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The Emperor’s New Score

Just how would John Williams musically close the ‘Star Wars’ trilogy?
Return Of the Jedi Score
By  · Published on August 3rd, 2020

Welcome to Franchising the Score, a column that will explore countless musical scores from all of your favorite movie franchises. We’re starting with maybe the most famous of all, so strap yourself in while we make the jump to hyperspace and travel back a long time ago to a galaxy far, far away… with the Return of the Jedi score.

By the time the Empire had struck back, George Lucas knew he would be able to finish his Star Wars trilogy. The anticipation would be sky-high; the stakes were now huge in not only the dramatic potential but also the music. The second film had brought with it a theme for Darth Vader that hit pop culture like a lightning bolt. Just what would John Williams bring us next?

Return of the Jedi hit theaters on May 25, 1983, and brought with it a grotesque gallery of creatures and villains, including our first look at vile gangster Jabba the Hutt and an expanded role for the Emperor, previously seen only as a hologram. We were also introduced to the Ewoks, that inimitable group of teddy bears that fandom has been split on ever since.

The film also gave audiences resolutions to some of the other big questions from The Empire Strikes Back, such as whether or not Luke would return to complete his Jedi training and what would happen with the love triangle of sorts between Luke, Leia, and Han. The answers were simple; Luke returned only to witness Yoda’s death, after which he was told that the love he felt for Leia was platonic because she was his long lost sister. And then there was the matter of Luke’s final rematch with Darth Vader, who now would be playing second fiddle to his master, the legendary Emperor.

Indeed, one of the big challenges of scoring Return of the Jedi was that it’s ostensibly a series of climaxes. Before anything can be done for the continuing fight against the Empire, our heroes first have to go to Tatooine to face Jabba and rescue their frozen comrade, Han Solo. Only then can the Rebels battle the Emperor to win galactic freedom. But the real difficulty would be managing all aspects of a show this size, which saw Lucas take on a more hands-on approach as a producer than he had with the previous film.

Spotting the picture was more difficult this time. With the sheer scale of visual effects on the film, Industrial Light & Magic were taking it as close to the wire as possible, which had already pushed back the session by three weeks. “We’re starting to run a little late, but we’re still bringing Johnny in,” relayed producer Howard Kazanjian, who had taken over from the departing Gary Kurtz, in J.W. Rinzler’s The Making of Return of the Jedi. “We’re going to give him two reels. Two weeks later, we’re going to give him three reels. Four weeks later, we’re going to give him the balance. ILM is running late right now.”

Lucas, also speaking in Rinzler’s tome, wasn’t worried. “Johnny is one of the key elements of the movies. They improve enormously once the music is put into them. It’s the underpinning, a grease that each movie slides along on, as well as a glue that holds it together so that you can follow it. There’s always been a scene or a moment in which the music connects so strongly with the visual that it sends shivers up my spine every time I see it. Johnny’s always gotten that moment for me.”

New Themes

Williams would compose a quartet of new major themes for the film, both villainous and benevolent. A new theme was required for the evolved relationship between Luke and Leia, as well as the Ewoks, and a piece for the minor antagonist of the first act, Jabba the Hutt. But the most important would be for the main villain not just of the film but the saga: the dreaded Emperor.

“The Emperor’s Theme”

Like Vader’s previously, the Emperor’s theme would dominate proceedings this time, and compared to its demonic malevolence, the majestic might of the “Imperial March” is reduced to simple brutalism. The theme captivates due to two things: the immediate power and beauty of its male choral section; and the insidious structure of the melody, which feels like descending the steps of hell to meet the ultimate evil. The chorus, which begins at 1:07 on the track “Emperor’s Throne Room,” is less overtly villainous and more seductive, beckoning with its master for Luke to join the dark side. As musicology professor Frank Lehman stated in the Washington Post, the chorus is “mysterious and beguiling, like a dark siren’s call.”

