The Music of Star Wars, Episode IV: The Phantom Menace (1999)

The build up to the release of The Phantom Menace was one of the most exciting times in my childhood. I loved the movie, especially the podracing scene. Yeah, that was cool. Well, I’m not twelve anymore. I’m old, cynical, and finally understand what the hell is going on in this movie. The problem is, its boring as shit. BUT THAT’S NOT WHY I’M HERE TODAY. Folks, this movie ends with a blitz that almost makes you forget you just watched 100+ minutes of deadpan dialogue delivery, and John Williams is the main reason why.

I’m not going to boil down the plot like I had in the first three installments of this series. This movie is about an hour longer than it needs to be.

The first real, necessary theme in this movie comes after Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon escape the Trade Federation ship and move down to Naboo. The Federation’s droid army has descended to that planet as well, and they get a truly great theme of their own.

It is delightfully similar to the Imperial March, intentionally, as we come to learn who is pulling the strings, dare I say.. phantom menacing the whole situation. For now, lets imagine if this had been the first film in the whole series. Well, we would have more midichlorians in subsequent films, but this theme here would have seamlessly developed into the Imperial March. Williams, in that vein, worked backwards, creating a unique but fitting motif for the droids.

Now, before I get to the end battle, really the only reason to give this movie any time for the rest of your days, there are a few things that come up that need to be addressed. A few characters get their own themes, some are never addressed again (because of characters never appearing again) and others are peppered in the next two films, almost unrecognizably.

First is Qui-Gon Jinn’s theme. He is the eldest in the chain of Jedi masters that lead to Anakin and Luke. Despite getting absolutely GANKED later on, he is a driving force (you’re welcome) in Phantom. His theme feels, to me at least to resemble Antonin Dvorak’s New World Symphony. There is a delicate charm but yet a feeling of a life of conflict underneath.

Here is a sample of Dvorak’s piece is not a dead ringer, but when I listened to Qui-Gon’s theme, it’s the first thing that came to mind. Clearly, Williams is influenced by Dvorak’s colossal works, so there may be a direct line here.

Then, well, there’s Jar-Jar Binks. I mean if it were my choice (isn’t it?) we wouldn’t cover Jar-Jar at all. Still, this theme fits, even if its rather forgettable. This character is going to be around a while.

Its almost Looney Tunes in its rompy playfulness. I’m trying to remember offhand if this theme appears in the next movie or not, and frankly, looking for that might get me through Attack of the Clones.

Darth Maul is the other one-time character in this movie* and he gets a fair amount of screen time. He has more dialogue than I remember. Good for Ray Park.

Ah hell, lets just get to it. So everything is starting to look favorable to the Jedi and their friends, when the moment you’ve been waiting for comes around. Listen, I was 12 when The Phantom Menace came out. I don’t think I had ever been so giddy as when that door opened and the Sith apprentice appeared, looking to fuck this shit up.

Oh hell yeah lets go.

One of the stylistic decisions Williams took when creating the theme for the final confrontation is to use a choral ensemble rather than merely instruments. It sets a tone unseen in Star Wars to that point and grounds the moment in a tension that makes the hairs on your neck stand at attention. You ALMOST forget that you just sat through around two hours of flat dialogue and racial stereotypes to get here. The fight choreography was something we’d always wanted from Star Wars, but never got. The work of Ray Park cannot be understated. Despite his character’s single film* demise, his evil gymnastics are an essential part of Star Wars lore. So without further adieu, here’s Duel of the Fates, the only reason to really give a shit about this movie.

Williams chose specific Sanskrit words translated from a medieval Welsh poem “because of the quality of the vowels.” It gives it an unholy and unnerving sound as the massive chorus interacts with the massive orchestra. John Williams LOVES crescendos, and lets be honest this piece is just a series of them.

So Qui-Gon is dead. His body is burned and with it, he becomes one with the force. Another chorus is introduced for the theme, and it weaves in between a sorrowful motif of the Force Theme.

That funeral theme will come around again in this trilogy. The force theme is not used nearly as much in this movie as it is in the original trilogy, but it is used in places where its impact would resonate, like that above.

Obi-wan convinces Yoda to let him train Anakin in around four seconds of an argument. During that scene, Yoda expresses concern, and the whole reason I decided to do the movies in this order comes to fruition.

Spooky, right? Yeah, so get this. That little kid is actually going to become Darth Vader. We know how this trilogy ends. I really dislike the idea of prequels, especially when it comes to pre-existing characters. To me, that Imperial March cue comes off a little corny, but this whole damn movie is corny, so whatever.

Everything is cool between the Naboo and the Gungans since they formed that alliance to beat the Trade Federation. We exit with a trademark finale for Williams, and a weird orb that signifies something. This finale is rather tribal but militaristic, blending the two cultures together in celebration of their union and their victory. It utilizes a youthful chorus, bereft of tenor and bass, adding levity while maintaining the ongoing mood Williams has presented this whole film.

In all, this score is pretty good. It has definite highs and does its best to distract you from a pretty dull first and second acts.

NEXT WEEK: We’ll move on to the universally considered worst film in the franchise. Anakin is a horny teenager. Obi-Wan is even hotter somehow. Padme gets some more amazing costumes.

BONUS VIDEO: Here’s the behind the scenes video of the making of Duel of the Fates from the DVD bonus features.

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