By James Buhler
A general interpretive maxim for Star Wars is that, with the exception of the Ewok Victory Celebration, John Williams can do no wrong. (This hagiographic attitude toward Williams is well exemplified in this otherwise quite insightful video essay on Rey’s Theme.) It is true that music has always been a central component of the Star Wars films, and many of the films in the series have much better scores than the films they accompany. Though sometimes criticized for following the contours of A New Hope (1977) too closely, The Force Awakens (2015) concluded by opening out to its galaxy rather than collapsing back into the closed world of its monomyth, as did A New Hope. It is for me the best crafted of the Star Wars films, with a remarkably consistent tone from beginning to end; and it rivals The Empire Strikes Back (1980) as compelling cinema. Williams’s score for The Force Awakens matched the achievement of the new conception while striking out in surprising new directions, with several new themes and judicious use and reworking of older material. Though in many ways unassuming as it carefully worked its way around the sound design and rarely forcing its presence, the score managed both to sound like it came from the world of Star Wars while also opening to the new situation. The score for The Force Awakens was an exceptional contribution to a remarkable film.
If The Force Awakens offered a tidy updating of the Star Wars world with a new musical angle, The Last Jedi (2017) is almost the opposite in both respects: the film takes the opening offered by the end of The Force Awakens and pushes the series in a quite new direction, but the music hews to a more familiar path. On Twitter, I quipped that John Williams seems to have set himself the task in the score to use ALL the leitmotifs from the original trilogy and The Force Awakens. Frank Lehman responded “For a film that seems to be all about discarding the past and letting go of nostalgia, boy is it infatuated with the Force Theme.” Although Williams gives the March of the Resistance a provocative development throughout the film that seems to map its increasingly dire situation, and although he offers striking variants of Rey’s theme and especially Leia’s theme, many of the leitmotifs have been imported with little change. What are we to make of the score’s investment in its past even as the film seems at times to take Kylo Ren’s position that it is best to kill it?
Though controversial, Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi is a remarkably ambitious film, one that takes risks uncommon to tent-pole franchise films and that don’t always pay off. In this respect the film’s recklessness with the Star Wars legacy mirrors the recklessness of the characters that it presents and critiques. One of the film’s themes—or at least preoccupations—is failure. One beloved character from the earlier films even returns to pronounce that failure is the best teacher. In any event, little in this film goes according to plan, and the usual impulsive improvisatory verve of harebrained schemes that characters in the Star Wars universe have so often used in previous films to get out of trouble here leads to unmitigated disaster. If The Last Jedi fixates on the figure of “the spark” that will reignite hope, the film also places its bet on the notion that this hope needs to be kindled outside the aristocratic line of its reigning monomyth.
Rey remains the chosen one and the representative of the monomyth, but her understanding of the role that has been assigned to her differs markedly from that of Luke or Kylo Ren. She need not confront the darkside in order to master it or fall to it; she need not perform the heroic deed that saves the galaxy in a giant explosion or evaluate order by how well the galaxy conforms to her will. Her confrontation with the darkside has nothing of the psychic trauma and Oedipal conflict of Luke’s failure in the cave. Instead she understands the darkside as occult, hidden, as offering something she needs to see; and what she discovers is a hall of mirrors, an indefinite series of reflections of the self. If she remains perplexed by this image to the extent that she must relate it to Kylo in their Force-enabled psychic link (I found the mirror scene to be one of the most compelling of the film), it carries no marks of psychic repression and so does not unbalance her. Kylo takes his best shot but is characteristically ineffective.
Rey may or may not be a “nobody”—that is, without noble parentage—but the film ends with her evidently believing this and importantly being untraumatized by Kylo Ren’s delivery of the news in a remarkable stratagem of psychological manipulation after their defeat of Snoke and his guard. If Rey’s plans to turn Kylo misfire like every other plan in the film, we can say the same of Kylo’s plans to manipulate Rey into submission (and Snoke’s attempt to manipulate Kylo and Rey by fostering the psychic link between them). Here, Kylo’s misjudging of Rey’s psychic makeup reflects Luke’s misjudging of Rey’s interest in the darkside. Neither can fathom an understanding of the Force outside a melodramatic Manichean divide of good and evil. Rey’s understanding of the Force starts from the concept of balance and extends to all, breaking with the aristocratic lineage that would horde its secret and concentrate its power. Snoke may be right when he states that Rey possesses the spirit of a Jedi, but she does not fight to defend or restore the political order but to bring balance to the Force and so to place its power potentially in reach of all.
The music underscores this point in a most oblique manner. The leitmotifs in The Last Jedi often recur with the sound of leave-taking, a way of saying goodbye, perhaps, to dear friends. An encounter between Luke and Leia becomes an opportunity to reprise their lyrical theme one more time; Leia’s memory of Han brings back a tender rendition of “Han Solo and the Princess,” ,” a theme used so effectively in The Force Awakens to mark a love that has endured a troubled history hinted at but not shown in the film; and a brief piano version of Princess Leia’s theme in the end credits sounds like a touching personal tribute from the composer to the memory of Carrie Fisher. At the same time, the ubiquity of the Force theme represents not so much nostalgia for the old Republic or leave-taking as it is the musical sign that the Force is now indeed fully awake. If on the one hand this ubiquity undermines the special status of those characters such as Rey who are strong with the Force, then on the other hand it also democratizes access to it. What was a stark divide between aristocrat and commoner has been eroded into a continuum, and we find that most characters can summon it to some extent in an hour of need. The Force theme may have grown out of musical balance with the rest of the score, but its constant musical presence serves to remind us that, though the Resistance is much diminished, the Force spreads its power wide.
James Buhler is on the faculty at the Sarah and Ernest Butler School of Music at the University of Texas at Austin, where he teaches courses on music and media. He writes frequently on music and film and is the author of Hearing the Movies, now in its second edition.