Since the announcement four years ago that Disney would buy Lucasfilm and begin making new Star Wars movies, this moment has been inevitable: excepting Kevin Kiner's fine, fun work on the briefly-theatrically-released Clone Wars pilot, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the first Star Wars feature film with music composed by someone other than John Williams.
To film music fans in general, and John Williams fans in particular, the effect would have been unsettling regardless of the quality of the work. We got something of a preview of this sensation last fall with the release of Bridge of Spies, the first Steven Spielberg film since The Colour Purple not to feature a Williams score (Williams was ill at the time). And not to put too macabre a point on it, but sooner or later the continued roll-out of Star Wars movies was going to run into a Williams-free movie in one way or another. The man is 84, after all.
Naturally, the person stepping onto the podium in John Williams' stead for Rogue One is Michael Giacchino. I say "naturally" because, based on Giacchino's bona fides, it's such an obvious choice that it's somewhat surprising that Giacchino, in turn, is filling Alexandre Desplat's shoes after Desplat left the project due to scheduling difficulties. Rogue One is, to a very real extent, the job Giacchino has been auditioning for since he got into this business.
It's also frankly astonishing that a work of composition this complex, and weighted with genuine consequences for fans' ability to embrace the "anthology" instalments of the new Star Wars franchise, was the result of a late-day composer switcheroo, with minimal lead time.
No matter in this composer's case, of course. Giacchino is so prolific as to be slightly terrifying. Alongside his natural strengths as a musician, he is also our current master of musical pastiche. He can step into the rhythm and tonality of other eras of music so precisely that it's often hard to tell the difference between original examples and Giacchino's work. (Giacchino's closing-credits music for Cloverfield, for example, is so specifically on-model for kaiju films of the 1960s that it plays like a recently-unearthed Akira Ikufube track.)
He also does space opera better than anyone (besides Williams) in the business. His scores for John Carter and Jupiter Ascending accomplish more than the films they accompany in conjuring up the magic of galaxies far, far away (or in both cases, weirdo aliens within our solar system) and the thrill of swashbuckling Flash Gordon-style heroics. He's having a ton of fun with Star Trek, too.
So if anyone were going to ease us into the waters of a Williams-free Star Wars world, it makes sense that it would be Giacchino. Naturally, the result is a head-baking experience - no opening theme, some "cameo" themes and quotes from the existing Star Wars canon, and a lot of new composition - and unpacking the work has been fascinating fun.
In the absence of the Star Wars fanfare and opening march, we are brought into the world of the music with a very Giacchino-ish "slam," followed by the traditional twinkling off-melody sounds of the orchestra warming up to the vastness of space. "He's Here For Us," the first track on the album, gives us our first puzzle right away: Director Krennic's theme.
It's not specifically Director Krennic's theme according to the track titles. The signature will get a full orchestral treatment in track 20, "The Imperial Suite," which tells us that this is the Empire's new motif for Rogue One... but... why?
Not only does the Galactic Empire sport what is, arguably, one of the two or three most recognizable musical cues in cinema history (you're humming it right now, aren't you?), but that theme - Darth Vader's march - also appears at critical moments Giacchino's score for Rogue One. And to make matters even more confusing, Giacchino also does the extraordinary, and resurrects the other Imperial motif written by John Williams, and chucks it into Rogue One as well.
This little-remembered cue, used in the original Star Wars and never since (remember: Darth Vader's theme was composed for The Empire Strikes Back), is a trembling woodwind riff which Giacchino lovingly dredges back up in "Krennic's Aspirations," the cue covering the Director's visit to Darth Vader's lava castle and the introduction of the Sith Lord proper.
So: Rogue One is a score with three musical themes for the Empire.
It would make a kind of weird sense if what I've called the Krennic theme was just Krennic's theme, and the Imperial motif from Star Wars stood in for the rest of the Empire (Darth's theme can stay Darth's theme), but it seems to be the other way around. This confuses the frick out of me, though I will admit that the scene in Vader's castle is also the moment I began to love Giacchino's score here. (I was on the record saying that if he incorporated that particular motif from Star Wars, I was going to cry. He did not disappoint.)
