Tag Archives: John Williams

The Fourth is With Us Again

saga

When I reflect on the state of Star Wars on May the 4th of two years ago, the word that springs foremost to mind is nervous.  We knew that Episode VII was in production, we’d read the rumors and seen that first black and white picture of the cast at the table read, we knew the original heroes were coming back – but we still couldn’t shake the jitters.  Too many unknowns in play.  Despite the scorn dumped on George Lucas for the wobbly prequel trilogy, the idea of a new Star Wars movie without any involvement from him whatsoever still set many stomachs ill at ease.  Would it turn out to be an empty exercise in fanservice (from a filmmaker with something of a reputation for leaping headfirst into that well-cratered minefield) or would it catching Force lightning in the proverbial bottle and gift us with the wonder we first felt at the theatres in 1977 (or with our videocassette copies in the early 80’s, depending on our respective ages)?  Would we be leaping up and cheering and racing back to the kiosk to buy another ticket or would we be shuffling for the exits with the sour faces we wore as the Revenge of the Sith credits rolled?

Fast forward to May the 4th, 2016, and we know the answer to that.  Against expectations, we have entered the Star Wars Renaissance.  Star Wars is everywhere in a way it hasn’t been, since, well, longer than I can remember.  The Force Awakens was one of the highest-grossing movies of all time, and its highly anticipated sequel is filming presently and due to hit our collective consciousness in a little over a year and a half.  Daisy Ridley has become an instant movie superstar.  This December’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story promises to unspool the never-told-but-oft-alluded-to tale of how the Rebel Alliance acquired the infamous Death Star schematics (with another compelling lead female role, essayed by Felicity Jones.)  Plans for Han Solo and Boba Fett spinoffs are also in the works, to say nothing of the eventual saga-concluding epic Episode IX in 2019.  Literary tie-ins bulge off shelves with novels like Aftermath and Bloodline.  Oh, and yes, the Walt Disney Company is building two massive Star Wars lands at its American theme parks.  Toys and pop culture references abound and kids are throwing on Jedi robes and running around swinging plastic lightsabers again, pretending to be Rey and Finn and Kylo Ren just like we used to pretend to be Luke, Han, Leia and Darth Vader.

It’s a great time to be a Star Wars fan.

A week or so ago I was trolled on Twitter by an – let’s say interesting individual who, according to his timeline, goes around latching on to people who’ve said unkind things about the prequel trilogy and then spams them with memes and rants about the wonderfulness of Episodes I, II and III before blocking them in what is presumably a masturbatory fit of self-satisfied pique.  You can’t please everyone, I suppose.  Contrary to what this fellow presumes, I never said I hated the prequels.  There are plenty of things about them to like:  John Williams’ score, some of the lightsaber fights, the depth of the worldbuilding among many others.  What they get wrong, however, is that they lack the key ingredient that makes Star Wars resonate with its fans, and that is the sense of hope.

The prequels were always going to be a tragedy, and despite the whiz-bang-whee moments of adventure supplied generously throughout, the ominous, inevitable sense that this is all going to go wrong in the end casts a dark pallor over the seven-hours worth of narrative.  It doesn’t matter that you know IV, V and VI are going to set it right.  Taken on their own, the prequels are just simply not a very happy experience.  Art always mirrors its creators’ mindsets, and the young, eager, starry-eyed neophyte George Lucas who made the first trilogy is not the cynical, fearful, age-embittered auteur who cobbled together the second after spending decades as a billionaire CEO shuffled daily from meeting to meeting – a man increasingly worried about the world awaiting his three children.  Lucas thought America had learned the lessons of Richard Nixon and then watched helplessly as it turned around and anointed George W. Bush.  He couldn’t have made a film with the optimism and hope of The Force Awakens because it’s simply not who he is anymore.  But that didn’t have to mean that the hope dwelling at the heart of his slumbering creation could not have awakened as it did.  We should thank Lucas for the wisdom to bequeath his legacy to the custody of Kathleen Kennedy who recognized more than anyone what Star Wars had been and what it could be again.