At 2:23 of the track, the chorus melody is supplemented with the orchestra as it grows bigger and grander, and more poisonous, the Emperor regaling Luke with the obligatory big plan monologue. This is where it feels like it’s seeping into your skin, where the true evil is revealing himself, and that history is repeating. All of this is for Luke, for the young Jedi to replace his broken father at the Emperor’s side.

The theme’s power is taken a step further in the Emperor’s death scene (known as “The Emperor” on the original soundtrack release). This is where the focus shifts and the brass starts to dominate, which results in a deafening statement at 0:57 as Luke begs his father for help. What’s interesting with “The Emperor’s Theme” is that this was the first major use of choir in the series, especially considering subsequent episodes used it frequently.

“Jabba’s Theme”

The second villain theme introduced in the film is for a character audiences were aware of but had never seen before. Crimelord Jabba the Hutt is mentioned several times in the first two movies but initially didn’t make an appearance until Return of the Jedi with his giant gastropodous visage making him the film’s equivalent of Sydney Greenstreet’s Kasper Gutman in The Maltese Falcon. His theme is appropriately threatening but in a much different way than the Emperor’s, with Williams using the low-end brass, particularly the tuba, to indicate his status as a gangster.

The theme is used incredibly sparingly in the final film, with some of Williams’ cues featuring Jabba’s theme being dropped, although these can be heard on the various soundtrack albums. Williams did write and record a concert suite of the theme, but it has never been released in full; consequently, some believe it has been lost. However, many different recordings have been made over the years, including several by Williams himself.

“Luke and Leia”

Williams also continued the tradition of a love theme involving Leia, although this time the love was platonic, given the new revelation about Leia and Luke’s shared parentage. “Luke and Leia” was the name of this new theme, which was much more grounded and perhaps less ornamental than the previous themes. This was unsurprising given that there is an emotional weight to the theme due to its role in the film, with Leia not only discovering who her brother is but also the identity of her father.

“The story I tell about Luke and Leia,” Williams told Tracy Smith of CBS News in 2019, “I saw them as two young people in the first film that I would never see again. And they seemed to be compatible. They had fun together. They did the action scenes together. And I figured, ‘Well, sooner or later, they will be lovers and they’ll have children and you know,’ so I wrote a love theme for Princess Leia, not knowing for, like, two or three years that they were brother and sister. I’m not even sure when George told us. So I had to go back and write different themes for the various relationships that came into focus over time.”

“Luke and Leia” is an interesting theme because of the emotional maturity and melancholic color in the melody, which starts at 0:27 in the soundtrack album track of the same name, and because of the place in the saga that it inhabits. The theme only actually appears twice in the entire film (three if you count the end credit suite) but they’re pivotal moments: when the Death Star has been destroyed: and the aforementioned scene where Luke reveals his parentage.

In the latter, Williams works up to the revelation slowly, with some beautifully sad and tender phrasing from the strings amongst which he weaves the “Force Theme.” When he finally tells Leia the truth, the “Luke and Leia” theme is played on the higher strings with celeste twinkling under it, emphasizing the familial bond as well as the power of the Force. Leia says, “I know. Somehow, I’ve always known,” and this awareness of the spiritual connection between them cements that they are indeed brother and sister.

There was also a further allusion to their relationship in the theme, albeit somewhat hidden. David Collins, a musical expert who works for Lucasfilm, stated on the podcast Star Wars Oxygen that “Luke and Leia” also contains the bones of the main theme of the saga. “If you take the rhythm out of the notes [of the “Star Wars Main Title” theme] and just play the first five notes, you get ‘Luke and Leia,’ and that’s where he mined and got that theme. Luke and Leia’s theme literally comes from Luke’s theme, which is the main title theme of Star Wars.”

