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The Final Episode I Countdown

An Aisle Seat Entry

By Andy Dursin

Last Wednesday I walked into the radio station in Providence where I'm doing an internship (hey, you have to break in someplace, right?) and the news director at WPRO said, "there are 400 people waiting in line for tickets to THE PHANTOM MENACE." The time was right about 8:45am, and I not only had forgotten completely that advance tickets were going on sale that day, but also that the phenomenon that is STAR WARS is as universal as it was back in the heyday of the original trilogy. Mixed reviews or not, nothing is going to stop audiences from indulging in George Lucas's latest space adventure, just as it should be.

As you undoubtedly read in your local newspapers and saw on the evening news, fans lined up around the block to buy advance seats to THE PHANTOM MENACE, which begins screenings at 12:01am on Wednesday morning (meaning you'll be sitting down on Tuesday night), and will play for 24 hours straight in many theaters for the first few days.

The mere thought of people turning out to sit in lines for hours on end just to buy advance tickets is mind- boggling, and the amount of tickets sold was staggering. How frantic theaters will be this week will depend both on where you are and the time of day (locally in Rhode Island, one theater I frequent only sold out on the evening shows on Wednesday; in metropolitan areas like L.A. and New York, you'll have a heck of a time trying to find a seat at any time), but one thing is clear—you can hype up a movie beyond the point of reason, but there are few movies that audiences will become truly crazed over. THE PHANTOM MENACE is obviously, undoubtedly, and unsurprisingly one of those films.

To tide you over before the first screenings this week, here's a sampling of email responses I received in the wake of the last two Aisle Seat columns. Be sure to send in your reviews of EPISODE I for next week's column at dursina@att.net, and if you have any stories to tell of waiting in line or sitting behind someone with a Yoda mask that partially blocks your view of the screen, pass those along as well!

Aisle Seat Reader Bag: The Last Pre-Release Edition

Lukas has been running plenty of comments on THE PHANTOM MENACE soundtrack, so let's clean out our AS reader file and finish off the pre-release talk before the movie opens on Wednesday (when such discussions will be irrelevant!). Thanks to all who took the time to write in, as always.

From Tim Kurkoski (kurkoskt@OIT.EDU):

    I feel much the same way that you do about both Empire of the Sun and Far and Away. They were two of the first Williams scores I bought (after Star Wars), and they've been two of my favorites ever since.

    I think Far and Away is a beautiful, sweeping dramatic score and it sparked my interest in Celtic genre music (including the Chieftans). Often, when I sit back and just listen to a score, I'll let my imagination wander and create scenes unrelated to the film and just let the music tell me a story. Far and Away has taken my imagination to more places than any other album I own.

    The first time I saw Empire of the Sun was in a high school social studies class. I didn't know the film as one of Spielberg' (and therefore a Williams score), but about fifteen minutes into the film, during the wrecked fighter scene (I think), I was listening to the music and it came to me that I was listening to none other than Mr. Williams. That, along with other typical Spielbergian touches, identified the film as one of Spielberg's. The combined wonder and beauty that those two men bring to the screen together can not be understated. After that class I bought the Empire album. I can't say it's been one of my favorites because I am not all that fond of Suo Gan or the Chopin piece, I occasionally pop it in just to hear Cadillac of the Skies or Exsultate Justi. Taken with the film, though, as a whole it is a grand and personal work by both Spielberg and Williams.

    Token thought about the Phantom Menace album: I'm not going to listen to the score before I see the film. Although I look forward to Williams new work, I really do prefer a pure listening experience and I like to be swept away by a work without having any recognition of the film beforehand. When the Lion King came out I bought the album before I saw the film. When I went to the theatre, I was humming along with the tunes and the score. While this did not totally ruin the film experience for me, I don't want to be distracted again like that by the score of a film. The story is what is most important to me in a film; the score should support the story and not make notice of itself any more than the costuming or editing (which, at times, have their own moments of glory on the screen). I will enjoy the new score as it was meant to be heard first, then I will enjoy it as we film score geeks do.

From Andy Goldsborough (andrew.goldsbrough@magdalen.oxford.ac.uk):

    Hi Andy! Yeah, I bought (and listened to) TPM CD as it came out. (Some people were debating whether they could wait a week or so and see the film first before listening, but the film doesn't open in the UK until July!)

    My initial thoughts were that it differed greatly from the soundtracks to the previous trilogy. Themes are used less often and it's busier texturally. Kind of makes sense though. I guess that in this first film, the story is just beginning (duh!) and characters are not well etched yet. Things are just starting to go wrong. Noone's had to choose sides or define their identity. Hence, you can't write a theme for them, like you could a Leia or a Luke. What do they represent? Could they tell you? Over the next 2 movies the music will probably develop into something more akin to that for Eps 4 thru 6. John Williams knows, this time, that he's writing for a trilogy and where its going. He and Lucas must have discussed it, so perhaps he's looking at the bigger picture.