Yes, bad stuff happens in Star Wars.  Entire worlds are obliterated at the whims of very bad people craving absolute power.  And unlike in its other more sci-fi oriented cousin Star Trek, you can’t save the galaxy far, far away by reconfiguring the deflector dish to emit a phased tetryon stream and realizing the true meaning of “Darmok and Jalad at Tenagra.”  In Star Wars you have to pick up a blaster, or a lightsaber, or climb into an X-Wing.  Set aside your fears and stand up against the bad guys trying to set everything you hold dear aflame.  Each one of us dreams that in our inevitable moment of crisis, we will summon the courage to awaken our inner force, and that through the brave, extraordinary efforts of ordinary people, and despite the power of the dark side, we too will be able to change the world for the better.  There were some tremendously sad moments in The Force Awakens, but was there anybody who didn’t watch that final scene of Rey offering the lightsaber to Luke and feel that kind of optimism, that things were going to be all right in the end, both for the characters and for us?  The metaphor of the generational handover in the movie was not subtle, but it was indeed apt, and proven by how the new generation of fans has responded.  Kids who weren’t even around when Revenge of the Sith came out are asking to have their hair styled like Rey for Star Wars Day.  We old sods are back too, and we’ve let Rey, Finn, Poe and BB-8 into our crusty, guarded hearts with the same welcome we extended their predecessors.

They are, at long last, the New Hope.

I’ve written extensively about the implications of and reactions to The Force Awakens since before and after its release, but it occurred to me that through these many thousands of words I haven’t actually said what I thought of the movie.  And I can think of no more suitable judgment than this:  I didn’t want it to end.  I knew, as I watched Rey ascend those stony steps, that the credits were imminent, but a very young, long since quiet part of me hoped that somehow the story would go on.  And I’m contented knowing that it will – in more than just a collection of movies.

Because the Force is with us.  Always.

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May the Mouse be with you

Above:  The single coolest image of a Jedi battle ever seen anywhere.
Above: The single coolest image of a Jedi battle ever seen anywhere.

It’s old news now, but given that it happened in the midst of my James Bond countdown and then the holidays and a bunch of other things hit at once, I never took the opportunity to comment on the revelation that sent Star Wars fans into a Force-induced tizzy – that George Lucas has sold Lucasfilm Ltd. to The Walt Disney Company for $4.05 billion, and accompanying this massive corporate transaction was the equally hefty revelation that Star Wars Episode VII will be released in 2015.  Ever since Revenge of the Sith in 2005, Lucas has been insisting up and down that Star Wars as a cinematic enterprise is finished, done, or, as Emperor Palpatine would put it succinctly, “complete.”  Yet the Mouse House confirmed in the same press release that there would be many further trips to that galaxy far, far away.  Star Trek has been going strong in multiplexes, despite a few missteps, for eleven movies now with a twelfth on the way, so shouldn’t la guerre des étoiles be able to blaze across our screens for as long as the medium is viable?  Clearly Disney thinks so and has immediately begun soliciting creative talent to assemble the next voyage.  J.J. Abrams turned down an offer to direct, citing loyalty to the other space franchise he helped relaunch.  Michael Arndt, a screenwriter whose credits include Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3, has been chosen to pen the next instalment, with Lawrence Kasdan – who wrote the masterful The Empire Strikes Back and co-wrote the not bad Return of the Jedi before opting to sit the prequel trilogy out – in the wings to script further adventures.  It’s safe to say that these titanic moves were not on anyone’s radar, and that Star Wars fandom, which has struggled in recent years to reconcile their love of Lucas’ creation with their hatred of his incessant (and yet perfectly legitimate, as far as I’m concerned) tinkering with it, has seen its universe upended, with resignation about the quality of the prequels now sprinkled with optimism about what the future might hold.  What I’m not sure about is how Disney intends to treat them – as much as some fans like to dump on George Lucas for the reason of the moment, I don’t know if the fans recognize how good they’ve had it under the amiable real-life Galactic Emperor, and how things may change for the worse.  And I say this as an admitted lover of Disney!

