Monday, November 12, 2012

Star Wars: The Original Soundtrack Anthology

Part One: Confessions of a Film Score Junkie 

From the first minute I saw this boxed set on the shelf at Camelot Music, I knew I was doomed. 

It was the spring of 1994, and I had just celebrated my 31st birthday. I had just gotten together with my best friends to celebrate and they had given me a few CDs and VHS versions of theatrical movies, but my mother and older sister had given me $50 between the two of them because they didn't know what I wanted, and I felt that I was much too old to sit down and put together a Wish List. I did own a custom-built PC with an Intel 386 processor and a 80 MB hard drive, and even though I didn't have a modem or an Internet Service Provider at the time, I was still very much into computer games and simulations. I thus entered Camelot Music (now FYE) with the intention of browsing around for a good PC-compatible game. 

Because most music-and-video store managers know their buyer's psychology well, they are savvy enough to put new and lucrative merchandise such as recent-released movies and multi-CD boxed sets in strategic locations where they'll draw attention to themselves. In retrospect it isn't surprising that my eyes would be drawn to a longish rectangular package which stood on its edge, a lovely reproduction of Tom Jung's classic poster for A New Hope printed on the front cover with the title Star Wars Trilogy hovering above Luke Skywalker's blazing lightsaber. 

It had been placed slightly out of my reach, so I timidly walked up to the store manager and asked him if he could let me examine it closer. "Sure," he said, partly because I was a frequent customer, but mostly because he knew I was going to buy it. I had, after all, bought the three Polydor CD editions of the soundtracks to Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi at that very store. He reached up for the boxed set, carefully took it down, and handed it to me. 

"It's a bit expensive," he said, pointing at the $54.99 price tag, "but look at the back; maybe it'll be worth it." 

I held the box gingerly, almost as though it contained plutonium. Yeah, I thought, $55 plus tax is a bit pricey, but even though the Star Wars 2-CD set I have at home is great, the Empire one is not as good as I thought it would be, and the Jedi soundtrack has always been...well, skimpy. Let's see what this one has.

I turned the box over, glad not to be seeing the $54.99 price tag. I was working for a friend of mine who owned a computer consulting business -- keeping his files in order and sometimes sending out invoices, but business was not good and it was only a three-day-a-week gig, and I wasn't yet working as a ghostwriter, so the hole the boxed set would make in my wallet would be as though radiation had burned an opening on the leather. Still, I'm a sucker for a good soundtrack. Particularly if it's a John Williams soundtrack. And especially if it is a Star Wars soundtrack. 

Above a Jung portrait of Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi and Luke were these magic words: 

Composed and Conducted by John Williams
Performed by the London Symphony Orchestra

Disc One
Star Wars

Disc Two
The Empire Strikes Back

Disc Three
(Expanded Edition)
Return of the Jedi

Disc Four
Outtakes and previously unreleased music from Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi.

Like a kid at Christmas, I jiggled the box; there was a soft rattle, but not of plastic jewel boxes. Those were too tightly packed to rattle. A booklet, perhaps? I hoped it had liner notes. 

Needless to say, all thoughts of buying a PC game were gone, dissipated from my mind like fog burned away by bright sunshine. I hurried over to the cash register, wanting to get home as quickly as possible so I could open up this new treasure trove of Star Wars music...and not wanting to change my mind. 

It took me about an hour to get home; I don't drive because (a) I don't have a car and (b) since I'm disabled, I'm terribly afraid of learning how to drive in the unpredictably dangerous highways and byways of South Florida. I thought seriously about walking home, but it was 5 PM and the traffic rush was in full swing, so I played it safe and waited for the Metrobus (Route 7A) to arrive. In the meantime, I opened the box carefully, took out the booklet -- which had the box's artwork reproduced on its front and back covers, and, making sure that the lid was tightly shut so the CDs wouldn't tumble out, sat back on the uncomfortable bus bench and started reading. 

(Some time ago, I realized that I had misplaced the darned booklet, so those of you who expected to see a juicy excerpt from the liner notes or Nicholas Meyer's wonderful introduction are out of luck.) 

Luckily, the bus ride from the Miami International Mall to my house is blessedly short, so when I got home I hurriedly ate supper, watched the 6:00 news, then went upstairs to my room to try out my new CDs. 

Part Two: The Star Wars Trilogy Soundtrack Anthology...An Overview 

For over 30 years, composer/conductor John Williams has been one of the most prolific and renowned film score creators in Hollywood. For many of his fans, the music he recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra for theStar Wars saga has been -- and will remain -- his masterpiece. 

