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The Empire Strikes Back: A Track-by-Track Commentary of the Original Score
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Week of Geek: The Empire Strikes Back 30th Anniversary

Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back soundtrackThe Empire Strikes Back: The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Special Edition)
Composer: John Williams
London Symphony Orchestra
1997 Release

WARNING! THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS MASSIVE SPOILERS!

It’s been thirty years since The Empire Strikes Back, the much-anticipated sequel to George Lucas’ 1977 mega-hit cultural touchstone Star Wars, opened in theaters around the world and the impact it made upon audiences and critics has not dulled a bit, and for good reason. The movie proved that the success of the first Star Wars film was no well-timed fluke and even a movie that essentially paid homage to space operas, samurai films, and westerns could evolve beyond its influences and become its own beast. Best of all it was better than Star Wars in every possible way: the script by Leigh Brackett (screenwriter of such classic films as The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, and The Long Goodbye) and Lawrence Kasdan (who later went on to co-write Raiders of Lost Ark and enter his own directing career) opened up the universe Lucas had created and expanded the scope with an epic, serpentine tale that was more darker, richer, and emotional than the original and overflowing with memorable characters, and quotable dialogue; the direction by Irvin Kershner was professional and assured; and the cast, free of George Lucas’ stilted writing and relative inexperience with actors (despite the fact that he had directed the actor-heavy American Graffiti to great success), were able to give deeper and more nuanced performances under the direction of the deferential Kershner.

The increased scope of the sequel also allowed the opportunity for legendary composer John Williams to have the musical canvas on which to expand on the themes and motifs established in his Academy-Award winning score for Star Wars. Charged with providing the musical voice for a multitude of characters, planets, and epic battles for intergalactic supremacy, Williams’ tireless efforts resulted in what is perhaps the finest score of the entire Star Wars film series, a breath-taking musical masterpiece that could stand high and shoulders with the best work of our greatest classical composers and could never be heard in its entirety until 1997, when RCA Victor released a two-disc edition of the soundtrack at the time when the controversial Special Edition versions of the original Star Wars trilogy was being released in theaters. Arranged almost sequentially (the “Imperial March” cue opens the second disc when in fact it’s heard much earlier in the film), John Williams’ score for The Empire Strikes Back could now be experienced in all its orchestral majesty.

What I have done here is present a track-by-track commentary of the 1997 RCA Victor release, my own personal interpretation of Williams’ magnificent music if you will. I’ve also injected a little of my knowledge regarding the Star Wars films into this article. This is probably my first music review because I often have trouble translating my feelings about music into words. It’s not as easy for me as writing movie reviews, but I will do my best. Here we go….

“The real glory of war is surviving.”- Tagline from Samuel Fuller’s The Big Red One (1980)

DISC ONE (One hour, three minutes, four seconds)

1. 20th Century Fox Fanfare (0:24)
Well this first track is pretty self-explanatory. Before the original Star Wars became the biggest moneymaker in the history of 20th Century Fox, the studio practically gave away its sequel and merchandising rights to writer/director George Lucas, not knowing at the time how lucrative they would turn out to be. The studio was expecting the first film to bomb hard so it didn’t even bother to produce any tie-in merchandise. Lucas had to take on the job himself once he obtained the rights. With Star Wars a massive, standard-setting blockbuster Lucas waited two years before starting work on the anticipated sequel. This time having secured the sequel rights he had to finance the film himself in order to maintain his independence from the studio system. Ultimately Lucas had to appeal to the executives at Fox, who wound up with domestic and international distribution rights, for the necessary funds to finish the film, but although the studio fronted the cash their attempts to strong-arm Lucas into surrendering a larger piece of the Star Wars pie compelled the filmmaker into taking his next project, a collaboration with Steven Spielberg called Raiders of the Lost Ark, to competing studio Paramount.

