Solo: A Star Wars Story – John Powell & John Williams

SOLO


WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS HEAVY PLOT SPOILERS!

When actor Harrison Ford first appeared as Han Solo, a cynical smuggler and pilot from the planet Corellia, in George Lucas’s space opera “Star Wars” in 1977, neither film critics nor the director himself would have thought that this character would soon become one of the most beloved characters ever to be written for the cinema screen. Now, fourty-one years and nine live-action films, four of them involving Solo, later, Disney’s campaign of anthology films set in the Star Wars universe finally allows for a standalone feature focussing on Han’s origin story. 

After the sensational financial success of “The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi”, both of which are a continuation of the classic Skywalker saga, “Solo” follows in the same vein as 2016’s “Rogue One”: creating a cinematic background for the classic canon while introducing new characters not featured in previously released films and, as such, expanding the universe. Telling the story of Han Solo meeting his future co-pilot Chewbacca and encountering famous smuggler Lando Calrissian years before joining the revolution, the film is directed by Ron Howard and features an all-star cast including Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke and Paul Bettany. Starring as the lead character is actor Alden Ehrenreich. Much like with “Rogue One” which received a musical score by Michael Giacchino, it was expected that somebody else than the legendary John Williams, responsible for the main saga, would contribute an original score for “Solo”. After post-production chaos which involved the firing of Phil Lord and Christopher Lord, both of which were asked to helm the spin-off at first, and Howard’s engagement, speculations emerged which composer would be given the chance to follow in Williams’ gigantic footsteps, especially considering Howard’s recent collaborations with Hans Zimmer. The final announcement of John Powell, however, turned out as a pleasant surprise. Having strongly reduced his recent output in order to focus on writing concert music, combined with his aversion to overly action-dominated blockbusters, the driving force behind his involvement was the chance of getting to work with Williams himself.

It appears that the maestro was not pleased with how the “Rogue One” score turned out and, as such, was asked to be a bigger part of “Solo” by writing a theme for the main character which the film’s original composer would integrate into his own score. Williams personally handpicked Powell after James Newton Howard, most likely being recommended by screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan with whom he shares a longstanding friendship, heavy-heartedly had to turn down the offer due to his simultaneous involvement in Disney’s “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms”. Hired by Lord and Miller, Powell had still discussed early ideas with them before industry veteran Ron Howard was famously brought in to take over. Luckily, a change of composer did not happen and Powell officially continued working on his first Star Wars gig.

Says Powell about the pressure of being part part of such a huge franchise and meeting John Williams: “Once I had his theme, it gave me permission to do the things the film perhaps was asking for. Since it’s a different type of film, he was telling me not to worry and not be too honorable to the original, and do what I felt like is the right thing to do. John was interested to see how it would be if it were modern, as it were. And I say ‘modern’ in inverted quotes because his style is sort of timeless for a classic. The danger with making anything modern is that it goes out of fashion. If you look back on a score from 1977 by John Williams, it doesn’t seem out of date at all. But if you look back on a score by an electronic rock band (from the 70s) and listen to it now, it sounds really dated. John’s score could have been ’77, ’88, ’98 anytime.”

Williams’ theme is indeed all over the score: A heroic brass fanfare heralding reckless optimism that, despite sharing some obvious melodic allusions to Williams’ own Poe Dameron theme, perfectly captures young Han’s character opens “The Adventures of Han”, a concert arrangement giving the maestro some space to let his theme breathe, before a rhtythmic, whimsical side theme, first presented at 0:37, takes over.

Aside from the main identity for the lead character, written by Williams himself, Powell graces the score with five more leitmotifs: A real stunner is the Golden Age-like, heavenly romantic love theme associated with Qi’ra, the character played by Emilia Clarke, and her unsteady relationship to Han who is still deeply in love with her. Often performed by elegiac string lines, the theme perfectly mirrors the unfullfilled desire to both escape their crime-saturated life together – the fact Powell was allowed to write such an expressive, emotional theme for a major summer blockbuster and get away with it is as surprising as it is welcoming.

Next up, actually the first time this particular character is given a theme – despite being part of the franchise right from the very beginning -, is the theme for Chewbacca, a heroic fanfare subtly channelling the wookie’s world-famous roar. For Enfys Nest, a marauder who has an infamous reputation for herself and her gang of pirates, Powell came up with a Middle-Eastern like, eatheral choir theme that, due to its orchestration, stands out from the rest of the score like the famous needle in the haystack. Rounding out the thematic palette are a theme for L3, Lando’s droid companion, as well as an overall Gang theme.