“Parade of the Ewoks”

The fourth major theme is a delightful and jaunty piece for the Ewoks, mostly for the small but excitable character of Wicket, who helps out Leia when she’s accosted by a pair of Imperial biker scouts. The influence of Sergei Prokofiev can be heard here, particularly the march from his suite from the opera The Love for Three Oranges. Williams’ melody, beginning at 0:27 on the album track “Parade of the Ewoks,” is not only charming but also has a sense of nobility; these creatures may initially be seen as savages (especially after they try to cook Han Solo), but they turn out to be loyal and brave comrades.

In the actual underscore, Williams varies the instrumentation dependent on the scene and the characters involved. In the concert suite, the melody is played mostly on flute, coming in on brass at the climax. Similarly, brass renditions are heard during the Battle of Endor, scoring the various exploits of the Ewoks against the devastating AT-STs and underlining their heroism and sacrifice. But in the scene where Leia meets Wicket, we hear the theme on the recorder, giving Wicket an individual quality and highlighting him as the de facto Ewok representative.

Williams also composed a secondary motif for the Ewoks, which can be heard starting at 0:04 of “Parade of the Ewoks.” Another Prokofievian theme, this can be also be heard during the Battle of Endor played on brass, along with several incidental motifs using wind and percussion to score the more organic color of the Ewok forces.

One of the many things Williams accomplishes in the film is allowing the viewer to easily discern between the frantic intercutting of the final battle — the more outlandish and effervescent music for the ground conflict, the fast and harsh brass lines for the space battle, and the emotional and darker tones for the showdown in the Emperor’s throne room.


Williams also brought back most of the previous themes from Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. Aside from the main theme, audiences hear the “Force Theme,” “Princess Leia’s Theme,” “Yoda’s Theme,” the “Rebel Fanfare,” and of course “The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme),” which this time was also used as a general theme for the Empire.

“Yoda and the Force”

Return of the Jedi also includes specific music from The Empire Strikes Back. Interestingly, a section of the “Yoda and the Force” cue, where, in that previous episode, Yoda lifts Luke’s ship from the swamp, is used for the unscored part of the scene between Luke and Leia in the Ewok village. And at the climax of the film, as the Millennium Falcon races to the Death Star’s main reactor, a small section from the Falcon‘s escape from Cloud City is inserted, in this case over some of Williams’ score, for unknown reasons.

“The Return of the Jedi”

Some sequences also directly recall music from the previous films. The album track “The Return of the Jedi,” which plays while Luke finally initiates his plan to save Han at the Pit of Carkoon, nesting place of the all-powerful Sarlaac, was initially written and recorded as a thrilling straight action cue that did not rely on thematic material. However, Lucas decided it required more of “Luke’s Theme,” so it was revised to include that and the “Rebel Fanfare,” with several incidental phrases taken from the Death Star escape sequence scene in Star Wars where TIE fighters attack the Falcon.

“Superstructure Chase”

Similarly, “Superstructure Chase,” a cue at the end of the film where the Rebel fighters enter the second battle station, is patterned after music from the TIE attack sequence as well as the final battle. This was also one of a few cues that were orchestrated by a certain successful future composer: Thomas Newman. As the nephew of music supervisor Lionel Newman and the son of the great Alfred Newman, he was born into a family that was not just musical but also had a great friendship with John Williams.

“My dad, I think, really, really liked John as a player,” Thomas Newman told NPR in 2015, “and I think reached out, creatively, to John. And I don’t think John ever forgot that, and he’s been close to the Newmans all these years — always been so courteous to me, and such an interested musician. It’s been an honor, in many ways, to follow in his footsteps. He threw me a bone. I mean, he would not put it that way. But he let me orchestrate a cue from Return of the Jedi when Darth Vader dies. It was an amazing thing to do.”

Diegetic Tunes

Williams also had to compose a variety of source music for the lively locations of Jabba’s Palace and the Ewok Village, including the film’s finale. Three pieces of instrumental music were created to be played by the Max Rebo Band in Jabba’s debauched domain — one slow and ornate baroque piece along with two more upbeat swinging numbers, one of which is only heard on Jabba’s sail barge. Williams was also asked to write a song for the band to be performed by lead singer Sy Snootles.

