Soundtrack Review: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Rogue One A Star Wars Story Soundtrack Review

(I met Elliot Marsh and his wife Felicia at Celebration Anaheim in 2015 and managed to stay in contact despite them living across the pond in England. At Celebration Europe 2016 I got to spend some good quality time with these two wonderful Star Wars fans and have been good friends with them ever since. This is Elliot’s first post for the Manor, so show him how the Force is with us and how we’re all one with the Force as Star Wars fans over on Twitter @despecialised!)

It’s still a bit of a mystery why Academy Award winning composer Alexandre Desplat (The Grand Budapest Hotel, The King’s Speech) was suddenly removed from his duties on Rogue One in September 2016, just three months before the movie opened. Whatever the reason given (and “scheduling difficulties” was the official explanation offered by Lucasfilm) Desplat’s replacement Michael Giacchino (Lost, Star Trek Into Darkness) apparently had only four and a half weeks to compose his Rogue One score. His musical challenge: to answer the same question no doubt also then burdening director Gareth Edwards – how to break new ground in the Star Wars franchise with these standalone movies, without alienating a passionate fanbase? 

Giacchino, like Edwards, has absolutely nailed it, delivering a score that is faithful in orchestration style and thematic construct to John Williams’ scores for the original movies, especially A New Hope, but one that never descends into anything like pastiche. Rogue One is easily my favourite Star Wars suite since 1999’s terrific score for The Phantom Menace.

Rogue One is at heart a war movie and more about conflict than character, and so its music is aggressive, pacy, militant, and dark. Heroine Jyn Erso’s theme, for instance, is quite literally built around the melody from Dies Irae, the latin hymn frequently cited by film composers to describe a day of judgement, a day of wrath or some very real future danger – highly appropriate to sonically represent the daughter of the Death Star’s key architect.

We’ve heard Dies Irae to signpost troubles in Star Wars scores before (Luke as he discovers his Aunt and Uncle’s burning bodies in A New Hope, and during the Jedi slaughter in Revenge Of The Sith), but nothing as widespread as its usage here in Rogue One in Jyn’s theme. The fact that her theme opens with a minor sixth interval – the same as the heartbreaking ‘Across The Stars’ from Attack Of The Clones – only ramps up the constant claustrophobic sense of foreboding. There’s just nothing euphoric or upbeat – Luke staring to the horizon to the famous ‘Binary Sunset’ cue from A New Hope, for instance – to break the tension as the soundtrack races at the same frantic pace as the action on screen.

To that effect, there’s even no crash of a Star Wars main theme to open the soundtrack; we’re straight into the punchy, ascending, paranoid strings of ‘Here’s Here For Us’ as Krennic and troopers come for Galen Erso in the opening flashback scene. Not until the second track do we get something resembling a title theme, during the last thirty seconds of ‘A Long Ride Ahead’. Borrowing his trick of hinting at fragments of past Williams melodies, for this motif Giacchino uses the first couple notes – an ascending fifth interval – of the traditional Star Wars Title Theme, before drifting off to something more wistful and less triumphant, and if I may say, something that sounds like Star Trek.

If Giacchino often teases the listener with these melodic fragments from past Star Wars films, when he does quote a Williams theme in full the effect is inventive and masterful. ‘Krennic’s Aspiration’s’ is a real highlight – a cue citing the original Imperial Motif from A New Hope, the second half of the Emperor’s theme from Return Of The Jedi, and a brassy Imperial March from The Empire Strikes Back, and all in three minutes! The listener is just battered into submission at the intensity of it all, just as Krennic himself is hopelessly out of his depth when appealing to Darth Vader for recognition for delivering the Death Star.

Giacchino peppers his soundtrack elsewhere with smaller, granular references to other Star Wars scores – the four note Death Star motif from A New Hope in ‘When Has Become Now’, the odd use of the Rebel Fanfare motif, or use of a desperate sounding choir in ‘Hope’ as Vader terrifyingly hacks his way through a corridor of hapless Rebel journeymen. This cue sounds somewhat reminiscent of ‘Battle Of The Heroes’ from Revenge Of The Sith. The overriding cumulative effect is that we’re firmly within the musical language and orchestration traditions of Star Wars, but it uses that darker palette than anything we’ve heard consistently before. It’s faster, and more intense, and all the more impactful for it.

What is slightly disappointing is that the soundtrack release doesn’t contain the end credits in full, which from memory from my only Rogue One viewing was the traditional Star Wars end theme followed by a suite of the film’s own themes – perhaps this will be included in full on a future soundtrack special edition. We do however get three additional concert suites which I presume followed the traditional end fanfare in the movie: ‘Jyn Erso and Hope’ (more Dies Irae!), a militaristic ‘Imperial Suite’, and a terrific ‘Guardian of the Whills’ suite with another wailing choir.

Whereas I’m really curious as to what Alexandre Desplat could have done with this score, sadly more than likely we’ll never find out nor hear a note. From the outside, the entire creative process for Rogue One appears to have been constantly in motion (like the future) with a revolving door of writers, reshoots and the incredibly late composer change. Perhaps the film and score are better for it, for this music is a real breath of atmospheric fresh air. Like the movie, it’s definitely Star Wars, but not quite as we’ve ever known it, and that opens up a brave new world of future possibilities to look beyond the conventions of the saga movies. This score for Rogue One is just so effective after what was likely a frantic four and a half weeks for Michael Giacchino last year (and a nervous wait for Gareth Edwards), and I love it dearly.

+ Tone fits Rogue One perfectly – it’s dark and relentless

+ Pays homage to John Williams but doesn’t rely on his past scores

+ Long forgotten A New Hope themes revisited

No full end credit suite on the official release

You can follow Elliot on Twitter @despecialised. You can follow the website @MynockManor.

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