Ask 10 Star Wars fans to rank the Skywalker Saga films from their favorite to least favorite and you will likely get 10 different answers. Prior to the release of the Rise of Skywalker if you asked them to then name the best things or redeeming qualities about their least favorite Saga film nearly all of them will mention the score, and it’s easy to understand why. John Williams Star Wars scores are some of the most iconic scores ever written for film for a reason. The themes John Williams writes and the way he uses them have a powerful effect on the audience while they are watching the film…with one exception. So why is the score for the Rise of Skywalker so lackluster compared to the scores for the other Saga films?
Don Williams, John Williams’ brother and the timpanist for the orchestra used to record the scores for the Sequel Trilogy, gave an interview that was released in August of 2019 where he claimed that the score for the Rise of Skywalker would contain themes from all of the previous Saga films.
This got a lot of fans, particularly fans of the scores for the Prequel Trilogy, very excited that John Williams was composing something very special for the Saga’s finale. Yet when the film and its soundtrack were released fans were disappointed that the final score didn’t live up to Don Williams’ claims, particularly with the lack of references to iconic music from the Prequels. So what happened to that music?
John Williams himself described the scoring process for the Rise of Skywalker as follows:
“The process went along for about six or seven months for me where we’d write a scene that [J.J. Abrams] had given me and then I’d complete the scene, possibly even record it, and he’d say “well that scene is not in the film any more. We’ve done something else. We need to replace it.”
What John Williams is referring to when he says that J.J. Abrams said “we’ve done something else” is the reshoots that occurred from July through September of 2019. In the end John Williams ended up writing 3 hours and 46 minutes of music for the Rise of Skywalker, despite the fact that the movie is only 2 hours and 22 minutes long. That is a lot of music to write and then not use!
So if John Williams was rewriting the score for the film to such an extent you would expect that even if the reshoots were absolutely mutilating the movie that at least the score would be every bit as immaculate as the scores for every other film in the saga. Except it’s not…
Youtuber Sideways has a bit of a mental breakdown in the following video where he goes into a number of times when music from previous Saga films is misused in the Rise of Skywalker. The use of Luke and Leia’s theme for a scene featuring Lando and Jannah is particularly egregious.
John Williams writes music using Leitmotifs. Leitmotifs have meanings based on how they are used with what is happening on screen (or stage) and John Williams knows how to use those leitmotifs and their meaning perhaps better than any living composer. He doesn’t make these errors where the meaning of the theme doesn’t line up with what’s being shown in the scene because he knows that that will lessen the emotional impact of the motif.
In many cases in the Rise of Skywalker it appears that these misused motifs are literally music ripped note for note straight from previous Saga films. So why, if John Williams went to such great effort to rewrite such a huge amount of music for this movie, does the score feel like it was made from clips of music from previous films cobbled together by someone who didn’t know what they were doing?
A potential explanation can be found in a leak from early 2020 that was the first to claim that an alternate “Abrams Cut” of the Rise of Skywalker exists and that was the first to claim that many of the film’s problems arose from continual creative differences between what J.J.Abrams wanted and what Disney and Lucasfilm wanted.
The leak actually claims that there were 3 separate cuts of the films: an initial cut that was 3 hours and 2 minutes long, a cut that J.J. Abrams “eventually and hesitantly agreed to” that was 2 hours and 37 minutes long, and the final 2 hour and 22 minute theatrical cut that J.J. Abrams was “devastated and blindsided” by because “he’s the director and he wasn’t in the know about what they were doing behind his back.” Which might explain why he seemed so furious about something at the premiere:
The score and the timeline for its creation actually back these claims up. John Williams began working on the score in spring of 2019 after seeing an early cut of the film. This version of the film would not have had any scenes from the reshoots as they hadn’t been filmed yet. This is the first cut of the film, The Abrams Cut, if you will. Per John Williams’ statement, as scenes from the summer 2019 reshoots replaced scenes from the original cut he had to write additional music for those scenes. This is the second cut that J.J. Abrams “eventually and hesitantly agreed to”. The fact that he agreed to it at all suggests that it was something of a compromise between what he wanted and what Lucasfilm wanted. That the leak claims Lucasfilm went on to create a third cut “behind [J.J. Abrams’] back” suggests that they didn’t get everything that they wanted in the compromise either. This would suggest that the final film includes more scenes filmed during the reshoots than even the “compromise” version and is an even greater departure from the original cut.
The reason then that the final film and its score is such a mess is down to how the third cut was created. It was slapped together at the last minute and recutting it meant that the music no longer lined up. There wasn’t time to have John Williams rewrite the score again, so the sound editors cobbled together a score by recutting the score Williams’ had written and by pulling music from previous films. The problem is that sound editors are not composers or even necessarily musicians and their understanding of what leitmotifs to use when boiled down to “put emotional music with emotional scenes and exciting music with exciting scenes” without further regard for the more complex meanings of the themes they were using. Thus you end up with a score that, while it might elicit an emotional response from the audience, it’s emotional resonance isn’t nearly as powerful as the beautifully crafted scores that John Williams writes where each theme is used to enhance the meaning of the scene.
The important thing to note here is that John Williams began working on the film’s score well before the reshoots began. That means that an unadulterated cut of the film from May of 2019 exists, it also means that the music that John Williams wrote for it, the 1 hour and 24 minutes that weren’t used in the final film, also exist. The Abrams Cut exists and it has a score or at least a very good start to one. That score is the masterpiece that Don Williams’ told us about when he claimed that his brother was writing a score with every previous theme. That score deserves to be heard, and not only at a symphony concert. It deserves to be heard in the context that John Williams wrote it for. It deserves to be heard with the film.