The original Star Wars may have made a ton of money for 20th Century Fox but their initial lack of faith in the film would cost the studio the biggest multimedia franchise in cinema history, and it’s all the more sadly ironic that only Alfred Newman’s mighty fanfare (in its “extended CinemaScope” version) that has accompanied almost every film released by Fox since 1933, and without a doubt the most memorable opening movie music ever created, could preface a Star Wars film.

2. Main Title/The Ice Planet Hoth (8:10)
The film opens with Williams’ iconic main title theme from the first film, a cue as soaring and bombastic as a coronation ceremony, and then promptly veers off into a different path after the series’ trademark opening crawl finishes about ninety seconds in. Whereas the first film opened with the classic action sequence of Princess Leia’s blockade runner attempting to escape a full-scale assault from an Imperial Star Destroyer, Empire begins with a series of moments to establish the futile situation the Rebellion finds itself in after the events of the first film. Despite their victory against the Galactic Empire, ruled over by an unseen but often-mentioned Emperor and his protégé the Sith Lord Darth Vader, in destroying their planetoid-sized weapon the Death Star, the Rebellion has been forced into hiding. Imperial probes are launched all across the galaxy and one lands on the desolate icy tundras of the planet Hoth. Luke Skywalker is out on patrol and decides to investigate when he’s attacked by a vicious beast indigenous to Hoth known as a Wampa and his unconscious body is dragged back to the creature’s lair. Nothing as all-out exciting as the mounting intensity of the original Star Wars’ opening scenes but right off the bat we know we’re in different territory.

Williams uses a piece of the main title to introduce Luke as he pulls off his snow goggles and gives the Wampa a properly frightening attack cue. In these opening moments we’re also reintroduced to Han Solo, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, C-3PO, and R2-D2. Williams provides heroic, militaristic music as Han returns from his patrol to the snow base on Hoth established by the Rebellion and softer, more romantic music when he encounters the Princess after he announces his intentions to leave Hoth and try to pay his debts to the intergalactic gangster Jabba the Hutt. After Luke’s assault and abduction we’re still given the chance to relax and reacquaint ourselves with the characters, but it also establishes the foreboding tone that will be present throughout the film and foreshadows the separation of the main characters and their distinct but thematically linked soul-searching journeys into parts unknown.

3. The Wampa’s Lair/Vision of Obi-Wan/Snowspeeders Take Flight (8:50)
Williams makes us feel Luke’s disorientation and dread after waking up in the gloomy ice cavern of the Wampa, and once again the main title makes an appearance as the young Jedi-in-training attempts to use his burgeoning power of the Force to retrieve his lightsaber and free himself from the beast’s clutches. Once he dispatches the Wampa and escapes Luke plunges into a snowstorm that obscures his vision and drains what little energy he had, causing him to collapse and see something faint in the murderous snowfall. A ghostly figure, could it be a hallucination? No, it’s Luke’s friend and mentor Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi, who gives the young man instructions to seek out Yoda, the Master who instructed him, on the planet Dagobah. The path to Luke’s destiny, something which he has searched for since Obi-Wan was killed in a lightsaber duel with Darth Vader, is laid out before him in a vision he will pursue with uncertainty later in the story. Meanwhile Han Solo decides to search for his lost and potentially wounded friend despite worsening weather conditions outside the safety of the Rebels’ base. The music soars to dramatic heights as Han sets out on his rescue mission and then quiets down when Luke experiences his vision of the fallen Jedi Master.

4. The Imperial Probe/Aboard the Executor (4:26)
The Empire hasn’t made their presence really known until now with the assistance of portions of the “Imperial March” track which will be heard in full on disc 2. On board the Star Destroyer “Executor” the ship’s commanding officers have discovered one of their probes has sent back evidence of a possible Rebel presence, confirmed by the Force-assisted instincts of Darth Vader, making his first appearance in the film. Vader isn’t just searching for Rebel bases but for some reason he’s also seeking out this Skywalker kid. He wasn’t even aware of Luke until the Death Star battle at the end of Star Wars, and only then it was a trembling in the Force. If you know the famous twist ending of Empire then you can understand what motivates Vader’s search isn’t just the desire to crush his enemies, see them driven before him, and to hear the lamentations of their women (wrong movie). Williams keep the Empire’s signature themes restrained on this track because for the moment the forces of galactic oppression are all about the business at hand. But their time will come soon.

5. The Battle of Hoth (14:50)
There’s always one major battle sequence in every Star Wars film, and Empire, much like Revenge of the Sith, chose to put its massive melee of men and machines in the first act rather than save it for the big finale. This time around the fighting forces of the Rebellion are mounting a counterattack against the Empire in order to give its people enough time to evacuate Hoth. This isn’t a battle for the fate of the universe, but a large-scale diversion. The battle at the gates of Mordor in The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King also comes to mind. We get to see just how far the groundbreaking visual effects of Star Wars have evolved as the Rebels engage the Empire, arriving to destroy the Rebels’ base (and possibly their hope) in the form of gargantuan Imperial Walkers, in broad daylight on the bright, white snowy tundra of the planet Hoth. Naturally John Williams is going to pull out all the stops for this sequence and the result is one of the most exciting orchestral achievements on the soundtrack, a slowly-mounting track that builds our anticipation watching the Rebel snowspeeder fleet led by a fully-recovered Luke prepare for the battle. The Imperial March also makes a cameo, once again restrained as Vader chooses to deal some special Force punishment to one of his less competent underlings. Williams lets loose with an array of swashbuckling cues and tense usage of horns and violins as the stakes of the battle increase.

This scene and its underscoring are integral to the film for several reasons. It’s the first time we see Luke emerge as a leader in the Rebellion while gaining the opportunity to test out his growing Jedi abilities in battle. There’s a sense of hope throughout the battle and the accompanying score but it also lays the groundwork for the events to come. It also marks the beginning of a turning point in the character arcs of Han Solo and Princess Leia Organa. The seeds of their romantic relationship were sown in earlier scenes but with Leia forced to escape with Han, Chewbacca, and C3PO on the Millennium Falcon she becomes more involved with the roguish ex-smuggler than she every thought possible. Meanwhile Han finds his treacherous criminal past catching up with him and it’s about to converge with his commitment to the Rebellion and his emergent feelings for Leia. The battle and Williams’ score end on a hopeful note but the real story has officially begun. Empire has often been criticized as being little more than the extended middle act of one long, epic saga. There’s no real beginning or end, the major characters spend most of the movie split up on divergent journeys, and the film ends with a cliffhanger. The good guys don’t win any major conflicts during the film, and more often than not get royally screwed, but in the end they live to regroup and fight another day.

6. The Asteroid Field (4:17)
Another fantastic all-stops-out track from Williams, this is the musical equivalent of a roller coaster ride with big ups, bigger downs, and it all comes to a quiet rest at the end. As Luke heads off to find his destiny on Dagobah with R2D2 in tow, the Millennium Falcon and its increased crew finds itself being hotly pursued by a fleet of Imperial Star Destroyers and TIE Fighters. Desperate for a way to escape their hunters Han pilots the ship straight into an asteroid field. C3PO helpfully points out that their odds of coming out of the field in one piece are slim, but never tell Han Solo the odds. Solo has had to deal with his fair share of job-related trouble before but without a fully-armed Rebellion to back him up he’s beginning to realize the full scope of what he’s involved in. There’s also a sense of jaunty humor in the score as Solo tries to make repairs to the Falcon’s hyper-drive during the chase.

7. Arrival on Dagobah (4:54)
Luke Skywalker plunges into unknown territory as his quest to become a Jedi Knight takes him to the grim swamp planet Dagobah. Williams’ score heightens the tension and mystery of the scene as Luke’s journey to seek out the master Yoda seems to hit a wall. The Imperial March makes another appearance in this track.

