Though I carefully dissected and blogged about The Force Awakens, Rogue One, and The Last Jedi immediately after their releases, I've deliberately avoided blogging about Solo. This isn't from lack of interest or enthusiasm, but because I know that I often change my mind about things after multiple views of the film and listens to the soundtrack. With repeated exposures, I usually catch subtle details that slipped past me on the initial encounter, and thus come to better understand and appreciate the subject.
Indeed, that happened with Rogue One. I initially liked the film; not so much the music. My original ratings for RO were a 6/10 for the film and a 5/10 for the music. A few years later, having seen it several times in theaters and at home, and having listened to and analyzed the soundtrack rather extensively, I now hold the opposite opinion – the film has its moments but doesn't make much sense when you think about it in any detail, and the soundtrack, though not superlative, is solid. My new ratings: 5/10 for the film and a 7/10 for the soundtrack.
With that in mind, I've waited to write about Solo until I had seen the movie three times and listened to the soundtrack a dozen times. And, as expected, my thoughts (regarding both the film in general and the soundtrack specifically) have changed.
Let's get right to it: I really like Solo. I liked it a lot the first time I saw it, and I liked it even more after the second and third viewings.
One major polarizing factor with The Last Jedi was that it tried to be innovative. Its target was aimed quite high. And in several ways it hit that target, but in several ways it didn't. I won't go into all the details, but there's clearly a lot to like and dislike about it. That's why it's so polarizing among fans.
Solo, by contrast, aimed at a much lower target. Many reviewers have criticized it for not taking any risks. But remember this is a prequel – the filmmakers couldn't do anything terribly outlandish because we already know that Han survives, as does Chewie. We know he meets Lando, and wins the Millennium Falcon. We know he doesn't get the girl in the end. And we know that he gets involved with smuggling. So there's not a whole lot of room to do anything too surprising.
That being said, the Darth Maul cameo at the end genuinely was surprising – I can't imagine anybody could have seriously predicted that! (This, by the way, is one thing I liked on the first viewing but have come to dislike upon subsequent viewings.)
No doubt: Solo aims low – much lower than The Last Jedi. But Solo hits that low target dead center. The film is exactly what it's trying to be – nothing more and nothing less.
Last week in Ortonville, MI I gave a presentation on The History of Popular Music, in which my fundamental conclusion is that listeners must connect with music on music's terms. Popular music is extremely diverse stylistically, and if you listen to, say, Nirvana the same way you listen to Elvis, you're going to be disappointed because their music is so different. The trick is determining what any given piece of music's strength is/are, and engage with that/those strength(s). If you don't like a particular song that many others do like, it's most likely because you're not engaging with it the same way those other people are. If you're satisfied disliking that music, then there's no need to proceed any further. But if you want to like that music and you're struggling to do so, then you'll probably have to change your expectations and connect with the music in new ways to develop an appreciation.
Film works similarly – to connect with any given movie, you have to connect with it on its terms. If you watch Schindler's List the same way you watch The Emoji Movie, of course you're not going to like it because they're so different. That doesn't necessarily mean you have to like the film in question (I remain underwhelmed with The Last Jedi even though I've come to appreciate many things about it), but as consumers of movies, we must figure out what makes any given film tick – what its strengths and weaknesses are, and engage with it accordingly. To do otherwise is essentially a guarantee that you won't like it.
Applying this principle to Solo, you have to take it for what it is – a space romp prequel that never tries to do anything innovative or unexpected. You can't fault it for being exactly what it tries to be.
If there is anything innovative/unexpected about Solo (other than Darth Maul), it would have to be the music. John Powell, only the second composer not named John Williams to write a Star Wars film score, assumed a different approach from that of Williams in Episodes I-VII and Michael Giacchino in Rogue One.
My biggest problem with the Rogue One soundtrack is that Giacchino tried hard to sound like Williams. While Giacchino is an excellent composer (see Up and Ratatouille), his strengths as a creative musician are quite different than Williams'. And that's a good thing – Giacchino shouldn't sound like Williams because he's not Williams! So while I am quite impressed with his RO score (especially given how quickly it was written), it does leave me wondering what Williams would have done had he scored it instead. In other words, the RO soundtrack strikes me as “John Williams lite”.
After my first viewing of Solo, I felt Powell was out of his depth – he couldn't match Williams, either. (Frankly, who can?) But after seeing the film twice more and painstakingly listening to and analyzing the soundtrack, I better understand that Powell isn't trying to sound like Williams! And that's the big difference between Giacchino and Powell – Giacchino attempted to create a Williams score and did a decent job, while Powell had no interest in replicating Williams' style and succeeded in writing his own film score.
Of course, Williams did write some new themes for Solo. And yes, Powell over-uses Williams' themes (the new themes as well as those from previous films), but each time he does so he adds something different to “make it his own”. I don't always like it, and I don't always agree with it, but I accept it. I've now come to terms with that reliance on Williams' theme in a way I hadn't yet upon my initial exposure.
John Powell is at his best when being John Powell. And thankfully Powell – not Williams – is on full display in the Solo soundtrack.
My Solo ratings:
As a film: 8/10. It's exactly what it tries to be.
As a score: 9.5/10. My only real problem is the over-reliance on Williams' themes.
Lastly, here's a basic catalog of the most important new themes used in Solo, both those composed by Williams and those composed by Powell.
This is by no means an exhaustive catalog (I haven't yet addressed the L3/droid breakout theme), but it'll give me a good start as I make my way through the album, analyzing one track at a time and documenting the different themes and their place in the film.
The Music of Star Wars
These posts will help focus and develop my analyses of John Williams' film scores.