By Charlie Brigden
When is a film score not a film score? When the movie doesn’t exist, such was the case for Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire, Joel McNeely’s 1996 score. Recorded by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra famed for collaborating with McNeely on his wonderful Bernard Herrmann recordings, Shadows of the Empire was a “multimedia event”, basically providing all the ancillary products that come with marketing only without the main event – the picture.
Shadows was designed by Lucasfilm to get the then nascent Star Wars renaissance further into the eyes of the public to prepare them for the forthcoming Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition. What it tried to do was tell the story between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, which had the majority of the Rebels chasing after Boba Fett trying to rescue Han Solo while Luke Skywalker went to Tatooine to build a new lightsaber. New characters were introduced; Prince Xizor was a crime boss trying to overthrow Darth Vader, whilst Dash Rendar was a smuggler brought in to replace the scoundrel Han Solo.
To tell the story, Lucasfilm used several different channels; a novel, a video game, and a comic. Whilst McNeely was commissioned to write the score for the overall project, the book was really what it was specifically tied to, although some of his music did appear in the video game alongside some unused music from Empire. McNeely had a fair task ahead of him – write original Star Wars music that fit with the existing scores without it merely being an adaptation of the John Williams material. Amazingly, he pulled it off with zero issues.
While the album is primarily new material, it starts off as normal with the Star Wars main theme. When that fades, we are briefly treated to a display of new material before we move into the ‘Carbon Freeze’ music from Empire to remind us of what got us to this point. As in the Williams cue, the love theme swells to underscore Han and Leia’s kiss and subsequent ‘I love you!/I know.’ exchange before the brass kicks in as Han is frozen and the threat of ‘The Imperial March’ is introduced. It’s a necessary moment to remind the audience of, and the orchestra do a fine job with the material.
From then on, McNeely takes over and it’s a joy to hear. He opens with style in ‘The Battle of Gall’, underscoring an Imperial/Rebel skirmish with a jaunty motif and some huge brass and percussion. McNeely also introduces a ‘Battle Hymn of the Old Republic’, a beautiful and soaring piece that will return in the finale. McNeely does exceptionally well in establishing environments, with the Old West-esque ‘The Southern Underground’, with its exotic woodwinds, and the tense brass of ‘Beggar’s Canyon Chase’ (a place namechecked in the original Star Wars). ‘Imperial City’ is a marvellous piece, opening with a gentle female chorus before a brass interlude takes over. The chorus returns with a sinister edge, with McNeely producing a big golden age melody to emphasises the grandness of Coruscant, a planet no one had seen in a film before the end of the Jedi special edition in ’97.
What’s interesting is McNeely’s treatment of Prince Xizor, with a wonderful theme full of snaking woodwinds, shrieking brass, and a chorus similar to the Emperor’s, displaying the full malevolence of Xizor and his plans. One of the things Xizor does is try and seduce Princess Leia in ‘The Seduction of Princess Leia’, a brilliantly intoxicating Victorian waltz with a sweeping tone not unlike Maurice Jarre’s music for the David Lean epics. ‘Night Skies’ brings back two of the most famous movie themes in counterpoint, with a mix of male and female choruses giving way to ‘The Imperial March’, which then battles with ‘Ben Kenobi’s Theme’, in a brief but brilliant cue.
But where McNeely really excels is the exceptional finale ‘The Destruction of Xizor’s Palace’, which takes all of the new motifs and themes and ‘The Imperial March’ and combines them effortlessly amongst brutal and bellicose brass and soaring strings, with tense male chorus battering away in the background. It’s an incredible piece and wonderfully melodic at times, and by the time we reach the coda which brings back the Battle Hymn with an exceptional choral finale the cue has turned into one of the finest pieces of music of the Star Wars saga. Period.
It’s been nearly twenty years since Shadows of the Empire was released, but the album is still as wonderful as it was back then. Joel McNeely is still an exceptional talent as no one but Disney and Seth MacFarlane seems to have figured out, and the whole album is expertly conceived and composed, coming through as a quality score that stands as some of the best Star Wars music written since 1996. Who needs a film, eh?
Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire is out now from Varese Sarabande