Until the 1997 Star Wars Trilogy: The Special Edition and 2004 Sony Classical soundtracks were released, this 1993 4-disc collection was the most complete version of the Original Soundtrack recordings. By the mid- to late 1990s, earlier CD editions of the John Williams/London Symphony Orchestra either were "out of print" or were simply awful (The Empire Strikes Back's first CD Polydor release was criminally lacking in tracks and organization; indeed, it was a "bargain basement" priced CD and was not as good as, say, the Varese Sarabande release of Charles Gerhardt's recording of the Empire score). It therefore fell to producer Nick Redman (who over the past decade has been working steadily on releasing good collections of Williams' film music) to compile thisSoundtrack Anthology

Although much of the material had been released in other editions of the soundtracks, the Anthology set allows listeners to enjoy and appreciate the evolution of the music as the series moved from A New Hope to Return of the Jedi. Williams -- as the booklet of liner notes points out -- uses the Wagnerian technique of "leitmotivs" or themes...sometimes for characters such as Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, sometimes for places or things (the Death Star has a theme, as do the Ewoks on Endor and, most importantly, the Force). The themes themselves are often simple and very hummable, but it is their, malleability....that allows Williams to describe what's going on with music alone. 

The Imperial March (Darth Vader's Theme) from The Empire Strikes Back, for instance, can go from jeering and strident in one scene, brooding and atmospheric in another, and even gentle and melancholy when it is last heard in Return of the Jedi. And to highlight the contrast between the light and dark sides of the Force and the two warring philosophies in the film, the composer wrote an equally versatile theme for Yoda, the diminutive Jedi Master.Yoda's Theme is solemn, quietly powerful, and at the same time mischievous. The effect is, as John Williams clearly intended, a very operatic and vivid aural experience. 

The CDs: Star Wars 
The first thing I noticed on the track list for Disc One: Star Wars (a.k.a. Episode IV: A New Hope) was that the 20th Century Fox Fanfare (with CinemaScope extension) had been included to the playlist. Although other non-Williams/London Symphony Orchestra Star Wars albums had used the Alfred Newman Fox fanfare that heralds the start of each Episode, this was the first time it had been incorporated into the Original Soundtrack albums. I was thrilled; if the purpose of a soundtrack album is to allow the listener to recall the moviegoing experience through music, this 22 second track (which had been recorded and supervised by maestro Williams in 1977 and re-popularized its use by Fox after decades of haphazard appearances in films released by the studio) certainly did its part. For just a moment in time I wasn't in my cluttered and semidark room; I was at the Dadeland Twin, with the bag of popcorn on my lap and my lidded soft-drink cup in the cupholder, and it was fall of 1977 all over again. (The 1954 Fox Fanfare also appears on the other three CDs, giving the set musical unity and coherence.) 

The rest of the tracks were very familiar. Of course, they were the same arrangements as the ones in the 1977 2-LP album, albeit in roughly chronological order to follow more or less the film's three acts. The Imperial Attack (track 3) and Inner City (track 9) were slightly longer by a matter of seconds, but the cues retained their original titles and often combined music from different parts of Star Wars. The other major difference between the 2-CD re-release of the '77 album and this '93 one-disc edition was that Cantina Band had been moved to Disc Four so that most of theStar Wars score could fit in one CD. The only other major revision was the placement of Princess Leia's Theme; in the '77 soundtrack it had been track 3 on disc 1 (both on the vinyl LP and the compact disc). On the Redman-produced Anthology edition, it precedes The Last Battle (track 17). 

The Empire Strikes Back 
The nicest surprise was Disc Two: The Empire Strikes Back; Redman had carefully restored the original 2-LP album's contents and expanded it slightly to make up for Polydor's disastrously bad "Super Saver" condensed version (I call it, somewhat derisively, the "Readers' Digest album") which had less than half of the 1980 vinyl records' content. With 19 tracks (to Polydor's 10), the Redman Anthology edition has The Empire Strikes Back'sopening scenes' underscore properly included; for some bizarre reason John Williams had made a producer's decision to follow the Star Wars theme heard during the title crawl with the cue that is heard during the Millennium Falcon's escape from the huge space slug in the '80 album. Redman discarded that cut-and-paste track and restored the Main Title/ The Imperial Probe -- Extended Version (track 2). This was the first time that the Williams/LSO rendition of the cue was released, although the Gerhardt/National Philharmonic's The Empire Strikes Back Suite included this material. Oddly enough, the escape-from-the-space-slug music doesn't appear in either Disc Two or Disc Four; it wouldn't be until 1997 and the more complete Special Edition album that the cue would reappear in an Empire CD. 

Return of the Jedi (Extended Edition
The most disappointing of the three Star Wars LP/cassette soundtrack albums had always been 1983's Return of the Jedi. The LP vinyl records were about to be eclipsed by the advent of the new compact disc format, and it was thought that fan support for another 2-record set was waning, so producer Williams and Polygram Records released Return of the Jedi as a one-record album, with only about an hour's worth of music...less than half of the score. Again, the 11 tracks were arranged not by where it appeared in the film but in a somewhat random order, the rule, perhaps handed down by Emperor Palpatine himself, seemed to be "aesthetics, not accuracy." 

