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by John Williams

Well, after a dry spell in the career of the great John Williams, he's back with a vengeance, in the form of a new Star Wars score.  This one may take a while to grow on you, especially if you're expecting a replay of the original trilogy.  TPM is infinitely more mature than either Star Wars or Return of the Jedi, evidenced by the absence of leitmotif in most sections.  The music itself is above excellent, and I'd place it slightly behind TESB as my favorite Star Wars score.  This CD release, however, butchers the music, leaving out an hour's worth of material and utilizing segues much like the 1977 Star Wars album.  And what's with those liner notes?  It's basically a fold out poster with about two sentences from George Lucas and John Williams, each giving mindless praise for the other.  They could have at least put a few notes about the music, much like the 1977 2LP set, and it would have been really nice to have the 30+ pages of liner notes that we got for the Special Editions, but anyway...  Rumors abound, however, that Sony Classical will release either a complete 2CD score or at least a Volume II.  We can only hope...

Track by Track Analysis
1. Main Title/Arrival at Naboo (2:55)
Williams begins his new opus with a recap of that immortal main theme.  Unfortunately, the London Symphony Orchestra lacks its natural fire, present in the other recordings.  To make up for this, Williams has beefed up the snare drum part, which fits in quite nicely.  For the rest of the score, though, the brass really shines, adding a powerful presence to the copious collections of fanfares.  The first of these directly follows the main title.  It's quite refreshing after his string of quiet drama scores and mediocre action segments.  Although not reaching the thunder of the dissonant chords present in the original Star Wars opening, this is one of the most powerful post-credits Star Wars sequences.

2. Duel of the Fates (4:14)
Williams now presents us with two concert versions of the new principal themes.  "Duel of the Fates" can be described as the main theme of The Phantom Menace.  It's a harsh, cataclysmic choral anthem.  The London Voices perform flawlessly, adding the needed zest and passion to an already memorable composition.  This actually gives us three different motives that will recur several times later.  The first is the main chorus melody which begins the track.  It'll form the basis for "Qui-Gonn's Noble End."  Next comes a five-note running ostinato.  On top of this is a new 9 note theme, which I assume is for Qui-Gonn Ji.  These three elements mix in several permutations, each more exciting than the last.

3. Anakin's Theme (3:08)
The complete reciprocal of Duel of the Fates is Anakin's theme.  Taking up where ROTJ's "Luke and Leia" left off, this is a completely tranquil pastoral composition.  It builds continually, reaches a soaring climax, and backs down into darkness, ending with several variations of the infamous Imperial March.  When I first got the CD, this theme left me somewhat cold, but once I realized all of its complexities, it became one of my favorite tracks.  For instance, as well as being the basis for the ending, Darth Vader's theme provides nearly all of the intervals.  Also, one section is written in the atonal 12-tone scale, but it's impossible to discern without listening closely.

4. Jar-Jar's Introduction/The Swim to Otoh Gunga (5:07)
This track begins with the first statement of Jar-Jar's theme, which could be described as a weaker cousin to the Ewok material in ROTJ.  Although Williams tries his best to write an unobtrusive theme for the annoying comic relief of the movie, it comes across as quite grating.  Fortunately this doesn't last long, and it's broken off by a light statement of Darth Vader's theme.   Next comes a section that harkens back to the original score, but with the added element of chorus.  The mysterious, awe-inspiring female chorus segment is one of the most memorable on the album, and it'll appear again during the appearance of Darth Maul.  Rounding out the rest of the track is a new playful motif, probably to represent the Gungans, Jar-Jar's race.

5. The Sith Spacecraft/The Droid Battle (2:37)
Although this is the shortest track, it's one of the best.  For an idea of the overall sound, think "Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra...Part II" (from Indy Jones & the Last Crusade)  We get an awesome triplet ostinato that is actually the first six notes of Vader's theme played over and over.  Williams incorporates his usual virtuoso woodwind flourishes, rollicking pace, and stunning orchestral climaxes.  Qui-Gonn's theme from Duel of the Fates forms the basis for one passage, played on brass.  The prelude to this action music is "The Sith Spacecraft," which is basically a simple drum cadence followed by a dissonant motif also present in the beginning of "Anakin Defeats Sebulba."

6. The Trip to the Naboo Temple/The Audience with Boss Nass (4:07)
Before doing this review, I hadn't really noticed this track, but it's admittedly pretty good in a few sections.  "Trip" features an oppressive, dissonant march for low strings with an audible timpani part.  This ends in yet another massive trumpet fanfare.  "Audience" is more ambient and therefore less interesting.  There's not much material except for brief hints of the Gungan theme from "Swim to Otoh Gunga."  Also, in the last couple of minutes there's another pastoral string passage, giving hints of Anakin's theme.

7. The Arrival at Tatooine/The Flag Parade (4:04)
This begins with a (blessedly brief) statement of Jar-Jar's theme, which segues into an appropriately oppressive ambient march.  It's almost like some of the more desolate sections of the original score, but infinitely more mature, and with more synth backing.  At one point, Williams uses something almost unheard of for him - a synthesized chorus.  It's very brief, but very effective and doesn't ruin the cue in the least.  This fades out, and The Flag Parade takes over.  This may be my favorite section of the entire score, introducing most of the fanfaral material for the Pod Race.  It harkens back to such Golden Age greats as Rozsa's "Parade of the Charioteers" from Ben-Hur.  A martial horn march complete with glissando is the main attraction, punctuated by gloriously bombastic trumpet fanfares, woodwind runs, and what sounds like a synth keyboard instrument.

