Op-Ed: A Musical Controversy Awakens
It wouldn't be a Star Wars movie without controversy, and the release of The Force Awakens has had its fair share, with idiot racists and sexists making up the most of it. But there's also been some comments about the music, specifically one certain use of a previous cue that has had some fans up in arms. This is our attempt to look at why this might have happened - spoilers are ahead. Everyone who has seen The Force Awakens and who has the slightest knowledge of John Williams' previous scores knows the moment: In a darkened forest on the surface of the Starkiller base, villainous Kylo Ren has just roughed up ex-stormtrooper Finn with his fancy lightsaber, leaving the latter's weapon half-buried in the snow. The weapon - Luke Skywalker's lightsaber - is seen by Kylo as his own, but as he reaches out with the Force to bring it to him, it levitates not towards his hands, but to Rey's. As she wields the saber to Kylo's shock and ignites it, a musical cue plays using the Force theme as a signifier for her power. But it's a familiar tune.
The cue used is actually from the original Star Wars (aka Episode IV: A New Hope) - it's called 'The Return Home' and specifically scores the moment where Luke arrives at his aunt and uncle's farm, only to find the homestead on fire and the charred bodies of Owen and Beru. In the cue, John Williams plays up not only the tragedy but the anger of Luke in the way the forceful brass overtakes the melody at the end. Many viewers have pointed this out, a lot with confusion as to why this was inserted into a seemingly unrelated scene, so let's try and look at possible reasons for this.
Firstly, John Williams had written original score for this moment. I don't know if he revised the cue, but his intended version is on the film's soundtrack album as the first thirty seconds or so of the track 'The Ways of the Force'. It also uses the Force theme, beginning with wavering woodwinds that give way to strings and brass as the lightsaber comes to Rey and the theme plays out. It's a beautiful cue and it's a shame it didn't get used, and also that a revision wasn't composed to the director's satisfaction. It may also be that Abrams had that piece of music on the temp track and fell in love with it, and maybe would have gone with it whatever was composed.
There's also perhaps another reason why this cue was placed here. Both scenes that it was used in - the burning homestead and Rey's fight - are turning points for the characters in question and setting them on their path to become a Jedi (presumption in Rey's case, of course). Earlier, Rey had been desperate to get back to Jakku to wait for her family, no matter what Maz or anyone had told her about them not returning. But that moment, with Rey defending her friend and fighting back against Kylo and subsequently becoming more attuned with the Force, is where she finally grabs her destiny, metaphorically and literally (via the lightsaber).
In the same way, Luke wasn't going to follow Ben on his quest; he just wanted to get home to his family. But when he found his aunt and uncle murdered by the Empire, his path was set: to not only join Ben but to follow his teachings and become a Jedi. Ben's theme is used in a similar way to the twin sunset scene, as a signifier for Luke's destiny to become a Jedi. So it could be that Abrams saw these two significant moments as one, and decided to use the cue to echo the original, as Rey herself is following Luke's original path. This kind of usage is not a first in the Star Wars universe.
To play devil's advocate, I think it works amazingly well in The Force Awakens. When I first saw it, it gave me a big grin, but I immediately thought of Luke and the similarities. But Williams' original intended cue is also wonderful - so it could work both ways. I think maybe this could have been solved if Abrams had asked Williams to simply re-record the cue to fit with the rest of the score - luckily in the film the awkward transition is obscured by lightsaber noises. But at least we have Williams' cue preserved on the soundtrack album, and it may be that when the blu-ray comes out, there might be an alternate scene with the original cue. One can only hope. -CB