8. Luke’s Nocturnal Visitor (2:37)
Luke encounters a strange creature that speaks in an oddball fashion and raids his food supply. This is one of the more lighthearted score pieces in the film with the introduction we all will reveal himself to be Yoda, the 800-odd-years-old Jedi Master who went into hiding on the planet Dagobah after the Jedi were brought to their knees by the Empire. It’s obvious from this scene and Williams’ music that we the audience along with Luke Skywalker are being tested by this great, aging galactic warrior. Is this all an act? Is this short little green man who looks like your Uncle Sid and acts like your drunken hillbilly father really a master in the ways of the Force? The scene is played mostly for slapstick humor but it has a darker undercurrent than will later come into focus. You can also hear portions of “Yoda’s Theme”, present in its entirety on disc 2.

9. Han Solo and the Princess (3:28)
The series’ signature love theme opens this track as Han and Leia’s contentious relationship begins to evolve into something more amorous as they attempt to make repairs to the Falcon while hiding out from the Empire. It’s a sweet, almost lilting piece that will return in a much pessimistic form later in the film. After about ninety seconds the Imperial March comes roaring back in just in case we were getting too comfy there. The latter half of this track underscores Darth Vader’s brief meeting with the Emperor, here seen on screen for the first time in the form of a scratchy hologram. The meeting of two evil minds, the malevolent mirror image of Luke’s relationship with Obi-Wan Kenobi, is given an underscore that sounds like a dark hymn or the chamber music of an immoral sorcerer, which the Emperor and Vader are in a sense.

10. Jedi Master Revealed/Mynock Cave(5:45)
Yoda is finally compelled to reveal his identity after Luke grows tired of waiting, a trait that has the wizened master doubting that the young man has it in him to become a Jedi. We hear a piece of the “Binary Sunset” track from the original Star Wars score but with a sad twist on the emotionally-soaring theme that signals to Luke and to us that he is about to face his dark night of the soul. The Imperial March, like a whack-a-mole, pops up once again but only for a brief moment to reiterate the threat they still pose to Han, Leia, and company currently cooling their heels in a murky cave that’s crawling with slimy creatures and strangely enough keeps rumbling. Williams plays around with creepy motifs that coupled with a setting that resembles a cemetery from a Hammer movie makes it almost appear like the Star Wars universe has entered the realm of horror cinema. It’s an appropriately eerie piece with a killer pay-off.

11. The Training of a Jedi Knight/The Magic Tree (5:17)
Luke’s tutelage under Master Yoda begins on an upbeat note before settling down into a quieter, more foreboding score as young Skywalker attempts to get further in touch with and channel his escalating power over the Force into an ally rather than an adversary. There’s suspense and expectancy in Williams’ score when Luke ventures into a tree for his first big test, to confront the darkness that dwells in his soul. When it appears in the form of Darth Vader Luke engages the apparition in a duel and decapitates it, only to find his own face hiding behind Vader’s mask. Not only does this foreshadow the great reveal at the end of the film but it continues to show Luke traveling down the dark path that has consumed many before him.

Star Wars Episode 5.5-The Intermission

My earliest memory of seeing a movie on the big screen was catching Return of the Jedi during its 1985 re-release with my uncle Eddie and his only child, my cousin Andy. The only scene I can recall during that first viewing was the conversation between Luke and Leia at night in the Ewok village when, oddly enough, they discuss their earliest memories but in this case of their parents. I don’t even think I had seen a Star Wars up until then. We saw Return at a theater in Richmond, but at the time my family and I were living in Newport News near the Atlantic Ocean because my mother was serving as a medical corpsman in the Navy. Most of our relatives lived in Richmond so we always had a reason to visit. We eventually moved to Richmond in 1986 after my parents separated. The last movie I saw on the big screen before leaving Newport News was either The Karate Kid Part II or the Go-Bots movie.

