Sunday, August 6, 2017

Composing Greatness: #14. John Williams - "Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back" (1980)

Scene from Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back
Welcome to Composing Greatness: a column dedicated to exploring the work of film composers. This will specifically focus on the films that earned them Oscar nominations while exploring what makes it so special. This will be broken down into a look at the overall style, interesting moments within the composition, and what made the score worth nominating in the first place. This will also include various subcategories where I will rank the themes of each film along with any time that the composer actually wins. This is a column meant to explore a side of film that doesn't get enough credit while hopefully introducing audiences to an enriched view of more prolific composers' work. This will only cover scores/songs that are compiled in an easily accessible format (so no extended scores will be considered). Join me every Sunday as I cover these talents that if you don't know by name, you recognize by sound.

Series Composer: John Williams
Entry: Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Collaborators (If Available): London Symphony Orchestra
Nomination: Best Music, Original Score
Did He Win: No

Other Nominees:
-Fame (Michael Gore) *winner
-Altered States (John Corigliano)
-The Elephant Man (John Morris)
-Tess (Philippe Sarde)

Additional Information

This is to help provide perspective of where each composer is in their Oscar-nominated life as it related to the current entry.

Oscar Nomination: 15
Oscar Wins: 3

Track List

1. "Main Title/The Ice Planet/Hoth"
2. "The Wampa's Lair/Vision of Obi-Wan/Snowspeeders Take Flight (Medley)"
3. "The Imperial Probe/Aboard the Executor (Medley)"
4. "The Battle of Hoth Medley"
5. "The Asteroid Field"
6. "Arrival on Dagobah"
7. "Luke's Nocturnal Visitor"
8. "Han Solo and the Princess"
9. "Jedi Master Revealed/ Mynock Cave"
10. "The Training of a Jedi Knight/The Magic Tree (Medley)"
11. "The Imperial March"
12. "Yoda's Theme"
13. "Attacking a Star Destroyer"
14. "Yoda and the Force"
15. "Imperial Starfleet Deployed/City in the Clouds (Medley)"
16. "Lando's Palace"
17. "Betrayal at Bespin"
18. "Deal with Dark Lord"
19. "Carbon Freeze/Darth Vader's Trap"
20. "The Clash of Lightsabers"
21. "Rescue from Cloud City, Hyperspace"
22. "The Rebel Fleet End Title Medley"

*NOTE: Listen to Score here

Exploring the Music
The area of the column where I will explore the music in as much detail as I see fit for each entry.

Theme Exploration:
"Main Title/The Ice Planet/Hoth"

This is the first time that John Williams has repeated himself during an Oscar-nominated score. There's no way to improve upon something as iconic and immediate as that main title. It is triumphant and enters in the movie's great mix of classic fantasy and sci-fi with classical scores. What's more interesting is what follows. Where the previous score felt more due to scores like Maurice Jarre's Lawrence of Arabia, there's something intriguing about this take. In some ways, it builds on what he has been doing for the past decade of his career. It also feels even more classical, borrowing from the love themes of composers like Max Steiner. It also fits into his recurring motif structure that he has going here, and it makes for another excellent score that does what every sequel should do but often gets wrong in some way. It is bigger and more expansive, but I think Williams manages to also be more emotional here in ways that make it an excellent follow-up.

Interesting Standout:
"Yoda's Theme"

It is true that the recurring motif of "Imperial March" fits within the narrative story. However, it's also very interesting to hear new moments that don't recall old score or the dooming and aggressive march. In the middle of a romantic and chaotic score comes this melody that is at times almost like a lullaby that is sweet and beautiful. It's almost a sleepy song that would make one want to stare into the stars as they yawn and go to sleep. It's got so much of the wonder that it only stands out because it is a quiet moment that reflects an inner peace of the score. What's more impressive is that it works in context with everything else, even eventually having the various motifs incorporate into its ominous melody.

Best Moment:
 "The Battle of Hoth (Medley)"

In all respects, "Imperial March" is the obvious stand-out on this soundtrack. However, it is so ingrained in every other track of the score that it feels greedy to select it. Instead, I chose what is probably one of his best compositions for these two Star Wars films and probably one of his grandest achievements as a major composer yet. This is a battle score, and John Williams goes for the jugular here, managing to use so many impossible instruments in odd places, such as a walking piano melody, and turns the chaos into a beautiful sonic landscape where anything can happen. It's majestic and fun, hitting all of the familiar notes of the Star Wars universe of scores. There may be more distilled examples of his brilliance, but this embodies what he can do when allowed to make the sound of something epic.

Did This Deserve an Oscar Nomination?:

Here's the kicker. Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back is a pretty solid score and continues to define why John Williams is great. However, this vote has come down to a small nitpick that long time readers of the website will recognize. I am still annoyed that scores like Jonny Greenwood's There Will Be Blood was disqualified for featuring pre-existing score. True, that would make it disqualified from "Best ORIGINAL Score," but then why are there four Star Wars score nominations as well as several other franchises that reuse familiar pieces of music that are arguably bigger than anything that Greenwood ever did? I'm not saying no to Williams as a composer, but I think that the principles need to stand. If Nino Rota's The Godfather score is disqualified for having familiar beats, then so should anything Star Wars related past the first film. With that said, if scores in general were nominated, this would be another strong and obvious "Duh."

Up Next: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) for Best Music, Original Score

Best Theme

A ranking of all themes composed by John Williams.

1. "Main Theme (Theme From 'Jaws')" (1975)
2. "Theme From 'Superman'" (1978)
3. "Prologue/Tradition" - Fiddler on the Roof (1971)
4. "Main Title and Mountain Visions" - Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
5. "Main Title/The Ice Planet/Hoth" - Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
6. "Main Title" - The Towering Inferno (1974)
7. "Main Title/Rebel Blockade/Runner Medley" - Star Wars (1977)
8. "Wednesday Special (Main Theme)" - Cinderella Liberty (1973)
9. "Main Title/First Introduction/The Winton Flyer" - The Reivers (1969)
10. "River Song"- Tom Sawyer (1973)
11. "Where Did My Childhood Go?" - Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969)
12. "Theme from 'Valley of the Dolls'"/"Theme from 'Valley of the Dolls' - Reprise" - Valley of the Dolls (1967)
13. "Opening Titles" - The Poseidon Adventure (1972)
14. "In Search of Unicorns" - Images (1972)

Best Song

A ranking of all Oscar-nominated songs composed by John Williams.

1. "Nice to Be Around" - Cinderella Liberty (1973)

Best Winner

A ranking of all winners composed by John Williams.

1. Jaws (1975) for Best Music, Original Dramatic Score
2. Fiddler on the Roof (1971) for Best Music, Scoring Adaptation and Original Song Score
3. Star Wars (1977) for Best Music, Original Dramatic Score

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