Setting aside the critical drubbing over the film's weak CGI animation, character flaws, and direct aim at a Saturday morning audience, the big question is whether Kevin Kiner's adaptation of John Williams' themes from the Star Wars [SW] franchise work as an album.
When Joel McNeely wrote a 50 min. symphony for the 1996 book Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire, the results were startling, and proved it was possible to write new music for the ever-expanding SW universe, as mapped out by George Lucas and his yes-people. Shadows is a fascinating experiment, and it showed how good themes can be interwoven into a large-scale work without dominating its story and new thematic material.
Clone Wars is Lucas' move to market a new TV-level offshoot with a theatrical run of the series pilot – a sneaky ploy done by Universal with the original Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers pilots – but it's also another attempt to rework central characters for an even younger demographic than those who flocked to the six feature films.
To stay aligned with the faster pacing, Kiner was tasked with upgrading the SW sound using more synths, some rock, and sticking to themes and motifs of Williams' prior scores within an orchestral realm, and the finished results are initially very, very jarring.
Released on Sony Classical, Clone Wars will be hard for fans of Williams' grand orchestral style to digest, not because Kiner stumbled, but because the music had to match every animated nuance. The pacing of themes is sometimes erratic, if not perfunctory, and their insertion in action cues sometimes feels forced.
The infusion of electric guitar and Zimmerlish electronica in “Obi-Wan to the Rescue” is another radical pairing that recalls Joel Goldsmith's Kull the Conqueror, wherein that film's director wanted a wailing electric guitar to lead an otherwise elegant orchestral score solely to grab the attention of Kull's intended demographics; said more simply, if it sounds classical, it might put the younger crowd to sleep (which of course is nonsense, given Lucas' three live-action prequels were supported by symphonic scores).
So why force the composer into a risky and demanding corner? Having not seen the complete film, it's hard to say if the music helps Clone Wars and smoothens its flaws, but Kiner does try to exploit the loopholes where he can add some new material, as well as evoke Williams' style without returning to straight theme restatements.
“Battle of Christophsis” is a good fusion of Williams' spiraling string figures, brooding lower brass, and Kiner's own use of chorus that build towards a climax in a style one could brand as contemporary Biblical. “General Loathsom/Ahsoka” begins with a brassy fanfare, but switches to some lovely desaturated thematic fragments, with pensive strings, distant snare drums, and a slow build towards a collision of brass and strings.
One does slowly warm up to Kiner's score, including some excellent action cuts like “Scaling the Cliff,” but that wonderful mélange of raw percussion and electronica is in and out within :45 seconds. “Escape from the Monastery” fares much better, and Kiner has fun with bongos, congas, fuzzy low synth tones, and pseudo-Arabic vocals that crest over brass and bass-friendly hits.
The CD also integrates some source cues, like the minimalist exotica “Jabba's Chamber Dance,” as well as the big band couplet “Ziro's Nightclub Band” and “Seedy City Swing.” There are some subtle jazzy elements in cues like “Infiltrating Ziro's Lair,” so the jazz cues don't completely shock the listener as much as the electric guitar in the traditional-meets-ancient suspense combo “Courtyard Fight.”
The bad taste Clone Wars has left in the mouths of some SW fans might make it difficult to enjoy Kiner's score, whereas those hearing the album fresh may find it encapsulates the dynamism Lucas wanted to invest in the film, but was apparently too lazy and cheap to realize.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan