Saturday, May 21, 2016

Star Wars - The Phantom Menace: Just This Once

Although I have been teasing a Star Wars soundtrack retrospective for several months now, it has actually been in the planning stages for even longer than that. I did a three-year musical experiment on my oldest daughter called the Superhero Theme Project, in which I appropriated orchestral themes to musically represent and enrich superhero characters that she was becoming familiar with through text and other media. In the initial parameters of the project, I stated that I was going to avoid using music that she might otherwise encounter in other franchises, and the astute follower will have noticed that I did not use any Star Wars music at all. This was totally intentional. It was my hope that when she got older, if was ever to get into Star Wars the soundtracks would carry as much weight with her as the movies themselves.

Little did I realize back then that a whole new chapter of the franchise would open at the end of 2015. The Force Awakens changed the whole timeline, as images of BB-8 started popping up and her older friends at school started talking about Star Wars. Then, in late November, my wife brought home a Little Golden Book called The Empire Strikes Back. That’s right – the classic children’s book series that brought you The Pokey Little Puppy now includes adaptations of all six episodes. These gave us the opportunity to get into the characters, understand the stories, and discuss the more mature topics in the Star Wars universe. Eventually, without my prompting, she figured out that there were movies connected to each book, and expressed a desire to see them.

But what order to show them in - prequels first, as Lucas intended, or in the order that I experienced them? Long story short, I decided that we should start with The Phantom Menace. There is some kid-level humor that she might only be able to appreciate as a 4 year old, and I thought that she might be able to relate more easily to young Anakin Skywalker than the teenaged Luke. At the very least, I figured that we would only ever watch it once and get it out of the way. If she hated it, we’d just try again later with A New Hope.

That being said, she liked it and I actually don’t think that it is the worst film of the prequels (not by a long shot). Jar-Jar and mitichloriates aside, The Phantom Menace does have some redeeming qualities, the first of which is its soundtrack. Although John Williams could never possibly recapture the sense of risk and adventure of the “first” film, The Phantom Menace soundtrack stands on its own while easily fitting within his already established body of work. The pod race is a uniquely intense and entertaining scene in the Star Wars universe, and Williams kicks it off with a fanfare that only he could compose (below at 1:55).

I also think that if you miss out on The Phantom Menace, you miss out on one of the best villains, that being Darth Maul. Ray Park totally steals the show in every scene that he is in, a fact made even more impressive considering he only says about twenty words in the entire movie. Despite his lack of dialogue, he brings a focused, transparent rage to the Sith persona. Additionally, his fight scenes are nothing short of amazing, and he brings emotion and character to his movements that reveal Maul’s unique motivations, which are, by extension, deepened by Williams’ masterful compositional skills.

So I will strongly advocate for The Phantom Menace soundtrack, and even go so far as to defend the movie to a point. Certainly, when the movie came out, there was a lot of promise attached to it. There was the hope that even though this movie might be flawed, it would open up to greater things. Unfortunately, this promise remained unfulfilled, at least until The Force Awakens came along and repaired some (but not all) of the disappointment of the prequels.

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