“Star Wars” without John Williams would be like the Skywalker family without the Force: missing much of its power.
Williams, 83, has given the sci-fi series, now seven entries strong, its musical lifeblood from its introduction in 1977 through the opening of “The Force Awakens” on Thursday night. In what amounts to 15-plus hours of original music, he has composed a space opera on a Wagnerian scale — densely packed with iconic character themes and grand dramaturgy.
“I’m just lucky,” he said from his home in Los Angeles. “As far as I know, that’s a unique opportunity. It would be like writing an opera, and then writing six more based on the same kind of material and the same story ... over the course of 40 years.”
It was no surprise that J.J. Abrams, assuming the mantle from “Star Wars” creator George Lucas, asked to have dinner with Williams after agreeing to direct “The Force Awakens.” But would the composer want to come back for a seventh round?
“I didn’t have any reservations about it at all,” Williams said. “I thought it would be great fun.”
The winner of five Oscars, including one for scoring the original "Star Wars," said he was enthused by Abrams’ youthful energy and Lawrence Kasdan’s light, witty script.
“Working with J.J. was certainly invigorating," he said. "I felt that he had made [the film] consistently and organically related to George Lucas’ incredibly original vision. At the same time, I felt a renewed energy, and a vitality, and a freshness that did not estrange any of the characters or material from the texture and fabric of Lucas’ creation — but revivified it.”
Williams made a conscious decision to liven the film with almost completely new thematic ideas. Out of the 102 minutes of score, he counts only seven minutes of “obligatory” references to classic themes.
“My task and my challenge was to make it feel friendly and interrelated to the other scores, so that it feels comfortably 'Star Wars'-ian, if you can use that word,” he said, “and at the same time be new and original to this particular piece.”
He did this by maintaining the same basic vocabulary established in the previous films — a Romantic symphonic language deliberately used, initially, to root the far-flung epic in the familiar.
But in "The Force Awakens," he did branch out in interesting ways, epitomized in his theme for the new character Rey.
“I fell in love immediately with Daisy Ridley,” Williams said of the actress at the center of the new film. “She is just a superstar born.”
Williams introduces the young, resourceful scavenger with delicate and vulnerable instruments (flute, piano and the pixieish chimes of a celeste), which are juxtaposed against the enormity of her galactic backdrop. The chords in Rey’s theme are purposefully related to Williams’ well-known Force theme. (He interweaves the two during the end credits.)
“It’s an interesting challenge with her,” he said, “because it doesn’t suggest a love theme in any way. It suggests a female adventurer, but with great strength. She’s a fighter, she’s infused with the Force, and it needed to be something that was strong but thoughtful.”
Another new theme is for the film’s baddie, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), which acknowledges its allegiance to Darth Vader’s theme just as Ren looks up worshipfully to Vader.
“There’s a more ruminative part that is usually done softly,” Williams said. “I don’t think it portrays any particular weakness, but possibly hesitancy. But then there’s the motif that’s often strong, that seems to be the embodiment of evil. I thought that it should be a relative of Darth Vader, but also something entirely different in terms of melody.”
The presence of a Williams score is an boon to Abrams’ strategic marriage of old and new, an element as reassuring as Harrison Ford’s return as Han Solo. But what has “Star Wars” given back to the serious, Juilliard-trained composer, where even the “serious” gala tribute to him by the Los Angeles Philharmonic last year got interrupted by marching Stormtroopers?
“I’ve always felt really lucky to be associated with this piece,” said the composer, who invited L.A. Philharmonic Music Director Gustavo Dudamel to conduct parts of "The Force Awakens" score.
“I can only say that I’m enormously grateful people have embraced this music, and it’s brought them to orchestral music in the way that it has for many younger people. I don’t make a particular distinction between ‘high art’ and ‘low art.’ Music is there for everybody. It’s a river we can all put our cups into, and drink it, and be sustained by it.”
Williams may work a little slower now than when he scored the first “Star Wars” at age 45, but he has no intention of retiring. After finishing “The Force Awakens” he immediately hopped onto his 27th collaboration with Steven Spielberg, “The BFG,” due out next summer.
“To continue to work, to continue to love what you do, is certainly a contributing element to one’s longevity and health,” Williams said. “And I am so lucky to be working in a field that you never grow tired of.”