It’s not necessary to rehash the cultural phenomenon that is Star Wars – the marriage of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth with science fiction to craft an enduring story that inspires little boys to wave flashlights around against an imaginary Darth Vader.  In the real world the bad guys win much too often; in the world of Star Wars, good always triumphs over evil, and the nobility of sacrifice for one’s fellow human being (or Wookiee) is the greatest cause to which one can aspire.  We still talk about Greek myths over two thousand years on, and so this trilogy of movies from the late 70’s and early 80’s is a relative zygote in terms of how long it’s had to inspire its audience.  Yet its reach is unparalleled – movies, TV and literature across every genre can get an immediate laugh by dropping in a quote from Star Wars, and everyone can smile and feel like they’re part of the world’s biggest and most inclusive club – one that stretches across all cultural and regional divides.  One of the most enduring traits of Star Wars is its ability to be passed on, down through generations now as the kids whose eyes opened wide at the scratchy print in the rickety old movie house alongside their parents now watch the same adventures with their own children in the comfort of a surround sound-equipped home theatre.  And many who touch the flame of Star Wars use it to fire their own creative candles, as those who first heard the stories of the Greek gods offered their own interpretation of those tales to new audiences.  Star Wars likely holds the record – if indeed, it were possible to count – for the sheer volume of unofficial derivative works, written, sketched, painted, sewn, sculpted and filmed parodies, homages, tributes and other acknowledgements of what has become a shared universe.   (A quick search for “star wars” on YouTube yields 1.4 million hits, ranging from remixes of John Williams’ iconic theme song, Lego recreations of famous Star Wars scenes, animations of dancing stormtroopers, girls in Princess Leia’s metal bikini and Zeus knows what else).  That universe, the most remarkable example of remix culture, has been, until now, watched over in silent guardianship by George Lucas, who has permitted these myriads of creations so long as they are not for profit.  What then do we make of the stewardship of Star Wars and all it represents being entrusted to the company that famously sued a daycare for painting Mickey Mouse on its walls?

The world has changed tremendously since that notorious incident, which predated the Internet and the lingering question of copyright in the digital era.  Progressive media companies and celebrity brands like J.K. Rowling understand the tremendous value to be found in allowing fans to play in their sandbox, realizing that it’s about building a community (and receiving free advertising), and that ultimately, the vast majority don’t mind paying for officially licensed offshoots, be they yet another Blu-Ray boxed set or endless waves of toys.  For decades however, Disney has been the most trigger happy of the lot, ready to unleash their armies of attorneys at whosoever dareth trespass against them.  I’m just saying there’s a reason why you won’t find a lot of Donald Duck stories at fanfiction.net, nor will you find Walt Disney in Love on YouTube.  As someone who has created his own fictional universe and wonders idly about the future day an aspiring scribe decides to pen their own fan fiction trilogy using my characters and settings, it would be tremendously flattering to know I’d inspired someone like that – and truthfully, why else are we writing except to inspire – but if another someone decided to reap financial gain from my work without my by-your-leave I’d be Scanners-head-exploding livid.  I’d be equally as upset if someone produced a derivative work that was pornographic, excessively violent or simply insulting to the spirit of my original.  The trouble is you can’t seem to have one without the other, that either all copyright is enforced to the limit of the law, thus creating the perception that you’re a grouchy Lars Ulrich type and hate your fans, or you go for George Lucas’ approach and accept a certain percentage of the bad stuff (what a retail outlet would call “shrink”) with the understanding that most will be positive and done out of love and only help your brand reach new heights.

The lingering grey area for Star Wars fans is whether Disney will continue what Lucas started, if they will accept that Star Wars is its own entity and deserves a freer hand than what has typically been Disney copyright policy in the past.  After Return of the Jedi in 1983, Star Wars entered a long dry period where nothing save a few crude cartoons and made-for-TV Ewok movies was forthcoming from the Lucasfilm vaults, and instead the creations of the fans, whose interest never waned, kept blowing oxygen on that dwindling spark, until Lucas was finally ready to go back to the well, knowing that he had legions out there who remained loyal to him and to his universe because they felt like they owned a piece of it – an emotional piece that could not be quantified in financial or percentage terms.  Once described by Campbell as his single best student, Lucas always understood that a myth cannot thrive in the care of a single person, and in commenting on selling his baby to Disney he spoke about needing Star Wars to go on without him.  In many ways it already has, and the nightmare scenario of Disney being Disney and starting to remove the likes of Chad Vader: Day Shift Manager and Troops and Eddie Izzard’s “Death Star Canteen” routine from YouTube will be the beginning of the end of Star Wars as the force – yeah, I went there – for uniting people and unleashing their imagination and creativity that it has become.  The hope is that Disney too has evolved since the daycare incident and understands just what they’ve managed to acquire; a property that has become the unofficial property of millions of people the world over.  People may wear Mickey Mouse ears, but they don’t go around pretending to be Mickey Mouse in the way kids want to be Luke and Han and Leia.  Fingers crossed that the lawyers of the Walt Disney Company don’t cease-and-desist them out of their dreams.

