WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW
First of all, it can't be ignored that The Last Jedi is an effectively functional extension of the previously existing material from The Force Awakens and beyond, just as a sequel score is meant to do. As Star Wars scores go, it obviously has to recall the diverse range of thematic material and leitmotifs wherever necessary as a means to connect this film with the rest of the franchise. In The Last Jedi, the following themes and motives return:
That's 15 - yes, 15!! - thematic identities that are brought back for The Last Jedi. This includes new material established in The Force Awakens. However, you won't hear some of this material on the album release (yes, once again, more music exists in the film than it does on the album - we'll get to that), including The Emperor's Theme and one or two other renditions of Han and Leia's theme.
Most of the underscoring for this film (what music doesn't contain a theme or motive either) is an extension of The Force Awakens as well. Most of the battle music is divided into two ideas: the scherzo material from "Scherzo for X-Wings" and a second identity built on a motif that's essentially a cousin to the material from "I Can Fly Anything" (both fromThe Force Awakens). On a surface level, they do appear to extend what was established in The Force Awakens because, on its own, this underscoring is a variation of the previous material, and of course, it's wickedly creative in craft, structure, and orchestration. However, none of this particular underscoring is further developed or varied the further the film runs, which is a serious issue with the reused themes and motives as well (which we'll also get to later). Sure, in the other films of the Star Wars saga, there's been concert themes/battle music/underscoring that doesn't appear again or is slightly underdeveloped (like "The Asteroid Field" from The Empire Strikes Back), but when this underscoring is constantly repeated verbatim throughout the entire film, it gets tiring.
Fortunately, there is also new material in The Last Jedi that effectively works and is memorable in its own right. The only major new theme that's prominent is for the introduced character Rose Tico (who's played wonderfully by actress Kelly Marie Tran), and it's absolutely beautiful. It's full of hope, a longing for adventure and taking action, and even soars at times regardless of the grief she feels from losing her sister Paige to a First Order attack. The best rendition of this theme happens in the middle of the track "The Fathiers", as Rose and Finn heroically free these creatures from the scum of Canto Bight and make their daring escape. This moment is scored almost like a Disney adventure film (I'm looking at you, Bruce Broughton's score to The Rescuers Down Under) crossed with the Western cowboy genre the series has been partly inspired by.
Vice Admiral Holdo gets a brief motive for her one daringly heroic move that tears apart the First Order fleet (as an aside, the aftermath of this is probably the single greatest outer-space moment in any Star Wars film ever), but it only appears twice in the film and there's no building up to this motive. The motive can be heard during the "Finale" end credits suite on the album. There's a danger motive blaringly alerted in trumpets with flourishing woodwinds, strings, and percussion keyboards (as is, per usual, the Williams way with these films), as well as different variations of elegiac music which makes an appearance every now and again where appropriate. Finally, there are brief thematic identities for Luke's solitary life as a hermit on Ahch-To (heard in places such as "Ahch-To Island" and "The Rebellion is Reborn") which is surprisingly upbeat; a mystery motive for Rey's discovery of the Force ("Ahch-To Island"); and a heart-pounding fanfaric call for Luke's triumphant Western-evoking standoff against Kylo Ren ("The Spark") which was prominently used in promotional material for the film.
However, even the new material has some serious development issues as well. Rose's theme, for one, is way too short. It's barely represented beyond just a few bars or so and never gets its true chance to shine like it quite frankly should have. The longest rendition of Rose's theme that appears is in the concert-like piece "The Rebellion is Reborn" as well as "Finale," but even then, it's constantly interrupted by other material. In "Finale," there's a good reason for this (as Leia's theme appears solemnly on solo piano during Rian Johnson's poignant dedication to Carrie Fisher, who tragically passed away last year), but in "The Rebellion is Reborn," there's no reason for this interruption to occur at all. "The Rebellion is Reborn" in particular is like a cross-hybrid of Rose's theme and the Ahch-To hermit life motive, but they are so awkwardly put together that neither identity is fully developed as they should have been. As well-executed as some of these other motives are, they also don't really get a chance to fully shine either. They're awesome in their own right, but they unfortunately don't particularly stand out either because of the limited time that each of them appear. For example, the setup for Luke taking on the First Order on his own is absolutely perfect (again, see "The Spark"), but it's really the only instance that particular music occurs.