I believe it was in the early fall of 1992 that I recall watching The Empire Strikes Back in full for the first time. For years before I would often catch part of it either on cable or during a network television airing. When I first watched the full movie it was after I had to have jaw reconstructive surgery. My face looked so different afterwards that when my sister Lisa looked at me she started to cry. I was too drugged up to care much but it still hurt. One of my neighbors had an extensive collection of blank VHS tapes filled with films they had taped off the pay cable movie channels, so extensive in fact that they even kept a notebook log of every movie they had. I later took that same approach to keeping track of my own subsequent collections of VHS tapes and DVD’s. Every week I would go to their house and was allowed to take any tape I wanted. When I noticed they had Empire I couldn’t resist. Years later I found both Star Wars and Return of the Jedi at my local public library and caught up. The jaw surgery was part of the myriad of problems I had with my teeth growing up. I had to get everything done to my teeth short of wearing that cumbersome head gear. Halloween 1988, I had to have four teeth pulled after getting out of school. I felt so bad I didn’t even feel like going trick or treating that night. I had to have my wisdom teeth pulled during Christmas break my freshman year of high school and almost three years later when I was a junior I had to have an emergency appendectomy during Spring break. I have a lot of bad holiday and vacation memories from my younger years, but back to Empire.

DISC TWO (One hour, one minute, forty-four seconds)

1. The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme) (3:03)
The second most recognizable theme in the Star Wars saga, behind the main title theme from the original and ahead of “Duel of the Fates” from The Phantom Menace, and probably cinema’s most iconic theme of cold, fascistic evil is pomp and circumstance reduced to demonic lows, the graduation music from Hell. If John Williams had been around to compose music during World War II there’s no doubt this Wagnerian theme would’ve been proudly used in anti-Nazi propaganda films, and if there‘s not a YouTube video out there that synchs this theme up to clips of Dick Cheney speaking it would shock the hell out of me. Hey they don’t call him Darth Cheney for nothing! The most play the Imperial March received during Empire was early in the film as the Imperial fleet prepares to mount its attack on Hoth. After that it could be heard in fragments as the story would cut away from Luke in his training or Han and company on the run to Vader and his Imperial lapdogs planning their next move, something that could occasionally get repetitive. Still, it’s a badass piece of music that has weathered decades of parody and lifting to remain a three-minute epic of orchestral majesty.

2. Yoda’s Theme (3:30)
Every time I watch The Empire Strikes Back and Yoda shows up on screen I never see a beautifully-crafted puppet and wonder how the puppeteer Frank Oz moved him around the set. I always think to myself, “There’s Yoda.” He’s a real character to me, with presence and personality, and no amount of CGI can beat that. How many puppet characters on film and television have the gravitas Yoda possesses? He’s one of the most memorable creations of the Star Wars saga.

Yoda gets a worthy theme, one that perfectly encapsulates in three-and-a-half minutes the essence of this iconic character. It’s a lovely piece, almost like it could back a ballroom slow dance, but contained within its graceful notes is the sadness inherent in Yoda from the emotional burden he carries: the weight of the dead Jedi he survived but could not help and the tiresome duty of living long enough to restore the Jedi Order and bring peace to the universe.

3. Attacking a Star Destroyer (3:04)
Now we’re back to Han, Leia, and the rest in the Millennium Falcon still trying to outrun the Empire’s finest Star Destroyers. Their efforts to escape not having much effect Han attempts a suicidal maneuver. This is purely an action cue but it’s fun and has a nice, quiet finish.

4. Yoda and the Force (4:02)
Luke didn’t believe it, and that is why he failed. The stakes are high for this punk kid from Tattooine to successfully complete his training and Yoda knows it. He knows Luke has the potential to be a great Jedi but he is also aware of something that’s keeping him from tapping into that potential. Luke wants it but doesn’t believe in it. He’s gotten by fine thus far using the Force to retrieve his lightsaber when it falls out of his pocket like it’s his car keys, but Yoda is trying to getting this stick to loosen up and let the Force flow through him so he can pull his downed X-Wing from the swamp, something that a Jedi could do in their sleep. It’s a quietly powerful track for a scene of equal measure where we’re given our greatest taste of the Force’s unlimited potential. It also underlines Yoda’s weariness and continued disappointment in Luke.

