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Soundtrack Review: Michael Giacchino – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

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(DISCLAIMER: This review uses the alternate pun-titles the composer offered in the CD-booklet as opposed to the boring standard-titles)

In 2012 George Lucas sold his company, Lucasfilm, to the mightiest empire in the known galaxy: Disney, and along with it, the rights to all of his properties, including, most notably, Star Wars.

Despite celebrating its 40th birthday in 2017, Star Wars is still a huge brand and rumor has it, that Disney likes themselves some sweet, sweet franchise-money. Thus, they didn’t hesitate and announced to give the fanbase another trilogy, following the events of the 1983 hit “Return Of The Jedi”, the third film to be released but the sixth in the chronological order of the saga (don’t question it!).

You may think “Three movies? I thought Disney wanted to make some money! How will they get money with only three Star Wars movies?”, but Disney already thought about that and BOOM! They announced a set of Spin-Offs.

These so-called “Anthology Films” would take place in between the Episodes, wherever the studio feels the need for them, and would revolve around stories of “smaller” scale. The first one was to be released in summer of 2016, before being delayed to December of the same year, and would tell the story of how the rebels managed to get those Death Star plans which Princess Leia would shove into R2-D2 in the original film.

How Godzilla almost battled Darth Vader

Originally, French composer Alexandre Desplat got the gig, which seemed a natural move, since he already scored the director’s previous big film, the 2014 reboot of everyone’s favorite nuke-lizard: “Godzilla”. Director Gareth Edwards managed to get an amazing powerhouse of a score out of the classy Frenchman, kicking all sorts of ass and blowing all sorts of minds.

But since 2016 was a craphead, it decided to give “Rogue One” (as the film was eventually called) some major production problems. Extraordinarily massive reshoots happened, with rumors stating that Edwards wasn’t even at the helm anymore. Reports of Disney being dissatisfied with the film came along, which discouraged the fanbase. The film was said to be dark and gritty, being the first actual “war film” in a seven-film saga called Star WARS. Was the film TOO dark for Disney? Did they change their mind and wanted a fun space adventure again?

All signs pointed to that unfortunate possibility and then the unthinkable happened: Desplat was replaced by Michael Giacchino.

The film music community was immediately split. Some feared, that the rumors were finally confirmed with “dark” Desplat being ditched for “fun, lighthearted” Giacchino, while others, who were unsure about Desplat in the first place (fearing he might have ignored all of the established themes for new ones) now finally looked forward to the whole thing.

The seven main episodes were of course scored by the living legend John Williams and are probably the most popular soundtracks of all time. With Giacchino being as big a Williams-cultist as is possible, the appearance of beloved themes was almost given.

Still, the chaotic production left the young composer only four weeks to write a two-hour score to one of the most anticipated movies of the year. This was going to be the first major Star Wars film not to be scored by Williams, so the pressure was immense.

Fortunately, though, Giacchino delivered. As James Newton Howard already proved with “King Kong” in 2005: four weeks can be enough if the artist cares about the project – and Giacchino obviously did.

A few missteps in the galaxy but overall a galactic home run

The film infamously starts without the traditional “Opening Crawl” and sends the viewer right into the action instead. The album opens with a harsh orchestral hit as the first image pops onto the screen before we get a taste of Giacchino’s first original theme. It’s a march for Ben Mendelsohn’s villain Director Orson Krennic and it’s wonderful. The style is totally Williams-inspired but it’s still Giacchino’s own thing. It will not leave your head. After that, the listener is introduced to Jyn’s theme, a tender melody that sums up the main character (portrayed by Felicity Jones) perfectly, though it is a tad too reminiscent of the Yorktown theme the composer wrote for another Star-associated franchise earlier this year. It’s a beautiful theme that gets a few wonderful variations throughout the film, so it’s only a minor distraction, but still, it is a distraction.

