Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Quick Takes on Rogue One: Requiem For Rogues

By Brooke McCorkle

“We have hope. Rebellions are built on hope,” quips Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Yet audience members well-versed in Star Wars lore know that while there is hope for the rebellion, little remains for Erso and her compatriots. This becomes apparent in the film’s final act, as the group of ragtag warriors sacrifice themselves in pursuit of the Death Star’s schematics. Though a box office success, some reviewers like A.O. Scott lamented the plot’s banality and the dearth of character development. Richard Brody of The New Yorker goes so far as to suggest that the film’s creators calculated the characters’ emotional shallowness in order to prevent over-empathization and thus avoid a backlash from viewers disappointed by the dark story line.

While I agree that the characters of Rogue One, especially Jyn and Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) could have benefited from greater development, I think the film’s drama is poignant precisely because of this seeming lack. It is one thing to mourn the death of an individual character adored by fans for over thirty years (i.e. Han Solo in Episode VII). It is much more difficult to ask audiences to mourn characters that are essentially strangers. Rogue One requires viewers to care about the characters as human beings, not as familiar, beloved archetypes. And Michael Giacchino’s score works towards this end. The music imbues the characters with a pathos that refers to the wider mythology of the Star Wars universe, but in a manner different than the previous films. The music enshrines the nameless people who devoted their lives to fighting the Empire’s fascist, racist regime; instead of mythologizing the genetically-fated hero, the score for Rogue One elevates the everyday soldier.

In this, I suggest that we can better understand Rogue One and its score not necessarily as a Star Wars movie, despite the superficial musical and visual references that insist otherwise. Rather, examining the film in terms of the war movie genre illuminates and perhaps even rehabilitates some qualms about the script and score. In the rest of this post, I want to situate Giacchino’s penultimate cue “Your Father Would Be Proud” within the milieu of the war movie genre and the Star Wars mythos.

Despite some shortcomings cited here and elsewhere, Michael Giacchino managed to create a score that provides the requisite nods to the original trilogy without being overwhelmed by it. Moreover, Giacchino (along with a team of orchestrators) has mastered John Williams’s musical pallette just as Williams mastered Richard Wagner’s. This is evident from the opening piccolo cue accompanying shots of planetary rings to the prominent use of plaintive horns and lush strings in “Your Father Would Be Proud.” The cue appears at the climax of the film; Cassian shoots the archvillain Krennic and he and Jyn transmit the Death Star plans to the rebel fleet above. Though they initially seem hopeful of escape, it soon becomes evident that they will not, as a mushroom cloud overshadows them. Just as this sequence is the culmination of the narrative, the music is a synthesis of preceding motifs.

“Your Father” begins with violins intoning a monophonic melody over a tremolo pedal tone. A vocalise cello line unites with the upper strings and horns around 0:26 in the soundtrack album’s version of the cue; harp and woodwind flourishes punctuate the melody. At 1:23 the cue evolves into a polyphonic dialogue between horn and cello accompanied by a violins outlining the harmonic progression. The addition of a wordless chorus (2:05) solidifies the harmonic underpinning and leads to the emergence of previously heard melodies from “Wobani Imperial Labor Camp” which are expanded on in “Trust Goes Both Ways.” “Your Father,” texturally resembles these cues which both open with strings, and employ a semitone gesture that alludes to the “Across the Stars” theme from William’s Episode II score. “Your Father” swells to a cymbal crash and cadences on a D major chord (3:47). Yet the line continues to meander and almost immediately lower brass enter with a descending minor scale tonicizing G. A pause punctuates this ominous lack of resolution before the violins reenter briefly with the opening “Wobani” melody, only to be overtaken by brass and the “Trust” motif that soon dissolves into dissonant blasts. A fragment of the Dies Irae briefly surfaces at 4:25, only to be overtaken by a unison low-register G that serves as a musical bridge to the film’s denouement.

In this way, “Your Father” conveys the musical topic of a requiem. It draws on the film music trope of elegiac battle sequences, most notably the use of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings in Oliver Stone’s Platoon (other examples include Glory, Saving Private Ryan, Ran, and even two Star Wars franchise cues—“Anakin’s Betrayal” from Episode III and “Starkiller” from Episode VII).  Just as Barber’s music in Platoon invites audiences to lament the grunts’ sacrifices in Vietnam, so too does Giacchino’s cue. “Your Father” hints at the characters’ potential futures undone by war. We are asked to mourn the characters not because we know them, not because we love them, but for exactly the opposite reason; the music encourages us to grieve for Jyn, Cassian, and the other rogues precisely because we will not know them nor will see their stories big and small played out in the dreams of Hollywood’s lucrative franchise. By drawing on scoring practices present in the Star Wars franchise and beyond, Giacchino demonstrates how music can make the quotidian extraordinary.

Brooke McCorkle is an opera and film music scholar. She is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Musicology at SUNY-Geneseo.  More information is available here.

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