Have John Williams's Star Wars prequel scores been thrown under the bus?

The Gungans' Great Municipal Band from Episode ILucasfilm

December 03, 2015

Everybody hates the Star Wars prequels. Well, note everybody — but that's certainly the conventional wisdom, as evinced by all the press coverage of the upcoming Episode VII. George Lucas has nothing whatsoever to do with the new movie; he didn't even watch the new movie's trailer until it had been out for several weeks. Good riddance, say millions of fans who were disappointed with Lucas's 1999-2005 return to his beloved franchise.

Whatever you make of the much-maligned movies about the origins of Darth Vader, it's hard to argue that John Williams didn't make a vast difference in the quality of those films. Not only did the returning composer revive and revise the indelible themes he wrote for the original trilogy, he extended his music with thrilling new scores. However, in the rush to forget the prequels, it seems Williams's music for those movies has been thrown under the bus.

To be sure, there was a soundtrack issued for each of the prequels — but film music buffs know that there's a difference between a soundtrack and a score. A soundtrack is an album marketed as a standalone product; it may contain music from the score, it may contain songs heard in the film, or there may be a mixture. (In some cases, such as Lorde's bestselling Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1 soundtrack, most of the material is merely "inspired" by the film and isn't even heard onscreen.) Almost always, there's some music from the movie — possibly including some of fans' favorite cues — that's left out.

That was the case with the original Star Wars trilogy soundtracks, which were incomplete until "definitive" two-disc editions were released along with the films' "Special Edition" revisions and re-releases in 1997. Those releases, for the first time, presented almost all the music from each film in the order it was heard — though it was strictly the "Special Edition" music, meaning that music removed for the re-releases (notably the original song played by Jabba's band, and the original celebration music from the Episode VI conclusion) was omitted from the new soundtracks as well.

Episode I — ironically, the most-hated of all three prequels — was given the deluxe soundtrack treatment when a two-disc "ultimate edition" of the film's single-disc soundtrack was released in 2000. That doubtless sold less well than was hoped — like every other one of the quintillion products released to accompany that movie — and so Williams fans were, and remain, out of luck when it comes to expanded editions of the Episode II and Episode III scores.

That's a shame, since there's a lot of great music in both those movies. Sure, the big set pieces are available on the existing single-disc soundtracks for those two films — the "Across the Stars" love theme (awkward), the penultimate (see what I did there?) Obi-Wan/Anakin battle music — but so much of the genius of John Williams is how he uses every bar of his score to help tell the story.

Maybe when this new trilogy is complete, a monstrous new deluxe edition of all Williams's Star Wars music will be released — hopefully not exclusively in a 500-copy edition on 180-gram vinyl. I'd probably buy it even then — and I'd also buy (hint hint, Disney) — a digital release of the "un-special" original trilogy. I want "Lapti Nek" back.

With anticipation for The Force Awakens running high, we're exploring the musical world of Star Wars in a series of five features. Previously, we traced John Williams's classical influences, told the story of how Star Wars music hit the top of the pop charts, and explored some of the films' most important musical motifs.