There are spoilers in this review. If you haven’t seen Rogue One yet, stop what you’re doing and go see it.
I’ve eagerly anticipated Rogue One—even more than The Force Awakens—since I first read about it two years ago. Along with Star Wars, I loved the swashbuckling war movies from the 1960s as a young adult.
When rumors began that Rogue One was a “war movie set in the Star Wars Universe”, my expectations only increased. Just as Star Wars is an homage to the Flash Gordon serials, I hoped Rogue One could be an homage to movies such as The Guns of Navarone, The Great Escape, and Bridge over the River Kwai.
Then a month ago, news spread that Michael Giacchino would compose the Rogue One score. It is no secret I love his music. His prior work on the Medal of Honor series of games seemed to support my fantasy for a throwback war movie. I even put together a playlist which combined a few 60s soundtracks with some of Giacchino’s work on Medal of Honor.
I’m happy to say that Rogue One delivers, and so does its soundtrack. It seems my Top Ten has a new resident.
The movie is a departure from the classic episodic Star Wars movies we all know and love1. I knew Rogue One was rumored to be different, so I was particularly curious how it’d open. Since it’s a standalone story, the directors decided it didn’t need an opening crawl. More on that in a moment.
Alterations to the format weren’t the only changes—Giacchino is only the third composer to write music for Star Wars. He’s the first to write for a feature movie, who’s name isn’t John Williams.
It was Williams who sparked my original interest in film scores, with his 1977 score for Star Wars2. I remember clearly the first time I heard the flute and french horn melody from Princess Leia’s Theme, and the foreboding low brass choir from Imperial Attack.
When it comes to film scores, the Star Wars soundtrack was my first love.
Giacchino had large shoes to fill. I wanted the character from his Medal of Honor scores, and the bombastic brass from Jupiter Ascending adapted to the Star Wars universe. But I also wanted the quiet sadness he brought to his LOST scores—something which isn’t common in the Star Wars music canon.
Put another way, I wanted a great Star Wars score, and also a great Giacchino score. We got both.
Last week the Architect found my AirPlay speaker from my office in Virginia, hidden in a random box at the back of our garage. Since my replacement set of QC35s were still in transit, I decided to give my old friend first crack at the score.
You know the delay when an AirPlay speaker first connects? Combine that with an unknown speaker volume, which turned out to be unnecessarily loud for the room, and well… the first track scared the shit out of everyone in the house.
Despite the terror inflicted on my young children, I really enjoy the cold open. The sharp glissando pulls you directly into the movie, and pairs well with the cut from black to the moon and star-field.
The second half of the opening occurs at the end of the Track 2, A Long Ride Ahead, which starts with the death of Jyn’s mother, followed by the search for her by Krennic’s guards. Then at the 3:30 mark, we are treated to a brief title fanfare. It lasts for about thirty seconds.
It’s not William’s iconic opening fanfare, but definitely sounds from the same family. It’s little more than an aperitif—teasing what Giacchino could’ve done with a longer sequence that included a crawl. I really like it.
There are little touches that allow this score to stand on its own, yet feel like a natural addition to the Star Wars musical universe.
You can argue the delayed title card is evidence that Rogue One is like every other non-Star Wars action movie, but I won’t hear it. It sounds familiar, so it can get away with altering the format.
Star Wars is an ethos, not a rigid set of rules.
Listening to the score, it’s clear where Giacchino adapted certain themes. Jyn Erso’s theme has elements of Williams’ Rebellion theme3. The modest theme for the Guardians of the Whills borrows from William’s Force theme, and Anakin & Padme’s love theme4 heard in Attack of the Clones5.
Unexplored and new characters required their own themes. Giacchino’s talent shines here as well. He used a musical vocabulary—orchestration, and chord structures—similar to Williams’ Star Wars sound to fuse with his own.
In my opinion, the best example of this on the entire album is Tarkin’s theme. Technically, I think it’s the Imperial theme6, but the most memorable use in the film can be heard in Track 5, When Has Become Now. This line—spoken by Tarkin—is an instant classic, and reminiscent of Vader’s iconic missives from earlier movies7.
