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Latest 'Star Wars' score is an emotional adventure

The soundtrack recording of John Williams's score for ''Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith" debuted in the top 10 of the Billboard 200 album chart.

There seems to be general agreement that ''Revenge of the Sith" is the best film in the ''Star Wars" prequel trilogy, and fans of Williams's scores are arguing all over the Internet about where to place this one among the others.

For this admirer, ''Revenge" contains the most powerfully emotional music of the series. Part of the effect comes from the accumulation of decades of ''Star Wars" memories, but part comes from Williams's mastery of the medium, of matching musical gesture to moving image.

Of course, there's no way the ''Revenge" score could rival the impact of the first ''Star Wars" music 28 years ago. It wasn't that there had never been anything like it; quite the opposite. What Williams did was restore a major part of the film-music heritage that was in danger of being lost in an era of title songs and pop-music scores. I still remember sitting in a theater in New York watching ''Star Wars" in the early days of the phenomenon. From the first notes, it was clear we were in for something that was grand and nostalgic, but also adventurous and forward-looking. Williams's genius in writing for a science-fiction film was to compose in the style of the great romantic/adventure films of the 1930s and '40s.

At the time, Williams thought ''Star Wars" was a one-off project; he had no idea there would be future installments in the series. So the later films, and especially the prequels, required him to develop new themes that harmonized with the earlier ones -- that could be developed in contrast and counterpoint to them. Ultimately he produced about 12 hours of music, as much as Wagner poured into his ''Ring" cycle of operas.

The ''Star Wars" themes developed associations, accumulated memories, and morphed into other themes. ''Anakin's Theme," for example, composed years after the evil ''Imperial March," contains within it the thematic DNA of the march. As writer/director George Lucas writes in the liner notes to the ''Revenge" album, Williams's music describes the characters and ''essentially tell[s] the story."

What Lucas does not say is that the music often tells the story more clearly and in greater depth than the filmmaking does; the music's emotional resonances reach further than the dialogue and the acting do. Actress Carrie Fisher is not a romantic figure, for example, but Princess Leia's theme is full of myth, mystery, and romance.

In ''Revenge," the music makes Anakin's crossover to the Dark Side more convincing and compelling than the makeup department and costumers can with bloodshot eyes and a cowl. The scorched flesh of Anakin in molten lava is a horrifying image; the music, called ''Immolation Scene," in homage to Wagner, is an elegy for strings that mourns a hero lost.

The music in ''Revenge" also ranges more widely than in the previous scores, scooping up ancient (chanting reminiscent of Tibetan monks as Chancellor Palpatine weaves his web of temptation) and modern (a full panoply of electronic effects, not for ''futuristic" reasons but to extend the timbral resources of the orchestra). There is an odd moment in ''The Birth of the Twins" when Williams's fondness for the celeste suddenly transports us into the world of Harry Potter, but the appearance of ''Luke's Theme" at the end, with its promise of future redemption, will not leave a dry eye.

The Sony Classical CD is, of course, the place to hear the score in its full sonic glory, without noisy flight and fight patterns and constant explosions (''Revenge" is a very loud movie). It comes with a ''bonus" DVD called ''Star Wars: A Musical Journey," which represents a missed opportunity. We see actor Ian McDiarmid (Chancellor Palpatine) in the Abbey Road studio where Williams and the London Symphony Orchestra recorded the scores. But there is no interview with Williams or Lucas about the history of the score or the function of the music. Instead the DVD is a kind of trailer for all six films, accompanied by many of the major musical themes and bridged by plot summaries portentously delivered by McDiarmid.

It's amazing how dated the first trilogy has become, despite the technological improvements Lucas has retroactively introduced. The technology, the acting, and most of all the hair speak of another time and place, and it is not in a galaxy far, far away. The music is another story; it evokes the past but unfolds in a perpetual present. No matter how many times we have heard the principal themes, they still sound a call. As we hear the music, we become, for a moment, epic figures ourselves.

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