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Sound Off: Settling the Score on “Last Jedi’s” Soundtrack-Only Version

The score-only version of Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi is marvelous for a number of reasons.

Announced by director Rian Johnson as a special feature available on certain digital releases of the feature film, the premise is remarkably simple. The score-only version of The Last Jedi presents the feature film complete and uneditted, but without any dialogue or sound effects. The sound mix is completely dominated by John Williams’ score for the film, from the opening Star Wars fanfare to the music playing over the closing credits. Over the course of the movie’s two-and-a-half hour runtime, not a single word is spoken and not a single laser blast is heard.

As such, the score-only version of The Last Jedi is the closest thing imaginable to a blockbuster silent movie in the current market. After all, silent films are at best a curiousity in the modern market place, often relegated to retrospectives and festival screenings, with the occasional nostalgic release like The Artist. In fact, black and white films are noticeably more common than silent films in the current market. As such, the score-only version is an intriguing piece of work. It obviously showcases John Williams’ score, and the way in which that score shaped and informs the images on the screen.

But it also demonstrates that Rian Johnson is the best director to have worked on the Star Wars franchise, from a purely technical standpoint.

There are problems with The Last Jedi. The second film of the new trilogy has a reach that exceeds its grasp. It is clumsy, compromised, and more than a little awkward in places. It often lacks follow-through in many of its biggest and boldest ideas. The film repeatedly pushes itself to the brink and pulls back at the last minute, afraid of making too provocative a point. For all the criticisms that The Last Jedi receives from hardcore Star Wars fans for subverting or undermining the franchise, the truth is that The Last Jedi is perhaps too conservative for its own good.

Obviously, none of these problems go away with the score-only cut. The story is still the story. The film still features a sequence in which Carrie Fisher does her best Superman impression as Leia survives being blown into the vacuum of space. Luke’s lightsabre is still recovered and returned to him after that striking introductory scene. The score-only version of The Last Jedi is not a new movie, so much as it offers a new angle on an existing feature film. It is refreshing and interesting, but it seems highly unlikely to win any new converts for the divisive entry in the canon.

That said, the score-only version does change some of the emphasis within the film. Removing the dialogue does cut down on some of the gags that don’t really land, particularly those gags which feel awkward and belaboured. Without vocal accompaniment, the comedy around the character of General Hux works better as a broader physical comedy than it does with dialogue. After all, silent comedy tends to be more exaggerated, relying on expressions and stunt work to get the point across; scenes of Hux being dragged along the floor or thrown against the wall play better in that context.

However, the score-only cut of The Last Jedi is interesting because of what it reveals rather than what it “fixes.” It changes the audience’s focus when watching the film, and sheds new light on certain aspects of production. On the level of sheer craft, Rian Johnson is the best director to work on the Star Wars franchise. This was clear enough from the theatrical release, but it crystalises when watching the story without the crutch of dialogue. The score-only version of Last Jedi emphasises his visual storytelling. Strip the dialogue out of The Last Jedi, and you can follow it just as well.

Visual storytelling is an underrated art. Indeed, one of the most interesting and rewarding cinematic experiences can be watching movies on planes without headphones and even on other people’s monitors. It is the equivalent of that old film school experiment of watching a movie without sound , an approach that has proponents like Alfred Hitchcock. It demonstrates the capacity of cinema as a medium for truly visual storytelling, and the potential of directors to guide their audience through the key emotional and narrative beats through sheer technique.

Of course, not every film benefits from this approach, and not every film should be judged by this measure. It would be ridiculous to watch a Quentin Tarantino or Kevin Smith film without dialogue, and certain styles of drama do not always translate in such a straightforward manner. Nevertheless, Star Wars seems perfectly suited to this experiment. It is after all a space opera, and one packed to the brim with its own instantly recognisable iconography and imagery. Think of how much of Star Wars can be reduced to shots and objects; those two suns, that lightsabre, those ships.

(Ironically, this makes a reasonably compelling counter-argument to the notion of a score-only version of The Last Jedi. While the universe of Star Wars has its own unique texture, it also has its own unique soundscape. There is a reason that Ewan McGregor had to be told to stop making lightsaber noises, and a reason why Laura Dern mouths “pew” while firing her laser blaster. There is a solid case to be made for a “dialogue-less” version of these films that still incorporates the sound effects that add texture to this world. Still, that was not the point of the exercise.)

The Last Jedi demonstrates how much of Star Wars depends on visual storytelling, which makes sense given how fundamentally basic the narrative is. There’s a reason that Star Wars transcends time and place, why it resonates with audiences on an almost primal level. With Johnson’s direction, the flow of Last Jedi‘s story is easy to follow without the dialogue cluttering the narrative, maybe even easier than in the released version. The camera and the edit reveal the heart of the story. The score-only version of The Last Jedi communicates through blocking, framing, composition; in the camera movements and the reaction shots.

