In 1978, moviegoers believed a man could fly when “Superman” came to the big screen (with a cast so big that the title character didn’t even receive top billing).
It featured Marlon Brando as Jor-El, Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, Margot Kidder as Lois Lane, Terence Stamp as General Zod, and Christopher Reeve as Superman, plus performances from Glenn Ford, Ned Beatty, Valerie Perrine, Jackie Cooper, Trevor Howard, Larry Hagman, John Ratzenberger, and even film critic Rex Reed as himself.
The film was directed by Richard Donner, coming only two years after “The Omen.” It was co-written by Mario Puzo (yes, the Mario Puzo who wrote “The Godfather”). And we can’t ignore Tom Mankiewicz’s contributions as “creative consultant.”
It had the very simple tagline “You’ll Believe A Man Can Fly.” And we did. I say “we” even though I was born in 1983, but I grew up watching the Christopher Reeve “Superman” movies.
But why did we believe?
Was it great direction and writing? Yes, in part.
Was it the cast? Yes, in part.
Was it the cinematography of Geoffrey Unsworth, who shot “2001: A Space Odyssey” and to whose memory the film is dedicated “with love and respect?” Yes, in part.
Was it the special effects (which still hold up pretty darn well)? There’s even a scene where, through the ingenious use of rear projection, we are able to watch Superman fly off of Lois Lane’s terrace and then pan over to her front door, where with only the passage of a few seconds and no cut of the camera, we see Clark Kent in a suit and ready to take Lois out to dinner. Also, the miniature work on “Superman” was second to none. So, was it the special effects? Yes, but only in part.
All of those things were great. But what is the one element that really solidified its status as a classic? The music.
At one point, the film was to be scored by Jerry Goldsmith, who, by the time of his untimely death in 2004, had amassed 18 Academy Award nominations including one win for “The Omen.” But after changes in schedule and availability, the task fell to John Williams, who was coming off of “Jaws,” “Star Wars,” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” By the way, Williams now has 48 Academy Award nominations, including five wins.
Goldsmith would end up in the Superman universe, scoring 1984’s “Supergirl.” Of course, I wonder how much of that music came from any ideas Goldsmith may have had for scoring “Superman.” But I digress.
Back to Williams.
It was his music that was truly superheroic. And it had to be. It was orchestrated by his trusty colleague Herbert W. Spencer. It was also orchestrated by Arthur Morton, who had a long history with Goldsmith. The score was performed by the great London Symphony Orchestra. (Great side story: The London Symphony Orchestra hired a new principal trumpet in 1977 and his first assignment was recording the score for “Star Wars.”)
Anyway, back to the music.
From the instant the film starts, the music is something special, something super. It is a score full of amazing themes, so many great themes, for different characters and locations. We have the “Superman” march (which contains three notes that, without words, sing “Su-per-man”), but also the theme for the planet Krypton, and the chaotic music for its destruction, plus themes for baby Kal-El’s flight to Earth (for those who don’t know, Kal-El is Superman/Clark Kent’s real name from Krypton), the sweeping goodbye to his Earth mother and to Smallville after the death of his Earth father, the creation of the Fortress of Solitude at the North Pole, a very comic-y pulp-y theme for Lex Luthor, and many more. But they are all part of a whole.
Even when the music doesn’t literally twinkle, even when it’s at its darkest, there is still a twinkle in your heart as you hear it.
As I am writing this, I am listening to the music for “Superman” and the track “Jonathan’s Death,” where Jonathan Kent (Glenn Ford) suffers a heart attack and dies, and there was nothing Clark could do to save him, and I couldn’t help but tear up. It’s the music that really tugs at your heart and tells you to do that. Without words, it screams “Oh No!” as Jonathan clutches his arm and falls to the ground.
Now, some might say that it’s not the music’s job to make you tear up. Jonathan’s death alone should grab you and hurt you. But Jerry Goldsmith, in an interview included in the bonus features of the “Star Trek: First Contact” DVD, had a great response to that.
“I’ve heard so many people – critics and people – say ‘Well, the music’s leading the audience emotionally. That’s not right.’ or ‘You’re manipulating us.’ Well, what the hell… That’s what we’re here to do. Film is… manipulating your audience,” Goldsmith said.
We’ll get back to that manipulation in just a bit.
It’s magical music. As you listen to it, you relive the movie, as you well should.