Apart from the new material, Powell remain surprisingly truthful to Williams’s pre-existing material which might explain the rather unusual “score composed and adapted by” credit: Next to Luke’s theme, there appear renditions of the Rebel Fanfare – now used as a motif for the Falcon, very much like Williams himself in the recent sequels -, the Imperial March, “Here They Come”, the action motif featured in “The Asteroid Field” and, rather surprisingly the legendary “Duel of the Fates” (which, considering the return of a well-known character, makes absolute sense from a narrative point of view but, unfortunately, is not included on the official album release).

The album opens with a four-minute concert version of Williams’ main theme, entitled “The Adventures of Han”. Next up is “Meet Han”: Brooding brass, accompanied by a solemn variaton of Han’s heroic theme, open the piece, neatly mirroring the newly introduced shipbuilding world of Corellia, before the bold B phrase of Han’s theme, constantly pushed forward by the percussion section, takes over. This is continued in the subsequent “Corellia Chase”. Heavy brass outbursts of Han’s theme underscore the sequence he and his lover Qi’ra try to escape the cluthes of a local crime gang. Having successfully managed to bribe an Imperial officer to get away, Han manages to escape while he has no other choice than seeing Qi’ra being arrested by their pursuers. Hectic brass switches to a highly dramatic rendition of the love theme at 2:44 in “Spaceport”.

Fighting as a soldier for the Empire three years later, Han encounters a gang of criminals led by Tobias Beckett, the character played by Woody Harrelson. Being rejected at first, he meets a wookie named Chewbacca with whom he flies and finally convinces Beckett to rescue both of them. A rushed version of Chewie’s theme opens “Flying with Chewie” before the first-ever arrangement of Powell’s playful Gang theme emerges at 0:39. Han’s side theme leads over to a sweeping theme of his heroic theme as the young firebrand makes his way to freedom. This is further augmented by a smooth rendition of Chewie’s theme, underpinned by soft guitar chords and rhtythmic percussion, starting from 2:10 on.

The subsequent “Train Heist” provides a beautiful moment of propitiation, including a longing variation on Chewbacca’s theme for soft strings and woodwinds, before diving into one of the film’s most spectacular action sequences as Beckett and his crew try to steal a shipment of coaxium on the planet Vandor. Several energetic renditions of the Gang theme make an appearence while Han’s theme itself is sparkled all over the cue – also watch out for a burst of the original “A New Hope” Imperial theme at 3:34. The furious action writing continues in the subsequent “Marauders Arrive”: An aggressive-chanting Bulgarian choir, playing her five-note theme with brutal force, which may count as Powell’s inofficial application to score the “Avatar” sequels (although I highly doubt he would want with a director as difficut as Cameron), heralds the arrival of Enfys Nest and her Cloud-Riders show up, resulting in the deaths of two crew members – supported by an emotional outburst of the Gang theme at 3:13 – and the destruction of the coaxium.

Next up is “Chicken in the Pot”, a source music cue playing during the Gang’s visit to the yacht of Dryden Vos, a crime boss in the Crimson Dawn syndicate, who agrees to spare them from punishment as long as they could bring him unrefined coaxium from the mines on Kessel. His lieutenant, ordered to accompany him, turns out as Han’s lost love Qi’ra. “Is This Seat Taken?” accompanys the first-ever encounter between Han and the smuggler Lando Calrissian with constant percussion, little woodwind variations on Han’s theme and guitars. Despite the latter one’s loss during a card game, Lando agrees to help the Gang by lending them his ship in exchange for a share of the profits. A rendition of the Rebel Fanfare, now used as a motif for the legendary Millenium Falcon, ends the cue. The subsequent “L3 & Millenium Falcon” introduces Powell’s theme for L3, Lando’s droid companion and Navigator, that leads into into a glorious, celebratory full-orchestral statement of the Star Wars main theme before reprising the Rebel Fanfare. Enfys Nest’s theme closes the cue as she watches them disappear.

As Han and Qi’ra share an intimate moment while heading to Kessel together, Powell graciously unleashes their love theme in an unashamedly lush arrangement in “Lando’s Closet” – perhaps, the album’s only misfire might be the absence of a real concert version giving the theme, separated by the movie, some more time to breathe. The subsequent “Mine Mission” sees a reflective statement of L3’s theme before, based on that, developing into a rousing fugue as Lando’s droid co-pilot initiates a slave revolt which the Gang uses to steal a consignment of coaxium. This is continued in the thrilling “Break Out” that features some outstanding thematic writing: A jubilant rendition of Chewie’s theme at 0:34 leads over a clever quotation of the Star Wars opening fanfare before Han’s theme takes center stage. Powell brilliantly sneaks in further thematic material in his colorful action writing before a mourning rendition of L3’s theme highlights her severe damage during the fight.

