(Spoilers for Solo: A Star Wars Story follow)
As precedent-setting as Rogue One felt in 2016 — no titular “Episode,” few recognizable faces, fewer recognizable names — the absence of John Williams didn’t really register with me. In some ways it still doesn’t, perhaps because Williams has now agreed to score all three films in this “Sequel Trilogy.” His replacement if you will, Michael Giacchino, is as accomplished as modern composers come, and the fact that he is not The Maestro should not be held against him.
And yet, Williams is as essential as any actor, writer, or director to the eight films he’s provided music for thus far. Solo: A Star Wars Story is less a ninth than it is an “8.5.” The composer did get first crack at tackling the film’s primary themes for a younger version of the smuggler, with the film’s primary composer John Powell writing both alongside and around him. By all accounts, Williams and Powell’s partnership was harmonious but its Frankenstein nature also mirrors the tumultuous production history behind the director’s chair, with career journeyman Ron Howard taking over for former co-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Not to mention that even on its face, the idea of John Williams writing music for a character we’ve known for over four decades feels like a retcon.
The results sound much better, and Williams’ influence on Solo‘s music is both a credit to their collaborative approach. With a twinkle in its eye, an instantly hummable fanfare lends any sequence in which it’s quoted a feeling of a lost legacy rediscovered. “The Adventures of Han” combines this with a second motive from Williams, a cluttered and rollicking cue that (unintentionally) highlights the film’s mess of formalism and fun.
And Powell is more than game at both weaving these themes throughout and aping Williams’ inclinations. For an energizing, head-scratching train heist, a handful of string passages recall A New Hope‘s classical romanticism. Other moments are wholesale repetitions. “Reminiscence Therapy” plays under a an unexpected rendering of the fabled Kessel Run. Its outright recall of “Ben’s Death/TIE Fighter Attack” and “The Asteroid Field” have fueled criticisms of nostalgic shamelessness — because this is the first time this franchise has been guilty of manipulating childhood memories. It’s also a reductive jab, as Powell bridges the familiar with new, uncertain chaos. That’s the case when Han first sees the Millenium Falcon, fittingly impounded, as Powell layers the introduction with a drawn-out callback to Williams’ Rebel Fanfare. Surprisingly, it’s an indelible, moving touch in a film filled with perfunctory ones. For decades, audiences have imagined these seminal Star Wars moments in their imaginations. If we’re forced to see them played out, a little of the old and a little of the new marks the safest passage.
Powell gets his chance to shine, too. There’s the intrepid pep that drives “Break Out” and the snarling drive of “Into the Maw,” the latter of which propels Solo‘s best action sequence. “Flying with Chewie” shares DNA with How to Train Your Dragon, both Powell’s strongest work and among this century’s essential scores. Apart from the pennywhistle, that’s not a knock on a new musical voice in this story world. On their own terms, “Good Thing You Were Listening” and “Testing Allegiance” would be tremendous additions to another story. Their results in Solo are complicated by the script’s identity crisis, playing the film’s ending, a head fake on Han Solo’s moral corruption, too big.
While both Powell and Williams share presence here, Solo‘s music has a third category that’s harder to sort out. Part of that is texture. “Chicken and the Pot,” with its goofy duet could have ended up another “Jedi Rocks.” Instead, its breezy deliveries, re-dubbed with a lower-registered froggy counterpart in the film, succeeds as a modern spin on “Cantina Band.” “Savareen Standoff” punches up desert-strewn woodwinds in signaling the most exciting part of this particular Star Wars Story: Enfys Nest. The leader of a gang of proto-Rebels, the teenaged lead marauder works better as a reflection of Han Solo’s troubled upbringing. Her music, decorated with a wailing children’s choir, jumps out whenever the space thieves appear on screen, committing to an exoticism that Williams has only played with in films past. For nearly two and a half hours of familiar, it’s what feels the most novel.
This is what’s most fascinating about Solo. Not the production what-ifs or Donald Glover’s screentime. The music and its many shapes. Or perhaps lack thereof. It’s smirking and nostalgic. It’s unfamiliar. It’s even a little sloppy. With Episode IX seemingly marking John Williams’ curtain call, the musical landscape of Star Wars is about to be wide open. This is a fact that Star Wars fans and film music aficionados alike will have to reconcile, Avatar fixations and all. Afterthought or not, Michael Giacchino’s work in Rogue One is the mynock in the coal mine. The house style is no style.