Among the most magical selections from the “Superman” score is “The Fortress of Solitude.” It clocks in at 9:24 and covers the sequence of Clark heading north, tossing the crystal into the distance, and the Fortress of Solitude sprouting from the ice. The music continues as Clark steps inside and activates the holographic memory of Jor-El, his birth father, and Jor-El starts telling him who he is, and what he is destined for on Earth. Eventually we find ourselves hearing Jor-El’s words but we are simply flying through the stars and we lose ourselves in the scene. It takes us away to another place. It is truly sublime. Eventually we rise from an almost meditative state as an ice cast of Jor-El’s face zooms into the picture, spins around, and lets us fly through an eye and back into the Fortress of Solitude, and there is Clark Kent for the first time as Superman, cape and all. Superman then takes off and flies past the camera as the march theme is brilliantly and boldly stated with all of the brass you could want. On the last note, there is a very quick cut to the inside of a cab in Metropolis, with no music and all of the noise that comes with the bustling city. That is the beginning of the film’s third act.
Going through the movie, there are so many other great moments I could extol (such as what I call “Superman’s first night” where he catches Lois Lane (and a helicopter) after both fall off of the top of the Daily Planet building, saves Air Force One after it is struck by lightning, stops some crooks, and even rescues a cat from a tree; the beauty of Superman flying with Lois Lane; or the race against time as Superman chases rockets headed for both coasts).
But I’m going to pick out one more act of “manipulating” the audience. It is the death of Lois Lane. Even with all his powers, Superman can’t be in two places at once. He can’t save Lois. He races to her as the music races with him and her car fills with dirt and traps her. He’s too late and even if we closed our eyes, the music would tell us that. He pulls her broken and suffocated body from her buried car, but can’t do anything about it. He ends up sitting there next to her for what seems like hours, so distraught he doesn’t know what to do. The music twinkles and fades down to a deep place of sadness, one where the audience doesn’t know what to do either. I mean, Lois Lane is dead, and as we saw with Clark and his father, dead is dead. But then Superman goes from sad to angry. His crying changes to rage and he shoots to the sky as we’ve never seen him do before while screaming a scream that puts a certain level of fear into you. After all, we’ve never seen Superman angry. What happens when Superman gets angry? Well, in this case, he flies to clouds and they start storming a little and he encounters the conflicting messages of his equally loving fathers. Jor-El reminds him that “it is forbidden” to interfere while Jonathan tells him that he was brought to Earth “for a reason.” Superman then makes his choice, flies into space, and spins the Earth backwards, reversing time, and saving Lois Lane. But it was a difficult decision, and the music told us that.
Two things are worth noting here. First, yes, there are flaws in the movie’s use of time travel. Second, turning back the world was actually the originally intended ending for “Superman II.”
But back to the music. The score for “Superman” is a monumental effort, playing upon every emotion, and delivering at least one theme you’ll never forget. It soars.
When Ken Thorne scored “Superman II” (1980) and “Superman III” (1983), he somewhat poorly re-used Williams’ many themes in what I felt were inappropriate places. But they were still the great Williams themes.
In 1987, Alexander Courage was hired to score “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.” Courage originated the music for the original “Star Trek” TV series in the 1960s and in the 1990s would become one of Jerry Goldsmith’s primary orchestrators. Courage also worked with Williams on 1971’s “Fiddler on the Roof” (where Williams won his first Oscar). Williams was brought in to create themes for three new characters – Lacy Warfield (Mariel Hemingway), young Jeremy (who just wants world peace), and the new villain (the Lex Luthor creation called Nuclear Man). While Williams created those themes, it was still a Courage score. And Courage gave us exactly what you’d want from a Superman sequel score. It pulses with power and grandeur and is totally respectful in its use of the Williams themes from the first film. If only the movie lived up the score! If it had, we’d probably have seen more Superman movies with Christopher Reeve before the accident that left him paralyzed.
In 2006, John Ottman scored “Superman Returns,” director Bryan Singer’s somewhat ill-conceived film that was sort of supposed to take place after the events of “Superman II.” For that, Ottman deeply rooted his score in the work of Williams from 28 years earlier. But it was an intelligent score with laudable original material.
This brings us to 2013’s “Man of Steel” from director Zack Snyder, producer Christopher Nolan, and screenwriter David S. Goyer.
Like 1978’s “Superman,” “Man of Steel” also features a great cast – Russell Crowe, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner, Christopher Meloni, Richard Schiff, and relative newcomer Henry Cavill as the title hero.
