The Musical Force is Female: Natalie Holt’s Score for “Obi-Wan Kenobi”

By Brian Skutle

When Disney first purchased Lucasfilm in 2012, naturally, one of the first thoughts for many a “Star Wars”(1977) fan was the idea of getting more films and TV shows. “Clone Wars”(2008-2020) was going on Cartoon Network, but the prequel era had divided the fan base. New stories were not just on my mind, however.

Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) in “Obi-Wan Kenobi”

A new trilogy of films meant, of course, new scores by the venerable John Williams. But Williams couldn’t possibly score every film we would get, could he? As a film score fanatic, my mind started to consider the possibilities- what would a Hans Zimmer “Star Wars” score sound like? Or Howard Shore? What about scores from James Horner (RIP) or Alexander Desplat? That last one almost happened on “Rogue One”(2016), before Oscar-winner Michael Giacchino took over at the last minute, and did a great job. We’ve also gotten John Powell scoring “Solo”(2018) which was a tremendous effort from the Oscar-nominated composer, and Oscar-winner Ludwig Goransson has knocked “The Mandalorian” out of the park. After her work on Marvel’s “Loki,” Natalie Holt immediately caught my attention as a musical voice; her work for that TV series is one of my favorite scores in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. When she was announced as the composer on “Obi-Wan Kenobi,” I was extremely excited.

As someone who knows that our remaining years with Williams are numbered (especially with the recent announcement that, after “Indiana Jones 5,” he is likely to retire from film scoring), I cherish any new bit of new “Star Wars” music we get from him. When it comes to the legacy characters he first composed for in 1977, he has been given the chance to write new themes. He finally had the chance to write a proper theme for Han Solo to go with Powell’s score for the 2018, and when it came to “Obi-Wan Kenobi,” he wanted to write something for “Old Benny.” When you’re listening to the music for this six-episode series about Ewan McGregor’s Jedi, you’re hearing from three different voices- Williams, Holt, and William Ross, a long-time Williams collaborator whom is adapting his theme for the series. The Obi-Wan theme is another lovely leitmotif from Williams, with the same nobility as his iconic Force theme, but with a sense of adventure underneath, as well. From here on out, we will be discussing Holt’s contributions alone.

Natalie Holt on the scoring stage while recording the score for “Obi-Wan Kenobi”

One of the first things you notice in Holt’s score for the series is that, while it fits the more symphonic nature of Williams’s music, it also fits with the more contemporary sort of action film scoring we’ve heard become the standard over the past four decades. Goransson does the same thing on “The Mandalorian”(2019-), but while he is also building off of the western genre, Holt is allowed to be more modern in the sound she incorporates. This is actually kind of a perfect juxtaposition of styles for the “Star Wars” universe; after all, our introduction to George Lucas’s world begins with the words, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” Making high-tech worlds feel mythic has always been baked into the franchise, and I think the sound of Holt’s score does that. We hear that right off the bat when the first episode flashes back to Order 66; in “Revenge of the Sith”(2005), Williams’s goes for a more operatic, mournful sound- in this scene, Holt is more visceral, putting us in a very different frame of mind as we watch one Youngling fighting their way through Stormtroopers at the Jedi Temple. That Youngling is Reva (Moses Ingram), who’s now an Inquisitor looking to draw out Obi-Wan; the first two cues of Holt’s on the soundtrack (“Order 66” and “Inquisitors’ Hunt”), which complement each other as we see where Reva started vs. where she is now, are indicative of her approach as this story unfolds, and I’m immediately on board.

The big, unexpected “twist” of this series was that it focused on the relationship between Obi-Wan and Leia Organa (Vivian Lyra Blair), rather than him with Luke on Tatooine. As a result, it’s only natural we get music giving voice to young Leia. Rather than adapting Williams’s iconic theme for the character, Holt gives her motifs that illustrate that the character is just a child, and plays off of her life on Alderaan. The cues of “Young Leia,” “Days of Alderaan” and “Bail and Leia” do a lovely job of helping define a planet, and relationship, we know very little about if we do not dive into the expanded world of books, comics and TV shows like “The Clone Wars.” “Young Leia” is a playful cue that gives us the sense of a young girl who is adventurous, and very much carries on in her own way. “Days of Alderaan” feels like we’re getting our sense of the larger world of Leia’s character for the first time; it might remind you of music for “Alexander” or “Avatar,” but it still feels like a galaxy far, far away to me. Finally, “Bail and Leia” grounds the relationship these two have in a feeling that shows that Bail was always going to do right by his adopted ward, not just because of who she is, but because he is a man of honor. I love when a series of cues tell their own story, rather than just the emotional story of the scene they’re written for.

Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Leia Organa (Vivien Lyra Blair)

A track like “Nari’s Shadow” is something I’ve always loved about Williams’s scores- giving voice to minor characters when they do significant things. “Ready to Go” is a mix of orchestral and synthesized sounds that gives me goosebumps as it reaches a climactic emotional moment. One of the things I loved so much about Holt’s work for “Loki”- which I’ll discuss another time- is how she brought an otherworldly use of synthesizers to that series; here, it’s more typical of what action composers have done for decades, but rather than being the primary point of emphasis for action-driven sequences, they fit into the larger orchestration of the score that adds texture to the music rather than just being overbearing. “Stormtrooper Patrol” is a really good example of this, if you’re listening to the soundtrack, as is “Empire Arrival.” A lot of people gave Holt a hard time for not leaning into the iconic “Imperial March” by Williams, but I like how this track ties in to the aesthetic Giacchino developed when he scored “Rogue One,” which leaned on the sound of “A New Hope,” but didn’t lean on another composer’s work. Holt’s sound is more akin to “The Mandalorian” and “The Book of Boba Fett,” but like Giacchino, even though she has a wealth of musical themes she could lean on, she doesn’t entirely, (you can hear glimmers of the march in “No Further Use”), and I like that- if every “Star Wars” score was just cribbing off of Williams’s staff paper, this would be a very dull time to be a fan of music, and “Star Wars.”

I’m someone who loves listening to film music. I love imagining the images the music goes with, or re-experiencing the emotions of the story being told. It’s a way of revisiting the film or series without having the time to do so. With “Obi-Wan Kenobi,” Natalie Holt- and John Williams, and William Ross- gives us something familiar to the “Star Wars” musical landscape we’ve heard before, but also something that stands on its own, and has something to add. In the end, that’s the most important job a composer has to a project.

Brian’s review of the “Obi-Wan Kenobi” series is at Sonic Cinema here.

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