With John Williams Stepping Aside, 'Solo' Looks to Create a 'Modern' Musical Score for 'Star Wars'

Jonathan Olley /© Lucasfilm/ © Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures /Courtesy Everett Collection
Alden Ehrenreich as Han Solo and Joonas Suotamo as Chewbacca in Solo: A Star Wars Story.

A long time ago in a theater probably near you, audiences sat down for a science fiction movie from the mind of George Lucas, then hot off his love letter to 1950s Americana, American Graffiti. When the original Star Wars was released in 1977, its first moments were of that now-infamous title scroll accompanied by none other than composer John Williams' instantly iconic score. "It still gets me every time," says Jason Fry, author of more than 40 Star Wars novels and stories, including the novelization of The Last Jedi. "There are the blue letters telling you this happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, which come with a silent pause. And then boom! That unmistakable fanfare arrives and you're transported. I've sat through that moment hundreds of times and I get chills."

Perhaps as important to Star Wars lore as lightsabers and Wookies, the music of the series has helped bring the characters of the epic film universe to life for more than 40 years. Now, Solo: A Star Wars Story joins that lore, the latest installment of the series that focuses on the origins of the character of Han Solo (played by Alden Ehrenreich). "Sound has always been Star Wars' secret weapon," says Fry. "That started with the work of (sound designer) Ben Burtt and John Williams. Williams' music was critical to giving Star Wars sweep and grandeur, without stepping on any of the Flash Gordon-style fun. It put the opera in space opera."

In a departure for the series, Solo marks just the second time John Williams isn't the film's musical mastermind. In his shoes, the composer John Powell stepped in, who's taken inspiration from Williams himself over a long career that's seen the UK native scoring everything from How To Train Your Dragon to Jason Bourne. "Everything John's done has influenced me," explains Powell of Williams' legend. "One of the realizations I've had is that I've probably been trying to do Star Wars my whole career, that kind of music."

Powell notes that as the series is beginning to veer a bit (Solo is considered an ancillary story to the main saga, after all), he found himself on a handpicked list curated by producer Kathleen Kennedy, Williams and the directing duo of Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the latter of whom were famously replaced in the midst of shooting by the industry veteran Ron Howard. According to Powell, he only agreed to the gig after learning that Williams would contribute the main theme, thus providing a template for the rest of the score. "Once I had his theme, it gave me permission to do the things the film perhaps was asking for. Since it's a different type of film, he was telling me not to worry and not be too honorable to the original, and do what I felt like is the right thing to do." One of the challenges was to concoct a present-day sounding-score that still felt timeless, a tricky proposition. "John was interested to see how it would be if it were modern, as it were. And I say 'modern' in inverted quotes because his style is sort of timeless for a classic. The danger with making anything modern is that it goes out of fashion. If you look back on a score from 1977 by John Williams, it doesn't seem out of date at all. But if you look back on a score by an electronic rock band (from the 70s) and listen to it now, it sounds really dated. John's score could have been '77, '88, '98 anytime." According to Powell, his mere goal was "to fit into that world, not fuck it up, and also not be frightened to do what the film needs."

After all, the history of Williams' instantly recognizable score has been just as culturally impactful as the actual movies themselves. Recommended to Lucas by his cohort Steven Spielberg (Williams and Spielberg had previously collaborated with great success on Jaws), Williams dove into Star Wars with a singular, epic vision while taking inspiration from other sources, like the orchestration for Erich Wolfgang Korngold 1942 film King's Row. (Even the first few notes of that film's main theme sound remarkably similar to what he'd concoct for Star Wars.) In the end, Williams won a Grammy, Golden Globe and Oscar for Best Original Score for his efforts, with the soundtrack album itself scoring platinum status. On a list of the Best Film Scores in Movie History, the American Film Institute put Star Wars in the number one slot, beating out the likes of Psycho and The Godfather.

In the 70s, in a time when the popular movies of the day weren't as readily available, Star Wars fans turned to the album to remember their favorite scenes and moments. "I had the double LP and listened to it a lot as a kid," remembers Fry, noting it made so much of an impact a friend even employed the soundtrack during his wedding. "Their recessional was the throne-room theme from A New Hope. Half the church grinned in recognition and thought it was perfect and the other half couldn't place it and thought it was perfect."

The pressure of that cultural impact was not lost on Powell. "There were a lot of time when I froze and couldn't write because I was too worried," he explains. "I spent more time thinking than writing in this case." Sworn to secrecy about his gig, Powell started got to work writing in January knowing he'd need a theme for the love story, for the gang of friends, and Chewbacca, among others. "I spent the end of last year fiddling around with tunes and then wrote backup and secondary tunes." From there, his orchestra recorded in March for 10 days. Powell locked his work in mid-April.

With the film about to be released in theaters with the strength of the universe seemingly behind it, it's a long way from the underdog status the debut film had back in 1977. "It's crazy because when I talk to John about the original Star Wars, he was saying not to read too much into it," laughs Powell. "It was kind of just another gig. You get a gig, you do it best you can, and that's what he did for Star Wars."