After this first track, you will already have a sufficient notion of what to expect from the whole thing: The orchestrations are top-notch and clearly in the spirit of Williams, so that it still feels like a part of the Star Wars saga, but Giacchino manages to give it his own distinct voice in the themes and despite the rushed production, he showed himself capable of applying those themes in a strong, story-driven way. The way the music changes from Krennic’s militaristic, menacing march into the lovely string figures of Jyn Erso complements the focus-shift of the film perfectly, leading the listener/viewer, without holding their hands.

The following track, “Jyn And Scare It” unfortunately, has a weakness up its sleeve: During the last 30 seconds of it, the film’s title card appears and Giacchino decided to play with the audiences’ expectations a bit. Instead of blasting the world-famous Star Wars-fanfare, he provides us with his “Hope Theme”, which opens with the same perfect fifth as the original main theme. It is an intelligent gag, to remind the audience, that, albeit we’re still in the Star Wars galaxy, this is not part of the traditional episodes, so to start the theme in the familiar way, only to have it reveal itself as its own thing, is a brilliant concept.

Sadly, the theme itself does not prove worthy of that task. It’s not a bad theme per se and has some nice statements on the reminder of the score (“Erso In Vain”), but when used as the opening fanfare, it falls flat. If you plan on teasing the audience with one of the most well-known themes in cinema history, you better follow that up with a slice of fried gold. Instead, the opening gives off some “fan-film or parody” vibe. You all know those YouTube-parodies, which can’t afford the rights to use the actual Star Wars music, so they just have something vaguely reminiscent instead. Familiar enough to make it work, but different enough to avoid some nasty copyright-war.

The film’s title card feels just like that.

On a higher note: There are not many more missteps. The missteps that do follow, though, also hinge on Williams pre-existing material, because Giacchino, to the relief of many fans, reprises Williams themes. “Going To See Saw” for example has an epic statement of the Force theme (which appears a few more times) but “That New Death Star Smell” is the one fans have been waiting for.

There were many speculations about whether Giacchino would acknowledge the placing of the film just before “A New Hope” and thus incorporate the motifs Williams originally wrote for the evil empire, before revolutionizing bad-guy-music with the “Imperial March” for “The Empire Strikes back” in 1980.

And yes, Giacchino did exactly that. “That New Death Star Smell” has not one, but two cameos of the four-note Death Star-motif, when the viewer gets the first glance of the gargantuan battle station. Yet here comes the misstep: It never reappears. The same goes for the old “empire theme”, which gets a few statements during “Have A Choke And A Smile” when Darth Vader talks to Krennic. The themes get cameos, but that’s it. The empire still has a massive role to play and, heck, the whole film is centered around the Death Star, yet Giacchino chose to keep their existing themes to a minimum and write new ones. The awesome Krennic-theme was already discussed, but there’s another theme, representative of the Empire in general, and while it’s not bad, the question about its necessity raises its head.

“Rogue One” basically features every Empire-theme ever written and that’s a bit much. Kudos must be given for limiting the “Imperial March” on Vader-centered scenes alone and not succumbing to use it as the main identity for the villains. The best thing probably would have been, to have the “Imperial March” just for Vader, the Krennic theme just for Krennic, the Death Star motif for the Death Star and the original Empire-theme for the Empire in general, thus ditching the new theme.

To make it all clear, this is not a suggestion made to have more of the old and less of the new but to make the connection to the entire franchise clearer. The Empire theme from “A New Hope” has always been the black sheep of the films, since it was used in only one film (it’s still strange that Lucas, with all his Special Edition changes, never edited the Imperial March into it), so “Rogue One”, ending literally where “A New Hope” begins, could have used those themes to make them more relevant. Instead, Giacchino gives us yet another one-off theme. Krennics Theme being limited to one film makes total spoiler-y sense, but why does the Empire go through so many themes before settling on the Imperial March in “Empire”?

Thankfully, Giacchino kind of makes up for that by writing an impressive overall score. The villain identities are a bit chaotic, but Jyn is clearly the focus of the story and her themes make that clear. It’s present in almost every track, with some magnificent variations in “Going To See Saw”, “Jedha Call Saw” and the gorgeous final moments of “Transmission Impossible”.

