The Music of Star Wars, Episode II: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

So the good guys won and it was pretty great. However, we all saw Darth Vader get knocked into space instead of dying on the Death Star with Grand Moff Tarkin and friends. So the Rebellion, still a relatively ragtag operation in comparison to the Empire, has really pissed off Vader and his boss. The Empire Strikes Back will take us to new and beautiful places, and with it comes more timeless music from John Williams and the London Symphony Orchestra. Put the angry tweets down, I’m not going to cover this entire score. There is so much to this film that I’m just going to try to nail down important cues and motifs.

One of the great traditions of the opening theme is its integration into the first scene of the movie. Despite a sound victory in the first movie, we find the Rebels spread across the galaxy, hiding from the Empire. As a Star Destroyer releases a dozen or so scout droids, the mood of the score sets a tone of worry in the Rebel base as they live in constant fear of being found.

the crawl ends at 1:54

The most recognizable new theme is “The Imperial March”, commonly known as Darth Vader’s theme. It too draws heavily from the work of Gustav Holst but also the despair of funeral marches.

This is an appropriate draw of inspiration for a military leader who, later in the film, willingly puts hundreds of thousands of lives on his own side in peril just to track down the Millennium Falcon. It is the most iconic music in the franchise, even more so than the opening theme.

For all of the time the “Force Theme” gets in Star Wars, this Vader motif gets used often, signifying that this will be a film to strain at the bonds of our characters and present the true power and influence of the Empire and the Dark Side.

However, the Sith are not the only side to get some new music. In The Empire Strikes Back we are introduced to Yoda, who gets his own theme to represent his humble and mystic home. It is most commonly remembered as he lifts Luke’s X-Wing from the Dagobah swamp. To this point, it is the most powerful example of someone using the Force as means to move an inanimate object. Yoda shows a brief moment of exhaustion afterwards, giving a cornucopia of foreshadowing for both he and Luke.

There is a ballroom, waltz-like quality to it, which is the closest this film’s score gets to the quirky-ness of the “Jawa theme” or Cantina Band of the first movie.

What I find odd about this piece is how it will eventually tie into the not-so-arthritic Yoda of the prequels, but that’s a bridge we will cross in a few weeks.

One thing that Empire… does well as a second act of a trilogy, is present conflict within Luke Skywalker. He learns more about the Force from Yoda and in his training, begins to understand the spectrum of light and dark. This plays out during the remainder of his time on Dagobah in the form of lessons, both phyiscal and emotional. Williams conveys this within a transition of a light, warm string-plucking tune to an uncomfortable swarm of noise as he has the vision of himself within the Vader mask.

It’s a level of tension that far surpasses that of the first movie, and foreshadows the gravity of the big reveal later.

The true nature of the Empire and its lack of consideration for life is held for all to see during their pursuit of the Millennium Falcon into the asteroid field. Imagine this scene, one of the most tense in the original trilogy, without the work of Williams. Growing up, I always felt like the music was moving faster as this scene went on, but it was just the tension it builds upon that makes its seem as such.

Moving into the third act, John Williams hits his masterwork in my opinion. He scores the absolute shit out it. Lets start with the move between the Imperial March and Han & Leia’s Love Theme during the carbon freezing scene.

The weight of these scenes is only augmented by the changing Vader motif. He’s an impervious, unbeatable force, and then later when he confronts Luke about his father, the tone changes to an ominous, almost disturbing cue for Vader’s theme. He reveals the truth and its unbearable to Luke, sending the film and this trilogy to its nadir. Luke now has to confront his own father instead of just a faceless tyrant.

I grew up always knowing that Luke was Vader’s son, but in its time, this was perhaps the biggest plot twist in movie history. The music is uncomfortable and emotionally gut-wrenching as Luke makes the decision to potentially plummet to his death instead of joining his father.

Luke is rescued by Leia, Lando and Chewbacca after Leia gets a mysterious random thought that they need to find him. Just sit back and treasure what is, in my opinion, the best musical sequence in the film.

For all of the losses that the Rebels took in The Empire Strikes Back, there is still hope, as long as they are together. In a turn from pretty much the rest of the movie, Williams ends this score on a positive note. Luke and Leia are regrouping with the Rebel Fleet and Lando is heading out to find Han. Our heroes are maimed physically and emotionally, but their resolve to stop the Empire’s reign is only strengthened. Take it away, John.

Its a beautiful tie between Luke’s theme, Leia’s theme, and the Han and Leia love theme before crashing into the credits and the triumphant main theme. Williams evokes both the harrowing state of the Rebels but also their strength.

Many people view The Empire Strikes Back as the best film in the franchise, and that may be true. Somehow, its great enough that the best score of John Williams’ career runs through this film, and it doesn’t get as much adoration as that of Star Wars.

Next Week, we’ll take a look at my childhood favorite in the trilogy, for a reason that had nothing to do with Ewoks.

Bonus Video: Here’s a neat little breakdown of how Williams develops a character’s theme, the video that started this project of mine.

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