Music Album Review: ‘Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack’

Cover art by Drew Struzan. (C) 1999 Sony Classical and Lucasfilm Ltd.

On May 4, 1999. Sony Classical released Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack. Produced by composer-conductor John Williams and mixed by Shawn Murphy, this one-CD album presented an abridged version of Maestro Williams’ fourth Star Wars score and was the first new Star Wars canon soundtrack since 1983’s Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.

This album reunites Star Wars writer-director George Lucas with the Jedi Master of modern film composing, the 5-time Academy Award-winning “Johnny” Williams, after a 16-year hiatus from that galaxy far, far away. For both men, the challenge was difficult: how do you tell a Star Wars story without Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo, but delves instead into the preceding chapters of the Skywalker Saga to tell the story of a nine-year-old Anakin Skywalker, who is now an innocent wide-eyed kid but is destined to become the evil Dark Lord of the Sith, Darth Vader?

As George Lucas wrote over 21 years ago in the album’s liner notes:

John had to draw upon the signature themes while creating a new, if somehow familiar, musical galaxy. And he had to visit new emotional territory in Episode I. His music had to help tell the story of a pacifist Queen who confronts the need to fight for the survival of her people, a mother who must give up her son so that he might achieve his true potential, and noble Jedi faced with the rise of an unimaginable evil.

In sharp contrast with the RCA Victor double-CD soundtracks for the 1997 Special Edition re-release of the original Star Wars trilogy, Sony Classical’s Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace marks a return to the recording industry’s standard of abridged versions of film scores. Where, for instance, the 1997Special Edition double album presented every cue written for Lucas’s Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) as it was heard in the film, The Phantom Menace presents just over one hour and 22 minutes’ worth of musical material from a score that is two hours long.

And, just as in the first three soundtrack albums released by 20th Century Music and RSO Records between 1977 and 1983, album producer John Williams, music editor Ken Wannberg, and mixer Shawn Murphy present most of the cues out of chronological sequence and in concert hall arrangements, often blending cues from sequences that are far apart in the film’s runtime and have nothing to do with each other besides being composed for The Phantom Menace.

As Maestro Williams had done in the previous three films – and would continue to do all the way to 2019’s Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, he wrote a score that blends major motifs from the Original Trilogy – Star Wars Main Title, The Force Theme, the Emperor’s Theme, and even a hint of The Imperial March – with two major new compositions that will recur in the next two films, Anakin’s Theme and Duel of the Fates.

Duel of the Fates, which is a ruthless and driving composition, features restless strings, brooding woodwinds, and choral presentations of an alien-sounding chant (it’s in Sanskrit, one of India’s many languages). As the name implies, it’s not only indicative of a furious clash between the good Jedi and the evil Sith, but it also underscores changes in destiny and the choices a Force user must make in life.

It’s also the best-known theme from Episode I, as it was played on classical music stations shortly before the CD was released in 1999.  It was also featured on the “Duel of the Fates” video that aired on MTV as part of the Lucasfilm media campaign.)

Anakin’s Theme is one of Williams’ best “character” themes, revealing both the gentle goodness of the nine-year-old who will someday be the father of Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, and the seeds of the anger and fear that will help transform him into the evil Lord Darth Vader. His theme is reminiscent of Yoda’s, with passages that evoke tenderness and a yearning for adventure, yet each iteration of the theme has hints of the Imperial March, subtle in the first rendition but more obvious at the end.

Track List:

1Star Wars Main Title and The Arrival at Naboo2:55
2Duel of the Fates4:14
3Anakin’s Theme3:08
4Jar Jar’s Introduction and The Swim to Otoh Gunga5:07
5The Sith Spacecraft and The Droid Battle2:37
6The Trip to the Naboo Temple and The Audience With Boss Nass4:07
7The Arrival On Tatooine and The Flag Parade4:04
8He Is the Chosen One3:53
9Anakin Defeats Sebulba4:23
10Passage Through the Planet Core4:39
11Watto’s Deal and Kids at Play4:57
12Panaka and The Queen’s Protectors3:24
13Queen Amidala and The Naboo Palace4:51
14The Droid Invasion and The Appearance of Darth Maul5:14
15Qui-Gon’s Noble End3:48
16The High Council Meeting and Qui-Gon’s Funeral3:08
17Augie’s Great Municipal Band and End Credits9:38

As in all the Star Wars scores, most of the characters and situations are presented musically. As befits the hapless and overly curious Gungan that became the focus of fans’ disdain, Jar Jar Binks gets a playful and somewhat mischievous leitmotif (track 4), which is married to the very aquatic-sounding Swim to Otoh Gunga, the marvelous city under the Naboo swamps and lakes.

