What’s a Star Wars Film Without John Williams?

In a franchise first, Rogue One’s soundtrack isn’t helmed by the legendary composer.

Lucasfilm / Disney

Star Wars was already deeply embedded in American pop culture by the time I was a kid. There were numerous video games, toys, comics, spin-offs, and an entire new trilogy of films by my twelfth birthday, and characters like Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, and Han Solo had long been cultural icons. The villains of my youth were imitating shadows of the Dark Side, clad in capes and cybernetics, and the heroes were paler imitations of the didactic duos of Obi-Wan and Luke.

In the 39 years the franchise has been in existence, creator George Lucas has had a lot of help in its success and integration into popular culture. Of course, there are the actors themselves, and the legions of mimics in science fiction and fantasy. But for me, perhaps the most singular contribution has come from the legendary composer John Williams, of Jaws, Indiana Jones, and Jurassic Park fame. Williams’s music has been as vital to my love of Star Wars as have light sabers and giant weapons with rather conspicuous weaknesses. So when I found out that Rogue One: A Star Wars Story would be the franchise’s first live-action film without Williams at its center, I was apprehensive.

What’s a Star Wars film without John Williams? It’s a hard question to answer when you consider the careful, virtuoso work he’s done to flesh out and develop a universe of figures and knotted allegiances. Williams’s composing hand and the London Symphony Orchestra’s strings, for instance, turn a wordless moment in the original Star Wars film into a profound contemplation of power and self-realization. The leitmotif has come to symbolize Luke and the Force, and is arguably one of the most recognizable seven-note sequences in American music. Luke’s father Darth Vader and the Empire he represents, on the other hand, are driven by timpani, staccato strings, and boisterous brass, in a theme that has become so associated with power that sports antiheroes and would-be villains use it.

A big part of what makes Williams’s music so resonant is his consistent, masterful use of shifting themes—across all of the films—to carry ideas and represent characters. In that way, the franchise has more in common with Wagnerian epic opera than with your standard action movie, where sound is so often used to trigger a quick emotion. Listening to Star Wars soundtracks, which are as cherished as the films themselves in my home, it’s possible to reconstruct precise plot details; I often recall events simply by whistling their themes. “Anakin’s Theme” from Episode I: The Phantom Menace is studded with soft references to “The Imperial March” (Vader’s theme); it’s a musical foreshadowing of Vader’s rise that’s in some ways more effective than the visual cues of the film itself, which wasn’t very good. It’s this use of music as an active vehicle for storytelling that has made it as much a part of the films’ internal mythology as ancient Sith Lords and Jedi temples.

The layered richness of Williams’s work is perhaps best showcased in 2014’s Episode VII: The Force Awakens. The film itself is an almost dizzying exercise in Star Wars meta-nostalgia, down to the villain Kylo Ren’s fanboying over his grandfather Darth Vader. The score brilliantly encapsulates this quality. The end-credits music, in particular, manages to intertwine Luke Skywalker’s theme with the excellent new theme for Daisy Ridley’s Rey, following it all with a succession of other musical motifs representing the plot of the film. Close your eyes and listen to this mini-symphony and you’re, essentially, watching the film again.

Given all this, following in the footsteps of the 84-year-old Williams isn’t an enviable job—even for a spin-off like Rogue One that is freed of some of the nostalgia and accreted mythology the flagship series carries. Michael Giacchino (The Incredibles, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and Jurassic World) wrote the Rogue One score in just a month, after the original composer Alexandre Desplat dropped out due to scheduling conflicts. It wasn’t a lot of time considering what he had to do: score a film that’s a rather significant thematic departure from its predecessors, and figure out the right balance between homage and creation.

Luckily, this isn’t Giacchino’s first time following in Williams’s footsteps. (It should be noted that Williams will return for Episode VIII.) The success of Jurassic World and the warm reviews for its soundtrack showed that Giacchino could take the reigns without either becoming a John Williams cover band or papering over the history embedded in the franchise’s music. Giacchino is even more deft in his tightrope act in Rogue One, weaving strands of Williams’s sprawling mythology into a more traditional action-film sound. He’s tacked the challenge with humor and respect, providing plenty of fake-outs and winks while breathing some new life into the music.

From its opening flute solo, Rogue One’s music announces the film as a full member of the canon—one that shares its sense of nostalgia with The Force Awakens. But there are differences. Deviating occasionally from the slow buildup and royal fanfares of previous Star Wars scores, Giacchino uses thriller violins and thumping percussion in the film’s more action-oriented scenes. The overall effect is lofty meets earthly, Star Wars meets Saving Private Ryan (also by Williams).

Still, ideas from the “Imperial March” and the “Force Theme” make their way into these rousing arrangements. By my count, only a handful of them actually complete the nine and seven-note arcs from the original films. The title motif, especially, features some great call-backs to the “Force Theme” that are then immediately swept away into something new. Vader’s full theme is reserved for some powerful cameos by the Sith Lord himself, a choice that rewards the anticipation built up through fragmented musical homages leading up to those moments.

Most of the songs from the soundtrack—released on December 16—give listeners something old and something new. “When Has Become Now,” resembles the stuttering swagger of the marches of the previous films, including the march of the Resistance in The Force Awakens. “Scrambling the Rebel Fleet” resembles Williams’s score from famed Star Wars dogfight scenes. “Star-Dust” is a departure from Williams—but a good one—in its confident use of a single piano melody.

Though he doesn’t recycle or repurpose them as much as Williams, Giacchino does show skill in creating new leitmotifs, even as he riffs on his predecessor’s more established ones. The theme for the heroine Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is a bundle of dueling triumph and sorrow that soars almost as high as Williams’s “Rey’s Theme,” which I consider among his best work. Less upbeat, Jyn’s theme nonetheless matches the tone of Rogue One itself, which is much more pensive and gray than anything yet from the trilogies.

In all, though Giacchino doesn’t quite nail the aspirations of Williams’s best work on the franchise, and doesn’t give me the chills I had as a kid listening to “Duel of the Fates” or “Binary Sunset,” his sound works really well for a film that strives to differentiate itself while still announcing itself as a Star Wars movie. Like the Jedi and Sith in the film, the most recognizable pieces of Star Wars lore are present in the Rogue One score, but they wisely don’t overpower a film that’s more about the universe’s proletariat than about its mystical knights and evil emperors. Giacchino’s work sounds like Star Wars, but it also sounds somewhat like other thriller films, espionage films, and war films. And that makes sense: Rogue One is, in the end, am effective blend of these, showing a way forward for a franchise that has always struggled to balance nostalgia with fresh ideas. Giacchino’s work is indispensable to that effort. My apprehension was for naught.