Ty Burr explains how the movie's soundtrack made him eager to see the film

By Ty Burr
Updated May 05, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace

  • Movie

The Latest on ‘Phantom Menace’

Remember when a movie trailer actually helped you decide whether or not to see the movie? Now, of course, previews are either brief torpedoes of spin designed to lock onto a specific demographic, or sprawling messes that divulge the entire plot under the assumption that you won’t buy a ticket unless you know how the movie ends. (Then there are the art-house-movie previews, with their voice-overs all done by the same tweedy, sensitive guy. I HATE that guy.)

Listen, forget the trailers: The best way to figure out if a movie’s worth your time is to listen to the album. The music chosen or scored for a film often delivers a more accurate picture of its aims, intelligence, and spark — or lack thereof — than any hastily-assembled coming attraction. Here’s what I mean: having listened to the soundtrack CD, I am now finally looking forward to seeing ”Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace”.

You’re doubtless saying ”Well… duh.” But as someone who has always merely enjoyed the ”Star Wars” films — as opposed to finding them a transcendent, life-altering, peak experience — I’ve been casting a wary eye on all the hype (yep, EW’s included). And even if composer John Williams made the world safe for orchestral scores again with the original ”Star Wars” (and topped himself with his music for ”The Empire Strikes Back”), his recent work for Steven Spielberg on ”Amistad” and ”Saving Private Ryan” strikes these ears as intrusive, overbearing schmaltz. So it was with trepidation that I put on the CD of the ”Original Motion Picture Soundtrack: Star Wars Episode I”… and became a believer again.

Perhaps it’s his age, maybe it’s all that time spent with the Boston Pops, maybe it’s working on dramatic films like ”Rosewood,” but Williams’ new score is shot through with a beguiling maturity. As is the practice with many film composers, he lifts passages from classical compositions: You can hear some of Charles Ives’ Third Symphony in ”The Audience with Boss Nass” and smidgens of Bela Bartok’s ”Concerto for Orchestra” in other places. But Williams is a master at bending this stuff to his needs: Sure, the chorale-heavy ”Duel of the Fates” channels Orff’s ”Carmina Burana,” but it finds a doomy, propulsive groove of its own.

And most of the ”Phantom” score is an original delight. ”Anakin’s Theme” — the leitmotif of the boy who will grow up to be Darth Vader — is a lovely melody that keeps drifting toward hints of the infamous ”Imperial March,” the music effortlessly conveying nostalgia for an innocence that we know will be corrupted. There’s a ”Passage Through the Planet Core” that’s like a mini-movie unto itself, with a lone flute snaking over a huge sonic wasteland. And there’s a spectral wolf-howl theme for Darth Maul that stands my neck-hairs higher than any downloaded photo.

Yes, there are clinkers here: The penultimate ”Augie’s Great Municipal Band” is a cutesy-futuroid merengue-soca mishmash that brings the album’s sweep to a crashing halt. Better you should stick with the cuts that immediately precede it: the ghastly whispers of ”(Character Name’s) Noble End,” and the vast, mysterious dirge that is ”(Character Name’s) Funeral”. I still don’t have the foggiest notion who, exactly, (Character Name) is. The point is, now I want to.

Episode Recaps

Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace

  • Movie
  • PG
  • 134 minutes
  • George Lucas