The music also draws parallels to Vader. When you listen to Track 20, The Imperial Suite, you can hear the familiarity to The Imperial March from Empire Strikes Back. Giacchino’s theme almost sounds like it could’ve been written by Williams. Almost8. It’s brilliant.
It feels similar where it marries tone and phrases from William’s original Imperial theme—Imperial Attack from Star Wars—with staccato triplets that can feel quite Vader-esque. It differs in moments where the phrasing becomes more exaggerated. Giacchino’s theme is more regal, like Tarkin. Williams gave Vader’s melody a haunting, almost imposing feel, while Tarkin’s melody is pompous.
The Imperial March is one of William’s most recognizable themes9, and Giacchino rarely uses this motif—only when Vader is on screen. He could’ve made heavy use of the melody. However, since Imperial officers—not quasi-religious monks—play the larger role in Rogue One, I enjoy that he fashioned a theme just for them.
These tracks are my personal favorites. Most of them feature Giacchino’s own themes, without much of Williams’. Some of them blend flourishes or instrumentations from Williams’ scores to create a familiar sound for the new music.
Track 8, Star-Dust: If I first heard this track before seeing the movie, I would know—instantly—it was Giacchino. His signature soft piano adds emotional weight to one of my favorite scenes in the movie.
This is the music for Galen Erso’s hologram, as he performs the film’s signature retcon. This scene is why you cast Mads Mikkelson for a character with only a modicum of screen time. As the track softens, I can hear Erso’s line: “We call it the ‘Death Star’. There is no better name for it.” So good.
Track 9, Confrontation on Eadu: This is the best sequence in the entire score. It has everything that punctuates action scenes throughout the movie: the frenetic pace, soaring themes, and percussive brass. The track opens up at the 2:25 mark before exploding at the 3:30 mark as X-wings flood into the canyon on their attack run.
When you think the track is nearly spent, around the 5:50 mark, Giacchino jumps in again with the heart strings. I can hear Jyn’s calls to her father, “Papa”. Soft, twisting strings unravel as Galen’s voices his final line “I have so much to tell you”. The piece then crescendos into Jyn’s theme. The closing fanfare is defiant, as though the music itself is refusing to let go.
This sort of emotional rollercoaster is what Giacchino does best, and why his scores are always heavy in my rotation.
Track 17, Your Father Would be Proud: This track got me in the theater. It’s arguable if the script gave you enough story to truly feel for Jyn and Cassian in their final moments. Movies aren’t just dialogue and character development. A lot of story can be told with music and visuals, both of which are in full force during this track.
The closing moments of Rogue One are poetic and unfiltered. The plans for the Death Star were purchased with blood from the ordinary, and courageous, who are unceremoniously cut down by the might of an elite.
By Jefferson’s definition10, Jyn Erso is a patriot. An insurgent, raised by an extremist. Daughter of a man who betrayed his government. You might think that is too deep for a Star Wars movie, but the music brought me there.
The sub-title for the movie could’ve easily been “The Jyn Erso Story”. Like Luke Skywalker, she is fated to do terrible, and heroic things to redeem her father. But there are no medal ceremonies in her future. There isn’t even a brass fanfare to signal the triumph of good over evil.
This track is her eulogy. Her music humbly acknowledges her noble sacrifice, in the name of a cause. Simple, somber, and haunting. Not how you’d expect a Star Wars story to end.
You can listen to Rogue One on Apple Music.
A safe assumption, when I consider that you’re reading a 1500 word review of a Star Wars movie soundtrack. ↩
I refuse to call it “A New Hope”, or worse: Episode IV. ↩
I think this is a nod to Luke and Leia. The Guardians are undoubtedly awaiting the return of the Jedi. ↩
How could you forget “I want that ship, not excuses”, or “The emperor does not share your optimistic appraisal”? ↩
The instrumentation in the second stanza is decidedly Giachinno. ↩
Synonymous in college football with stout defense. ↩