The follow up to Star Wars A New Hope and taking the story in a whole new direction, darker, more personal for the characters and ending on a down note. Irvin Kershner took a fantasy movie that was more light hearted and whimsical and grounded it in reality. But, this isn't a movie review.
When we first come upon Hoth, where Luke is running across the snowfields of Hoth, we hear the Luke's theme, mixed in with some light hearted music, expecting this move to be similar in vein to A New Hope, we're thrown into the dark reality of this movie world almost immediately and the music carries us there. John Williams score of the movie immediately lets us know that ESB is going to be a different type of movie.
The entire first act is scored to perfection. We get the dark overtones of the Empire, we get Luke and Leia's themes mixed in with notes of anxiety and sadness that's offset by the introduction of R2-D2 and C3P0, all the while, there is a nice build up of a secondary theme, which is more militaristic, similar to the Imperial March. Letting us know that this group of heroes doesn't have much time, as something big is about to happen.
Williams is great at helping to build suspense and foreshadowing. Especially in The Empire Strikes Back. The prime example of this is The Wampas Lair. Struggle, mixed with action and escape, until Luke falls in the snow, hearing Ben Kenobi's voice and ultimately rescued by Han.
The soundtrack continues on like this for every scene, Williams works the score on such an emotional level, that we feel like we're being taken for a ride on a rollercoaster. To give you an example, when Luke and Han are found and rescued after spending a night on the plains of Hoth, the music begins with a frantic pace, the searchers concerned that the heroes didn't make it through. As they continue to call out for Han and Luke, the music builds. Did they survive? When we finally hear Han return the call, the speakers crackling to life "Good Morning", we hear the relief in the music as well as how this is a minor victory comes across as well.
But it's all short lived. We're introduced to the new Imperial March theme, the Battle of Hoth and the Asteroid Chase, all giving way to the characters splitting up. Han and Leia heading off towards their destiny on Bespin and Luke to his destiny with Yoda on Dagobah. Each of these tracks, just like in the story, ends on a down note, failure or defeat the overall theme.
What I believe is the greatest thing about John Williams and his music, is his ability to compose compelling, intense tracks and he then twists it, so that we get that moment of "everything might be ok", but it really isn't, it's a lull in the music, a safety cocoon, but it's all a red flag. There's danger around the corner, the heroes know that, but they're doing what they can to be calm in a chaotic situation.
The other reason this soundtrack is so great, is Williams ability to capture movement in his songs. The Battle of Hoth Medley, The Asteroid Chase, Rescue From Cloud City, Imperial Starfleet Deployed. All of these, as you watch the movie, are composed in such a way as to make you feel as if you're part of the movie. The soundtrack is so powerful, that it gets you as emotionally invested in hearing it, as the movie does in watching it.
As a person that dabbles in playing music, I understand the power of emotion when it comes to music. Whatever your taste in music is, you understand the power behind your favorite songs. The emotional connection the music, the lyrics (if there are lyrics), the beat or it reminds of a good (or bad) moment in your life. All of this, is a connection to why we are all invested in these types of artists. It also provides a unique experience for each person listening to this music, as each song brings up certain experiences we had, that we associate with the music.
By the end of the movie, the heroes are beaten, Solo has been captured, Luke, scarred and changed forever and Vader, angry, confused and maybe a bit hopeful for the future. As the end plays out, with the Rebel fleet flying past the cameras, there's a bit of hope played, to let us know that even though the good guys have lost, it's ok, they've survived to fight another day.
The Empire Strikes Back is such a great piece of recorded history. John Williams, again, is a master at conveying emotions, movement, peril, anxiety, and sadness. Mixed in with some light hearted moments (Yoda's intro, R2 fallin in the swamp), the overall soundtrack is created to give the viewer a feeling of dread and failure, that no matter what happens, our heroes aren't going to get out of this one. Yet, somehow they do, more experienced and wiser to the world they live in.
Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
PG | 2h 4min | Action, Adventure, Fantasy | 20 June 1980 (USA)
After the rebels are overpowered by the Empire on the ice planet Hoth, Luke Skywalker begins Jedi training with Yoda. His friends accept shelter from a questionable ally as Darth Vader hunts them in a plan to capture Luke.
Director: Irvin Kershner
Writers: Leigh Brackett (screenplay by), Lawrence Kasdan (screenplay by)
Stars: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher