchino.
1. He’s Here For Us (3:20)
2. A Long Ride Ahead (3:56)
3. Wobani Imperial Labor Camp (0:55)
4. Trust Goes Both Ways (2:45)
5. When Has Become Now (1:59)
6. Jedha Arrival (2:48)
7. Jedha City Ambush (2:19)
8. Star-Dust (3:47)
9. Confrontation on Eadu (8:06)
10. Krennic’s Aspirations (4:16)
11. Rebellions Are Built on Hope (2:56)
12. Rogue One (2:05)
13. Cargo Shuttle SW-0608 (4:00)
14. Scrambling the Rebel Fleet (1:33)
15. AT-ACT Assault (2:55)
16. The Master Switch (4:03)
17. Your Father Would Be Proud (4:52)
18. Hope (1:38)
19. Jyn Erso & Hope Suite (5:52)
20. The Imperial Suite (2:30)
21. Guardians of the Whills Suite (2:53)
Album available on Walt Disney Records.
Check out this interview with Giacchino talking about the “Rogue One” scoring process and his late involvement in the movie’s troubled post-production process: