For fans of both Star Wars and music, an insightful presentation was recently given at Star Wars Celebration Orlando. Delivered by David W. Collins, “The Music of Rogue One: Analysis with David Collins” was an entertaining and edifying way of appreciating some musical elements of Rogue One. The talk was an engaging multi-media presentation, involving both music playing alongside scenes from both Rogue One, as well as A New Hope, as well as him using a keyboard to aurally illustrate music.
Before Collins got into discussing the music of Rogue One specifically, he took a step back and said “You can’t talk about the music of Rogue One without talking about the original score,” and, referring to Rogue One composer Michael Giacchino, as well as John Williams, “you can’t talk about Giacchino without talking about Williams.” Collins expressed his utter amazement at how brilliantly Giacchino scored the film – and that’s without even mentioning the incredibly brief amount of time he had to write it: four and a half weeks(!). Four and a half weeks (not months!). Wow! And, in that time, he, according to Collins, had to do three things: 1) Honor and incorporate the work of Williams, 2) He had to be true to himself, and 3) he had to be a good storyteller.
Incorporating and honoring the work of Williams is no small feat. This is something that Collins mentioned as The Composer’s Conundrum, or, as Dr. Robert Greenberg called it, “The guerrilla in the living room.” This is, according to Collins, specifically referring to composers, and that “any composer worth their salt will take what came before them and also be true to their own voice.” This is especially notable for Star Wars, since, as Collins stated, “for the last 40 years, we have been graced by…the work of John Williams” and that “it’s impossible to overstate” his impact on the music.
As to being a good storyteller, Collins mentioned that “all composers are storytellers”, with Williams being a paradigmatic example of this description. For instance, the main title theme of A New Hope, as described in Williams’ liner notes for the soundtrack was actually Luke Skywalker’s theme. As such, Williams told a story in the melody, specifically that of the hero’s journey. Hearkening back to Joseph Campbell’s idea of there being steps along the way for telling the story of a hero, Williams incorporated just that into that song, which is pretty incredible.
Moving onto Rogue One, both musically and story-wise, Collins pointed out that “Rogue One tells a different story”, not the least because there is no main title crawl, but also because it is thematically a different movie. He pointed out that there is “Hope” in different appearances throughout the movie, although it’s “not the biggest theme in Rogue One; actually, it’s something that makes up several themes”, which, he said, was confirmed to him by Giacchino. Rather, he said it was Dies Irae.
Collins then focussed on this musical concept of Dies Irae for most of his musical insights into Rogue One. A Latin hymn formerly sung in Mass for the Dead, Dies Irae was “quoted throughout romantic period by composers wishing to communicate dread, macabre, and death.” It then “became a musical word for death or darkness”, which was “quoted commonly in film scores” as a “musical shorthand” for death. In Jyn’s theme, alone, Dies Irae occurs three times. Jyn’s theme’s opening sounds startlingly like that of “Across the Stars”, but, as Collins pointed out, that sort of sound is “more meant to point towards longing” in a general sense and not, specifically meant to point to Anakin-Padme’s relationship. What was particularly mind-blowing was Collins then flashing back to A New Hope and showing us a scene from Obi-Wan Kenobi’s residence and music playing, which Giacchino used as the basis for Jyn’s theme. It was quite an obscure, yet amazing find.
Also taking place in that scene in Kenobi’s residence were some flutes, which, as Collins noted, are found in both A New Hope and Rogue One whenever the message about the Death Star plans are discussed, making a throughline from Galen Erso to Bodhi Rook to Princess Leia and on through to R2-D2. That is a really clever connection that Giacchino made to the original.
One other musical aspect of Rogue One that Collins pointed out was the “sweet, sorrowful music towards the end of Rogue One“, when we see the Death Star blowing up Scarif, Vader plowing through a corridor of Rebel troops, and more. While these very action-filled sequences might naturally draw one to compose dramatic or action-y music, the music went in an entirely different direction. Collins was very enthralled by this decision, calling it “really clever on the part of Giacchino.”
While the presentation was, essentially, a rehashing of what he shared on the most recent episode of Star Wars Oxygen, “Star Wars Oxygen Vol. 38: Rogue One Part 1” (rather than, say, a deeper dive than what he did on that episode), it was, nevertheless, purposeful. For starters, there were attendees who might not listen to the show (nor had heard of it), so it was not only a great introduction for them to the musical insights of David W. Collins, but also, perhaps to Star Wars Oxygen. And, even for those who do listen to the show, it was not only intriguing to see David W. Collins share his insights to a live audience, but also for him to be able to show clips from the movies (in this case, both A New Hope and Rogue One) as opposed to the podcast listener to have to remember the scenes – this certainly made it easier for both Collins to communicate his points, as well as easier for the audience to visualize the scenes that the music accompanies.
(N.B. There was neither any Q&A session nor opportunity for the audience to interact with Collins, which was, somewhat an unfortunate missed opportunity, at least for the fans, who were in the same room with him, as that would have been an additional benefit to being in the audience for this presentation, as opposed to listening to the podcast. (Furthermore, neither did anyone have the opportunity to ask about the extended break that Star Wars Oxygen has taken since that last episode on Rogue One in December, nor did he mention anything about when the next episode (if there will be anymore) will be published.*))
* He also did not discuss when to check for future podcast episodes of Star Wars Oxygen and he most certainly did not bring up the recent controversy over Rebel Force Radio that has been brewing over the past several months. Moreover, he did not discuss if that controversy has caused him to put on pause his continuing involvement with Rebel Force Radio or even if he has made a decision to cease working with them. As someone who, in the past few months, has begun listening to Star Wars Oxygen, I have greatly appreciated listening to the show and have gone back to the show’s first episodes and have continued to enjoy the show. My hope is that David W. Collins continues to share his insights into the music of Star Wars, even if it’s not with Star Wars Oxygen, as the sharing of his expertise has been a treasure for fans such as myself.