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Solo: A Star Wars Story – John Powell – Soundtrack Review

Even though I still think the original trilogy will be the best Star Wars movies ever, I always look forward to a new one being released. It is astonishing how big the franchise has become, and I also think that the new Star Wars directors are creating better movies than George Lucas is with his own new films now.

I really like John Powell’s score to this new Star Wars movie, and decided to put a review on my blog for this week because the soundtrack has some fabulous action tracks and is a perfect example how to bring the Star Wars music to a new generation of film music fans.

The movie

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018), based on the character Han Solo and directed by Ron Howard, is the second Star Wars anthology film following 2016’s Rogue One. I am starting to like these movies more than the “official” sequels. Rogue One was a very good war movie, while Solo is a good action movie with western elements and decent action scenes. The film stars Alden Ehrenreich as Han Solo, alongside Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover and Paul Bettany.

George Lucas began the development in 2012 and asked Lawrence Kasdan to write the screenplay, which was completed by his son Jonathan after Kasdan was hired to write Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Kasdan is a fabulous writer and author of The Empire Strikes Back (with Leigh Brackett), Raiders of the Lost Ark, Body Heat, Return of the Jedi and Silverado, to mention just a few.

Principal photography began in January 2017 under the direction of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. The pair left the project in June after being fired over “creative differences”, and Ron Howard took over directing duties. With an estimated budget of at least $250 million, it is one of the most expensive films ever made and will need to gross $500 million to break even. On Wikipedia, there is more information about what these “creative differences” were. It was reported that the directors were fired after Kennedy and Kasdan disagreed with their shooting style. Lord and Miller believed they were hired to make a comedy film, while Lucasfilm was looking to only add “a comedic touch”.

I have read that Disney considers Solo a flop. I think there are three reasons for this. First, the Han Solo actor Alden Ehrenreich is just not as cool an actor as Harrison Ford and even though he tries his best with a nice smile, his constant remarks of “that’ll be fun” or “no worries” are just annoying. George Lucas invented a large number of wonderful characters in Star Wars, but Solo might be his greatest achievement. Han Solo, possible the favourite character in the Star Wars universe, is a character everyone likes, considers as charming and can relate to despite him being a cynical pirate.

And Ehrenreich? He is just the nice guy from the neighbourhood and a typical actor for today: nice, kind and, most of all, quite boring. Of course there will always be only one Harrison Ford, but perhaps you remember the bar scene from The Intern (2015). Anne Hathaway is going out with some of her colleagues and Robert De Niro is the intern. As the evening progresses, she gets drunk and then looks at her colleagues, typical hipsters, with frustration and complains: “How in one generation have men gone from guys like … Harrison Ford to…”, and Hathaway looks at her colleagues. That is exactly the problem with today’s generation of actors!

The second issue with Solo in my opinion is the typical trend of being politically correct. In an interview, Lando actor Donald Glover said Lando is a pan-sexual character. “How can you not be pansexual in space?” Glover said. “There’s so many things to have sex with. I didn’t think that was that weird. He’s coming on to everybody. It just didn’t seem that weird to me because I feel like if you’re in space, it’s kind of like the door’s open ... this thing is literally a blob. Like, ‘Are you a man or a woman?’ Who cares?” Glover’s remarks are slightly different from Kasdan’s own reasoning for announcing the character’s sexuality. Kasdan told Huffington Post he wanted to bring more LGBTQ representation into the Star Wars universe, and wished he pressed a little more to have that representation visible in Solo. “There’s a fluidity to Donald and Billy Dee’s sexuality. I mean, I would have loved to have gotten a more explicitly LGBT character into this movie. I think it’s time, certainly, for that, and I love the fluidity ― sort of the spectrum of sexuality that Donald appeals to and that droids are a part of.”

People who want to see a new Star Wars movie do not much care about politically correct topics, especially not about bringing more LGBTQ representation into the Star Wars universe. Star Wars is a fairy tale and, as Rogue One showed us, can also be a war story, but is has nothing to do with being politically correct or discussing whether a character should have sex with a machine such as L3. In my opinion, most people are tired of this trend of always being politically correct, and that might be the reason why the first Expendables with Sylvester Stallone and the old action actors from the 1980s was such a success: it was just good old-fashioned entertainment!

I found a fan video about this aspect:

A third reason may be its difficult production history. There was criticism that the directors were encouraging too much improvisation, which was believed to be “shifting the story off course” from the script. Lord and Miller also refused to compromise on certain scenes, such as filming a scene from fewer angles, thereby reducing the options available in editing.

Finally, Howard took over and re-shot nearly 70% of the film. Even though these differences cannot be seen on screen, I feel this is not a typical Ron Howard movie. If you compare this movie with Ransom (1996), A Beautiful Mind (2001), The Da Vinci Code (2006), Frost/Nixon (2008) or Angels & Demons (2009), there is a lack of good storytelling and a sense that Howard was not involved in the project from the outset. Anyway I had fun; the action scenes in particular are brilliantly filmed. Now let’s talk about the music.

