Review Summary: Iconic and Timeless
The soundtrack that made us feel
a man can fly…
I never was a huge comic book admirer. I don’t know why, but for some reason, I was never drawn into the colorful panels or the stories therein. My introduction to the fantasy world of superheroes came from the movies I watched as a child. Superman
was one of the earliest examples, but even as a child, it never really struck a chord with me. I always respected what the production team accomplished with this film and I always deemed Donner’s movie the finest take we’ve ever got on the character. Nonetheless, I never treated this film with the reverence it generally receives. That all changed a year ago when I sat down and saw this movie again for the first time in over ten years.
I was skeptical. I had seen this film a couple of times already, yet, I could not recall many of its key scenes. I could not say for certain what an additional viewing could offer. Changing my opinion seemed impossible. But all my doubts subdued when I pushed the “play” button and watched the very first scene. That old-school, "raise the curtain" effect had me glued on the screen. I dare say the following scene might be the greatest opening credits in cinema history, second only to Star Wars. By the first hour, I was awe-stricken. The production values, the performances, the atmosphere, the deliberate Christian overtones, everything is painstakingly crafted and seamlessly brought together to create a sense of awe and wonder. It takes the viewer on a spectacular journey, just as the comic books did in the previous decades. For all its obvious campy values, the production team strove to achieve an Epic. In terms of scope and size, the film-making style is much equivalent to that of the ‘50s and ‘60s which brought us classics like Ben Hur
, or 2001: Space Odyssey
. Richard Donner tried to bring that style to a new world, that of superheroes. And he did it. It worked so well because the source material was treated with actual respect and the character was given the statue of a growing legend; a hero who jumps straight out of a myth and lands into our world. Everything works wonders, but it would be all thrown away if it wasn’t for John Williams’ magical score.
Now, what can be said about John Williams that hasn’t been said already? He’s the absolute King of the cinematic “fanfare” themes. How many signature tunes have the prolific composer written during his career? Star Wars
, Jurassic Park
, Indiana Jones
, the list is endless and filled with nothing but classics. Williams’ main theme, The Superman March
, is as iconic as it gets. I cannot imagine Superman without that score. There is simply no musical theme more evocative of the Man of Steel than this one. It is so ingrained in my brain that makes all the other -related- themes sound completely irrelevant. The key to the longevity of this successful tune lies in its timeless feel. The composer’s ability that allows him to write instantly recognizable cues is also a huge contributing factor. The central theme can be easily analyzed; in its essence, it is nothing more than just a couple of augmented triads build around something that is called perfect intervals. There are three main bombastic movements, each separated by a calmer section that prepares the ground for the next segment. The notes resonate with the audience not only because they sound pleasant, but also because they scream out the name of the hero (something of a tradition in the Superman-related themes). The anthem is bold, heroic, offering both self-confidence and soaring optimism to the listener. Simply put, it makes you feel happy and boosts your morale with all kinds of positive emotions. Every time you get to listen to that cue, you feel you can take on the world. It is that
powerful. This theme serves essentially as the backbone of the entire score, and as it gets tangled up within the rest of the motifs, it rises in volume and tension to accompany the big heroic moments of the movie. Thanks to these notes, some of the film’s most important scenes have acquired legendary status in cinematic history. The helicopter sequence, the super-feats, the rescues, all these scenes are truly propelled into the stratosphere with the sheer power that the music exerts and rightfully so are renowned.
The highlights do not end there. If you thought Williams had exhausted his ideas with the title march, think again. The rest of this collection is as majestic, powerful, and enduring as its main theme. There is a vast array of notable cues upon which Donner builds the mythos of Superman’s universe. The incredible Planet Krypton
theme is one of those highlights. It begins slowly -at an almost sluggish pace- as we travel through the void of the cosmos. We arrive in the confines of a red giant, during the final stages of its life-cycle. Our gaze reaches the doomed planet, and then, the music breaks into an outstanding crescendo signaling what once was a great civilization. With its climax, this marvelous piece brings forth a unique feeling of triumph, and it’s all done on purpose; after that glorious introduction, the film does not allow such a restatement. What you saw was just an eclipse, a shadow of a once-great race that has fallen into ruin. Such a statement hadn’t been written since 2001: Space Odyssey
, and rightfully so, the music seems to recall Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra
. But after some research, I found that Williams was probably influenced by the 4th movement of Pines of Rome
, a 1924 orchestral poem. To address the “Trial and Sentence” scene, Williams takes this glorious intro and transforms it into genuine horror. He even inserts some bits and pieces from his Jaws theme
, and he does so without sacrificing its credibility.