Vader's theme, meanwhile, is kept largely on the sidelines until Giacchino unleashes it in a full, no-fucking-around rendition at the end of the picture (track 18, "Hope") - aptly accompanying a scene wherein Vader does no fucking around. It's one of an unexpectedly small number of moments in the film where Giacchino leans directly on the established Williams motifs. Restraint seems to have been the watchword. There are more needless cameos by original trilogy stars (Threepio and Artoo at Yavin? Puh-lease) in this film than there are direct musical citations.
But the tension between base-tapping the original Williams work and inventing something wholly new is with us throughout the Rogue One score, regardless. Giacchino's title slam for the film - heard at the end of track 2, "A Long Ride Ahead" - is a great musical fake-out. The first two notes are taken directly from the Star Wars theme, and given that it accompanies a yellow-against-starfield title card, we expect it to play out in full; but from that beloved launching pad, Giacchino propels us higher (the Star Wars theme stumbles down three tones from here before lifting its spirits again) and rolls out what we might call "The Rogue One Theme." The motif captures the rebellious spirits of the film's protagonist, Jyn Erso, and her mission - both to bring down the Death Star, and to light the spark that will become the Rebellion.
Giacchino pulls a similar trick later in the first act, when introducing the leitmotif for the Guardians of the Whills (which gets a full orchestral treatment as the final track on the album). Closely aligned with the Jedi, the Guardians' musical cue starts off sounding like a retread of the Force theme, before it - like the Rogue One theme - wanders off in its own direction.
Again, we might sense intention here: the rogues are like the heroes of the original trilogy, but different; the Guardians are like the Jedi, but different. Rogue One, itself, is like Star Wars, but different, and Giacchino is using the music to drive this idea as openly as Gareth Edwards is varying the staging of the film itself from its forbears.
Giacchino becomes his most Giacchino-ish when treating the relationship between Jyn and her father, Galen, in tracks 8 and 9 - if you feel like you're hearing strains of LOST in their pained, piano-driven accompaniment, you are, but all of Giacchino's "go for the heart" cues tend to sound like this, from John Carter to Let Me In.
But there's no sameyness at all in the bombastic cues for the spectacular starfighter sequences in the film, from the bombing run on Eadu (track 9) to the attack of the Rebel Fleet in the finale (tracks 14 and 15). Here, Giacchino is a master of dynamic range, jumping from bracing full-orchestra thunder to quiet undertones and back again to drive tension skywards while the X-wings plunge towards the earth.
In fact, the soundtrack as a whole seems most comfortable when dealing with the heroics of the Rebellion in one form or another, as though Giacchino has been composing music for the rebels in his head since he was ten years old. (It's not unlikely.) The mobilization of Rogue One and the Alliance towards the final battle is accompanied by brassy pomp, recalling (without directly quoting) the Resistance March from The Force Awakens. Track 13, "Cargo Shuttle SW-0608," which covers Rogue One making planetfall on Scarif, nicely mimics some of the orchestration of the Rebel Fleet themes from Return of the Jedi without directly quoting any of the motifs. (Listen to track 9, "Alliance Assembly," on the Return of the Jedi complete score for comparison.)
Or, in the score's best direct connection to the film that follows its final moments, "Hope" contains a few moments (1:02-1:15) that exactly mirror cues in the Imperial attack in Star Wars (the opening bars of track 3 on the A New Hope complete score).
And I admit that at least half my fondness for the finale of Rogue One (not the Vader stuff; the death-on-the-beach stuff) comes from Giacchino's wrenching, mournful musical accompaniment. Track 17, "Your Father Would Be Proud," might be an example of on-the-nose Hollywood scoring, but it's really good on-the-nose scoring. It lands a beat that the film itself has trouble landing, as underdeveloped lead characters Jyn and Cassian give their all to transmit the Death Star plans to the rebels before the Death Star wipes them off the planet. There's real pathos, and a sense of sacrifice, to the music.
It also comes from a musical language subtly different from much of what's come before in Star Wars (only "The Jedi Steps" in The Force Awakens has been quite so thrillingly modern in its approach to melody, compared to the rest of the work), and feels like one of the few moments in Rogue One where Giacchino is truly innovating, making the work his own, rather than doing a grandly kickass take on "a Star Wars-type score."
It's an important development, if only because the continued musical health of this franchise will depend on less and less pastiche and more and more authorial ownership, as audiences begin to warm to the idea that John Williams isn't the only person who can give Star Wars its soul.
Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and on Letterboxd.