5. Imperial Starfleet Deployed/City in the Clouds (6:03)
Back on board the Falcon, Han and his companions are taking a breather from the chase as the ship nestles safely attached to the side of a Star Destroyer. They can’t hide there forever unfortunately so Han searches the ship’s computer for a suitable planet to escape the clutches of the Empire. He chooses Bespin, a cloud-mining colony of which his old friend and fellow gambler Lando Calrissian is the administrator. As the Falcon detaches from the Destroyer and slips away quietly with the Empire’s garbage, another ship emerges from hiding amidst the detritus and begins to pursue Han’s beloved ship. It’s Boba Fett, the cold bounty hunter with the cool helmet that gives Darth Vader’s a run for its money. Listening to this track puts me in a state of unease because I know a trap is slowly closing around and Williams’ music makes it a point to foreshadow that. Boba Fett gets his own ominous music, and once we return to Dagobah Luke has a vision of his friends suffering at the hands of the Empire that causes him to lose focus of his training. The mystery of the Force and Luke’s inability to reconcile his emotions with his innate Jedi abilities merge to create a haunting melody. When Han, Leia, Chewbacca, and C3PO arrive in Cloud City, they receive a less-than-hospitable welcome, quickly alleviated by Han and Lando’s joyous reunion. In this part of the track we get a sense of the opulence and visionary beauty of the city in the clouds and for a while we’re permitted to relax, but it’s all about to come crashing down.

6. Lando’s Palace (3:53)
Han and Lando rekindle their friendship, which suffered a strain after Han won the Millennium Falcon from Lando in a card game, although Leia can’t help but be suspicious even as Lando treats Han, Chewbacca, and her as honored guests. The peaceful ambience of Cloud City soon gives way to an atmosphere of extreme unease as C3PO promptly runs into trouble in the city and gets blasted into scrap metal, reflected in Williams‘ music which starts out upbeat and optimistic and takes a sudden left turn into dread. Meanwhile on Dagobah, Luke becomes obsessed by his vision of his friends suffering to the point where he decides to put his training on hold and set out for Bespin, despite the protestations of Yoda and Obi-Wan. Once again the young Jedi-in-training’s impetuousness overrides his better judgment and the teachings of his mentors and, unable to stop him, Yoda and Obi-Wan are forced to let him go and learn the hard way as the seminal “Binary Sunset” cue makes a return appearance, tying his ill-advised decision to leave Dagobah and eventually confront Darth Vader with the days he spent on Tattooine yearning to escape to the stars and seek out adventure he would have to travel a dark road to a destiny he didn’t know he had.

7. Betrayal at Bespin (3:46)
All good things must come to an end. It turns out there are some people you can’t trust and Han just met his latest. Under pressure from Darth Vader and the Empire Lando has been forced to betray his old friend in exchange for his safety and that of the people of Cloud City. This is really where the lighter and darker orchestral cues in the film start to converge as things start to go tragically downhill for our heroes.

I have to stop for a second and express something. Most of the tracks on this soundtrack album have the aura of hope and light quickly descending into doom and darkness. John Williams starts out each cue lighthearted but almost as soon as they began they shift into sounds of foreboding. It’s an intriguing experiment that seems ideally suited to The Empire Strikes Back. With the exception of a few select moments cinematically and musically we’re given almost no chance to calm ourselves and come in from the filmmakers’ bleak vision for a while. From the desolate frozen landscapes of Hoth to the creepy swamps of Dagobah this is a very grim film. Even when we’re in the luxurious confines of Cloud City the threat of the Galactic Empire is never far behind.

