Natalie Holt and William Ross’ score for Obi-Wan Kenobi is a stark lesson in what not to do with a Star Wars score, with a general lack of iconic themes, mostly dull action music and a dangerously near-generic musical style occupying much of the album. As such, when the interesting parts eventually do arrive (albeit in rather poor form), they’re so swamped by all the other musical mud that they’re barely noticeable at all, which is a real shame given that the new Obi-Wan and Leia themes are actually pretty good.
So… introductions. Obi-Wan Kenobi was scored by Natalie Holt, a composer who previously created for example the rather excellent music for Marvel series Loki. She wasn’t the only composer on Kenobi however, as John Williams also surprisingly, welcomely returned to the Star Wars sonic universe to write a new main theme for the iconic character. With that William Ross was then brought on board, initially it seemed to just adapt Williams’ theme for the show, but as time went on he also seems to have scored a hefty chunk of the show just in general. Honestly, it’s at this point where things get a little muddy music-wise – just how involved each composer is in the show remains somewhat unclear right now.
But anyway, let’s begin by talking about the gigantic, planet-sized elephant in the room here – the themes. Oh boy. I think you’d expect that a series so steeped in Star Wars lore would be positively awash with established Star Wars themes, but sadly… you’d be wrong. Before the series even began airing, a Variety interview with composer Natalie Holt made reference to the series’ wider place in the Star Wars thematic universe, with the composer herself stating that people would expect to hear iconic themes played when certain iconic characters graced the screen. Absolutely right. When the series actually began however, there was not only a conspicious lack of any Star Wars thematic material, but also a rather jarringly different, even quasi-RCP musical style. Well, there was for Holt’s side of the score, anyway. Whenever William Ross came long however (pretty much whenever John Williams’ Kenobi theme needed playing) the musical style changed dramatically to a much more Williams-esque, Star Wars-y sound. Don’t get me wrong, it still wasn’t quite there either, but it was a damn sight closer than Holt’s to the classic Star Wars sound.
Having these two wildly different compositional styles though created a rather dramatic music clash in the show itself – one minute it was moody orchestra, the next it was light, upbeat John Williams. It was an odd choice musically, and worse – rather noticeable. Anyway, as the show continued the lack of established themes became more and more apparent, until right in the final moments of the series where several of Williams’ iconic motifs made short, it seemed almost begrudging appearances. Cue another interview with Holt conducted shortly after the series finished (this time on ScreenRant) where the composer now said that not only did she feel the characters needed to actually earn their iconic themes rather than play them outright, but also that they (the showrunners) didn’t even know that they were going to be allowed to use established themes, at all.
With the facts now stated, it’s time for my opinion to come in (as per usual with these review things). Brace yourselves though. Now, the score has been through the social media wringer several times already for its odd thematic choices, and I really hate to jump on the bandwagon too here, but I’m afraid I am going to have to. With the Mandalorian right, while I didn’t exactly like the lack of musical connectivity to Star Wars in season one, I came to accept that given the considerable distance between the show and the Skywalker saga, finding its own way thematically made sense, at least a little bit. In season two the show then moved closer to the saga narratively and established themes started to seep in, which then also furthered my enthusiasm for its score. Kenobi however is a different situation entirely. This series is so steeped in the Skywalker saga that it may as well be episode 3.5 – from the Empire to Order 66, from Obi-Wan, Luke and Leia to Anakin and Darth Vader, hell even the Force itself – they’re all there, and I’m sorry; you can’t not use the themes.
Every time Darth Vader marched around in the show and some dull atmospheric plodding played instead of the Imperial March it was not only super noticeable, but dull to the extreme. No Force theme played as Obi-Wan slowly reconnected with it over the course of the series, no “Anakin’s Dark Deeds” played in the Order 66 moments where it was badly needed, and no “Battle Of The Heroes” played in the final duel where let’s be honest, we all really wanted it to. Even just a reference would have been enough. But no. Then the show tried to recoup some lost faith in the final episode with a really token, short rendition of the Imperial March, in a moment where it had very little effect anyway. If you’re going to save the themes – god knows why – at least save them for emotionally strong moments, not just randomly near the end of the show. The only exception to this though you could argue lies in Princess Leia’s theme. She is only a little girl in the series, and when her actual theme from A New Hope plays right at the end it did actually work, rather well in fact. Darth Vader though, and the Empire? The Force? Order 66? All well established by this point (hell, the Imperial March plays in episodes two and three!) and there’s simply no excuse for choosing not to use those themes here. No excuse at all. Play them in full, that’s what they’re there for!
