“The Acolyte” Composer Michael Abels on Scoring a “Star Wars” Story Unlike Any Before It

Fans of Star Wars have been eagerly anticipating their newest live-action series, The Acolyte, which features all-new characters in a tense and action-filled story that explores the light and dark sides of the force, as well as many grey areas in between. Set in the High Republic era that leads into Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, The Acolyte is the creation of Russian Doll writer/producer/director and lifelong Star Wars fan Leslye Headland. A mystery thriller at its core, the plot centers on a former Padawan (Amandla Stenberg) and her Jedi Master (Lee Jung-jae) reuniting to investigate a series of crimes that put them both at risk as forces become ever more dangerous and sinister. 

This new story in the Star Wars universe offered an exciting opportunity for Pulitzer Prize-winning 21st-century composer and Emmy and Grammy-nominated recording artist Michael Abels. Abels wanted to balance the lush orchestral quality of more traditional Star Wars music with the edgy, sound design inspired style fans of his work on Jordan Peele’s films Get Out, Us, and Nope will recognize.

Speaking with The Credits, Abels talks about crafting percussive heavy fight sequences, how to score a coven of alien witches, and the notes you can expect to hear when the lightsabers are unleashed.  


What were some of your early discussions with Leslye Headland about creating this score? 

This is a new Star Wars story. It’s all new characters and takes place centuries before any of the other stories we’re familiar with, so it was important to both tell these characters’ stories and introduce them to people, but also to let people know that this is the Star Wars we all know and love. So Leslye and I talked a lot about the balance between the expected and the unexpected and how to extend the tradition and enhance it in the ways Leslye had in mind. We decided pretty quickly we wanted to have a very lush orchestral score that had big music because that’s really what the Star Wars world is known for, but then also make sure that we are telling the story of these characters and take the music where it needs to go as they have their own journey.

Mae (Amandla Stenberg) in Lucasfilm’s THE ACOLYTE, exclusively on Disney+. ©2024 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Rights Reserved.

In terms of sticking to Star Wars tradition or going further afield, what might audiences hear? The fight scenes, for example, are much more percussive.

Right. There are a lot of fight sequences that are very martial arts inspired, and if you look at some of the Jedi philosophy, there’s a certain Eastern aesthetic in some of the philosophy of the Jedi. That was something that Leslye really leaned into in the characters, so the music we use for those scenes is not particularly harmony-forward but rather percussion-based. We wanted those sections to feel very different sonically than the rest of the Star Wars world. When starting the score, one of my jumping-in points was in the very percussive battle sequences and figuring out what worked for the characters that were going to fight in that specific way. There are also some terror elements that are meant to be pretty edgy, so even though the context can be very orchestral, at the same time, it’s very dissonant. 


The themes created for this particular Star Wars series are presented a bit differently. 

Some of them you can identify with characters, but that isn’t how I created them in this case. I identify them with the emotion in the plot that the character is experiencing. For example, there’s an aspiring Jedi, and when you feel her sense of wanting something greater and morally fulfilling, you hear this theme. On the one hand, it feels like her theme, but it sometimes occurs when her mentor, Sol, is also onscreen. It’s more a theme based on noble aspiration. Then, another theme is more meant to represent evil as it rears up from the depths or of the growth or expansion of evil. It’s not attached to a particular scene or character but is part of how the story unfolds. So, the cues are more based on the emotion happening onscreen instead of when we might be seeing a certain character’s face. 

(L-R): Mae (Amandla Stenberg) and Master Sol (Lee Jung-jae) in Lucasfilm’s THE ACOLYTE, exclusively on Disney+. ©2024 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Rights Reserved.

That’s a definite departure from what we might be used to, instead of something like “Darth’s Theme.” 

Right. Leslye wanted it to be a melodic score with identifiable themes because that’s something we love about Star Wars, but there’s a literary theme at work in The Acolyte, a storytelling theme of moral ambiguity. That’s a fresh take that Leslye really wanted to explore in depth in an episodic way. It’s possible in this series that one’s alliances will shift. The story is deliberately told from different characters’ perspectives, and you see that good versus evil is a little more complicated than how it might present itself. So, not every theme is used for every character, but the idea is that it might have been a possibility in the right situation. The approach I took was that a noble theme could be used for a character that we haven’t thought of as very noble because that’s a major feature of how we hope audiences watch this series. 

Witches are a fairly recent addition to the Star Wars canon. How did you approach scoring the coven introduced in The Acolyte

Even before the percussion, that was actually where I started because these witches are a very important element to the story, but also, there’s a logistical reason I started there, which is that they perform the music on camera. That means it has to exist before they shoot it instead of being created in post-production. The music is mostly women’s voices because the coven is all women, so that seemed natural, and even though they represent an alien culture, it is very multicultural because it’s meant to feel like a culture of spirit that’s not of this world. So we deliberately made sure we had a range of vocals from throughout the world, and that each singer had an ability so they could sing riffs that were distinct to their cultural backgrounds, then I wrote music that allowed all those styles to coexist. The words are right from the script: “The power of one, the power of two, the power of many.” Then, once it had been shot, I added some percussive elements because the scene is a ritual, and it had to feel supernatural, but it also had to feel ceremonial in a way that felt tribal. 

(Center): Mother Aniseya (Jodie Turner-Smith) in Lucasfilm’s THE ACOLYTE, exclusively on Disney+. ©2024 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Rights Reserved.

What can fans look forward to as they watch the whole season? 

For one thing, there’s solo violin, and as it turns out, Amandla is a talented violinist, so it felt predestined. I wish I’d known that about her so she could have played those solos, but it felt like a clear psychic connection through the score. There are also some battle scenes coming up with lightsabers, and I looked at the fight scenes as two types, the ones with lightsabers and those without them. The lightsaber fights have a giant brass sound that Star Wars is known for in its more heroic moments.

(L-R, front row): Yord Fandar (Charlie Barnett), Jedi Padawan Jecki Lon (Dafne Keen) and Master Sol (Lee Jung-jae) in Lucasfilm’s THE ACOLYTE, exclusively on Disney+. ©2024 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Rights Reserved.

As not only a composer but also a Star Wars fan, what was the best moment for you while creating The Acolyte

When we were making the music for the coven, I felt it was really important to be on set because they might need me as a consultant—at least, that was my pitch. Fortunately, they bought that line, and I got to come on set. That was super fun, even though it was on a freezing night shoot in London in January. It was fantastic. I was never so happy to be so uncomfortable.

New episodes of The Acolyte premiere every Tuesday in the US and every Wednesday in the UK on Disney+.


Featured image: (L-R): Jedi Master Indara (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Mae (Amandla Stenberg) in Lucasfilm’s THE ACOLYTE, exclusively on Disney+. ©2024 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Rights Reserved.




Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale is lead contributor for the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, where she writes reviews and spotlights focused on female filmmakers and women in film. You can find her work on the site at AWFJ.org. She has owned ArtInsights, an art gallery dedicated to film art, for over 25 years, which has resulted in expertise in the history of animation and film concept art.  She is in her eighth year as producer and moderator of the "Women Rocking Hollywood" panel at San Diego Comic-Con.