Ranking John Williams’ ‘Star Wars’ Scores

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With The Last Jedi due out this week, we’ve gone a little crazy with anticipation, as you might notice in our coverage this week. But one thing it feels imperative to highlight in any new Star Wars episode is its score. John Williams created the most iconic film score of all time in 1977, and has stuck with the saga ever since, aside from skipping last year’s Rogue One, which sits just outside of the ongoing Skywalker story anyway. Some tracks are more famous and iconic than others, but which of the films saw Williams at his best? Here’s how we rank his scores for the seven Star Wars episodes to date.

7. Attack of the Clones (2002)

Now there’s really no bad John Williams Star Wars soundtrack, but the second prequel’s music might be the most derivative, and not just of the saga it’s a part of. If you listen to some of Williams’ other big musical cues from 2002, though mainly Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Minority Report, the tunes following the action scenes are almost identical, which means that Attack of the Clones’ score feels the least committed to itself of the entire saga. There is, however, the memorably sweeping love theme “Across the Stars” used as a recurring motif, but even it lacks the soft, sweet nature of Williams’ Han and Leia theme from Empire Strikes Back.


6. The Force Awakens (2015)

Though the first of the saga’s scores since Return of the Jedi to be nominated for an Oscar, there’s little here that is memorable beyond some fresh spins on old classics. And that’s understandable. This is, after all, the third time Williams had been called upon to create the feel for a new set of Star Wars films, and many of the themes he created for The Phantom Menace are still to this day more iconic just about anything in Episode VII. The one theme that does stick out is Rey’s, a whimsical organization that warmly introduces us to the saga’s new face with a mix of warm hope and strained melancholy. It might be a little more Harry Potter than Star Wars, but then Star Wars is more fantasy than sci-fi anyway.


5. Return of the Jedi (1983)

To close out the first trilogy, Williams opted not to create any more sports-arena worthy themes, but stick close to what worked in the first two and tweak them to give the film a sense of finality. The best example of this is on the track “The Pit of Carkoon,” where Williams slowly builds tension almost to the point of self-parody, and then unleashes a drummed up version of the classic heroic Star Wars theme. The new cues surrounding the climactic Battle of Endor work well to achieve the conflict’s grand scale in terms of both action and emotionality. Often overlooked: this film also boasts the first use of the creepy low hum used for Emperor Palpatine.


4. The Phantom Menace (1999)

There’s a lot of great music in the first prequel, even if Williams occasionally enables George Lucas’ annoyingly lighter, more kid-friendly tone and sense of humor, but it really all comes down to four words: “Duel of the Fates.” The villain themes throughout Episode I are all terrific, from a repurposed “Imperial March” to the rousing melodies as the Trade Federation invades Naboo, hence why they’re mostly just recycled for Attack of the Clones. But when those doors open in the final battle to reveal Darth Maul—and his double-sided lightsaber—Williams takes Star Wars to a whole new level of epic.


3. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

How do you follow up creating arguably (but not really) the most widely popular film score of all time? Well, Williams orchestrated the “Imperial March,” which, yes, in fact appears in the second Star Wars film ever released. You can almost hear it throughout A New Hope clamoring to come out, but it doesn’t until the fearful sight of a Star Destroyer in the sequel, seemingly enforcing new law as the bad guy theme to end all bad guy themes. Also pervaded through Williams’ score throughout: the sweet sincerity of Han and Leia’s dangerous romance, the mystical calm cues that accompany Yoda and the Force, and the stirring mix of it all found in the escape from Cloud City.


2. A New Hope (1977)

Is there a greater sense of excitement than when you’re sitting in the theater and the Star Wars logo blasts onto screen accompanied by Williams’ unforgettable theme? (I remember being unable to wipe the smile off my face, and even holding back tears, when it started for Force Awakens.) Well, it all started here. But it’s not just the main tune that deserves recognition. Sure, it brought us into Lucas’ world, but when Luke stares off at Tatooine’s twin suns, and the orchestra swells for “Binary Sunset,” it’s Williams who made the galaxy a second home, filled with the same longing for purpose and adventure integral to our humanity.


1. Revenge of the Sith (2005)

It’s hard to believe now that there was a time when the prequels were the end. It’s even harder to believe now that Disney will ever really let the saga end at all. Williams’ opportunity to wrap up the saga musically came and went, but it was not unnoticed. The score itself seemingly tells the story of the entire saga itself. As the Clone War rages on, Williams reintroduces themes from Episodes I and II, but with a new sense of urgency and finality. The middle of the film gives Episode III its own musical identity, as great themes chronicling the fall of the Jedi and the Republic carry the film emotionally where Lucas’ script falters. Williams was tasked with turning one of the pluckiest film franchises of all time into a downright somber affair, and he succeeds in spades. By the third act, subdued versions of the “Imperial March” and the Emperor’s theme are regular occurrences, signifying the galaxy’s fall to the Dark Side. Yet hope remains. The film’s closing moments have Qui Gon’s funeral theme melt into the “Imperial March” as the newly masked Darth Vader oversees the Death Star’s construction, but then Leia’s theme quietly kicks in as we see her taken to her new home. Finally, as Obi Wan delivers infant Luke to the family we met him with, the music evolves into “Binary Sunset,” and we’re reminded that even through all the darkness, there’s still good.


Agree with our ranking? What are you favorite Star Wars scores? Let us know in the comments below!

By Matt Dougherty

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