Sunday, July 30, 2017

Composing Greatness: #13. John Williams - "Superman" (1978)

Christopher Reeve
Welcome to Composing Greatness: a column dedicated to exploring the work of film composers. This will specifically focus on the films that earned them Oscar nominations while exploring what makes it so special. This will be broken down into a look at the overall style, interesting moments within the composition, and what made the score worth nominating in the first place. This will also include various subcategories where I will rank the themes of each film along with any time that the composer actually wins. This is a column meant to explore a side of film that doesn't get enough credit while hopefully introducing audiences to an enriched view of more prolific composers' work. This will only cover scores/songs that are compiled in an easily accessible format (so no extended scores will be considered). Join me every Sunday as I cover these talents that if you don't know by name, you recognize by sound.

Series Composer: John Williams
Entry: Superman (1977)
Collaborators (If Available): London Symphony Orchestra, Margot Kidder (Singer, "The Flying Sequence & Can You Read My Mind")
Nomination: Best Music, Original Score
Did He Win: No

Other Nominees:
-Midnight Express (Giorgio Moroder) *winner
-The Boys from Brazil (Jerry Goldsmith)
-Days of Heaven (Ennio Morricone)
-Heaven Can Wait (Dave Grusin)

Additional Information

This is to help provide perspective of where each composer is in their Oscar-nominated life as it related to the current entry.

Oscar Nomination: 14
Oscar Wins: 3

Track List

1. "Theme From 'Superman'"
2. "The Planet Krypton"
3. "Destruction of Krypton"
4. "The Trip to Earth"
5. "Growing Up"
6. "Love Theme"
7. "Leaving Home"
8. "The Fortess of Solitude"
9. "The Flying Sequence & Can You Read My Mind"
10. "Super Rescues"
11. "Lex Luthor's Lair"
12. "Superfeats"
13. "The March of the Villains"
14. "Chasing Rockets"
15. "Turning Back the World"
16. "End Theme"

*NOTE: Listen to Score here

Exploring the Music
The area of the column where I will explore the music in as much detail as I see fit for each entry.

Theme Exploration:
"Theme From 'Superman'"

The amazing decade of John Williams continues with another revision of stuff we knew. He reinvented aliens twice the year before, and now took on the most iconic alien of all: Superman. This triumphant score definitely ranks among his greatest works, and its ability to create a sonic awe is just as impressive. The horns are familiar stuff for what he generally does. However, he almost seems to hail the movie as a glorious, superior being. It may at times sounds like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but its main motif is so catchy and specific that it doesn't matter. It is more evidence that even if he has a style that he sometimes repeats, he at least does it very well.

Interesting Standout:
"The March of Villains"

While John Williams has played around with styles before, I think that there's something to his jazzy motif here for Lex Luthor and his henchman. It's a bit dastardly, but it's also comical in a way that implies slapstick. It's the second time in the soundtrack that it is used, and this time is mixed expertly with the growing intensity of the music. It's a blending of familiar Bernard Herrmann-esque compositions and a comical sensibility. That summarizes the movie brilliantly and shows that even when he's making a very elaborate and epic score, he still has a sense of personality and knows how to make each character stand out. Even his music for Lois Lane's "Love Theme" is particularly sweet in its swooning melody (lyrics notwithstanding).

Best Moment:
 "The Fortress of Solitude"

If there's some sign that John Williams knows how to make an expansive score, it's in this piece of music that itself spans eight minutes. The first half of the score generally favors tenderness and ethereal melodies that reflect outer space. The slow build of this track reflects the shifting balance of the more romantic melodies and the intensity to come. While the later tracks would amp up the pace, there's something to be said for balancing action beats out of a Bernard Herrmann score and the looming melodies that composers like Jerry Goldsmith might have brought to the soundtrack. It's a beautiful and creative example of what he was capable of as a composer, especially in creating music that was awe-inspiring without relying solely on quick melodies.

Did This Deserve an Oscar Nomination?:

This particular score is met with some caveat. Much like Star Wars, I think that the music is iconic enough to get a nomination without much question. However, I think that its Lawrence of Arabia-style approach does wear thin at points, especially since the motifs that are repeated are good, but don't always translate to the different styles he incorporates. Still, it's interesting to hear his take on superhero music, and he definitely redefined yet another genre here. It's a bit less effective as a whole, but there's plenty of memorable moments worthy of attention. It's powerful at best and repetitive at worst. This is the peak era of John Williams, and it's going to be awhile before a score downright fails to at least be classified as fun.

Up Next: Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980) for Best Music, Original Score

Best Theme

A ranking of all themes composed by John Williams.

1. "Main Theme (Theme From 'Jaws')" (1975)
2. "Theme From 'Superman'" (1978)
3. "Prologue/Tradition" - Fiddler on the Roof (1971)
4. "Main Title and Mountain Visions" - Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
5. "Main Title" - The Towering Inferno (1974)
6. "Main Title/Rebel Blockade/Runner Medley" - Star Wars (1977)
7. "Wednesday Special (Main Theme)" - Cinderella Liberty (1973)
8. "Main Title/First Introduction/The Winton Flyer" - The Reivers (1969)
9. "River Song"- Tom Sawyer (1973)
10. "Where Did My Childhood Go?" - Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969)
11. "Theme from 'Valley of the Dolls'"/"Theme from 'Valley of the Dolls' - Reprise" - Valley of the Dolls (1967)
12. "Opening Titles" - The Poseidon Adventure (1972)
13. "In Search of Unicorns" - Images (1972)

Best Song

A ranking of all Oscar-nominated songs composed by John Williams.

1. "Nice to Be Around" - Cinderella Liberty (1973)

Best Winner

A ranking of all winners composed by John Williams.

1. Jaws (1975) for Best Music, Original Dramatic Score
2. Fiddler on the Roof (1971) for Best Music, Scoring Adaptation and Original Song Score
3. Star Wars (1977) for Best Music, Original Dramatic Score

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