That being said though, one can’t help but wonder whether some behind-the-scenes shenanigans went on with the music for this series. I’m perplexed by Holt stating that they didn’t know whether they were going to be able to use the themes. Do Disney not own the rights to Star Wars music? Why did other series (The Mandalorian, Clone Wars/Rebels) seemingly not have this issue? Or.. did they? Did they genuinely have to get John Williams’ permission for every instance of his themes being used? The addition of William Ross at the last minute too also raises eyebrows, and again one wonders if there’s perhaps more to this now rather lengthy soundtrack story than already stated above. More though would only be speculation at this point, and at the end of the day, with all rants said and done – the music for Kenobi is finished, and short of a #SaveTheWilliamsVerse Twitter movement, nothing’s now going to change that.
So here we are. You know how I feel about the themes, so let’s move on to the actual music… a thousand words into the soundtrack review. Sorry about that.
The soundtrack begins with William Ross and “Obi-Wan”, and it’s here that one of the few John Williams influences on the series starts to play. This is the brand new theme for the title character that the famous composer actually came back to Star Wars to write, and to be fair, it is pretty damned good. The track opens with quiet, morose strings and brass playing the new motif, and as it builds over the course of the four minute cue the theme gradually becomes grander and more hopeful until then closing on a crash of emphatic percussion. All-in, the theme does a great job of capturing Kenobi’s mournful, downtrodden character ten years after the events of Revenge Of The Sith, and manages to set a very Star Wars-y musical tone right off the bat. This doesn’t last for very long though, as “Order 66” then begins; gentle strings open the piece, before a crash of drums and loud stabs of brass start to play alongside some rather aggressive electronics. Gone immediately is the Star Wars sound, with a duller, much more generic-sounding semi-orchestral style rising in its place. I won’t go into it too much given my pseudo-essay above, but the change is jarring to say the least. “Inquisitors Hunt” then introduces Holt’s first new theme for the series; a loudly malevolent and heavily electronic motif for the Inquisitors that plays alongside moody, atmospheric instrumentation for the remainder of the three minute cue. It’s a dramatically villainous new theme granted, but memorable? Sadly not so much. It’s painfully dull-sounding, almost RCP-like musical style also really doesn’t help it either.
Things do brighten up a tad in “Young Leia” though, as light, playful strings enter the fray accompanied by upbeat percussion, playing Holt’s new theme for the character in delightfully hopeful style. Now, quite why we needed a new theme for Leia I can only sort of understand (sure it’s a much younger version of the Leia we know, but also like – Leia already has a theme!) but setting that aside for a moment, in all fairness the new one is quite nice, and the orchestral style works too – it’s probably the closest Holt gets to the John Williams sound here, though it still isn’t particularly close. “Days Of Alderaan” then continues in a similar vein before William Ross re-enters the fray with “The Journey Begins”, playing the new Obi-Wan theme in now typically downtrodden form. The Williams-esque strings and low brass are centre stage throughout this three minute piece, with the new motif getting a particularly emphatic rendition right as the cue closes out. Holt then retakes the reins in the short “Bail And Leia”, with a gentle rendition of Leia’s hopeful motif playing optimistically on quiet strings. The duller, more electronic-heavy style however starts to seep back into the score with the subsequent “Ready To Go” and “Cat And Mouse” cues, with the latter in particular focusing on it with loud brassy overtones and an almost overbearing rendition of the new Inquisitors theme. A rumble of percussion however brightens the orchestral skies in “First Rescue” as Ross steps back onto the scene, bringing with him both the Kenobi theme and the Williams-esque sound. Here we hear the new motif in action mode for the first time, with tense, fast-paced strings and hurried brass playing it tensely and worrisomely for three minutes of increasingly frenetic action.
The electronics are dialed up to eleven in “Sensing Vader”, with rumbling percussion and very high-pitched, almost horror-like strings starting things off before loud stabs of brass accompanied by moody backing electronics signal danger as Darth Vader enters the fray. While the full Imperial March theme doesn’t play here (of course not, why would it?) it does kind of sound like the backing instrumentation of the theme is lingering in the background here, but that could be just be me really reaching for it. Have a listen yourself and see what you think. The loudly imposing action then briefly comes to a dramatic halt as gentle strings re-enter the fray, with Ross returning for “Some Things Can’t Be Forgotten”. I say briefly however as some loudly imposing, marching militaristic percussion and brass then take over in the back half of the cue, overall frequently sounding like they’re going to break out into the Imperial March theme any second, but annoyingly never quite reaching that particular crescendo. Holt then does a similar thing with the subsequent “Stormtrooper Patrol”, “Hangar Escape” and “Empire Arrival” cues, as villainous drums, foreboding electronics and the Inquisitors motif march ever closer to the iconic Empire theme but still never quite get there. It’s actually rather maddening to listen to after a while, just… play the theme!