    My worries were: most obviously, Jar-Jar's music. It resembles little else in the score. It gives you the feeling that Williams just wrote music appropriate for an annoying, irrelevant comic-relief character that does not figure in the story. Also, some of the action music this time sounds a little over busy and aimless. In the previous trilogy, the action music was built out of lots of little rhymic motifs that stayed for a bit and then developed into something else. TPM seems to jump around much more without much noticable building material (excepting the Droid cues). Maybe the visuals are just so quick and crammed that JW had to write music in a similiar vein to suit it.

    And I wonder what music was left off the CD...We'll see. (You before me!)

From: Mark A. Cuventas (cuventas@javanet.com):

    After waiting 16 years for a new Star Wars movie & score, I must say I'm very pleased with John Williams' work. Upon first listening to it I noticed after the Main Title that the style in which the music is played is very much like what I've heard from this past decade. Like any artist, an individual's talents change or progresses as they get older and more experienced. Fans who were expecting to hear the classic trilogy style will no doubt be disappointed, but if you can forget the classic music and sit back and really listen to the new score it is quite an enjoyable listening experience. George Lucas has stated that this new trilogy is more character driven rather than action-packed (which is why he did the second trilogy initially), so the music reflects this style of storytelling. For those that didn't like The Phantom Menace upon listening it, see the movie first and then listen to it again. You'll notice a difference. And this new trilogy of music will be future classic someday (I can't wait for what Williams will have in store for Episode III!). Good listening.

I believe that the toughest film for Lucas to make and Williams to score in this new Trilogy is THE PHANTOM MENACE, since Lucas acknowledged this is the one film of the three to bear the closest resemblance to the original films--EPISODE I is supposed to be the "kid picture," the Saturday Matinee adventure, of this Trilogy (he even said it's supposed to work more on the level of the first STAR WARS than the sequels). Taking that into consideration, the next two films will be should be deeper and more dramatic in terms of power and resonance, which will present both the director and composer with fresher challenges, doing something substantially different instead of treading over at least some of the same kinds of staple material (chases, FX-driven sequences, etc.) that are apparent in THE PHANTOM MENACE. I think Williams's best work in this series is still to come, and the best STAR WARS music has yet to be written--for Episodes II and III, respectively.

From Temba5@aol.com:

    First off it's a great CD. The 2 principle themes are great. The score is very dramatic and mature. For those complaining about his style, yes it has changed a little but it has been 20 years, how can anyone who has matured in that time go back and score in exactly the same way? Having said that, I do want to see the music with the picture before I rattle on. I do have one question though? How come there isn't a Queen Amidala theme a la Princess Leia? Could it be in the music we haven't heard yet? It does seem strange that she doesn't have a full fledged theme. And is Darth Sidious the Emperor? Where are his and Maul's themes? I think we are being teased a little. OK, that wasn't one question. However, overall, I love the album and have been waiting a long time for Williams to get back to adventure scoring, and for those saying that it sounds more like Indy than Star Wars? Although, different movies, one did grow out of the other, so naturally there will be a lot of similarities. Just enjoy the music and stop complaining.

From Jeff (MaestroJW@aol.com)

    Andy, any comments on the TPM's similarity to some of Williams' other scores? most notably Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Hook. The Sith Spacecraft/Droid Battle is Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra all over again, and The Droid Invasion sounds strikingly similar to Belly of the Steel Beast. And everytime I hear Jar Jar's theme I can't help but think of "Attack on the House" from Home Alone.

Jeff, I did notice several instances of similarities in Williams's score, that HOME ALONE reference in Jar- Jar's Theme being one of the most obvious examples, plus a little CLOSE ENCOUNTERS here and there, and even SLEEPERS in "Annakin's Theme." For the most part, though, I didn't think that the music was so close to Williams's other works so as to be either mildly distracting or overly derivative—it's in keeping with his style of his work this decade, and I found his arrangements and use of instrumentation and chorus to be even more diverse and developed than any of his earlier STAR WARS scores.

From J.V.Sanchez in Hong Kong:

    The very first soundtrack I ever bought was the original "Star Wars" vinyl double-album back in 1977. I think it was by 20th Century Fox Records, and the one I got, for the Central American market, was pressed in Nicaragua(!). Yes, it was absolutely amazing and wonderful. It's twenty-two years later, and I've listened to the new "Star Wars Episode I" soundtrack a few times now. It's not what most of us expected, I think, as it has fewer melodic "themes" compared to the original trilogy scores, and after watching the two trailers countless times, I'm sure many of us are wondering what happened to all that familiar music that seemed to fit so well in the two well-edited trailers. I also think that, as might be with the film, our expectations have been a bit too high. Overall, I think it's good but not great, and can't wait to see the film, and check out all the other tracks that were not included in Sony's CD.

