When Star Wars Films Go Musicless, the Result is Strangely Powerful
Posted on November 04 2016
Even if we put aside the visual innovations of George Lucas’ Star Wars saga, we’re still left with a groundbreaking aural experience that forever changed the way we hear cinema. Though there were many people involved with the way Star Wars sounds, it’s doubtful that things would have been the same if it weren’t for composer John Williams and sound designer Ben Burtt. Williams’ inimitable score and Burtt’s familiar-yet-alien sound effects bring the six original Star Wars films to life in a way that’s unique to that universe.
So much has been written about the magical quality that a John Williams score lends to a film, but even Williams knows that sometimes, a score isn’t called for. Steven Spielberg, in his speech at John Williams’ AFI Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony put it succinctly: “Great composers like John know that the power of music also lies in the absence of music.”
And so, during postproduction, some scenes in a film end up without a score. In score spotting sessions, it’s decided which scenes need music and which ones can go without. This is when Ben Burtt is given the full attention of the audience, and being Ben Burtt, he rarely disappoints. There are three notable sequences where the sound design grabs the full spotlight, so much so that you might not even notice the absence an epic Williams track.
Perhaps my favorite example is during the Boonta Eve podrace in The Phantom Menace. For the majority of this rather long action setpiece, you’re completely without a Williams tune. It isn’t until the tail end of the race where the score kicks in to heighten the suspense of Anakin’s pod malfunctioning due to sabotage. Just to listen to the sound in this sequence is a delight onto itself, with the thrumming engines of the pods punctuated by moments of collision and intense crashes. The soundscape borrows, naturally, from the real-life worlds of NASCAR and Formula One racing for many of its sounds, from the chugging of engines to the whines as the pods loop back around through the grandstands at Mos Espa.
Attack of the Clones has a few notable scenes that go without music, or that subvert the way we might expect a scene to sound. For instance, the sports bar that Obi-Wan and Anakin chase Zam Wessel into could have been more like the melody-filled cantina in A New Hope, but instead we get the sounds of patrons and a subtle underscore. But one of the biggest chases (in a film with multiple chases in it) goes mostly without Williams to back it up — the asteroid field chase featuring Jango Fett and Obi-Wan Kenobi. Like in the podrace, Williams’ work doesn’t enter the scene until a critical moment, when Jango Fett readies his missles. The reason why this decision is brilliant is that the focus gets put onto the innovative seismic charges that Fett uses to try and repel Kenobi. In this case, your ears are treated to what Burtt terms an “audio black hole,” with the charges sucking all the sound away for an instant before exploding.
What might be, for me, the most surprising instance of soundtrack silence is the speeder bike chase in Return of the Jedi. The unforgettable chase in the great redwoods of Endor have such effective, evocative sound effects that there isn’t a moment to catch your breath — or notice that John Williams has taken a respite. The clicks and pops of the speeder bikes, along with the whooshing of tree branches and the dialogue move so quickly, it’s no wonder that the decision was made to not write music for the scene. In The Making of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, J.W. Rinzler relays the creative process as told by Burtt:
“Because sound design and music were so closely linked, Burtt also sat in on the spotting [of the speeder bike chase]… [he] suggested that there be no music during the sequence, explaining that ‘the intensity of the scene would be more pronounced if we surprised the audience with just a point-of-view reality of visceral bike sounds,’ Burtt would say. ‘I felt it was unnecessary to have music tell the audience that it was exciting. Johnny Williams agreed, so George [Lucas] threw up his hands and said, ‘Okay, if you guys say so.’”
It’s easy to see with the wide array of sequences in the six original Star Wars films, there were plenty of opportunities for the soundtrack, the sound effects, or both to enhance the scene. Both Ben Burtt and John Williams understand the power of music and sound, but sometimes both is a little too much.
In The Empire Strikes Back, music was cut from the film even after it had been recorded. In this case, a spotting session produced one opinion, and Williams wrote the music accordingly. But perhaps when all assembled in editing, the music in some scenes in the already-intense middle chapter of the original trilogy was overwhelming. Scenes in Echo Base towards the beginning of the film, inside the space slug, and even parts of the film’s climactic lightsaber fight all had score that was left out of the final mix. Empire’s ex-post-facto approach is creatively a little more risky, but the film’s ratio of music to scenes with only sound effects heightened the drama in a masterful way.
From the podrace to the speeder bike chase, Burtt and Williams worked together and separately to underscore critical scenes and moments in the saga. Sometimes, leaving the music out is absolutely the best for a certain scene in a movie, and it’s especially true for Star Wars films. To paraphrase an old jazz adage: it’s the notes you don’t play that make the difference.
Sources: The Making of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, J.W. Rinzler; Designing Sound, September’s Featured Sound Designer: Ben Burtt; AFI Lifetime Achievement Award: John Williams broadcast, June 15 2016
Brendan Nystedt was very afraid of Darth Vader hiding under his bed when he was five years old. Now, he writes reviews of consumer electronics for Reviewed.com. Please follow him on Twitter @bnystedt!