8. He Is the Chosen One (3:53)
This features the first real thematic development of Anakin's material since his concert arrangement.  General string passages, subtle hints of the Force theme, and sections from Anakin's theme intertwine and play off each other for a few minutes, climaxing in the first entire statement of the Force theme.  Luckily, for this score, Williams uses his Force theme in moderation, so when it finally does appear it has infinitely more meaning than the thousands of times in the original Star Wars.

9. Anakin Defeats Sebulba (4:23)
We're back to the trademark Williams action cues.  This particular one opens with the dissonant motif from "Sith Spacecraft," segues into the Force theme, and breaks into one of the best fanfares John has ever composed.  Although it's based on the thematic material from "Flag Parade," he adds something completely unexpected - Jabba's theme!  Who would have thought that a lumbering, lackadaisical tuba theme could ever be turned into a martial fanfare?  Well, Williams obviously pulled it off.  After some more of the fanfare, we get another typical action cue, this one like a combination of some of ROTJ's "Into the Trap" and his Lost World action material from 1996.  That synthesized harp instrument from "Flag Parade" becomes more apparent here.  Unfortunately, this action material is ultimately without form, just a random collection of orchestral bombast.  A great brass cadence gives it some life, however, and a swashbuckling permutation of Anakin's theme ends it.

10. Passage Through the Planet Core (4:39)
More unsettling ambience, basically.  There's only one motif, a wistful horn melody.  The use of choir is great as always, and towards the end there's an excellent action cue combining orchestra and chorus, but I usually end up skipping this track.

11. Watto's Deal/Kids at Play (4:57)
This is another pretty nondescript track, featuring Anakin's theme a few times, as well as the Force theme.

12. Panaka and the Queen's Protectors (3:24)
After the string of duds, Williams gives us perhaps the most Korngoldian of all the action cues on here.  It opens with an orchestral passage which leads into one of the only statements of the main Star Wars theme; this seems almost an afterthought.  However, we then get an action segment based on Anakin's theme.  (This is the most Korngoldian section.  Hear that string descant? Pure Erich Korngold.)  Next comes a rousing version of Qui-Gonn's theme with syncopated low brass accompaniment.  A quiet passage for muted snare drums comes next, followed by more action music.  The last minute is particularly noteworthy.  Overall, "Panaka" is one of the best tracks on the album.

13. Queen Amidala/The Naboo Palace (4:51)
Not much happens in this track.  The first half is a few minutes of foreboding ambience, and "The Naboo Palace" plays verbatim to "The Arrival at Naboo."

14. The Droid Invasion/The Appearance of Darth Maul (5:14)
Another awesome action track.  This opens with the Sith Spacecraft motif, eventually joined by timpani.  The drums form the basis for a new melody, the droid theme.  It's a lot like the Nazi theme from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but still a great march.  An action cue based on this march ensues, and, while not as good as "Droid Battle," it's still noteworthy.  This quiets with what sounds like a synthesized wolf call, which segues into The Emperor's theme, to represent Darth Maul and Darth Sidious.  That mysterious female choral melody returns to round out the track, which officially ends with the five note Duel of the Fates ostinato.

15. Qui-Gonn's Noble End (3:48)
Williams now throws out an unsettling action cue, which opens with the Duel of the Fates choral theme (on brass) and introduces a new running motif.  This goes through several permutations, and a whispering chorus and tribal drums serve as the harbinger of doom for the Jedi master of TPM.  A violent lament plays as Obi-Wan realizes that Qui-Gonn is dead, which is made up of the Duel ostinato.

16. The High Council Meeting/Qui-Gonn's Funeral (3:08)
This is a moving, tranquil lament, not unlike the Smallville sequences of Williams' Superman scores.  There's even a blatantly Americana chord progression.  Next comes a brief, one second appearance of Yoda's theme, part of the Imperial March, and a mournful choral funeral track with one statement of the Force theme.  I'm so glad that Williams didn't give into temptation and make this exclusively the Force theme, as it would have sounded corny and out of place.  The track ends in morbid despair.

17. Augie's Great Muncipal Band/End Credits (9:38)
As soon as I first heard this track, I immediately said, "Oh great, Ewok Celebration Part II."  It's a Calypso-styled celebration passage with intolerble children's choir and grating synth trumpets and various other effects.  However, if you listen closely, you'll realize that the children's choir line is actually a major key version of, guess what, the Emperor's theme!  As soon as it hit me, I couldn't believe it, it's so well disguised.  Anyway, I still don't particularly care for it, but at least it's somewhat meaningful with that little thematic flourish.  It segues into the familiar overture-style Star Wars credits, first giving a brief statement of the traditional Rebel fanfare and Star Wars theme, and segues into a disappointing cut and paste job of Duel of the Fates and Anakin's theme.  I couldn't believe how utterly uninspired this was: even the performances are the same.  Still, these are two great cues, and the tactic of ending with a foreboding statement of the Imperial theme was utter genious.  (In the movie, I'm told that the end credits end with Darth Vader breathing sound effects.)

Overall, this is not to be missed for Star Wars fans or fans of great music.  There are a few mediocre tracks, and the lack of much leitmotif may put some off, but don't let any of this stop you from enjoying John Williams' return to the rousing 19th Century idiom.

The Phantom Menace: The Final Score
Music Rating 10/10
Packaging/Liner Notes 4/10
Sound Quality 10/10
Orchestral Performance 10/10
Length 7/10
I know you're sick and tired of hearing me saying this, but you should really only pay attention to the music rating.

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Star Wars: The Phantom Menace is Copyright 1999 by Sony Classical.  Its appearance on this page is for review purposes only, not meant as copyright infringement.  Review Copyright 1999 by Andrew Drannon.  Opinions are not those of Tripod.  Get a life, and stop reading these inane little disclaimers!