(Warning: THIS REVIEW WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS.)
Star Wars without John Williams is a concept that many of us never thought we would have to endure, especially when the prequel trilogy concluded. Thankfully, we were lucky enough to have Williams compose the score for The Force Awakens (and hopefully Episodes VIII and IX as well), but for Rogue One, the first standalone Star Wars film, Lucasfilm decided to go in a different direction. Alexandre Desplat was originally tasked to write the music for Rogue One, but after he had to drop out of the project late in development, it was decided to bring on veteran composer Michael Giacchino to take his place. With just a few months before release to work with, Giacchino managed to create a score that, like the film itself, cements its own, unique place in Star Wars lore.
Rather than going with the standard opening crawl, Rogue One begins with a straight shot of space and a planet in the distance. The music that accompanies this shot, “He’s Here For Us,” begins with a forceful, surprising opening beat that feels somewhat awkward at first listen, but it fits the film and that’s really all that matters. The rest of the track establishes what we come to expect from the rest of the soundtrack: a varied use of percussion, a running rhythm of strings, and a sense of emotional buildup that not only is present in the music, but in the film too. Halfway through “A Long Ride Ahead,” we return to the march-style that was introduced before. Giacchino uses a comfortable balance of each category of instruments in this track that eventually lead us to the theme for the title card of Rogue One. To longtime fans, not having even a sniffle of the Star Wars main theme may turn them off from this, but it is familiar enough to not be a distraction, and although short, it works. Speaking of short, “Wobani Imperial Labor Camp” is the shortest track of them all, coming in at just 54 seconds. However, it establishes what has been identified as Jyn Erso’s theme or motif (which itself has been linked to a variation of a track from A New Hope; crazy how music works, huh?).
“Trust Goes Both Ways” is vintage Star Wars-sounding, and sets this same mood for the tracks that follow (it is also the first time we hear the Force theme used). “When Has Become Now,” which is basically the music for the Empire, is a march accompanied by bombastic brass gives off the feeling of evil, and the subsequent melody of low-strings further encapsulates that. It’s not the Imperial March, but it’ll do. “Jedha Arrival” gives us a more fleshed out version of Jyn’s theme before going into an eerie melody of strings and percussion with woodwinds sprinkled in the background. We’re then thrown into the intense “Jedha City Ambush,” the first piece of true action music for the score. Giacchino does marvelously here, and although the main melody is relatively simply at first, it picks up and becomes more varied as the track goes on. The vintage mood ends (for now) with “Star-Dust,” a simple yet effective use of piano and strings that perfectly capture the feel of its use in the film.
The longest piece on the soundtrack at just over eight minutes is “Confrontation on Eadu.” This one is another action scene, and though it takes a few minutes to truly get going, this ends up being one of the standouts of the entire score. The use of sweeping strings and powerful woodwinds with the brass and percussion providing the backgrounds gives off a similar vibe to the Battle of Yavin suite from A New Hope. Though the track closes with a feeling of tragedy, Jyn’s theme once again makes an appearance, signaling revived hope for the future.
“Krennic’s Aspirations” is another outstanding track. Accompanying the scene where Darth Vader makes his first appearance, Giacchino throws us a track full of dread and fear that is even built around previous themes that were used for either the Empire or Vader, including two uses of the Imperial March. The first appearance of the iconic theme is slow with chilling, stirring strings underneath. The theme continues as Krennic meets with Vader, and concludes with one final rendition of the march. Giacchino teased before the film’s release that he may have been able to do a variation of the Imperial March, and he certainly did not disappoint.
“Rebellions Are Built on Hope” is an interesting track that heavily revolves around Jyn’s theme, which at this point has itself become a theme and/or a symbol of hope. The fact that Giacchino ties this in with the Rebel Alliance itself is a risky move, but in doing so he adds something to the Rebels that was not present before. The track “Rogue One” is a playful use of each group of instruments, and again highlights a strength of this score: its diversity. Whereas some composers may stick to one group of instruments to primarily use, Giacchino does not, and this is a great example of it. “Cargo Shuttle SW-0608,” though not all that memorable, again fits the scene in which it is used.
“Scrambling the Rebel Fleet” is a fun track, and not just because we hear an all-too-brief use of the Star Wars main theme. By this point, Giacchino has completely embraced Jyn’s theme as a characterization of hope, and is sprinkled throughout this track. Unfortunately, at only a minute and a half long, it is far too short. “AT-ACT Assault” is another action piece, and doesn’t vary too much in terms of structure from the others on this soundtrack. It also utilizes some of the themes we associate with the Alliance, and ends up being a nice call back to what we hear during the eventual Battle of Yavin (or in a chronological sense, a predecessor). “The Master Switch” is a less intense action piece, but through its use of diverse melody and instrumentation combined with the inevitable sense of forthcoming tragedy, prepares us for the emotional masterpiece that comes next.
I’ll just go ahead and say it: “Your Father Would Be Proud” is one of the finest pieces of Star Wars music ever made. The entire four minutes and fifty one seconds it plays is nothing but pure emotion translated to sound. A beautiful string opening leads us into a woodwind-string melody backed by a gentle horn that repeats itself and becomes more grandiose over time. A soft choir begins to join in as the horns take over the main melody, backed by a soothing, tragic harp. Things soon die down momentarily, but the strings pick up the melody again and lead into Jyn’s theme once more, except this time all of the instruments and choir have joined in. The climax of the track is clearly this, having been built up for the first three minutes. This is where Rogue One shines on both a film and musical level. It spends the entire first and second acts using a concentrated and carefully planned buildup preparing you for the emotional intensity of its masterful third act. “Your Father Would Be Proud” stands on its own as one of the most memorable and impactful pieces of Star Wars music from the entire saga. But the ride isn’t over yet.
“Hope” is equally memorable, mainly because it plays during the scene where Darth Vader is cutting down Alliance soldiers in a final attempt to snatch the stolen Death Star plans from them. An epic choir alongside the brass plays with the strings providing the underlying theme, and is one of the more intense openings of a Star Wars track. A brief version of Vader’s theme leads us into an Alliance motif that sounds like it came straight from the beginning of A New Hope, which is fitting since Rogue One leads directly into it. Like many of the film closings, we hear the Force theme one final time before going straight into the credits (note that the John Williams credit music, though used in the movie, is not included on this soundtrack).
The final three tracks are all concert suites. “Jyn Erso & Hope Suite” solidifies the fact that they both share the same theme. “The Imperial Suite” is an extended take on some of the themes we hear associated with the Empire throughout the film. Finally, “Guardians of the Whills Suite” is another excellent piece, and it’s refreshing that Giacchino used new material instead of a rehash of something old to represent new aspects of the Force that were previously unknown to fans.
All in all, the Rogue One soundtrack is a phenomenal work of art. Though some may criticize it for relying too heavily on the emotion that is exhibited in the film, the vast majority of it is able to stand on its one in terms of quality and effectiveness. There are some incredible tracks in this score such as “Your Father Would Be Proud” that will stand out amongst the rest for years to come. It may not be the perfect score, or even the best that Star Wars has to offer, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth listening to. And while Michael Giacchino may not be the long-term answer to Star Wars music post-John Williams, he certainly left his mark on the franchise in an impressive, and ultimately positive way.