The Music of Star Wars, Episode III: The Return of the Jedi (1983)

The great thing about the original trilogy of Star Wars is how it builds the universe within the plot of the three movies in a way that seems natural. In Empire we saw new creatures, strange planets, and a city floating in the clouds. In Return, we focus mostly on one forest moon and a space battle above it. For all of the lush, atmospheric scoring of the second chapter, John Williams gives the third room to breathe. At times, the music is more demanding and pronounced than ever. In others, its absent where earlier in the series music would have been a driving force. So lets get to The Return of the Jedi, and the end of the Empire.

Lets start with the weirdest part of the whole trilogy, a legitimate pop song in Star Wars. “Lapti Nek” was written by John’s son Joseph Williams performed by Max Rebo and his band in the palace of Jabba the Hutt. It’s a banger, and I’m going to use the official soundtrack version instead of the clip of the film so that you get a true vibe from the tune.

It’s an oddly modern song. My first thought upon hearing it in this full version was that it sounded like a deep cut from a Prince protege’s second album. Here’s “Sex Shooter” by Apollonia Six for a point of reference.

Purple Rain is Star Wars but like only set in Minneapolis.

Its not a direct lift of course, and Return of the Jedi came out a year before Purple Rain. Maybe “Lapti Nek” influenced Prince. But here I am, digressing.

Last week, we were introduced to the Imperial March, the iconic theme of the dark side. We witnessed the ruthless nature of Darth Vader. Yet now, as Vader himself says, “the Emperor is not as forgiving as I am.” Talk about precedent set for a bad guy. So when the Emperor arrives, we get the loudest, most powerful version of the Imperial March.

why do the bad guys have to be so cool looking

Finally, after being teased through two movies, we meet Darth Vader’s master. In a little bit, I’m going to have you come back to this piece.

Last week, we heard the Love Theme of Han and Leia as well as Yoda’s Theme. Both play their role here early as we get the former as Leia rescues Han from the carbonite fridge.

You can keep your gold bikini Leia. When she takes off that vocoder mask, I’m in swoon city.

It’s a lovely closed parenthesis to the cue that was played during their parting in the carbonite freezing chamber on Cloud City.

As the gang is escaping the Sarlacc pit and all that, Luke’s Theme, aka the Main Theme, makes its rounds. Its uptempo and energetic, adding to the dynamic of his heroic feat.

ignore the Sarlacc having a mouth. These special editions are silly.

Luke goes back to Dagobah to finish his training with Yoda, and then oops a 900-year old muppet is suddenly too old. I love this movie, and particularly this part, when Yoda basically gives a “not my problem” reaction to Luke trying to figure out how he’s gonna defeat his incredibly more powerful dad.

Yoda dies and becomes one with the Force, and his theme is delicately placed over his last moments. This is something that will also be echoed later.

Williams is making me feel stuff about a Muppet I’ve barely seen on screen in two movies.

Skipping ahead a bit, I would be doing a great disservice to not talk some Ewok on this post. The Ewoks get their own darling little theme.

I always forget the Ewok theme. Frankly, it’s not that memorable, but appropriately fits for a tribal military force of teddy bears with lips. I’m not going to linger on this, because we’ll get some Ewoks later, too.

So I won’t hold back any longer, this next piece is my favorite in the trilogy and is a perfect tone set for what is the most high-stakes moment in the trilogy. The Rebel Alliance has converged on Death Star II, but the Empire’s forces were waiting for them. We get Admiral Ackbar’s iconic captain-obvious observation declaration of “IT’S A TRAP” and all hell breaks loose. The third act of Return is breathtaking, and this motif (around the 1-minute mark) is flawless.


Meanwhile, Luke is facing his father and the Rebels on the ground are dealing with the Empire’s forces. This is where the film cuts out the score where previously I would expect there to be music.

First: when Luke, Leia, and a few dead meat storm troopers are racing and chasing through the forest. In the first two films, this level of suspense would be built upon an exciting theme. Instead, only the sounds of the speeder bikes can be heard. Watching with my wife, she felt like it added to the tension of the moment in a more claustrophobic sense, and I agree.

Second: the Luke v. Vader lightsaber duel. In Empire, their duel is surrounded by an ominous score of might for the dark side. This time, the music is cut out almost entirely. It adds a similar tension to the close-quarters fight.

In the sky, the battle rages and that Into The Trap music grows as the chaos ensues. I cannot imagine how stunning this all was in 1983, but this execution of music, sfx, and editing is flawless in my opinion.

So the Rebels knock out the shield generator and Death Star II meets its end, but not before Vader saves the day and his son by Andre the Giant-tossing the Emperor into a bottomless pit. Vader’s pretty much toast now, and Luke acknowledges his redemption has come to fruition. Vader asks, in his last moments, to see his son with his own eyes just once.

Juxtaposed to the furious cue of the Imperial March at the beginning of the film, and mirroring the tenderness of the cue of Yoda’s passing, the Imperial March gets its final version- a delicate, plucked cue that’s haunting in its delivery.

That scene is so damn powerful. The significance of the mask coming off. The music just nails it down. Bravo.

So Anakin has been redeemed and dies a Jedi. Luke burns his body back on Endor. A celebration rings out, and we get what is nearly the second pop song in Star Wars. Now, I know there is a lot of negativity about “Yub Nub” which is a turn from the first two finales, but I think it sets a tone of true finality. Enjoy this beautiful de-specialized version of the last scene of the original trilogy.


And that, my dear Padawans, is Star Wars. Fuckin right its Star Wars. Return of the Jedi is my favorite of the three, and it never ceases to be a compelling, gorgeously-made film.

NEXT WEEK: We take a trip sixteen years forward to go a long way back. Darth Vader is a kid. Obi-Wan is hot. Podracing, Ian McDiarmid without prosthetics, and the only piece of Star Wars music to make it onto MTV’s Total Request Live.

Bonus Video: Here’s something you might not have seen before- a deleted scene of Luke creating his green light saber.

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