He shoots, he scores

You can hear it in your head, can't you?

My tastes in music have always been a bit of a joke among my closest friends.  I was about five years late to the party buying a CD player, and my first CD purchase wasn’t the White Album, or any of the chart-topping or even lesser known indie bands at the time – it was the soundtrack from Kevin Costner’s Waterworld, not even a movie for which I had any particular affection.  In fact, over the years I’ve probably purchased dozens of soundtracks from movies I didn’t like that much, swelling to a collection of hundreds.  The sole reason?  I loved the music.

Music and film have long been committed companions, from the beginnings of the silent era when a live musician would sit in the theatre and play piano to dramatize the grainy black-and-white images flickering across the screen.  The coming of the talkies, thankfully, did not diminish the need for music to continue its cinematic journey.  Early composers like Max Steiner, Erich Korngold, Alfred Newman and Miklos Rosza developed upon the traditions of the classical masters to fashion, together, a new musical language for the 20th Century’s most popular new art form, a tradition expanded upon by men like Bernard Herrmann, Maurice Jarre, Nino Rota to name but a very few.  How many of the incredible movie moments have been etched into our collective memories in large part because of their music?  Scarlett’s longing for the halls of Tara in Gone with the Wind.  Janet Leigh’s shocking death in Psycho.  The lonely trumpet that opens The Godfather.  Robert Redford’s home run blast in The Natural.  Rocky Balboa’s race up the Philadelphia steps.  The mere glimpse of the photo above can conjure immediately the haunting John Williams motif of the yearning of the hero to set out on adventures bold, much as thoughts of sharks can summon his remarkably economical two-note overture for Jaws.  The movie score is its emotional brush, painting the subtext of the characters’ deepest passions directly onto our hearts, uniting the audience in a shared experience of joy, pain, despair, and most endearingly, hope.

The 1990’s were a rough era for lovers of orchestral soundtracks.  Madonna’s Music from and Inspired By Dick Tracy begat a misguided and disappointing era of music marketing whereby soundtracks were reconfigured as pop/rock/rap compilation albums that had little to do with the movie itself – maybe one or two songs at most were used in the film and the rest were chosen at random by committee.  And yet some brilliant scores were flying beneath the radar.  I’ve been listening a lot lately to American composer Thomas Newman’s work on 90’s epics like The Shawshank RedemptionNewman’s music isn’t as recognizable as someone like John Williams, who works very much, particularly in his Spielberg and Lucas collaborations, in the mode of leitmotif – assigning a specific theme to each character and recurring emotional beat.  Newman’s music is always more subtle, relying on gentle piano, soft percussion and swaying strings, yet its emotional resonance is just as strong.  His scores for American Beauty and Road to Perdition are a masterwork of forlorn and melancholy understatement, letting you peel layers from the characters and see directly into their wounds.  American Beauty in particular is a movie that would not work with the more upfront, heroic style that Williams is so good at – as Wes Bentley’s character Ricky describes being overcome by the beauty he sees in the world, even in innocuous things like a plastic bag floating in the wind, Newman’s soft piano embraces both him and us, and just for a moment we can see through his eyes.  In a sense, the music is that intangible, untouchable beauty, capturing the moment in a way that dialogue, performance and image cannot.

Joseph Campbell suggests that amidst our billions of stories, there is only one – the journey of the hero with the thousand faces.  Cinematic scores likewise number in the thousands, some remarkable, some forgettable, but singular in their indispensability as storytellers.  They can be our emotional anchor as we fly off into the strange new worlds of the imaginations of directors, writers and actors, and a truly magnificent score can come to define moments in our own lives as well as the ones we see on the screen.  Truly, who hasn’t imagined the music swelling at our most heroic, and even our most despondent hours?  Stories, like our emotions, are our universal connectors – and music goes with us on the journey as a narrator, speaking the truth in notes and phrases through all barriers to comprehension when words sometimes fall short.