There have been so many ancillary Star Wars stories over the past four decades that many of them have fallen through the cracks and become lost to obscurity– or worse, decanonization. One of my favorite examples of this phenomenon is Lucasfilm’s mid-90s multi-platform effort to fill in the narrative gap between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi entitled Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire.
Shadows of the Empire isn’t talked about a whole lot anymore, but it was a pretty big deal at the time in the Star Wars community and for my teenage self. I gobbled up all the tie-in media including the novel by Steve Perry, the comic book miniseries from Dark Horse, the Kenner action figures, the video game for Nintendo 64, and yes, even the new orchestral score written by composer Joel McNeely (The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles). That’s right: they put out an almost hour-long score for a movie that didn’t exist. If that’s not an interesting Star Wars experiment, I don’t know what is.
Now that all-but-forgotten faux soundtrack has been rescued and reissued for the first time ever on vinyl LP by the Varèse Sarabande record label, and I couldn’t be happier with the result. The disc both looks and sounds fantastic and giving it a spin immediately brought me back to the carefree days before the release of the Star Wars prequel trilogy. Seriously though, Joel McNeely really went above and beyond in creating this robust, fully realized score that has gone largely unsung over the past twenty years, so it’s absolutely worthy of being rediscovered at this reminiscent between-movies moment in Star Wars history.
After opening up the package I couldn’t help but dig up my old Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire comics and flip through them as I listened to the music, just to help further enhance the atmosphere of the experience. But the original liner notes from the 1996 release are also included with the vinyl record, so I recommend spending some time reading along with the insights from McNeely and producer Robert Townson as you absorb the score. It’s also great to have a larger-scale print of the terrific-as-always Shadows of the Empire cover art by the legendary Drew Struzan on the LP sleeve– the sizes of the original CD and hardcover book releases made it difficult to appreciate the detail– even these embedded images feel low-res and fail to do the evocative painting justice.
Obviously, Joel McNeely incorporates portions of internationally beloved composer John Williams’s iconic Star Wars scores into the soundtrack for Shadows of the Empire. The disc opens with the famous Main Title Theme and the Imperial March from The Empire Strikes Back is peppered throughout– to let the listener know whenever Darth Vader or a Star Destroyer pops up in the story, I suppose. However, I suggest picking this release up not for the stuff you already know, but to hear the freshly created themes invented by McNeely for new characters like Black Sun crime boss Prince Xizor and Han Solo stand-in Dash Rendar, perhaps for the first time. There are also a few great action setpieces from the novel/comics conveyed energetically via the music and even a darkly tantalizing waltz inspired by Xizor’s attempted seduction of Princess Leia.
Hearing this score again, it’s almost hard to imagine that a Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire movie wasn’t actually made, though the below fan-created poster by artist Brandon Bird (with Edward Norton cast as Prince Xizor, Nicolas Cage as Dash Rendar, and Helen Hunt as the human replica droid Guri) does a good job of convincing me it might have been. And at 51 minutes in length, this newly reissued soundtrack will add a good deal of listening enjoyment to any fan’s collection.
Joel McNeely’s score for Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire is available now on vinyl LP from Varèse Sarabande.
Mike serves as Laughing Place’s lead Southern California reporter, Editorial Director for Star Wars content, and host of the weekly “Who’s the Bossk?” Star Wars podcast. He’s been fascinated by Disney theme parks and storytelling in general since a very young age and resides in Burbank, California with his beloved wife and cats.