“The Good Guy” elegantly reprises the love theme during a discussion between Han and Qi’ra before featuring a beautiful version of the Gang theme at 1:51. A statement of Enfys Nest’s theme ends the cue. The subsequent “Reminiscience Therapy” plays while Han pilots the Millenium Falcon through the Kessel Run for the first time,  taking a dangerous route through an uncharted maelstrom in order to avoid an Imperial blockade, which allows Powell to create a rousing 6-minute tribute to Williams: Starting with a brief outburst of the “A New Hope” Imperial theme, the composer delivers his own take on Williams’ famous action cue “Here They Come” (pounding percussion) before re-introducing the “Asteroid Field” motif featured in “The Empire Strikes Back”. A bold statement of Chewbacca’s theme takes over as the 190-year old Wookie serves as Han’s co-pilot and a rousing variation of the series’ overall main theme is heard as the galaxy’s most famous pilot duo takes center stage. The furious action writing continues in the furious “Into the Maw” which, at 4:08, sees another over-the-top rendition of the main theme, closely followed by the Rebel Fanfare.

The subsequent “Savareen Stand-Off” is mostly dominated by Enfys Nest’s choral theme as Enfys reveals she and her crew are not pirates but rebels aiming to fight the Empire. Sympathetic to their cause, Han tries to trick Vos who had already been informed about their treachery by Beckett who did not want to take part in this action. However, Han had anticipated Beckett’s deception. As Beckett takes Chewbacca hostage and escapes with the coaxium, betraying the crime boss, the events are overturning: Qi’ra kills Vos and urges Han to save Chewbacca from Beckett and ultimately promises him to  join them shortly – a promise that cannot be kept. After the suspense writing in “Good Thing You Were Listening”, this is musically reflected by an action-heavy outburst of the brass section in the penultimate “Testing Allegiance” before a gorgeous solo piano performance of the love theme, augmented by soft strings, provides a bittersweet moment of farewell.

“Dice & Roll” returns to the guitar and percussion sounds already heard in “Is This Seat Taken?” as Han and Chewbacca track down Lando, challenging him to a second sabacc game during which Han finally wins the Millenium Falcon. The Rebel Fanfare and one last heroic rendition of Williams’ Han theme end the soundtrack album, cleverly anticipating the adventures yet to come.

John-Powell-Abbey-Road
“Solo” composer John Powell having fun during the recording sessions at Abbey Road Studios, London.

In the end, Powell’s take on the “Solo” origin story is a pure blast from start to finish: The animation specialist, now back in live-action mode, virtuosically ties old and new themes together and, while staying true to the classic symphonic sound previously established by Williams, adds a slightly more contemporary sound to the universe that feels as fresh as it is welcoming. Williams’ theme as the main identity is wonderfully integrated within the large body of music that is further supported by Powell’s own material: Anchored by the heavenly romantic love theme and Chewie’s swashbuckling identity, Powell manages to craft a coherent, intelligently structured narrative that perfectly sits in the pre-existing musical canon – listening to a composer reinterpreting classic “Star Wars” Williams material and actually managing to write in the same, fluid style is just so much fun. It might not have the instant memorability of the composer’s own “How To Train Your Dragon” scores, but the variety of styles, the intricate orchestrations and Powell’s undisputably terrific sense of storytelling not only make “Solo” an improvement of Michael Giacchino’s excellent “Rogue One” score but a further proof of Powell’s immense capabilities cementing his current status as one of the most sophisticated composers working in the mainstream industry.

Since it has already been confirmed that lead actor Alden Ehrenreich has officially signed on a contract for two more appearances in the role of the legendary space pilot, a sequel featuring another Powell “Star Wars” score becomes even more realistic. And if this is indeed the case, I might have, as Han likes to say, indeed a really good feeling about this.

Rating: *****



Score composed and adapted by John Powell. Han Solo Theme and Original Star Wars music by John Williams. Additional music and arrangements by Batu Sener, Anthony B. Willis and Paul Mounsey. Orchestra conducted by Gavin Greenaway. Orchestrated by Geoff Lawson, Tommy Laurence, Andrew Kinney, Randy Kerber, Rick Giovinazzo and Gavin Greenaway. Album produced by John Powell.

1. The Adventures of Han – John Williams
2. Meet Han
3. Corellia Chase
4. Spaceport
5. Flying with Chewie
6. Train Heist
7. Marauders Arrive
8. Chicken In The Pot
9. Is This Seat Taken?
10. L3 & Millennium Falcon
11. Lando’s Closet
12. Mine Mission
13. Break Out
14. The Good Guy
15. Reminiscence Therapy
16. Into the Maw
17. Savareen Stand-Off
18. Good Thing You Were Listening
19. Testing Allegiance
20. Dice & Roll

Album available on Walt Disney Records.


Check out these links if you are interested in learning more about the “Solo” scoring process:

 

 

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