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THE STAR WARS ULTIMATE VINYL COLLECTION: WORTH TRADING YOUR LIGHTS SABER FOR

Star Wars completists have been drooling over Sony Classics’ various Ultimate Soundtrack Collections since last year; they arrived on 1/8, and I was fortunate enough to get my hands on a review copy of The Ultimate Vinyl Collection, a magnificent monolith containing 180-gram LPs for each of the six films in the saga preceding The Force Awakens. (Yes, it comes with a digital download card for everything as well.)

While dropping the needle on any of these ravishing platters (which variously came out on 20th Century Records, the late Robert Stigwood’s RSO and Sony Classical) will obviously cause Tie Fighters and light sabers and Death Stars to whirl and gleam in the minds of the films’ countless fans, spinning the vinyl without benefit of image only magnifies the extraordinary work of composer John Williams.

In the liner notes for the original film’s ST, Williams recalls George Lucas wanting “a dichotomy to his visuals, an almost 19th Century romantic, symphonic score against these yet unseen sights.” He certainly obliged, though his musical space odyssey through the cycle—which earned him an Oscar, multiple Grammys and numerous other statuettes—touches on a whole universe of influences. 

On the 1977 Star Wars set alone (subsequently renamed Episode IV: A New Hope), one certainly feels the presence of Max Steiner, Franz Waxman, Bernard Herrmann, Elmer Bernstein and other giants informing the score. But Williams also borrows cannily from Bach and Bizet, Rachmaninoff and Ravel, Aaron Copeland, Leonard Bernstein and George Gershwin.

“Princess Leia’s Theme” reaches back to the romantic intoxication of David Raksin’s theme from Laura; “The Imperial March” conjures menace and pageantry in equal measure, with more than a nod to Wagner and Beethoven. “The Land of the Sandpeople” incorporates clattering percussion that teases the edges of avant-garde jazz. And on the daft, delightful “Cantina Theme” Williams manages to devise a futuristic version of big-band swing—spiced with steel drums and synth bass, like some Cab Calloway calypso fantasia on acid—and it really swings.

Also, am I the only one on this planet who didn’t know the heraldic music I always thought of as “The Star Wars Theme” (perhaps due to Bill Murray’s wonderful lounge-singer take from SNL) is in fact “Luke’s Theme?”

The Empire Strikes Back score finds Williams, if anything, in an even more romantic mood, responding to the different rhythms of that film’s director, Irvin Kershner, while devising new sounds to conjure the evolving, darker spectacle. This film, considered by many to be the finest of the series, benefits enormously from Williams’ sonic intuition and imagination.

The composer’s capacity to deploy his key themes in new ways throughout the saga is also a marvel. So is his introduction of deeper dramatic nuances into moments surrounding familiar characters, such as the lush and remarkably tender “Luke and Leia” from Return of the Jedi. And listen to the deft blend of whimsy and menace in “Parade of the Ewoks” from that same set, which brings to mind everything from Gilbert & Sullivan to Willy Wonka. (What’s up with the galactic disco of “Lapti Nek?” Let’s just say Jabba the Hut’s Palace Band is very RSO.) Oh, this volume also includes singing Ewoks. 

 Even if, as many fans feel, Lucas fell off in the “prequels” (now known as chapters 1-3), Williams certainly did not. And remember that apart from his “Main Theme,” he was obliged to confect themes for a mostly new canvas of characters and urge the forward motion of an entirely different saga. Once again, he proves his penchant for pageantry, his dialed-in dynamics, his navigator’s nose for narrative.

It struck me, as I soaked in the sounds of this lovingly crafted set, that Star Wars has existed throughout multiple audio formats, from vinyl to cassettes to CDs to digital downloads to streaming. But the original LPs still sound supreme.

 

 

 

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