Another personal highlight is the longest cue of this record, the ethereal Fortress of Solitude
. This track brings to mind some works of the '70s progressive/space rock movement, but in its splendid, wondrous soundscape, such an assessment is truly superficial. In one of the most important scenes of the entire film, Williams walks in a tightrope to bring a multitude of themes and symbolism together in a single, cohesive score. Clark’s ultimate destiny is a journey featuring multifaceted writing; a mysterious opening melody, followed by a stream of violent and dissonant notes. It culminates in a grand finale, supported by female choirs, and soft, touching notes. The second part is some of the most captivating and hypnotic music I have ever heard. Marlon Brando appears and invites our hero in a spiritual 12-year ride of instruction to mind and body.
Come with me now, my son, as we break through the bound of your earthly confinement, travelling through time and space….
…Speaks Brando and a dreamlike sequence open before us. A spellbinding melody, almost like a divine lullaby, paints the visual journey back to Krypton. We are immersed in four minutes of pure bliss as the maestro’s motif supports the scene with a flow of strings, serene woodwind instruments, and shining textures. The song ends on a triumphant, short-lived note: A 30-year old Clark stands proud, ready to return to his new world and “serve its collective humanity”. Williams celebrates the moment by reusing his opening fanfare theme which launches the next scene. I tried my best to give a full picture, but there are no words to describe this montage. It feels like an otherworldly, psychedelic experience. I can’t imagine what it would be like seeing that scene in the ‘70s. It gives me chills every single time. Brando’s guiding words, the simulated flight, Williams’ music. It’s pure magic, simple as that.
And speaking of classic scenes, another brilliant mash-up of image, sound, and scenery is the “Flying Sequence”. Originally conceived to feature vocals and singing lyrics, this arrangement brings a sense of chivalric romance that we have never encountered before on this collection. The scene bears some artistic touches that resemble the old, classic style of Hollywood romance. There is an erotic-almost- sexual tension in the air, but it never gets vulgar or offensive. The phrases are tender, yet hesitant, reflecting the lovers’ situation. Just a wonderful interplay of sparkling notes arranged in a way we will never get to hear again on this record.
We get another sentimental cue, but it’s a different kind of emotion this time around. Leaving Home
is an arrangement full of mysterious foreplay that eventually evolves into a bittersweet melody and ends in a grand finale. It’s a perfect soundtrack that encapsulates the human drama and the ultimate destiny we all share; at some point in our life, we all have to leave our parental home and forge our destiny away from it. We have to move forward. That’s how life works. And that’s what this moment represents. Great scene with a much more poignant score.
The pace quickens once Clark reaches Metropolis and the music becomes more energetic to impersonate its urban lifestyle. During this phase, we are greeted with frenetic action cues. Here, Williams brings new elements to the table, less iconic, but more versatile. It won’t be until the end of the movie when the Maestro will bring back his tried-and-tested formula of heroic fanfare themes.
As a whole, this great score nowadays tends to be overlooked, unfortunately. It’s a kind of music that leaves the cynicism of New Hollywood for some magic of old. Its main theme portraits a noble persona who serves “the truth, justice, and the American way”. This formula has worn out due to the brightness of its own light. It’s old fashioned now to be so blatantly heroic. And some may find it difficult to enjoy it simply because there is an undeniable resemblance with the Star Wars theme.
However, when all is said and done, we have to consider what this score does. And what it does, is effectively capturing the universe of the hero in music terms. It’s powerful, enduring, and heroic. Most of all, it doesn’t take itself too seriously, just as Williams himself once quoted.
And as for me? All I can say is how amazingly different our perception appears when we age. What once was a watchable film for me, has now become a classic in my book. With the combined forces of a smiling Reeve, the presence of Brando, and the score of John Williams, you really can’t fly that much higher!
RIP Christopher Reeve
RIP Margot Kidder
RIP Marlon Brando