The last new theme we get is the one for Donnie Yen’s character: Chirrut Îmwe, a blind warrior who devoted his life to the Force, without being a Jedi. It may have the habit of tricking the listener into expecting “Across The Scars” from “Attack Of The Clones”, but it’s still a good theme with a wonderful sub-motif. The choir in the “Guardians Of The Whills Suite” is nothing short of mindblowing and “Go Do, That Eadu, That You Do, So Well” features some great action variations of the theme.

Speaking of “Go Do, That Eadu, That You Do, So Well”, this is a really good action cue. Eight minutes of pure Giacchino, orchestral bliss, full of thematic statements, including the themes of Jyn, Krennic (the pompous variation at 5:30 minutes is badass!) and of course Îmwe.

“When Ambush Comes To Shove” showcases the composers action-writing as well, albeit not as thematic, but he makes up for that by staying true to Williams’ triplet-driven style.

You will often hear, that the third act is the film’s biggest strength and “Takes One To Rogue One” leads just into that. This one may still be build-up, full of march-rhythms (further explored in “World’s Worst Vacation Destination”) and some Force Theme cameos as well as a fragment of a more princess-y theme while another welcome cameo is present during “Scarif Tactics”.

After those three build-up cues, “Bazed And Confused” finally marks the true arrival of the much-lauded, epic showdown. Some slightly re-painted AT-ATs, called AT-ACTs (gotta sell them toys!) march up, accompanied by heavy timpani and brass figures, while also featuring a sneaky throwback to the machines original appearance in Episode V (just compare 0:30 from “Bazed And Confused” with 7:35 from “The Battle Of Hoth”). In the second half, we get the last of the long-awaited themes: The Rebel Fanfare, just in time as the X-Wings fly in to aid the heroes! And as if that wasn’t enough, there is another small-scale throwback, this time to a string movement from the final battle of Episode IV (1:54).

“Switch Hunt” has some great interplay between Îmwe’s Theme and the Hope Theme, despite all the darkness surrounding those statements, before going off in a tragic variation of Îmwe’s Theme, complete with choir and violin solo!

“Tragic” is also the keyword for “Transmission Impossibly”. As stated earlier, this is the highlight for all enthusiasts of Jyn’s Theme, for it gets the most attention during this track. The female vocals are hauntingly beautiful and if you don’t tear up when the choir kicks in, you better have your pulse checked right now! This is some incredibly emotional stuff!

Just like the film, Michael Giacchino blows up the awesomeness towards the end.

The track finishes with some heart-wrenching brass and just when you thought you could breath again, “Live And Let Jedi” happens. This is THE scene! Someone shows up to wreck some serious rebel shit and the scene itself is awesome enough on its own, but Giacchino had to put an apocalyptic choir in, not too far away in style from “Revenge Of The Sith”, to blow the awesomeness up into face-melting proportions! Then the “Imperial March” kicks in (someone is really freaking pissed!) and your head truly explodes and THEN there’s a last statement of the Force Theme before you are released.

The last three spots on the album are reserved for three suites. “Jyn And Hope Suite” which focuses, obviously, on Jyn’s Theme and the Hope Theme. The Hope Theme still is the weaker one of them, but Jyn gets some stellar variations featuring a wonderful violin solo.

The second suite is “The Imperial Suite”, featuring Krennic’s theme as well as the new theme for the Empire (which is the one that starts “That New Death Star Smell”, right before the old Death Star motif comes up). Sadly, it focuses more on the Empire theme than Krennics cool march, which really is one of the highlights of the score. Such a neat villain theme!

The CD closes with the “Guardians Of The Whills Suite”, which was already described earlier.

The Force was with Giacchino

All in all, Giacchino delivered an astounding soundtrack, worthy of Williams’ legacy. It’s fun, epic and emotional and although not all themes hit home and some shifts in focus regarding the villain-themes would have been in order, it’s still an impressive work, even if you don’t take into account that he had to write it all in four weeks. The narrative is strong, the orchestrations complex and vivid.

The Force was with Giacchino and may it always be.

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Long-time film music enthusiast, living and studying in Bremen, Germany.

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