With John Williams’ score to assist, Rian Johnson’s camera rarely needs dialogue. It is always clear what the characters are feeling in a given moment, what drives them. Where Johnson places the camera tells the audience a lot about the relationships of the characters to one another and their environment, while the manner and tempo of the reaction shots conveys how each character reacts to the story as it develops; Finn’s cowardice, Poe’s self-righteousness, Luke’s shame. Plus, there’s still Laura Dern mouthing “pew!” while firing her laser blaster.

Of course, the score-only The Last Jedi is not a perfect silent movie, which explains why it hasn’t been sold as one. There are extended periods of silence in the film, when Williams’ score goes silent. These are jarring and unsettling, especially at points where characters are clearly talking to one another. Similarly, while Johnson’s visual storytelling is clear enough to get basic dynamics across without dialogue, the film obviously loses the finer details. It is clear that D.J. has betrayed “big F” from the way in which the sequence is shot and edited, but the how and the why are lost.

That said, given that the particulars of D.J.’s betrayal were one of the bigger plot holes of The Last Jedi, this might not be a bad thing. After all the plot hinges on D.J. betraying a plan of which Finn was never actually aware. Without hearing the dialogue, it’s easier to excuse this narrative contrivance, to accept that there was probably some exposition or background detail that was not important enough to be shouted at the audience. The emotions of the sequence convey what is happening and the dynamics at play in broad strokes, as befitting a grand space opera.

However, slightly more frustrating than the obvious broad strokes approach to the narrative, the extended conversations between the various characters test the audience’s patience in the score-only version. The routine shot-then-reaction-shot editing pattern feels almost formulaic, particularly given how the emotional responses of various characters convey the substance of the conversation more economically. This is unavoidable, to be fair. But it wouldn’t take much to turn the score-only version of The Last Jedi into a proper silent film; a few trims of talking head sequences, an occasional title card for exposition.

Still, despite these flaws, there is a beauty to the score-only version of The Last Jedi. The movie’s breathtaking sequences feel even more operatic (or maybe balletic) without the sound of dialogue or special effects intruding upon them. The introductory sequence remains one of the most brilliant in the franchise. The throne room throwdown looks even more like a Kurosawan science-fiction epic. The entire showdown on the salt planet is stunning, especially Luke’s confrontation with Kylo Ren. Much like the comedy with General Hux, the brush-off gag is perfect as an exaggerated silent movie gesture.

It is interesting to contextualise this release within recent trends in the larger film industry. Recent years have arguably seen an increased emphasis on non-verbal storytelling within big-budget blockbusters with greater emphasis on the visuals and the soundtrack to convey information; the cacophony of Dunkirk, the non-human protagonists of War for the Planet of the Apes, the mix-tape pleasure of Baby Driver, the core premise of A Quiet Place. With modern original films, there is a renewed emphasis on relaying plot information without recourse to exposition.

Of course, there are any number of possible reasons why this trend has emerged. Perhaps movie studios are hoping to sell these movies to increasingly-important foreign markets in a manner that transcends the language barrier. Perhaps this emphasis on big and broad visual storytelling is simply a response to the fact that complex detail-orientated narratives probably belong on contemporary television rather than in contemporary cinemas. Whatever the reason, the soundtrack-only version of The Last Jedi feels like an extension of this trend.

Silence might be golden, but sometimes the right music playing over the right visuals can say just enough.

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4 Responses

  1. Love the write up. Good point too about how this version minimizes some of the gags that didn’t work. When I listened to the audiobook of TLJ, it had a similar effect. For me, Luke throwing the lightsaber over his shoulder seems like it was played for laughs, whereas I thought it should be a tragic moment. In the audiobook, you don’t get the pause in the music and Luke’s dramatic gesture. It’s played straight, which I think emphasizes the hurt Luke felt as opposed to making it about subverting audience expectations.

    • Thanks! I do think that can be two things. I didn’t find Luke throwing away the light sabre to be funny or even intended to be; I thought it was meant to be jarring, and it was. But yeah, Hux works much better as a silent villain toady than as an actually talkie bad guy.

  2. While I was watching Star Wars: Rebels (a kids’ tv spin-off), I was really struck by the fantastic music & sound editing on the show – even when the graphics didn’t land well and the voice acting hit rough points, exposition-less scenes with just the classic Star Wars musical motiffs and sound effects were every bit as effective as in other parts of the franchise.

    So it doesn’t surprise me to hear that the soundtrack-only version of TLJ is very effective in its own right. I hope some enterprising editor decides to cut some dialogue and add a few silent film storyboards to make a “true” silent film of it 🙂

    • It’s surprising that the company couldn’t spare a few hundred grand for a proper edit. You wouldn’t even need to cut the tempo or interfere with the score. There are various points where characters are talking in standard shot-reaction-shot editting. It would not hurt the film to sacrifice a few of those shots for a titlecard.

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