It feels like I’ve been looking forward to a live-action Star Wars TV series for decades now. Genndy Tartakovsky’s animated Clone Wars series is one of the most original and brilliant things ever to come out of the Star Wars license, but it was deliberately small in scope I’ve heard good things about the animated series The Clone Wars and Rebels, but both are hamstrung by some insistence that animation is for kids. I believe people when they say that The Clone Wars series got really good, but I also have to point out that early episodes still had Jar-Jar.
There’s so much potential for smaller, more deliberately-paced stories in the Star Wars universe, it could be surprising that it’s taken so long for anyone to make a non-juvenile take. After seeing the first two episodes of The Mandalorian, though, I no longer find it that surprising. It seems like every detail and choice in tone demonstrates how badly this could have gone wrong.
The overall tone is like a 1970s Western — or rather, our memory of what they were like, since the reality is that they were painfully slow-paced and dull to 21st century audiences. It’s as if the makers of Wild Wild West had chosen to do a sci-fi sequel, inspired by A Fistful of Dollars. And instead of presenting it as a theme or re-skinning, like Firefly‘s HEY LOOK WE’RE MAKING A SCI-FI WESTERN approach, I think The Mandalorian does it a lot more subtly and “holistically.” It uses storytelling techniques from 1970s Westerns — like montages, long sequences without dialogue, and even end credit sequences over still frames of painted concept art — that make its setting and tone seem an integral part of the story, instead of just a clever pastiche.
That includes the series soundtrack by Ludwig Göransson, which is one thing I love about The Mandalorian (that I’m choosing to write about). This is a work that acknowledges how crucial music is to the Star Wars experience but doesn’t just mimic John Williams’s soundtracks. It also doesn’t fall into the second most obvious trap, which would have been to mimic Ennio Morricone or any of the other iconic western movie and TV soundtracks. The music never seems to be trying to capture a style, but trying to capture a feeling or a concept.
Because so much of The Mandalorian‘s second episode happens without dialogue, it allows the music to come to the forefront. And while the soundtrack doesn’t borrow themes directly from the Star Wars movies, it does use a lot of the same ideas. At least, it seems that way to those of us whose knowledge of classical music is limited almost entirely to John Williams’s soundtracks. The Mandalorian doesn’t have an opening theme song, but in the second episode, the leitmotif for the character of The Mandalorian starts to become more recognizable as a replacement for the main theme. That reliance on characters’ having their own recognizable themes is an integral part of what makes a Star Wars soundtrack.
Throughout the episode, the action sequences are scored with heavily percussive, almost chaotic sounds. It sounds alien, first off, asserting that this isn’t just a conventional Western. But it’s also evocative of the music in Star Wars as the Tusken Raiders attack Luke Skywalker, without being a direct imitation. Even more than that, though, was how much it reminded me of the music in The Planet of the Apes. None of it feels to me like a direct reference, but is instead part of the overall tone and setting of the series, planting it solidly in the realm of late 1970s science fiction.
The music is one perfectly-realized detail of many in the series. And all of the details are working in tandem to make it feel as if it were an inextricable part of the Star Wars universe that’s been sitting in a Lucasfilm vault since 1979. (Even though the seamless effects work and puppetry would make this series impossible before around 2010).
Göransson himself seems like the kind of musician who could only exist in the 21st century, though. His entire career and body of work are super-exciting to me, because it suggests a media environment where genres are irrelevant, and it’s all a huge cross-cultural mash-up. If you haven’t listened to the episode of the Song Exploder podcast in which he talks about recording the soundtrack to Black Panther, you absolutely should.