In general, movie trailers tend to feature older compositions or temp tracks rather than new works from the advertised film. John Williams had previously written a specific score for Hook’s first teaser, and his Harry Potter theme initially appeared in the series’ announcement trailer, but otherwise his work—especially for the Star Wars films—premiered with the films themselves. So it was a particularly welcome surprise, amid all the other surprises of the Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer premiere Monday night, to hear brand-new music from John Williams.
In a 2009 conversation Matt Zoller Seitz and I had about the music of the Star Wars prequels, Seitz equated Williams to the benshi of the Japanese cinema’s silent era, who would stand in front of the cinema and interpret the film. Williams has always woven deeper meaning into his compositions, and that tendency was pronounced in his scores for the prequels—so it makes sense that the musical cues in the trailer, whether this is music composed for the film itself or only for the trailer, can also offer up some clues.
The trailer opens with a new theme. First, we hear the stripped-down version on the piano, played meticulously as Daisy Ridley’s character Rey makes her way through the insides of a fallen Star Destroyer on Jakku. It’s an innocent theme, hinting at longing and a desire to get away, underscored when we see Rey watch a starship leave her barren, desert planet and the piano is complemented by the harp. We hear a repeat of this theme as we’re introduced to John Boyega’s turncoat stormtrooper, Finn, protesting that he has nothing to fight for. If you listen closely, you can also hear some of the whispered words in Sanskrit from “Duel of the Fates,” the key musical motif from The Phantom Menace.
Then come the timpani, and we are taken to the bridge of a star destroyer: At the center of the shot is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), our mysterious villain, surrounded by a red glow emanating from what seems to be an explosion in space. We hear the same theme as before. It’s a full-on orchestral version this time, heavy on the bass and percussion, still sad but this time threatening. Does this hint at a connection between Kylo and Rey, a familial one? If so, who are their parents?
Just as we ask this question, this new theme blends into a brand new arrangement of Han and Leia’s love theme from The Empire Strikes Back. Now, John Williams reverse-engineered a number of the themes from the original trilogy for the prequels (see the final celebration music in The Phantom Menace as well as the final few notes of the “Trade Federation March”). Could this seamless musical transition in the trailer hint at something more?
The bass and the percussion go into overdrive next as Han Solo admits to the “kids” that all the stories they had heard about the Force were true. Naturally, these scenes are scored with a slower, more regal version of the “Force Theme.” John Williams has also written a great vocal track, which, once again, makes this new arrangement feel like a cross between the original trilogy and the prequels. The trailer reaches a visual and musical crescendo as X-wings battle TIE fighters in a shot reminiscent of The Dam Busters, and Kylo Ren confronts Finn.
Now, people have been asking where Luke is in the trailer. But even if we don’t see him properly, his presence is there. I think we see him touch R2D2 earlier, his face cloaked by his Jedi robes; and Finn, in the final shot, wields the lightsaber Luke used against Vader in their fateful duel on Bespin. But Luke makes his true appearance at the end of the trailer. The final track we hear is the familiar Star Wars theme, played slowly and somberly, as a disembodied voice tells someone to “let the Force in.”
That’s Luke’s theme. He is calling for us.
Update, 3:37 pm: Frederick Lloyd, director and composer for films, TV, trailers and media, has since come forward on Twitter to announce that he contributed music to the latter half of the trailer, namely the Force Theme. He has not revealed the full extent of his input and indicated that he is unable to go into further detail on the process.