From Hartwig Hanser (hanser@rol3.com):

    I like the new score very much and rate it as Williams best since Schindlers list (and his best adventure score since Jedi). It is different than the first three, which is not surprising considering the amount of years that have passed since Jedi, so I refrain from judging if it is better or not than those; let´s say it plays in the same league. The music is overall more elegant, less raw or crude even in its action cues, it always retains some polish. In this it is similar to Hook, which I personally love and rate (pure musically) as Williams best soundtrack between ET and Schindlers List. Some passages are quite humourous and resemble sequences from Home Alone. A lot are brilliant action cues or impressionist mood music. Most music is totally new, only sometimes the familiar themes from the first three movies have short appearances. After the familiar Main Title are two concert suites, which I do not expect to appear in the movie in this form, the Duel of the Fates (a mix of Carmina burana by Orff, the third movement of Bruckners 7th symphony and a touch of Sibelius in the main motif) and Annakins Theme. The latter very nicely incorporates the first 4 notes from the imperial march towards the end. Those two concert suites are infact just cut out of the end title music, which reduces the actual music presented on the CD to 67 min, a minor drawback. Some sources had spoken of a theme for the Queen which I cannot find, it is not even in the end credits, so I do not know if such a theme exists.Perhaps it is hidden in some of the other tracks. In this case it may be presented more on a hopefully soom appearing second CD which presents the rest of the music ( 61 min to my knowledge). If such a second CD is released I pray for the inclusion of the alternate main title that Williams has reportedly composed and played, but was rejected by Lucas.

Jeff Bond -- a veritable god among soundtrack fans--said he'd heard rumblings of a follow-up PHANTOM MENACE album being released possibly as early as this summer. That wouldn't surprise me at all, since many other soundtracks have done the same in recent years ("Volume 2" albums, as they say).

As far as this score goes, I'm struck by several aspects of Williams's latest. The haunting, evocative orchestration on "Passage Through the Planet Core" is mysterious and evokes memories of the rumbling presence of the UFOs in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, and the usage of the original STAR WARS motifs in various spots is brilliant (not just in "Annakin's Theme," but also in "The Flag Parade," which veers into the opening fanfare for a few notes before segueing back into its own thematic structure).

From Sean Carpenter:

    Though I don't want to wear out the CD until I've seen the film, so I've only listened to it a few times, I think Goldsmith's score for The Mummy is his best in years. But then, I too am a sucker for Mummy movies, and even more so for Egyptian/Middle East - influenced ethnic scores, whether Michael Lewis' Sphinx or Peter Gabriel's Passion (the album from The Last Temptation of Christ ). I think Goldsmith's work compares favorably to his Wind and the Lion and Masada for nailing the time and place, albeit with a goodly number of cheesy monster-movie effects (fine by me). Nothing new (but then, how can there be for someone who's already scored every genre of movie dozens of times?), except I think Goldsmith always comes up with interesting and varied solutions to the same scoring issues. And what a treat to have a longer album! - puts everything in a fuller context than those concert-suite-like 30 minute albums we hear most of the time.

    Hearing Phantom Menace made me think about a substantial difference between Goldsmith and Williams. Goldsmith has tended to refine and modify his sound over the years, so that scores from even ten years ago don't sound quite like what he does today, while Williams has been remarkably consistent over the years. Where Goldsmith is always trying out new sounds and combinations, Williams takes his orchestra and does the same kinds of things with it, whether the brass are zooming through action cues, or a flute and tuba pair up for a bit of misteriouso whimsy. Duel of the Fates doesn't sound as much like Star Wars as it does like an unholy (but amicable) marriage of The Lost World and Nixon, but the rest of the score, though full of fine new music, sounds much the same as the earlier movies. Compare Mummy to Wind and the Lion or Masada, and you'll hear similar kinds of music but with a very different sound.

    And one more point: for me and my wife, Goldsmith is often just plain fun to listen to, while Williams is usually a more serious, even more portentous, fellow. He's like the Brahms of film music, where Goldsmith is more like a fusion of Stravinsky and Les Baxter. Not a bad thing, just a different thing. Thank god we've got both!

Sean, I don't entirely agree with you about Jerry, but if you liked his MUMMY score, I'm told that you're going to love THE 13TH WARRIOR (which is strikingly similar, apparently). Maybe this will truly be Goldsmith's "comeback" year? As far as THE MUMMY goes, it was definitely a fun flick. Let's hope the inevitable sequel fares just as well.

AND THAT'S IT for this week! Back with a review of EPISODE I, plus your comments on the movie and the music, next week. Until then, be sure to send in all your comments to me at dursina@att.net and I'll see you at the theater on Wednesday! 'Nuff said.


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