Again, though it wouldn't be until four years later that the entire Jedi score would be available -- albeit revised for theSpecial Edition -- the Anthology's new and expanded edition was vastly superior to its 1983 progenitor. Not only did the music more closely follow the action of the film, but there were new tracks that depicted critical scenes from Episode VI. Newly available were Fight in the Dungeon (track 4), The Emperor Arrives (track 6), The Death of Yoda(track 7), and much of the music from the movie's climactic third act, including Final Duel / Into the Death Star (track 14) and Darth Vader's Death (track 16). 

Disc Four: Outtakes and Previously Unreleased Music from Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi contains 21 tracks of mostly new (at the time) musical material that had never been included in the original records or earlier CD releases (with the exception of Cantina Band (track 10), which had been removed from theStar Wars album so it would fit in one disc. (Departure of Boba Fett did appear in the LP, 8-track, and cassette versions of Empire but was moved to this disc to form part of track 17, Carbon Freeze / Luke Pursues the Captives / Departure of Boba Fett. This disc, when it was still new, was rather intriguing because it included not only the more famous Cantina Band and Lapti Nek from Jedi, but the previously unreleased Cantina Band # 2 (track 12). 

It also has the quirkiest final track, unique in this set because it has the film version of the Ewok Celebration fromJedi and the film version of the End Titles from Empire; the final tracks on Discs Two and Three are the "concert hall" versions with slight differences both in the Ewokese chorus and the orchestrations. It's bizarre but has the virtue of being a good way. 

Part Three: "I Have a Bad Feeling About This..." The Cons. 

Are there cons? Yes, but they're minor, and they boil down to track sequencing / selection. Because most of the music in this set was adapted from the earlier mass-market albums recordings, some of the "cues" appear out of chronological order (in terms of where the music is heard on the actual films). And while many tracks have either been "filled out" with material not heard on the earlier releases or restored/reincorporated, this boxed set is still missing many other tracks that are on the Special Edition recordings. Williams fans who seek completeness will have to buy those recordings, or the even newer 2004 Sony Classical reissues, instead. 

Nevertheless, since the Return of the Jedi score was redone in 1997 for two scenes, this boxed set is now the best source for the original Lapti Nek (heard in the original dance number in Jabba's Palace) and Ewok Celebrationtracks. Traditionalists who bemoan the Special Edition's revisions may still prefer The Star Wars Trilogy Soundtrack Anthology. In any case, this is a great buy no matter how one looks at it. 

Coda: Miscellaneous Comments and Reviewer's Favorite Tracks 

Each disc comes in a jewel box, with elegantly simple cover art -- the inserts are black with the title The Star Wars Trilogy (disc number) The Original Soundtrack Anthology in discreet white lettering along the bottom margin. In the center of each cover, the movie logo is embossed in a reflective black-on-black; you have to look at the jewel box under the right lighting at an optimum angle. On the back cover there is the movie title / disc number at the top, with the composer / conductor / orchestra credits, the track list, special notations indicating previously unreleased or extended material, and the producer credit. 

The CDs themselves are attractively illustrated; Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi each have production art by conceptual artist Ralph McQuarrie, while the Outtakes disc bears a photograph of John Williams circa 1977 as he conducts the LSO. 

The booklet has an interesting introduction by writer-director Nicholas Meyer, followed by program notes written by Lukas Kendall, a renowned expert on film history and movie scores. It's lavishly illustrated with production paintings, movie stills, and promotional poster art. 

20 Galaxy-Spanning Cues From That "Galaxy Far, Far Away..." 

Disc 1: Star Wars 
1. Twentieth Century Fox Fanfare with CinemaScope Extension (Alfred Newman, 1954)
2. Main Title
4. The Desert / The Robot Auction
14. Princess Leia's Theme
15. The Last Battle

Disc 2: The Empire Strikes Back 
5. The Imperial March (Darth Vader's Theme)
8. The Rebels Escape Again
11. Han Solo and the Princess
14. Yoda and The Force
17. The Duel

Disc 3: Return of the Jedi 
3. Han Solo Returns (At the Court of Jabba the Hutt)
6. The Emperor Arrives
9. Luke and Leia
16. Darth Vader's Death
18. Leia Breaks the News / Funeral Pyre for a Jedi

Disc 4: Outtakes from Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi 
2. Main Title (alternate)
11. Lapti Nek
12. Cantina Band #2
17. Carbon Freeze / Luke Pursues the Captives / Departure of Boba Fett
21. Ewok Celebration (film version) - End Credits (film version) * 

* Incorporates music from Return of the Jedi and The Empire Strikes Back, in that order.