'Star Wars' Prequel Score Gets Thumbs Up At Screening

John Williams' sweeping soundtrack thrilled fans who got an advance look at much-anticipated film.

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- It's not often that a movie crowd breaks out into

raucous cheers at the first note of a film's score.

Then again, this was the movie it seems the whole world has been waiting for --

the prequel to "Star Wars." And for diehard fans, the score blasted through like

a triumphant battle tune.

The chord that boomed out in rump-shaking surround sound in a packed screening

room here Tuesday night was not only a familiar one, but a sign of things to

come, a cinematic experience that has been anticipated with unparalleled fervor.

And the opening fanfare

(RealAudio excerpt) came courtesy of the legendary London Symphony Orchestra.

"[The music] really complemented the movie; I got caught up in it," said Leo

Escoto, 43, of Fort Greene, Md., who was among those who'd anticipated this

moment for months.

Despite all the hype over "Star Wars: Episode 1 -- The Phantom Menace,"

scheduled for release May 19, reports from advance screenings have suggested

that the first entry in the "Star Wars" series since "Return of the Jedi"

(1983), may not be worth all the attention.

Nonetheless, the crowd here received "The Phantom Menace" rapturously,

applauding and cheering with equal fervor at the beginning and end. Afterward,

exhilarated viewers praised 67-year-old composer John Williams' score, which

accompanies nearly every moment of the film. The soundtrack album debuted this

week at #3 on the Billboard 200 albums chart.

"It was very 'Star Wars'-esque, very [much] John Williams, Jenna Umansky, a 24-year-old

D.C. resident, said. "It helped set the tone for the movie."

The music surges during battle scenes, as in "Duel of the Fates," (RealAudio excerpt) which

accompanies the movie's climactic scene -- a scene that includes a three-man

light saber fight, a space battle and a larger, more elaborate ground war than

seen in any other "Star Wars" movie.

"Phantom Menace" takes place decades before the events of the original "Star

Wars" trilogy, and in part tells the story of Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia's

parents, Anakin Skywalker and Queen Amidala.

A Jedi knight, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson), and his apprentice, Obi-Wan Kenobi

(Ewan McGregor), discover a nine-year-old boy with uncanny powers. The boy,

Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), is destined to become the villainous Darth Vader.

But at this point in the saga he is an innocent, even heroic, figure. Meanwhile,

the peaceful planet of Naboo has been invaded by robotic troops. The planet's

ruler, Amidala (Natalie Portman), enlists the help of the Jedis to defend her

planet.

Along the way, the droids R2D2 and C3P0 make their first appearances, and

familiar characters like the obese crime boss Jaba the Hutt and the Jedi master

Yoda have cameo roles. "Phantom Menace" is expected to be followed by two more

installments in the "Star Wars" series.

The music turns ominous at every glimpse of the massed army of evil, gleaming

battle droids or of the demonic Darth Maul. It provides gentler accompaniment to

tender moments, including a scene in which Anakin bids his mother goodbye; the

scene sparked sniffling in the crowd.

Umansky said a high point of the soundtrack was the swelling orchestral sound

that accompanies Skywalker's victory in a video-game-like racing scene.

Unlike both the blockbuster first "Star Wars" movie and its follow-up, "Return

of the Jedi," "Phantom Menace" doesn't spotlight any alien musicians, except for

a momentary glimpse of a marching band made up of giraffe-like creatures called

Gunguns. The group, apparently called "Augie's Great Municipal Band"

(RealAudio excerpt), judging from the track's title on the album, plays

a jaunty, melodic dance number.

The famous cantina band scene in the first "Star Wars" movie is briefly recalled

when characters walk through the marketplace on the desert planet Tatooine,

which is home to the cantina. The bar is filled with a menagerie of aliens,

including an unearthly jazz band. The characters don't enter the bar, but the

unmistakable strains of that alien jazz are heard briefly in the background.

That musical moment isn't on the soundtrack album. The record includes only 74

minutes of the almost two hours of music Williams composed for the movie.

"I need to hear the rest of the music," Steve Lorenzo, 33, said Sunday night as

he waited in line for "Phantom Menace" tickets outside a movie theater in New

York -- 10 days before the movie's release.

Lorenzo, who was participating in what organizers call a "standathon," raising

money for the Starlight Foundation, a children's charity, said he had been

listening to the soundtrack constantly since its release.

He pointed out that the soundtracks to previous movies in the series eventually

were re-released to include the full scores and predicted the same would happen

with the "Phantom Menace" album.

Even if some diehards find the soundtrack album incomplete, it has already spun

off a hit video. The clip for "Duel of the Fates" was one of MTV's 10 most-requested

videos last week, a spokesperson for the cable music channel said.