Musically these three 2CD sets are identical (right down to the 5 alternative takes of the 'Main Title' which appear as 'easter eggs' on the first disc) to the albums issued on RCA Victor / BMG Classics in 1997 to coincide with the release of the Special Editions of the original Star Wars trilogy at the cinema.
At this late date a full review of such famous soundtracks is surely redundant, suffice to say that with the original Star Wars score John Williams completed the what he had begun with Jaws, the return to the silver screen of the full scale romantic orchestral score. Unashamedly nostalgic, Williams revived the glories of Korngold, Steiner, Newman and Rózsa, adding a dash of the English classical tradition – 'Mars' from Gustav Holst's Planets suite continues to be a film music touchstone to this day – and the rest, as they say, is history. If Star Wars is a landmark score and one of the most popular ever composed, its sequel, The Empire Strikes Back is even better. Williams developed his themes and added a multitude of new melodies, including unforgettably for Yoda and Darth Vader, in a darker, more romantic tapestry which stands as one of film musics very greatest achievements. After that high point Return of the Jedi proved a disappointment in all respects. The film seemed to run out of inspiration, settling for a rehash of the Death Star plot of the first movie, while adding an irritating cuteness to the mixture yet still managing to provide an overall satisfying finale. Williams' music echoes the slight staleness of the on-screen action, never reaching the glories of Empire in its inspiration, but still delivering some strong sequences and new themes. Happily when Williams returned to the series in 1999 his creative energies seemed to have been fully renewed and he produced excellent work for The Phantom Menace, and an even more thrilling score for Attack of the Clones. His score for the final Star Wars film, Revenge of the Sith must be among the most eagerly awaited scores of the next year.
So if the scores to Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back are essential, and Return of the Jedi a worthwhile inclusion in any collection, what of these reissued albums, released this time to coincide with the first DVD issue of the original trilogy. Well the albums have transferred from RCA to Sony, putting them on the same label as the scores for the modern Star Wars films, and indeed, virtually everything else John Williams has recorded in recent years. The change of label has resulted in some significant differences in the presentation of the albums.
The most obviously noticeable thing is that the very dull covers for the 1997 versions have been replaced with much more attractive holographic covers featuring images immediately identifiable with each film in the series. Behind the insert holographic cards the changes are much less welcome. The 1997 booklets are gone. These were each 32 pages long and contained fascinating essays on the music and a multitude of stills. Instead we have image over content, and in place of the booklets are foldout posters – does anyone actually use these things as posters? They give the bare minimum of information compared to the earlier booklets, and are really quiet useless. Finally the CDs claim to offer the option to access exclusive on-line content, though this facility had not yet been implemented at www.starwars.sonyclassical.com when I tried it (on September 19). Indeed, there was no mention of the new albums, the site still promoting Attack of the Clones as the latest Star Wars musical event.
Finally it is worth pointing out that more isn't always better, and that the original Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back double LPs (equating to roughly one full CD's worth of music each) provided a much more satisfactory listening experience away from the respective films. The single LP issued for Return of the Jedi reflected the lack of really strong new material in quantity. Versions of the original LP albums were issued in the early 1990's in a beautifully packaged 4CD box-set (the fourth disc containing the more significant omissions from the first three discs) called The Star Wars Trilogy Soundtrack Anthology. Really we don't need every note from even the very finest scores, and the music as sequenced in the Anthology does make for a better listening experience than the 2CD sets which replaced it. The original Empire album was a particular joy, yet the 2CD set sometimes seems dull, the fine melodies and explosive action sequences strung out amid lengthy passages of repetitive underscore, and endless statements of Darth Vader's fanfare. That said, the sound is better on the 2CD sets than on the Anthology, which is in any case is now out of print. A quick search though shows it can still be found in very good condition for as little as $34.
So, great film music, perhaps for all but the completist, rather too much music, and packaging which looks more attractive than last time out but is much less far informative and practical (without careful handling the posters will tear in rapid order). Not perfect then, but Sony never seem to get it quite right when it comes to Star Wars albums. Those who have been following the saga this far will know exactly what I mean.
The Empire Strikes Back
Return of the Jedi