'Star Wars' music needs the movie to make sense


May 06, 1999

John Williams

Star Wars: Episode One -- The Phantom Menace (Sony Classical 61816)

In his liner notes to the soundtrack from "Star Wars: Episode One -- The Phantom Menace," composer/conductor John Williams mentions that during the recording sessions with the London Symphony, some of the younger members of the orchestra made startling confessions to him. Writes Williams, "[A]s children, they had seen and heard 'Star Wars,' and immediately resolved to study music with the goal of playing with the London Symphony."


By now, most people are aware of the tremendous impact George Lucas' "Star Wars" trilogy had on contemporary culture. From the Death Star and light sabers to R2D2 and Yoda, the "Star Wars" mythology is familiar to millions.

But the music? Although a disco version of the "Star Wars" theme was a No. 1 hit in 1997, Williams' "Star Wars" scores had nowhere near the pop impact of the soundtracks to "Saturday Night Fever," "Flashdance" or "Grease." Nor would anyone have expected them to, because the music Williams wrote was orchestral and atmospheric, designed more to lend weight to the onscreen imagery than to give viewers something to hum.

Unfortunately, that makes listening to the latest soundtrack vaguely unsatisfying. Sure, the music is richly colored and stirringly dramatic, but it also clearly follows a sort of narrative structure -- and because the film itself is still weeks from opening, there's no way to know what, precisely, that structure is.

In that sense, listening to "Star Wars: Episode One -- The Phantom Menace" at this point is a bit like listening to gossip about people you don't know -- it may sound juicy at times, but it's unlikely to make any sense. So even though the galloping trumpets and fluttering woodwinds of "The Sixth Spacecraft/The Droid Battle" clearly convey action and urgency (particularly given the way Williams keeps us on the edge of our seats by slyly having the melody modulate ever upward), that's all the track tells us. Why we're being made so anxious won't become clear until we see the scene itself.

There are, of course, moments that stand entirely on their musical merit. The pastoral splendor of "Anakin's Theme" is one of the album's highlights, offering a melody tuneful and timeless enough to have come from some half-forgotten Tchaikovsky ballet, while "The Arrival at Tatooine" is as wry and well-colored as a Prokofiev miniature.

But on the whole, "The Phantom Menace" is the sort of score that will doubtless become more meaningful after we've seen the images it's meant to support. As such, the London Symphony may want to hold off on its youth-recruitment drive until after the movie opens. ***

J.D. Considine


'Hedwig and the Angry Inch' Original Cast Recording (Atlantic 83160)

Degradation, confusion, dignity, redemption, sly humor, a transsexual German cabaret singer -- off-Broadway revelation "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" has it all. Stephen Trask's songs are delicious mutations of glam and classic rock, cabaret, country western and more. With double-edged, slick, reference-laden lyrics, they work both as narrative and as singular, visceral powerhouses. With a deluxe Dietrich accent, John Cameron Mitchell, who portrays Hedwig, infuses the spectrum of sung emotions with irony, world-weariness and vigor. "The Origin of Love," all Bowie-esque imagery and twisted storybook sweetness, is a brief return to innocence. The pounding punk of "Angry Inch" and "Exquisite Corpse" screams with hellish hollowness. The bittersweet doo-wop of "Wig in a Box" and the aching Lennon-McCartney harmonies of "The Long Grift" illuminate universal longing with an eloquence urgent enough to make one cry for the triumphant, tragic, drag goddess in all of us. ****

Tamara Ikenberg


Dorothy Norwood

The Lord Is a Wonder (Malaco MCD-4500)

While Kirk Franklin and his NuNation Project have made gospel more palpable to a younger audience, thank goodness for stalwarts like Dorothy Norwood, who carry the banner for traditional Southern-style, old-time religion. Norwood's current effort, "The Lord Is A Wonder," mixes in wailing rock guitar lines and Caribbean influences, as on the title track. But the strength of this tour-de-force is its enthusiastic treatments of the old favorites, such as Clara Ward's "Packing Up," and "Highway to Heaven." And Norwood makes good use of guest soloists Cedric Ford and the legendary Albertina Walker to spread the good news. ***

Milton Kent


Junko Onishi

Fragile (Blue Note 98108)

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