The biggest problem with the score to The Last Jedi is the overabundant use of previously existing themes and motives of the Star Wars saga. The film is oversaturated with them, at times unnecessarily so. Of the 15 themes which return, several of them only appear once in the entire film (some of which works, others which definitely don't). The Emperor's Theme (again, this doesn't appear on the album - only in the film) appears while Snoke tortures Rey on his ship - why? The film already succeeds at referencing several of its predecessors visually and effectively. Why does the score need to do this? Snoke's theme is already an effective extension of the Emperor's theme with its male-choral context and brooding; why not just develop Snoke's already-existing theme a little bit further and make it interesting? It's entirely unnecessary and a waste of musical material in The Last Jedi.
Now that's not to say the one-time appearance of some of this old material isn't effective. Luke and Leia's theme, for example, is poignant and different from its appearance in Return of the Jedi. When the theme appears in "The Spark" (which co-aligns with Luke and Leia's reunion onscreen), it's done well and is very effective. The TIE Fighter Attack music (heard in "The Battle of Crait" and reprised in "Finale") is mostly the same as its earlier appearances, albeit with a slight extension in the middle so it fits with the actions onscreen in The Last Jedi. For the most part, it works. Yoda's theme (on the track "The Sacred Jedi Texts" and reprised in "Finale") is a different story. Its first appearance (when Yoda appears onscreen) is a variation of its uses in the other films. However, its second appearance (happening near the end of that scene) is exactly like the concert arrangement of the theme. Why? There's no reason for the theme to appear in this fashion at all. Why not do a different variation of it like the first instance? Again, it's another waste of musical material where the film could have had some much-needed musical development.
The Rebel Fanfare and the Star Wars main title music appears where appropriate (the latter is even associated with Luke again as he reunites with R2-D2 during the track "Old Friends"). A great version of this theme in particular appears in "Who Are You?". Han and Leia's theme appears once on the album (in the track "The Spark", in its exact same variation as with the track "Farewell and the Trip" in The Force Awakens) and twice in the film, the second which happens through an unreleased cue while Luke and Rey first begin to talk about Kylo Ren's turn to the dark side. Vader's theme appears appropriately in the track "Revisiting Snoke", but does not appear again beyond that. The motive for The Jedi Steps (heard only in "Ahch-To Island") serves as connective tissue to bringing the story back to where Rey was last seen in The Force Awakens, and to that end, it serves its purpose. Finally, the themes for both Rey and Kylo Ren are adequately developed. Kylo Ren's theme in particular has a great dramatic choral moment near the end of the track "The Last Jedi," as well as other prominent appearances in "Revisiting Snoke" and "The Supremacy."
The themes that break this rule are all but one of the identities which haven't been previously mentioned. Of the abundance of this old material in The Last Jedi, it is Leia's Theme, Poe's Theme, and The March of the Resistance which receives the most variation and originality in the entire film. Leia's theme especially, in the track "The Supremacy", gets a chilling rendition over tense and stirring underscoring as it appears Kylo Ren might kill his only remaining parent. Poe's theme has a tender and poignant moment, if only briefly, in "Peace and Purpose." The March of the Resistance has great moments of variation in the tracks "Main Title and Escape", "The Supremacy," and "The Battle of Crait" (the latter track in particular is the theme at its most militaristic). Unfortunately, even Leia's theme (in "The Supremacy") and the Resistance march (in "Main Title and Escape" and "The Battle of Crait") suffers from some moments of repeated versions of its uses in previous Star Wars films.
If there was a theme in The Last Jedi which perfectly described the strengths and weaknesses of the entire score, that honor goes to the Force theme. Moments like in "The Supremacy", "The Last Jedi," and "Old Friends" are good because they develop the material to the extent of what the film needs. In "Peace and Purpose", the Force theme is used perfectly as it emotionally helps to send off Luke Skywalker in a manner which cyclically ties together with the beginning of his journey in A New Hope. In cues such as "The Sacred Jedi Texts," however, it suffers from the same issues as some of the other themes because the variation which is used is essentially taken from Rey and Kylo Ren's fight in The Force Awakens with very minor differences.
Even the underscoring at times, when it's not a direct extension from The Force Awakens, feels like a blatant reference to previous Star Wars scores in the worst possible way. "Chrome Dome" recalls the Geonosis battle arena music of Attack of the Clones to represent Captain Phasma's fight with Finn, but like the fight itself, it's uninteresting on album (to be fair, though, the fight was too short on screen and Phasma was completely wasted in the trilogy by being killed off here). The "Canto Bight" track is similar to Williams's famous "Cantina Band" music from A New Hope, and for the most part, it's harmless and toe-tapping. This track has a decent orchestral introduction to the salsa-band and, later, alienlike big-band jazz which permeates the rest of the cue (like the film itself, look for a sly reference to Terry Gilliams's film "Brazil" here with the use of the popular song "Aquarela do Brasil"). The most interesting (and mostly original) underscoring on album is the dark undertones that appear in "The Cave" and "Who Are You?", feeling like an actual development of the music from The Empire Strikes Back without it being a blatant rip of such material.