Dark music and martial themes are also much in evidence on this CD, including The Sith Spacecraft and The Droid Battle (track 5), The Droid Invasion and The Appearance of Darth Maul (track 14), and Qui-Gon’s Noble End (track 15).

Although the music obviously avoids quoting the Star Wars theme – which is associated with Luke, who hasn’t even been conceived yet- Williams does get to borrow from the other films’ scores. The famous Force theme is heard in such destiny-changing scenes as He Is the Chosen One (track 8), Anakin Defeats Sebulba – which also features quotes of Jabba’s theme – and Qui-Gon’s Funeral (the second half of track 16). Both Yoda’s Theme and Darth Vader’s Imperial March can be heard in The High Council Meeting (the first half of track 16).

Reflecting the future Emperor’s first real victory in his campaign to subtly take over the Republic, the Emperor’s theme from Return of the Jedi is heard as a joyous victory song performed by innocent-sounding children in Augie’s Great Municipal Band, which then segues to the traditional Star Wars end credits medley of the main theme, the Rebel Fanfare, then Duel of the Fates and Anakin’s Theme.

My Take

After two years of listening to the RCA Victor double CD soundtracks for A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi, I had high hopes that the first soundtrack for the then-new Star Wars Prequel Trilogy would follow suit and that it would be a two-disc album with the complete score from Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. I mean, a precedent had been set by both Lucasfilm and a major music label, so I figured the new soundtrack album, the first new score for the saga in 16 years, would follow in the Special Edition’s tracks.

At least, that’s what I told myself on the way to the Miami International Mall to buy the album on its first week of release, which was 15 days or so in advance of the film’s opening day of May 19, 1999.

Ah, no. When I went to the Soundtracks aisle at Camelot Music – which later became an FYE store – and picked up the jewel box with the Drew Struzan poster art on the front cover and a scene from the podrace on the reverse side, my hopes were dashed. Sony Classical, which was then the label that Maestro Williams had a contract with, had decided to give The Phantom Menace a “traditional” soundtrack album rather than a more faithful – and complete – presentation of Williams’ brilliant symphonic score.

But, hey. It was – and still is – a Star Wars soundtrack, and it was composed and conducted by John Williams, and not by some other film music guy like Alexander Desplat or Hans Zimmer.

And eventually I got over my disappointment that Sony Classical had not given film score buffs the entire score, although I did hope that the company would revisit their decision and issue a 2-CD album in the vein of RCA Victor’s 1997 Special Edition soundtrack sets.[1]

Overall, despite my misgivings about the “Greatest Hits” approach that plagues most of the commercially released soundtrack albums sold by most labels, I still enjoy Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack. I love the magical blend of themes from the older films with the 1999 material, and the two major new motifs – Anakin’s Theme and Duel of the Fates – are among my favorites from the Star Wars musical canon.

Williams, as always, gets a great performance out of the London Symphony Orchestra, the ensemble he and Lucas first teamed with in 1977 for A New Hope. The texture of the music is just as rich and enchanting as that from the Classic Trilogy, and for casual listeners who are not sticklers for exactitude, this is an enjoyable recording.

[1] Sony did, indeed, issue a 2-CD Ultimate Edition set for The Phantom Menace’s score in November of 2000, but for various reasons the album was not carefully executed – no liner notes were included, and the timing between tracks was so badly done that the listener doesn’t get even a momentary pause when playing the discs. The music itself was great and even includes the 20th Century Fox Fanfare by Alfred Newman, but it did not sell well and killed any chance that Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith would get Ultimate Editions of their soundtracks,

Published by Alex Diaz-Granados

Alex Diaz-Granados (1963- ) began writing movie reviews as a staff writer and Entertainment Editor for his high school newspaper in the early 1980s and was the Diversions editor for Miami-Dade Community College, South Campus' student newspaper for one semester. Using his experiences in those publications, Alex has been raving and ranting about the movies online since 2003 at various web sites, including Amazon, Ciao and Epinions. In addition to writing reviews, Alex has written or co-written three films ("A Simple Ad," "Clown 345," and "Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss") for actor-director Juan Carlos Hernandez. You can find his reviews and essays on his blogs, A Certain Point of View and A Certain Point of View, Too.

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