On the whole, I thought it was very good, certainly better than “Star Trek Into Darkness” (and I’m a big Star Trek fan). There are a number of areas I could pick at, including the father reversal, the pointlessly long fight sequences, or the hand-held feel of the entire film.
But I’m going to focus on the biggest problem – the massive missed opportunity.
In what really wasn’t a shocking move given Nolan’s history, Hans Zimmer was hired to score the film. I’m hardly the only one who isn’t a big fan of Zimmer’s, but hopefully you won’t see this as just another internet piece bashing him.
Sometime after Zimmer was hired, it was announced that unlike the four other Superman films that came after 1978, this one would not be using any of John Williams’ themes. The filmmakers wanted to start anew and have it stand on its own. I can totally respect that.
After all, when “Star Trek” came to the big screen with “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” in 1979, ten years after the original show was cancelled, the main title wasn’t that of Alexander Courage, it was a new composition by Jerry Goldsmith, and a fantastic one at that! Since this was the same cast and same timeline, he did, rather wisely, hire Courage to help him integrate the old “Star Trek” fanfare into several portions of the score. But a sequel needn’t have the same theme either. For “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” James Horner wrote another new “Star Trek” movie theme, one that would be reprised in “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.”
But, again, I digress somewhat.
I only own two Zimmer scores. The first is “The Rock,” which was co-composed by Nick Glennie-Smith and Harry Gregson-Williams (with Nick Glennie-Smith being the lead composer). At the time, its very hard rock sound was innovative and it certainly had melody to it. But eventually, most of the work that came out of Zimmer and his underlings just sounded like “The Rock” meets “Gladiator.” That leads me to the second Zimmer album I have – “Frost/Nixon,” which was co-composed by Lorne Balfe. When I saw the movie, I thought, “Oooh. What have we here? Something interesting from Hans Zimmer?”
But I have been largely disappointed by his work, though I believe he has the capacity to reach and create genuine melody and/or wonder. See some of his 80s scores – “Driving Miss Daisy” and “Rain Man.” Also, see his his Academy Award-winning score for “The Lion King.”
When he scored “Batman Begins” with James Newton Howard, this whole idea of a Batman reboot was something new and director Christopher Nolan wasn’t trying to make the same movie director Tim Burton made with composer Danny Elfman in 1989. He was making a darker Batman with more internal demons. Perhaps Elfman’s score for “Batman” wouldn’t have fit. But I still would like to have had something really, really memorable. But what was there worked. It did genuinely work. The collaboration worked again on “The Dark Knight.”
But when it came time for “The Dark Knight Rises,” James Newton Howard was out of the picture and Zimmer was left to his own devices. The result was one I can only describe as having been surprisingly effective. Hardly much of a compliment, I know.
Side night: The track “Finding the Ship” from James Newton Howard’s score to “Outbreak” is one that I feel could have fit perfectly in the Zimmer-scored, Nolan-directed “Inception.”
And I love Nolan as a director. He is one of three directors who have me as an automatic moviegoer because his movies are such massive and immersive experiences, you can’t stay away. But his reliance on Zimmer is his problem area.
But back to “Man of Steel.”
As the movie’s July release approached, I kept hoping for Zimmer to really reach for the sky with this one. I was okay not hearing Williams’ themes, but it had to be big and bombastic. What we got was far from that.
While each “Superman” doesn’t have to be like its predecessors, it still has to be super and, like John Barry (the composer, not the production designer from the 1978 “Superman”) said of the James Bond music, doesn’t have the luxury of subtlety.
“Subtletly’s not a virtue in a Bond score,” Barry said. “Really isn’t.”
And Zimmer does try to do subtlety with an actually not bad piano ditty that is part of the score. But this is Superman. Soar for me!
Zimmer does, of course, give us something louder, but it’s really just that. It’s just loud and so over-dominated by the percussion section.
Despite his actually not even being from our planet, Superman is an American hero (and I’ll allow Brit Henry Cavill to play him). But he needs to be patriotic. And that means a really memorable melody with some nice unsynthesized brass that inspires you. It should be lush and orchestral.
But the music left me uninspired. Superheroic it was not.
I don’t want this to end on a sour note. So, Remember what I said happened with “Star Trek II.” Hopefully the filmmakers of the inevitable sequel will be bold enough to call for a memorable theme and, perhaps, even a main title. I do love a good main title sequence and “Superman” had one of the best.
– Evan Bindelglass