To be fair though it isn’t all that bad, as Holt does break out a rather enjoyably heroic (though sadly short) rendition of Obi-Wan’s theme in the back half of “Hangar Escape”. Small victories.
As the album starts to near its finale, William Ross steps back in with action setpiece “I Will Do What I Must”, with a very synthetic-sounding choir opening the piece before Obi-Wan’s theme then charges dramatically through in a particularly powerful, frenzied rendition on loud, tense brass and frenetic percussion. Holt then delivers a rather emotional side note to this with the short “Sacrifice” building to a powerfully anguished crescendo, before then diving right into action with the malevolent Inquisitor theme held high in the subsequent, electronic-heavy “No Further Use”. William Ross then returns with choir in the first half of “Overcoming The Past”, but it’s the latter half where things finally get interesting thematically as the Imperial March plays its token rendition. Sigh. I don’t know, I feel like I should be grateful just to hear it at all here, but the theme feels so flat in its only appearance both on album and in show. Why was it held back until now? It didn’t need building up to, just… JUST USE THE THEME. It’s not hard, though maybe it actually is. We don’t know! Anyway, Holt then delivers a grand finale to the Inquisitor theme in “Who You Become”, with morose strings taking prominence for once over dramatic electronics, to honestly pretty spellbinding musical effect overall. William Ross then closes out the album with two final cues, “Saying Goodbye”, which finally uses both the Princess Leia and Force themes in all their orchestral glory (again, why were they held back?) and “End Credit”, which brings Obi-Wan’s theme full circle with a happily lengthy rendition much akin to that of the opening suite.
Overall, sadly it’s hard to like much of the score for Obi-Wan Kenobi. Natalie Holt’s area of the album precariously teeters on the side of generic for a good chunk of its runtime, with its loudly in-your-face electronics and moody brass style seemingly steering as far from the established Star Wars sound as possible, despite the series being so deeply entrenched in Skywalker Saga lore it’s pretty much episode 3.5. There are moments of greatness buried in the mud here however, with Leia’s hopeful new theme (despite her not really needing one, let’s be honest) and some of the action (à la Obi-Wan’s theme in “Hangar Escape”) being quite enjoyable. William Ross’ side of the album then is admittedly better, but still far from perfect. Here the John Williams-esque, traditional orchestral Star Wars sound is much more present along with of course Williams’ excellent new theme, but much like with Holt’s side the lack of certain iconic themes is painfully apparent, to the point of being very noticeable indeed at times. Holt and Ross’ compositional styles are also very different, resulting in some rather jarring musical transitions both between album tracks and throughout the series itself.
I don’t know. In all honestly I’m not sure what I was really expecting with the music for Kenobi, but damn I was hoping for better than this. I just don’t buy the excuses given by Natalie Holt regarding the reasons behind not really using the iconic themes (they needed earning, apparently) and even when they do appear, they don’t really appear well; short renditions a couple of seconds long that don’t deliver much in the way of emotional power, save perhaps for Princess Leia’s theme at the end of “Saving Goodbye”. If you’re going to claim the themes need earning and build up to them, then when the moments finally come at least use them well, like come on (seriously, not even a hint of “Battle Of The Heroes” in the final duel?). The musical style as I’ve said is also annoyingly inconsistent, even just using a more John Williams-esque sound overall I think would’ve helped the lack of themes a great deal (see Stephen Barton and Gordy Haab’s Fallen Order score for excellent evidence of this). This general musical discontinuity was perhaps forgiveable in The Mandalorian given its initial distance from the main saga, but the same cannot be said for Obi-Wan. At all. I wasn’t expecting like 100% note-for-note John Williams, but even forgiving the lack of themes for a moment, a much better job could have been done here. We all know it. Now, instead of a highly memorable, powerfully Star Wars Kenobi score, we got a fairly dull, meandering one that delivers very few actual highlights. In a week we’ll all have stopped talking about it, and that’ll be that.
It could have been so much more.
Standout Cue: 1. Obi-Wan
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