The Star Wars franchise is the ultimate space opera series. It’s a huge, sprawling, series of interconnected films that take simple stories – clashes of families, with good coming up against evil – and throw them on impossibly big, flesh-out canvases.
That, after all, is the first thing that hits you after you stumble out of a Star Wars film – the sheer, unrelenting size of the thing.
But none of that abundance would make sense without the work of one man. Star Wars might be the brainchild of George Lucas, a figure of both derision and great acclaim in the franchise’s fan circles, but the series simply wouldn’t work without the musical genius of John Williams.
It is Williams who makes A New Hope land emotionally; Williams who successfully grounded Finn and Rey’s journey in the past without merely rehashing the original trilogy; Williams who gives Star Wars its sense of rousing adventure.
To that end, and to honour Williams, here’s a rundown of the six best musical moments from across the Star Wars canon.
1. ‘Main Title’ from A New Hope
Listen, were we ever going to start anywhere but here? A New Hope’s ‘Main Title’ is one of the most iconic tracks in cinematic history – a serve of pure brassy bombast with the power to send shivers down spines. But it’s so much more than that too. Indeed, we sometimes lose sight of just how innovative the track is, given how much of a pop culture staple it has become.
It’s not just a rousing call to action – it’s a way of immediately setting the scene for all the excess, and madness, and heightened emotion that is about to come. Star Wars wouldn’t make sense without it.
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2. ‘Duel Of The Fates’ from The Phantom Menace
Sure, The Phantom Menace might not be a particularly well-remembered film – it’s that cinematic mess that fans love to hate; a prickly, strange work of revisionism that seems to outright miss what made the original series quite so special. But that doesn’t mean that Williams phoned his score in.
Quite the opposite, in fact: just consider ‘Duel Of The Fates’, the antic background to a three-way lightsaber fight between Darth Maul, Qui-Gonn Jinn, and Obi-Wan Kenobi. The track set a new high bar not just for the series, but for Hollywood scores in general. Just listen to that choral work and try and tell me you don’t feel even a little moved.
3. ‘The Imperial March’ from The Empire Strikes Back
Another no-brainer, this brass-heavy march has become a new shorthand for evil onscreen. It’s a testament to Williams’ great genius that he managed to composed a track that communicates great militaristic menace in a way that’s also catchy and supremely memorable. Indulging in your dark side shouldn’t feel quite this good.
4. ‘The Emperor’ from Return Of The Jedi
Moving away from the obvious picks, this Return Of The Jedi deep cut is so excessive and over-the-top it almost shouldn’t work. It’s got it all, from ghostly, baritone moaning, to an overworked brass section, to sudden changes in pace and tone. But that’s exactly what makes it so brilliant.
It’s cut from a particularly epic cloth, conveying a sense of both The Empire’s great might, and it’s terrible capacity for cruelty. It also does a lot of heavy lifting when it comes to mythologising the antagonist from which it takes its name. Without a fittingly foreboding score, The Emperor would be nothing but an old man in a hooded cloak. With it, he’s one of the most repulsive, memorable villains of the contemporary canon.
5. ‘The Duel’ from The Empire Strikes Back
Williams is often seen as a bit of a sentimentalist, no doubt thanks to his association with cinema’s arch disposer of the saccharine, Steven Spielberg. But to reduce Williams to the status of an overly sunny composer is to ignore the darkness that so often lurks at the heart of his work – this is the man who composed the score for The Fury, one of the most thrilling horror films of the last fifty years, for God’s sake.
Those looking for further proof would do well to give ‘The Duel’ from The Empire Strikes back another spin. Incorporating elements of The Imperial March, it’s black as tar and twice as slick – a haunting, unsettling work from a master operating at the very highest imaginable levels. Let this one seep into your skin.
6. ‘Revisiting Snoke’ from The Last Jedi
Kylo Ren is one of the most fascinating characters the Star Wars franchise has ever spawned: he’s a truly conflicted villain, one desperate to rid himself of a past that holds so much sway over him. Perhaps then it’s unsurprising that the work Williams has done for Ren is so bloody brilliant.
All of Williams’ dark side-indebted tunes from the two new films deserve praise, but perhaps the high point of this part of his oeuvre is ‘Revisiting Snoke’ from The Last Jedi. It’s a controlled walk through everything that makes Ren and his shadow-soaked buddies so compelling: it’s mournful, it’s angry, and it has a strange energy entirely of its own.