“Lapti Nek”

“It was hard to do,” Lucas said in Rinzler’s book, “We’d contemplated bringing in rock and roll composers to try their hand; we talked to Toto at one point and a few other groups and writers to see if we could come up with something very bizarre or unique. But we didn’t want something too Top Forty; we wanted something strange but lively.” The resulting track, called “Lapti Nek,” has music and lyrics by a Williams — the composer’s son Joseph Williams, who coincidentally would join Toto a few years later — which were then translated into Huttese by sound designer Ben Burtt.

“Freedom,” a.k.a. “Ewok Celebration”

For the Ewok music, John Williams wrote two percussion-based cues for the Ewok feast, where they plan to cook Han, and when they decide that they will join the Rebels. But he was also required to compose the finale cue, which would blend source music and score together as the Ewoks throw a party to celebrate the defeat of the Empire, complete with Imperial Stormtrooper helmets as drums. However, while Williams was set to do this, Lucas was searching for other ideas for the climactic cue.

Always looking at the future, Lucas had asked some musicians in the San Francisco Synthesizer Ensemble, which had been set up by Moog specialist Doug McKechnie in 1982, to think of ideas for the finale cue. “I was composing music for film and television,” said Paul J. de Benedictis to Linda Jacobson in 2012, who along with John A. Lewis and Jim Purcell made up the Ensemble, “and through my friend Doug McKechnie’s connection at Lucasfilm, I even had a chance to write a demo cue for the final Ewok scene in the latest Star Wars movie. Apparently Lucas wanted to hear some other ideas than what John Williams had come up with. Three of us in the San Francisco Synthesizer Ensemble got to write a sketch for the cue. It was exciting to see part of the movie before it came out.”

However, Williams would compose the cue, which would be called “Freedom,” although the album listed the cue as “Ewok Celebration.” Lyrics were again written by Joseph Williams and translated into Ewokese by Burtt. They were designed to have a primitive feel, with the idea that that the terrifying machinery of the Empire has been excised, leaving the victory to organic creatures. “We had endless amounts of overlays,” Lucas opined in Rinzler’s book, “various types of Ewoks singing, various instruments, and it sort of evolved from a gospel/rock and roll thing to the much more primitive thing that it is now. In both cases, it was a matter of weighing the ethnic realities with something musically interesting.”

Vocals were recorded by two groups, one singing as Ewoks in a more childlike fashion, and one in a more traditional choral sound. It was the latter that would find itself used, with the final moment transforming the lyrics from Ewokese to English for the repeated line “celebrate the love” solidifying one of Lucas’ ideas behind the concept of the saga. As he told Charlie Rose in 2014, “Just don’t kill people, and be compassionate. Love people. That’s basically all Star Wars is.”

The Final Act

One of the remarkable aspects of the score is the way it maintains a sense of emotional and visceral intensity across the final act of the film, which is around forty minutes. Music plays almost continuously throughout, but Williams’ compositional skill means the score flows effortlessly with the action while enhancing its emotional impact. Much of this comes from the final duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, understandably as this is what the saga has been leading up to. But the first example comes from before that, as the Rebels initiate their desperate plan.

“Into the Trap”

This cue, called “Into the Trap,” begins with the assault on the Endor bunker by Han’s strike team and runs through the subsequent arrival of the Rebel fleet, where we finally learn the huge odds our heroes are facing. The main feeling Williams is trying to convey here is the sense of immediacy and the emotional rush from not only facing down a gigantic battle station but also having to react to finding out you’ve just flown into the galaxy’s largest trap.

So, from the beginning of the cue, it’s all adrenaline, propelled by an insistent motif on trombones, woodwinds, and cello as Han’s team goes on the offensive, only to be surrounded by Imperial troops. As that happens, at 0:24 in the album track, Williams adds more brass and woods to intensify the music — and the audience’s reaction.