So with all of this in mind, does the score for The Last Jedi work? As a fun and inventive John Williams score, yes, it works exactly as it needs to with the film. It does what a sequel score should accomplish by extending the thematic and motivic material of its predecessors in various ways. However, the approach the score takes in accomplishing these tasks is its Achilles' heel and its single most fundamental flaw. Most of the time, these identities are unnecessarily and fully repeated (NOT developed or varied) in a cut-and-paste format directly taken from previous films in the Star Wars saga. The over-saturation of this material (and when this material is actually varied and different) prevents any of the newly created themes, motives, and underscoring to receive the musical development it deserves, just as any of the old material had plenty of room to do in other films.
Compare The Last Jedi's score to any other Star Wars film in the franchise (except for A New Hope). Themes brought back in any of those films were brief, called upon when needed, and left enough musical space for new themes, motives, and underscoring to develop as needed (including some very memorable concert themes). The underscoring for these films made each score unique and identifiable (such as The Empire Strikes Back and even any of the prequels) because, like each film, it dared to do something different (even if the film didn't work). For all of its faults, even Rogue One's score by Michael Giacchino accomplishes this as well, with most of its score being unique to the film and only relying on themes where needed. Hell, even Kevin Kiner's music for the Star Wars: The Clone Wars film (the worst film in the entire saga! Don't remember it, do you?) and the freaking Holiday Special, as bad as both of these films were, had more musical material which was new and unique to their respective identities over the use of the old material.
This is where the score for The Last Jedi ultimately fails in almost every conceivable way. For a Star Wars film, the music relies way too much on previous thematic identities to tell its story. There isn't a healthy balance between old and new material, relying too much on old material to carry the film forward (the balance is slightly better when considering the unreleased cues that appear in the film itself, but not by much), especially in scenes where it is absolutely unnecessary for them to do so. Some of the previous thematic identities which are brought back (including in "Main Title and Escape" a nod to the beginning of A New Hope) are unnecessary to the film's musical construct and are thus completely wasted, leaving no room for any new material created for The Last Jedi to be given the opportunity to develop and vary itself anywhere else in the film.
For all of my bitching and complaining, though, I don't believe that much of these issues are to be blamed on John Williams (the new material, for example, is brilliant as he always does!). These issues with the score are not due to Williams's age either. Look at the incredibly engaging output he's given in this decade alone for films like Tintin, The BFG, The Book Thief, and very likely in the upcoming Spielberg film The Post! Multiple times at Tanglewood concerts and beyond, Williams enthusiastically stated he wanted to come back for the rest of this sequel trilogy so that no other composer would write music for Rey, a character he found to be deeply fascinating. The main issue is with the direction, or possibly lack thereof. With the exception of maybe Looper, this is the first Rian Johnson film with a fully orchestral score and Wagnerian levels of complicated and intricate musical development. It's hard not to believe that the only direction given to Williams would have been to bring back as much previous Star Wars material as possible to constantly self-reference itself as The Last Jedi ultimately does in its context. Unlike the film, however, the score backfires in this approach.
This score made me appreciate the music for The Force Awakens even more than I already did before. That score consisted of approximately 80% new material, 20% old material. The Last Jedi is the polar opposite and consists of 80% old material, 20% new material. The Force Awakens, like its predecessors, felt fresh and engaging with its abundance of new musical material because it strove to do something completely different, just as every other Star Wars score had done before. The Last Jedi is too robust, too redundant, and ultimately not as engaging as it quite frankly should be, with its album presentation making this issue all the more worse. Yes, the music is insanely good for the most part, but only due to the fact that it was mostly created for the previous films in the saga.
The Last Jedi's music has its few rewarding moments, but overall, it's much more frustrating for its missed opportunities to take risks and chances as had been done with every other score in the saga. For a film that dares to tell audiences it's time for rehashed, formulaic ideas from the past to be killed off and make room for fresh, engaging, mostly original material, the score is entirely still stuck in the past (even with the presence of its new material!) and refuses to move beyond anything further than that. While definitely listenable and full of the same Star Wars material beloved by all for years, it does absolutely nothing to push beyond what The Force Awakens previously established when compared to any other score in the entire franchise. For its unoriginality, its overabundance of previous material, and its surprising unwillingness to push the saga in a fresh, engaging, and different direction, John Williams's music for The Last Jedi is an incredibly weak score in comparison to its predecessors and, undoubtedly, the worst Star Wars score of all time.