After nine films and over 25 hours of musical genius, John Williams concludes the Skywalker saga with another brilliant addition to his legacy.
It’s been a couple of months since the release of Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker. It’s been out, anyone who is reading this has seen it at least once or twice and has had enough time to digest not only the movie but the music.
Typically the soundtrack comes out the same day as the movie, and the urge to listen to what John Williams has cooked up for the newest chapter of Star Wars in strong. That is understandable. John Williams has composed and conducted every episode of the Skywalker saga. He has been involved with Star Wars for 42 of his 88 years while creating some of the most influential and iconic music in film history.
Experiencing a Film Score
It comes highly recommended that the soundtrack and movie should be experienced for the first time together. The reason for that is the tracklisting may seem out of order at first glance, which can affect the enjoyment of the music. Once that has been established, there’s nothing left but absorb the new music in all its glory.
Typically the music is less noticeable upon the first time watching a Star Wars movie, and that’s not a slight against Williams (that’s ridiculous). The first time is spent taking in the story and just experiencing the new Star Wars content. The music becomes more appreciable on subsequent viewings. It adds an emotional layer to the story. Themes, new and old, become more apparent, enhancing the overall experience.
From the beginning, Star Wars has been referred to as a silent movie where the music tells the story. That still rings true today and is all the more reason to experience both art forms together simultaneously.
Okay, getting on with the music. Every new Star Wars soundtrack introduces new themes, and The Rise of Skywalker is no exception. Two of these are the “Rise of Skywalker” theme, and the other is the trio theme, or as the track is called, “We Go Together.” The third new theme is the track “Anthem of Evil,” an eerie choral piece that is both creepy but elegant.
The soundtrack opens with “Fanfare and Prologue,” or as it’s more commonly known as “The Main Theme.” It’s undoubtedly the most recognizable piece of music in film history. This then segues into a fighting sequence on Mustafar as Kylo Ren, and the Knights of Ren fight their way through various enemies while searching for the Sith Wayfinder. It features action-filled arrangements of Kylo Ren’s theme and the Dark Force motif. It then builds to the introduction of the primal Knights of Ren motif with the use of chaotic strings, following that is the oscillating Wayfinder motif. Throughout the soundtrack, Williams masterfully uses themes from across the saga and intertwines them in The Rise of Skywalker. At 2:41, Williams references “Palpatine’s Seduction” motif from Revenge of the Sith. He ends the cue with a twisted version of “The Emperor’s Theme” arranged for strings and low brass.
The next track, “Journey to Exegol,” begins with a relentless rendition of “Kylo Ren’s Theme” supported by thunderous percussion notes and brass flares. It continues on employing “Kylo Ren’s Theme,” the Dark Force, and Knights of Ren motifs and ending with a systematic, but very purposeful “Imperial March.”
“The Old Death Star” is quietly ominous, using an effective combination of strings and brass with occasional percussion beats for emphasis. “The Imperial March” is heard again, followed by the “March of the Resistance” and “Rey’s Theme” with low woodwinds as she searches for the Wayfinder in the Imperial vault.
The “Speeder Bike Chase” commences as the gang tries to escape the pursuit of First Order stormtroopers on the desert planet, Pasaana. “The Speeder Bike Chase” is one of the most exciting pieces of music on the soundtrack. “The Speeder Bike Chase” calls back to the “Sail Barge Assault” from Return of the Jedi. From the onset, Williams attacks with a rapid string arrangement and doesn’t relent. Within this, Williams conducts a motif that alternates between woodwinds and brass, a style used in various other Williams compositions (Indiana Jones and Jaws, to name a couple). With xylophones and timpanis, “The Speeder Bike Chase” is one of the best tracks on here, and, unfortunately, the film version is edited down.
“Destiny of a Jedi” is one of the more emotional pieces of music on the soundtrack. Rey retreated to Acho-to after learning about her dark side heritage. Mentally she is where Luke was at the start of The Last Jedi. She renounces being a Jedi and wants nothing to do with the Force. “Destiny of a Jedi” is made up of several iterations of “Rey’s Theme” using brass and strings. “The Force Theme” appears as Luke’s force ghost catches the lightsaber Rey tried to throw into the fire. As Luke tries to reassure Rey of her role, several themes are heard telling the story of Rey’s journey and purpose: “The Anthem of Evil,” “The Force Theme,” “Luke and Leia’s Theme,” and the “Trio Theme” (name for Rey, Finn, and Poe). The scene ends with Luke raising his old X-wing out of the water to “Yoda’s Theme”—a mirror of Yoda on Dagobah in The Empire Strikes Back.
“Anthem of Evil” is a haunting choral piece that sounds like it could be “The Emperor’s Theme” from Return of the Jedi but in a different key, much like the Parade scene in The Phantom Menace. Halfway through, the chorus fades, and a brass fanfare builds then culminates with pulsing horns. Notes from “Rey’s Theme” can be heard, cementing Rey’s dark heritage.
The cue “Fleeing from Kijimi” comes after the trip to Kijimi, where Rey, Finn, Poe, and Threepio try to locate Poe’s old flame, Zorii Bliss, who then leads them to a black market droidsmith, Babu Frik. Again, “Kylo Ren’s Theme,” the dark force motif and knights of Ren motif, and the “Trio Theme” are accompanied by intense horns and a harp. Preceding this cue in the film, during the rooftop scene with Poe and Zorii, there is a subtle reference to the music heard during the Kamino scene in Attack of the Clones. It’s not in the soundtrack, but it deserves mention.
