ESSAYS ON STAR WARS: In ‘Attack of the Clones,’ John Williams is Smoother than Sand

“It’s almost cheating when you have John Williams [score your movie] because he writes feelings… He knows how to make your heart soar like no one else.” — J.J. Abrams

I might be the only person for whom this is the case. But in the scene of Attack of the Clones where Anakin’s sand poetry is enough to draw Padme in for a first kiss, “sand” is merely the second thing that comes to mind. “It’s coarse and rough and irritating” might well be the words Anakin uses to describe the execution of the scene as written and as performed. No doubt the scene earns its reputation as an all-time movie clunker, right alongside “so how’s your sex life?” or “Not the bees!” or “Hold me like you did by the lake on Naboo.” But each time I watch Clones, my mind veers to the music.

Watch, if you can. More importantly listen, if you can.

If your ear can wriggle between the words, muffle out everything but the music, you get a far more potent dialogue between lovers. Piano and strings alternate, mirroring the idyllic view of the lake, the impeccably kempt foliage. Her summer gown, a spectrum of pastels, contrasts against his dark, looming, handsome figure. As she guides them, he dares to brush his hand against the her figures, and onward to her naked back. She looks at him, and he grins slightly. For an instant, the music tapers. Then a certain melody sounds, one heard twice already. Clearly a lovers’ anthem. An oboe, with harpsichord accompaniment, goads them both closer, until finally their lips meet. The melody continues, this time bolstered by a full, swelling orchestra. Until she comes to her senses, and quickly pulls away. So too does the score pull away, tapering just as effortlessly—if much more quickly. They stand together awkwardly.

And scene.

This isn’t the only instance of that love theme, fittingly titled “Across the Stars,” functioning in this way. When Anakin pours his heart out to Padme, ”haunted by the kiss” she should never have given him, it plays as a piano solo. As Padme finally admits to reciprocating his love, unafraid to die because since his return “she’s been dying a little bit each day,” it labors to make you forget you’re “dying a little bit” yourself. The sound of John Williams’ melody, smoothly or swooningly, plays fascinatingly at-odds against Lucas’ words in most moments. The composer works either to distract from, or overwhelm, as much of the stilted wordplay as possible. His score is a metallic blue paint, brushed over a rusted, mufflerless jalopy.

It’s entirely to Williams’ credit his paint-job almost works. (Almost.) It’s unlikely Attack of the Clones will ever go down as anybody’s favorite Star Wars movie. The dialogue, even by the grading curve of its predecessors, can never be forgiven. Nor can the dismaying lack of chemistry between actors, nor can the clumsily forced plotting. (I might defend the film’s pacing, action set-pieces, Ewan MacGregor’s gameness with the material, and Lucas’ noir-ish coloring of the mystery behind Padme’s assassination attempt. But even I must concede there are too many nicks, and too little jewel.) But nobody works harder to salvage this movie than Williams and this melody. The most critical ambition Clones set for itself was to convince the audience its doomed heroes, two of the most powerful people in the galaxy, would acquiesce to their passions at the expense of everything they’d earned. Classic forbidden love. And forbidden love only works if the storyteller’s convinced you that, for the lovers, truly nothing else matters. Williams is the only one in this movie to successfully evoke such conviction.

Though my knowledge of music is embarrassingly pedestrian, I feel comfortable calling “Across the Stars” a simple melody, if deceptively so. Composed in ¾ time, it’s friendliest to strings and woodwinds. The rhythm should ring a bell to anybody able to hum the main Star Wars melody—the same one accompanying each installment’s opening crawl. Their patterns of quarter notes and triplets nearly match each other for the first few measures, though eventually they do diverge. These are two tunes working within the same universe, the latter mirroring the language of the former. That the melody is played in a minor key makes for the critical emotional shift. The Main Theme of Star Wars, played in major chords, serves a carefree naivete; an arousal to adventure in the spirit of Erich Wolfgang Korngold and the Michael Curtiz/Errol Flynn classics. With its shift to minor key, the conveyances of “Across the Stars” remain naive, yet less carefree than careless. The melody endears itself to ache. It sheds the familiar bittersweetly, clandestinely, and it fulfills a need for passion. How this theme arouses feels completely different. It encapsulates virtually every quality you hope to feel when you watch a movie about literal star-crossed lovers. It is perfect.

Lucas and his collaborating directors have yet to make a Star Wars movie whose emotional resonance doesn’t depend heavily on Williams’ melodies. Even in Rogue One, whose score was infamously inked by a replacement composer and handed off to the orchestra in a matter of weeks, counted on the generic musical contours of Williams’ anthems and leitmotifs to sound like Star Wars. (It’s remarkable how much Michael Giacchino’s theme for Jyn Erso resembles “Across the Stars.”) Williams’ compositions unify each of these installments, successes and failures, masking their erratic qualities by making them a part of a very special movie club. A simple cue of a familiar theme can be enough to make you forget this actor’s cruddy line reading, or that script’s blatantly rehashed plot point. Score matters most.

This is most self-evident in Clones, not simply for how aggressively its banner theme presents itself, but for how little of the movie plays unscored. I’ve seen the movie more times than I care to admit (certainly more than you), and I can think of only a single moment—the beginning of the arena showdown—where Williams’ baton stays idle. Even in the series’ most abjectly lazy music moment—where it seems clear there was not enough time in the production schedule to write a full score—Williams has to repurpose music previously recorded for The Phantom Menace to make the first battle of the Clone Wars sound right. It’s better than nothing. Williams’ music is more than valuable; it is unconditional.

Most of the other sequels use their musicless moments to enjoy the characters’ banter, to showcase Ben Burtt’s sound design prowess or, as happened in The Force Awakens, to lend gravity to the introduction of a great new protagonist. But in Clones, it’s clear how badly Lucas needs Williams to resuscitate his vision. It’s clear the Oscar-winning composer is Lucas’ version of “fixing it in post.” And as demonstrated in the score for Clones, which in addition to its parent film itself is widely considered the series’ weakest composition, Williams establishes himself as one of the great fixers in big-budget storytelling. This movie was, for him, a clear salvage-job. And for the job, he brought his best tools. Those tools included one of the most beautiful, haunting melodies he’s crafted in his half-century of masterful film music, to be used here ad nauseum.

Perhaps no lone composer could have salvaged Attack of the Clones. Considering what he did, though, it’s hard to envision any other lone composer doing better.

This is the fifth in a series of film essays on the Star Wars film series. The schedule for the series and links to all posted essays can be seen below:

Attack of the Clones, Essays on Star Wars, Featured, George Lucas, John Williams, Movie Marathons, Star Wars, Star Wars Marathon

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