8. Deal with the Dark Lord (2:36)
Containing another variation on the Imperial March cue as well as a portion of the “Asteroid Field” track, Williams’ music does an excellent job of underscoring Lando’s conflicted feelings over betraying Han to the Empire and how Han and Leia’s blossoming love for each other is about to be put to its first test.

9. Carbon Freeze/Darth Vader’s Trap/Departure of Boba Fett (11:50)
Han gets frozen in carbonite and turned over to the bounty hunter to be transported back to Jabba the Hutt. Williams’ score for that scene is one of the most emotionally-charged tracks in the film. The music is bursting at the seams with the sounds of pain, terror, and pure malevolence and reaches such an epic orchestral climax that you know there is no way Han is getting rescued in this movie. As Vader awaits the arrival of Luke, Lando attempts to redeem himself for his treachery by helping Leia, Chewbacca, and a broken but functional C3PO escape the Empire’s clutches. At this point the music and the movie are becoming elaborate chess games where the characters are plotting their next moves rather than engaging in a lot of pointless scenes of blasting each other with lasers. That part comes later. The tension is very high as the score reaches a crescendo during Leia, Lando, and Chewbacca’s liberation and their subsequent yet futile attempt to stop Fett’s ship from taking and rescuing Han.

10. The Clash of Lightsabers (4:17)
The grand finale of The Empire Strikes Back, the much anticipated showdown between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, and Williams’ accompanying score are fittingly rousing as the young Jedi-to-be faces an onslaught of the dark side of the Force and the other heroic characters, now reunited with R2D2, manage to successfully escape Cloud City on the Millennium Falcon.

11. Rescue from Cloud City/Hyperspace (9:08)
Luke wasn’t ready for any of this. His lightsaber abilities served him for the most part, but Yoda and Obi-Wan knew the kid was nowhere near as prepared in mind and body as he needed to be to confront Darth Vader. It’s a dark, lonely road to being a Jedi and Luke knows that now. He just learned his toughest lesson, from the unlikeliest source: the dark, heavy-breathing face of intergalactic evil behind which hides the father Luke believed to be dead since before he was born. This is where Williams’ score hits its highest note of tragedy but it has a hopeful finish as Luke, faced with the option of joining his father on the dark side or fall to his potential death, chooses death and takes his first major steps on the path to being a Jedi. Saved from a tragic end by the Millennium Falcon, Luke is reunited with most of his friends and with the Falcon’s hyperdrive restored they’re finally able to put some real distance between themselves and the Imperial fleet. But as the last moments of Williams’ piece indicate, Darth Vader and the Empire will never be too far behind. The gauntlet has been thrown down.

12. The Rebel Fleet/End Title (6:27)
Lando and Chewbacca head off to find and rescue Han, Luke gets the hand he lost in battle to Vader replaced, and everyone lives to fight another day. There may have been no great victory but in the end all the major characters have evolved and matured in ways they never dreamed of. Williams’ musical cue leading up to the end credits is suitably optimistic and when he launches into the credits he deviates from the Star Wars end theme thirty seconds in with a cue that’s more playful and romantic. Pieces of Han and Leia’s love theme, Yoda’s theme, and the Imperial March (of course) are reprised here with slight variations like the characters are being given a final curtain call. Williams builds to a big finish that could be a cliffhanger in itself; the final drum roll and last-second horn cue the musical equivalent of the Millennium Falcon going into hyperdrive.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Although John Williams would continue to compose stellar music for the Star Wars series (in some cases his music was one of the only good things about the movie), his score for The Empire Strikes Back remains his greatest musical contribution to this cinematic saga with some of the greatest themes and exciting cues the veteran composer has ever accomplished. Three decades since its release, Empire is still the best of the Star Wars movies and Williams’ score, brought to life by the talented ensemble of the London Symphony Orchestra, is lush, romantic, thrilling, haunting, and as fantastic a collection of film music has ever been.

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