Music Composed and Conducted by: Joel McNeely
Soundtrack Release: 1996 (first release) & 2020
Label: Varese Sarabande Records

“With the cinematic universe of Star Wars currently entering
a new era, Lucasfilm should hire Joel McNeely to compose music
for an upcoming Star Wars movie! Kathleen Kennedy, are you listening?”

Let’s suppose George Lucas had produced another Star Wars film between “The Empire Strikes Back” and “The Return of the Jedi”. Assuming that the title was “Shadows of the Empire” and for some reason John Williams was not available to write the score, scoring duties were assumed by composer Joel McNeely, one of the greatest musical talents emerged in the early 1990s and an accomplished conductor with numerous exceptional recordings of classic soundtracks such as “Vertigo” (1958), “Marnie” (1964) and “Psycho” (1960), among others. Well, now you can keep the score and the composer and just forget the other hypothetical references. The reason is that a Star Wars movie called “Shadows of the Empire” never existed. A score though with the same title, it was indeed composed! How could possibly that happen? It is because the score was not written for a film, but for a book! Something rare, of course, but certainly we are dealing with a musical exploration inspired by a vast and rich content.

Therefore, a crucial question arises: how do you compose music for a book? This is the first thing composer Joel McNeely was concerned about. What he managed to do is to give visual projections to the book using his imagination and then compose music as if he was watching a film. To actually write music practically for a non-existent film is a rather difficult process, because the visual stimulus is always an essential element, even for an experienced film composer. He may have read the book but without having watched it’s cinematic evolution, we could compare him to a blind man who can’t speak for something he hasn’t seen. This is a serious obstacle for any composer, but the lack of visual projection had some positive side effects. Since we are not dealing with a film, there are no pressing time limits for the placement of music, as if it would be in a film. In this respect, the composer was free to express himself without time restrictions. The absence of a director with whom he would have to deal with, is an important parameter as the composer had complete control over his music. “At last, I was able to live the fantasy of every composer in films. Become director and cinematographer, actor and editor!”, Joel McNeely adds. “Shadows of the Empire” is not a movie you can watch, so it would be useful to mention the main events that occur in the book, which are necessary to familiarize with the music. 

The score begins with the familiar Star Wars main title, as in any other Star Wars score. The plot starts with Princess Leia having a nightmare while sleeping and the music performs her theme from “Star Wars: A New Hope” (1977) in a more agitated and troubled version, which leads to a brief mention of the Imperial March. It is obvious that the first track of the score “Main Theme from Star Wars and Leia’s Nightmare” (#1) is largely a John Williams’ composition. Another familiar theme appears in “Night Skies” (#8) where again the Imperial March is heard briefly, along with the Force theme. All the other music in the “Shadows of the Empire” score is born from the genius of Joel McNeely and dynamically starts in “The Battle of Gall” (#2). A piece of music filled with adventure, constantly evolving as the battle on the planet Gall is unfolding, where Luke is trying to save the captured and frozen Han Solo from Boba Fett. The Millennium Falcon is confronted with imperial ships and the action begins.

The capital of the Galactic Empire, located on the planet Coruscant, is presented in the track “Imperial City” (#3). The music gives the listener a sense of greatness, as if the visitor sees the city from above, from space. While approaching, all the tall imposing buildings that proudly rise to the sky are visible. At the sight of the Imperial Palace, the largest building of the galaxy, music is emphasizing on the enormous size with a march. The captivating impressions of the imperial city are completed with staggering musical moments, performed by the orchestra and choir. Following the events on Gall, Luke travels to Tatooine where he faces several gangsters driving speeders. He lures them in Beggar’s Canyon, a series of canyons he knows quite well. The agonizing chase is scored in “Beggar’s Canyon Chase” (#4), an addictive and fun adventurous piece, one of those the composer knows very well how to write. One particularly tense track, a perfect case of adrenaline rush!

A new character is introduced in “Shadows of the Empire”. An evil one, in fact, a half man half reptile who bears the name Xizor. On a musical level, his strange physical appearance is expressed with a sort of “perverse” composition that turns out to be a great march for ethnic percussion and the choir, in the second half of the track “Xizor’s Theme” (#6). John Williams was not accustomed to such a degree of atonal music for the Star Wars movies, as it is apparent from the first half of “Xizor’s Theme” (#6). These vastly different musical conditions combined, provide Xizor’s musical identity. Later, Princess Leia meets Xizor at his palace and succumbs to his physical “charm”. The ensuing seduction is scored in “The Seduction of Princess Leia” (#7), where the composer writes a wonderful waltz: shy and hesitant at its start, overflowing with energy and passion towards its end. The waltz is a perfect choice to give a feeling of euphoria as the couple dances passionately, until everything stops abruptly when Chewbacca invades their private space. Luke has come to free Princess Leia, but his mission will be a bit more difficult than expected after the appearance of imperial ships. One of the best tracks of “Shadows of the Empire” score is “The Destruction of Xizor’s Palace” (#10), where we have the perfect accompaniment for the book’s stressful events. The pace of the music is constantly changing as if there is a camera lens capturing all the different plot points in a purely epic orchestral piece, filled with crescendos and majestic usage of the choir.

What should be said about the music of «Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire» is that it’s perfectly in line with the spirit of John Williams’ music for the Star Wars movies. This is without doubt one of composer Joel McNeely’s most beautiful scores and certainly one of his best! How very pity it is, nowadays, we don’t hear his musical voice in movies more often. Even more unfortunate is the fact that nobody takes advantage of him in the upcoming Star Wars films. Come on Lucasfilm! Choose wisely and do what must be done! Joel McNeely’s musical talent must be embraced. After all, he was really the first composer in this galaxy who had the chance to show that not only John Williams can make miracles with the music of Star Wars. It is worth noting an important characteristic this music has, in contradiction to all the Star Wars soundtracks, composed prior to this soundtrack: the extensive usage of the choir. John Williams had used the choir only briefly in “The Return of the Jedi”. Joel McNeely wrote the score for “Shadows of the Empire” in 1996, before the six Star Wars films that followed, where John Williams used the choir extensively. The soundtrack of «Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire» made such an impression upon its first release, that it was believed by many that it should be him to replace John Williams for the next Star Wars film, if for any reason, he wasn’t available. Of course, that wasn’t necessary. Joel McNeely’s magnificent score was later used for the musical needs of a video game released by the same title.

Track List:

01. Main Theme from Star Wars and Leia’s Nightmare (3:41)
02. The Battle of Gall (7:59)
03. Imperial City (8:02)
04. Beggar’s Canyon Chase (2:56)
05. The Southern Underground (1:48)
06. Xizor’s Theme (4:35)
07. The Seduction of Princess Leia (3:38)
08. Night Skies (4:17)
09. Into the Sewers (2:55)
10. The Destruction of Xizor’s Palace (10:44)

Total Time: 51:00

The tracks that stand out are noted with bold letters

Score Rating: * * * *