This continues as the film cuts to the Millennium Falcon‘s cockpit as it jumps out of hyperspace, piloted by Lando Calrissian. The motif is interrupted as the fleet reaches the moon of Endor by a bold quote of the “Imperial March” at 0:50 as Lando catches sight of the Death Star, the theme immediately reminding the audience of what our heroes are up against.

Williams then switches to a new variant of the opening motif at 1:02, and it feels a lot more focused and determined, matching the mettle of the Rebel pilots as they all call in. There’s a brief rendition of the “Main Theme” as the fighters open their S-foil wings, recalling the heroism of Luke and co. at the Battle of Yavin in the first film.

As Lando realizes the deflector shield has not been deactivated, Williams suddenly floods the score at 1:37 with powerful brass moving up the scale, scoring the news filtering through with the high registers, ending with an explosive fanfare as the ships pull away. As the situation slips into chaos, Williams repeats both the variant motif and the fanfare as Imperial TIE fighters go on the offensive before the cue becomes subdued, likely because of the huge amount of laser sound effects required for the TIEs.

“Final Duel,” a.k.a. “The Dark Side Beckons”

The second sequence involves Luke and Vader’s final duel on the Death Star, where the dark lord is attempting to draw the reluctant Jedi out of hiding so he will fight and unleash his anger. The cue is appropriately named “Final Duel,” as it is the truly climactic battle of the saga, emotionally and thematically. Later, the cue was renamed “The Dark Side Beckons” for a new soundtrack release, and this perhaps a more appropriate name, as what’s really at stake here is not our hero’s life but his very soul, as he attempts to avoid the path of evil his father took.

As Vader searches for Luke, who is hiding in the darkness under the throne, the orchestra is very muted, with Williams using woodwinds, organ, and synthesizer to create a dissonant and murky soundscape that is Luke’s will. But while the Jedi tries to keep his thoughts buried deep within, a tam-tam hit at 0:48 scores the shock of his failure to do this, as he has accidentally revealed the identity of his sister. Tense and strained strings rise as Vader taunts him, telling him that if he will not turn, perhaps his sister will, which leads to an explosion of fury from Luke that is mirrored musically as the full might of the orchestra is unleashed.

From 1:13, Williams opens up a new color in the saga’s palette, and the male choir of the Emperor expands to epic proportions, matching Luke’s apparent descent to the dark side as he launches himself against Vader, matching the previous duel on Bespin to the point where he severs the dark lord’s hand. Here, Williams uses the choir to superb effect, the seduction of Luke in full flow as he relentlessly attacks Vader.

But there’s also a touch of melancholy as if the choir is mourning Luke and his turn. Brass begins to dominate as Vader fails, and at 1:51, as Luke readies himself to strike the fatal blow and complete his fall, “The Emperor’s Theme” plays insidiously. But Luke recognizes what he is about to become and throws away his weapon. Williams links his act of defiance with the “Force Theme,” as Luke informs the Emperor that he is “a Jedi, like my father before me.”

“Darth Vader’s Death”

After Vader kills the Emperor to save Luke, the pair are brought together for a final scene, its music entitled “Darth Vader’s Death.” Here, we finally meet Anakin Skywalker, with the helmet being removed to reveal the kind but disfigured face of Luke’s true father, who tells his son that he was right to not give up on him before dying in his arms. Low brass and winds set the stage before a beautifully melancholic cello melody plays at 0:16 as Vader asks Luke to take his mask off, knowing the inevitable consequence.

As the helmet and then mask is removed, the “Imperial March” plays bittersweetly on wind, harp, and celeste at 0:48. This allows for an emotional color to the theme that the audience isn’t used to. What’s interesting is that Williams gives the next iteration of Vader’s theme a warmth to it using the flutes, which play as Anakin’s face is finally revealed, before it returns to melancholy as he tells Luke to leave him.

After saying his final words — “You were right” — Vader finally succumbs to his injuries. The “Imperial March,” which spent so much of the trilogy as the music of evil, plays at 2:06 in a tender and sad setting for plucked harp, reflecting not only Luke’s loss but also the final destiny of Anakin Skywalker.

The Recording

The score was recorded in January and February of 1983 at a new location after the previous studio for the first two movies’ scores, Anvil, had been demolished. Taking care of the majority of recording was the famous London studio Abbey Road, home of the Beatles, with one cue completed at Olympic Studios, which had previously recorded albums by Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix. However, due to the much smaller size of the recording stage at Olympic compared to Abbey Road, that cue, “Superstructure Chase,” suffered. “I went down to talk to John Williams while he was conducting,” said sound engineer Eric Tomlinson to Chris Malone in 2005, “and he just leaned over and said, ’It’s like conducting a silent film!’ He couldn’t hear a damn thing in there.”


The Legacy

Return of the Jedi was unsurprisingly another box office smash, pulling in nearly $400 million worldwide. John Williams’ score was again nominated for an Academy Award. However, the Oscar was taken by composer Bill Conti for his music for the Philip Kaufman film The Right Stuff. Nevertheless, Williams had again written a thrilling score with distinctive themes that would become iconic, with “The Emperor’s Theme” itself going on to be reprised in most of the subsequent Star Wars prequels and sequels.

In 1997, Lucas put out “Special Edition” re-releases of the original Star Wars trilogy. Intending a single re-release of the first film to celebrate its 20th anniversary before the project encompassed all three pictures, Lucas’ goal was to prepare the world for his upcoming prequels and refresh the world’s memories of how beloved Star Wars was, as well as undergoing some helpful R&D for the complicated and ambitious realization of the prequel trilogy.

Instead of a standard reissue, Lucas took the opportunity to “fix” a film he never saw as finished and not only added some deleted sequences but also undertook an update of the effects, using computer technology that was still in its relative infancy at the time. The result was controversial, to say the least, especially with Return of the Jedi, which required two sequences to not only be expanded but also receive a musical facelift.

“Jedi Rocks”

The first was the Max Rebo Band’s performance in Jabba’s palace. Out went “Lapti Nek,” and in came a newly animated Sy Snootles, backup dancers, and a second vocalist, who was a furry thing called a yuzzum. “Jedi Rocks” was penned by Jerry Hey, a composer, arranger, and session musician who had appeared on Michael Jackson’s Thriller and worked with the likes of Stevie Nicks, Lalo Schifrin, and Cher. It’s a much more showstopping type of musical number than the one it replaced, which was what Lucas was after.

“Victory Celebration”

The second sequence does feature music by John Williams and is subsequently less divisive, appearing at the end of the film to replace “Ewok Celebration” because the moment was expanded to show celebrations of the Empire’s defeat on Bespin, Tatooine, Naboo, and Coruscant before continuing with the party at the Ewok Village.

The cue has a new age music vibe that begins with ethnic percussion before introducing an incredibly catchy melody that finishes the scene. What Williams does here is not dissimilar to what he did with the 1983 sequence, where he makes it sound unique to the Ewoks before bringing up the curtain, as it were, and finishing with a suitably epic climax.

To achieve this, the melody is initially played on woodwind and percussion, conveying an atmosphere of the organic that is in thematic sync with Lucas’ ideas about what Star Wars means. Then the orchestra comes in with a big chorus section, creating a heartwarming atmosphere that is about acceptance, camaraderie, and love.

And thus ends the original Star Wars trilogy.

Special thanks to Leigh Phillips and Jim Ware.

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Charlie Brigden is the author of many fine soundtrack liner notes and Blu-ray booklet essays and some call him a film music expert. He also recorded a commentary for Howard the Duck. You can find him on Twitter here: @brigdenwriter. (He/Him)