“We Go Together” is the most prolonged use of the “Trio Theme” and is heard when Rey, Finn, and Poe decide to travel to Pasaana to find the Sith Wayfinder. Williams uses different variations of “We Go Together,” and blending that with the “Force Theme” and “Rey’s Theme.” “We Go Together” cements the bond of their friendship while propelling Rey on furthering her journey of self-discovery. The music concludes with bouncy strings and a brass fanfare.
“Join Me” is the polar opposite of the previous track and also the pivotal point in Rey’s journey. Here is where she learns about her ancestry from Kylo Ren. Whereas the previous track is about “We” going as a group of friends together, “Join Me” is Kylo’s last attempt at convincing Rey to join him to defeat the Emperor and rule as one. Williams uses low strings and brass that builds to a darker version of “Rey’s Theme.”
In “They Will Come,” a motivating rendition of the “March of the Resistance” propels the heroes through a mission briefing preceding the attack on Exegol. Its optimism and hopefulness feature flutes, brass, and strings.
“The Final Lightsaber Duel” isn’t quite the same epic lightsaber duel music heard in Revenge of the Sith. It’s an emotional and cautious piece set to the duel between Rey and Kylo aboard the wrecked Death Star on the moon of Kef Bir. “Kylo Ren’s Theme” and “Rey’s Theme” dominate the cue as expected, which is joined by aggressive strings and horns. Sensing her son is in danger, Leia Organa reaches out with the Force and makes a connection that distracts Kylo long enough for Rey to stab Kylo with his own lightsaber. This jump-starts Ben’s turn from the dark and back towards the light. Williams scores this scene with an unusually complicated version of “Rey’s Theme” that pivots into the “Force Theme.” The cue concludes with a subtle version of “Leia’s Theme” that symbolizes her sacrifice.
“Rise of the Resistance” marks the start of the grand finale in which Poe, Finn, Rose, Lando, Jannah, et al. commence attack on the Sith fleet at Exegol. Much like the epic Battle of Endor, Williams’s action music is invigorating, exciting, and triumphant in its complexity. The piece includes Poe’s action theme, the “Rebel Fanfare,” symbolized by the Millennium Falcon and the “Force Theme.”
“Approaching the Throne” is an ominously dark cue heard as Rey comes face to face with the Emperor, showcasing pieces of “Anthem of Evil” as well as threatening brass versions of “Rey’s Theme.” This eventually gives way to bold versions of “March of the Resistance” and “Rise of Skywalker.”
“The Force is With You” leads off with a choir that signals Rey’s connection to the Jedi that have come before. Williams does an effective job giving this cue an otherworldly feel. An uneasy version of “Rey’s Theme” featuring strings, brass, and harp is heard early on. Mirroring Rey, the theme grows in confidence. Countering this, the “Emperor’s Theme” returns in a way not heard since Return of the Jedi. But “The Force Theme” returns, making its own statement. It’s all very “1812 Overture” by Tchaikovsky in which the French and Russian national anthems played depending on which side is advancing.
By now, Rey has defeated the Emperor but, in turn, also dies. “Farewell” recognizes this with a mournful, introspective version of “Rey’s Theme.” A lighter edition of “Kylo Ren’s Theme” introduces a redeemed Ben Solo. Williams incorporates a flood of emotional cues that emphasize Ben’s return and sacrifice. The piece ends in an uplifting manner with some inviting brass notes.
After the Battle of Exegol, the Resistance triumphantly returns to the Resistance base to celebrate a great victory. For “Reunion” Williams takes this opportunity to incorporate several themes heard throughout the saga, including the “Force Theme,” “Luke’s Theme,” “Yoda’s Theme,” the “Trio Theme,” “Rey’s Theme,” “Rise of Skywalker Theme,” “Luke and Leia’s Theme” from Return of the Jedi.
“A New Home” is reminiscent of “Rey’s Theme” of her introduction in The Force Awakens. With the use of harps and soaring strings, it also calls back to Rey’s journey in “Jedi Steps” in The Force Awakens and “The Spark” in The Last Jedi.
The “Finale” sees Rey denying her family name, taking the Skywalker name as the “Force Theme” plays while Rey and BB8 gaze at the setting twin suns. Every heroic theme previously played is heard here before the circle completes with the “Main Theme.” Williams performed a similar feat during the end credits theme for Revenge of the Sith (at the time assumed to be the last Star Wars film). And much like “A New Hope and End Credits,” it’s not a seamless connection, impressive though nonetheless.
Music Not in the FIlm
Despite all of this new content, there is some excellent music that didn’t make it onto the soundtrack. Namely, the “Flight of the Falcon,” an exciting piece heard during the lightspeed skipping sequence at the beginning of the film. Within it can be heard renditions of “March of the Resistance,” “The Rebel Fanfare,” “The Emperor’s Theme,” and among all that, Williams inserts swirling strings that have become his signature action cue. When Rey first enters the wreckage of the Death Star, the music from Vader’s death scene in Return of the Jedi is heard as stormtroopers helmets are strewn about in flooded hallways.
In the end, Williams has once again created a masterpiece of movie music. The Rise of Skywalker soundtrack is the best soundtrack of the sequel trilogy. When looking back at past film composers, Steiner, Korngold, and Newman were the pioneers that paved the way. Rósza and Herrmann carried the baton into the 40s-50s. Morricone and Goldsmith experimented in the 60s, but no one has had the continued success for such a long career as John Williams. The likes of which will never be seen again.
Once upon a time in a town no one’s heard of, there lived a boy who enjoyed Star Wars from the quiet of his bedroom. A time came when a new comlink allowed the boy to hear that there are others like him. Overjoyed, the boy wanted nothing more than to join in the conversation. So he did. The rest is HIStory. Besides Star Wars I also enjoy Marvel and Game of Thrones (I dabble in all sorts of geeky fun). You can find me on the couch watching one of several streaming services, reading or writing. Let’s go, Bruins!