The music

In July 2017, John Powell was announced as the main composer of the score. John Williams composed and conducted the Han Solo theme on the CD called The Adventures of Han. Powell began writing the music in late 2017 and included Williams’s new theme a great deal in his score, as well as Williams’s music from previous films, most convincingly in the track Reminiscence Therapy, one of the best tracks on the CD.

Powell, born in 1963, learnt the violin as a child before studying at London's Trinity College of Music. He later went into jazz and rock music. After leaving college, he composed music for commercials, which led to a job as an assistant to the composer Patrick Doyle on several film productions, including Much Ado About Nothing (1993). Powell was a member of Hans Zimmer’s music studio, Remote Control Productions, and has frequently collaborated with Harry Gregson-Williams and Zimmer himself.

My first CD with Powell’s music was Antz (1998) and later I bought Chicken Run (2000), both highly enjoyable movies and scores. Powell was also responsible for the music for the Shrek movies, all with Gregson-Williams, and composed the music to John Woo’s action classic Face/Off (1997, his first major film score), Ivan Reitman’s mediocre SF action comedy Evolution (2001), Sylvester Stallone’s D-Tox Eye – See You (2002, for me the worst Stallone movie ever), Matt Damon’s The Bourne Identity (2002) and How to Train Your Dragon (2010, a very popular score), to name just a few.

Even though I like Michael Giacchino as a composer and have already discussed two of his soundtracks in this book, I did not buy his music for Rogue One. While watching the movie, I just could not get into the music. With Powell’s music, it was different. I really liked his action tracks because they gave the movie the right drive, so I bought the CD and decided to discuss this music in my book here.

In an interview on YouTube, John Powell explains the difficulties of composing a score like this these days. He said that John Williams is “harmonically incredible fluid, it is polyphonic music, and nobody is doing this anymore”. Most composers, he pointed out, are stuck now in the “keyboard player mode”, and in Powell’s opinion it is very hard to break out of this. He said the most important part was to get “flow”. Williams’s music is “always flowing forward; it is not just pulsing forward, like most of the score they have to do these days, it is flowing forward.” To get a better idea of what Powel means, I suggest you listen to Hans Zimmer’s action tracks from Gladiator and then to John Williams’s Star Wars action tracks or John Powell’s Solo, especially Reminiscence Therapy, and you will understand the difference in these two composing styles.

The CD has a huge number of fabulous action tracks. One of the highlights is Corellia Chase. I particularly love the music from 0’47 (strings part), which is wonderfully composed. This track is typical of most of the action pieces because the busy brass section reminds you of John Williams, but Powell increased the percussion section to give the music a very modern touch. Another highlight is Flying with Chewie; the title says it all. Meet Han, the second track on the CD and the first original by Powell, is an epic track with sweeping strings and the typical special percussion arrangement that can be heard throughout the music. This fresh touch makes the CD so enjoyable! It is a short but epic track!

My favourite track is Train Heist for the best action scene in the movie. The track starts slowly, before the action starts at 1’30. The following seconds of music, brass combined with the percussion, is great action music. In my opinion the horn section should be a little bit louder. The action continues with Marauders Arrive (another quieter moment in the middle of the track), before we have a song in a French chanson style with Chicken in the Pot. Is This Seat Taken? is good suspense (Star Wars theme for a few seconds). L3 & Millennium Falcon offer another example of just how perfectly Powell uses the various Star Wars themes in his score. The short Lando’s Closet gives us a lyrical love theme for Lando.

The next two action tracks – Mine Mission and Break Out – are highly enjoyable and in the spirit of John Williams; even the brass section sounds familiar! As mentioned above, Reminiscence Therapy uses the Jedi theme even more effectively and some notes are copied from the music for the chase in the asteroid field from The Empire Strikes Back.

After listening to this music, I think John Powell would be the perfect person to continue the Star Wars saga. These tracks are exactly the kind of music I missed when listening to Giacchino’s Rogue One! Into The Maw is the busiest action track of the score, with the orchestra on fire here!

Testing Alliance is a nice balanced piece between all the busy action music. The last track called Dice & Roll is more of a musical joke with its very modern way of using the Jedi theme and brings the album to an end. Unfortunately, it lacks end credit music.

John Powell’s Solo is so enjoyable that it will be very difficult for any other composer to compete with his soundtrack this year. I did not expect very much of the music when I was buying my ticket for Solo, but I felt greatly entertained by the movie and especially by the music. Well done, John Powell!

Copyright © Stefan Riedlinger, 2018, all rights reserved. The reviews and other textual content contained on the site may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written authority of Stefan Riedlinger.

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