Musings About Music In Film

The Music of Star Wars: Rescoring Binary Sunset

By Charlie Brigden swsunset

In terms of iconic film music scenes, it's one of the few at the top. It manages to provide not only a moment of staggering beauty both in visual and musical composition, but also a scene that is the summation of the spirit of the film. It's about hopes and dreams, about yearning for adventure, about finding your true calling. Destiny personified in a binary sunset.

Everyone who's seen Star Wars is aware of how important the twin sunset scene is to the film and its lead character. We identify with Luke Skywalker's frustration at being left behind while his friends move onwards to greater things, and John Williams' stirring rendition of Ben Kenobi's theme augments that emotion to a stunning end, foreshadowing Luke's journey to become a Jedi Knight. There may be lightsabers, monsters, and spaceships, but that scene is what Star Wars is really about, and is key to its popularity. But 'Binary Sunset' - or 'Lost R2 - Part II' as it was called on the original cuesheet - wasn't always like that.

The final piece of music as featured in the film was actually Williams' second attempt at scoring the scene. The initial cue is a curious artefact and more dramatic and serious than its replacement, with a darker texture recalling Jaws or perhaps The Fury. Make no mistake, it's a brilliant piece - classic Williams from that era - but it's hard to quantify it after having the scene ingrained in our memories for so long. But while listening to the cue on its own is a fascinating but disorientating experience, seeing it attached to the film footage is downright jarring, as a friend put it recently after I showed him the scene. Let's take a look.

[vimeo 107329989 w=500 h=375]

What's immediately interesting is the tone of the scene caused by the original cue. The opening harp and strings have a mysterious and sinister edge and when the orchestra swells, there's less of a sense of Luke's yearning for adventure and more of a foreboding feel, especially with the dramatic percussion and the brass that make it sound like an early sketch for the map room scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. It also feels strange because there's no thematic connection; even by that relatively early point in the film we've already heard leitmotivic introductions for Darth Vader, Princess Leia, and Luke himself, so for what is really a key point in Luke's journey it seems odd that there is no theme or motif established or referenced there. George Lucas apparently agreed and asked it to be rescored with Ben's theme, but even ignoring the lack of theme, the cue doesn't fit tonally with the rest of the score.

What also seems off is that Star Wars has its own musical and visual language to the point where the audience is able to easily follow the narrative even without dialogue. The video above is only part of the cue, but even the opening where Luke walks away and Owen and Beru talk is scored with a more dramatic and sobering feel, a stark counterpoint to the more emotional revised version (which uses Luke's own theme). From a story point of view, I'm not convinced that the section with the original cue would be that clear cut - admittedly I have to take hindsight into account, but this is still coming from as an objective comparison as I can make. But let's take a look at the revised version that we all know from the film as released.

[vimeo 107331420 w=500 h=375]

What's immediately apparent when viewing this scene is the melodic contrast between cues. Ben's theme not only has a thematic connection - having been heard earlier in the film - but the tone of the piece works to create much more of an emotional scene, and one where we immediately feel we have a insight into Luke's feelings. We understand his need to leave, to find his calling, and while in that film alone the harmonic beauty of Ben's theme allows for an emotionally rich reservoir for us to drink from, the use of that theme also signifies Luke's future, especially as it will transcend Ben's character once he passes and become the musical personification of the Jedi, not only in the original film but also the rest of the trilogy. In fact the theme bookends Luke's journey to become a Jedi, so at the end of Return of the Jedi when he burns Vader's suit, the reprise of the theme brings musical resolution to Luke's character arc.

It seems like such an effortless scene, perhaps because it has become so iconic, so to learn that 'Binary Sunset' was not the original score is quite a surprise. And while the initial cue is a fine piece of work it doesn't have the effect the film version has, nor can you imagine the infamy of the scene being the same had it stayed. But what the availability of alternate music like this allows is a fascinating look into the journey film scores take, and why composers seem to naturally grow thick skin, although a lot of the credit has to go to John Williams, who scored the same scene twice in two tonally different but equally fascinating ways - and who ended up writing one of the most iconic musical scenes in Hollywood cinema.

Thanks to film music historians Nick Redman and Mike Matessino for providing the original name for the cue.

Also to colleague Jim Ware for pointing out the original cue's similarity to the latter half of 'Imperial Attack', where the droids escape in the pod.