The Scoring Session - Superman: The Movie
The Scoring Session Presents
Superman: The Movie
The year was 1978 and composer John Williams was fresh off winning the Best Original Score Oscar for his work on Star Wars, an award for which he bested even himself - having been nominated for both Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Williams was under contract to deliver the original score for Alexander and Ilya Salkind’s forthcoming Superman: The Move directed by Richard Donner, there was just one little problem. The deadline for Williams’ first recording session had elapsed but still there was no finished film to write music for.
Superman was a massive production. Filming in London on the famously massive James Bond soundstage at Pinewood Studios allowed the producers to shoot both Superman and Superman II simultaneously; but Donner was falling behind schedule and placing the movie in very real danger of not meeting its December release date. A production delay would have cost Warner Brothers millions in payouts to exhibitors all over the world, they needed their production reigned in and delivered on time. In response, the Salkind’s took all the completed footage for both Superman and Superman II and ordered Donner to craft a complete story with the footage he had in the can. Donner worked to take large portions of two movies and weave them together into a single narrative that could be released in theaters.
The primary issue Donner had was that there was no ending for the film, so he grafted on the infamous “turning back the world” ending originally slated to close out Superman II. The surprising result of this Frankenstein-like creation process is the superhero movie that defined how superhero movies were made for a generation, and the film’s success may all have been due to the mysterious luck of finding lightning in a bottle.
After working down to the very wire, Donner finally delivered a completed film for Williams to score, and with the incredibly short turnaround the score could easily have been a mess. Instead Williams delivered a score more than worthy to stand among his other works, and one of the most unique scores of that era of his career.
John Williams is the master of using leitmotif to construct a narrative score. Leitmotif is the process where the composer assigns musical themes or statements to characters and places that reoccur throughout the film and then weaves them together again and again in different combinations. To give you an example from another Williams work: “The Imperial March” from The Empire Strikes Back has a full brassy version that represents the strength of the Imperial fleet at the beginning of the film. There is a more bass driven version that represents Vader as he overpowers Luke in Cloud City. And a third almost plaintive string version when Luke escapes aboard the Falcon. Each of those few variations helps to propel the narrative forward and references things from earlier in the film.
Williams employs this method of composition in every score he has written, and Superman was composed at the very height of Williams’ power. “The Superman March,” “The March of the Villains,” “The Love Theme from Superman” and “The Krypton Theme” and “Leaving Home” serve as the recurring leitmotifs of the film – giving us theme statements for Superman, Lex Luthor, Lois Lane Jor-El and Jonathan Kent, respectively.
In addition to his leitmotif assembly, Williams does something in Superman: The Movie that he doesn’t do in any of his other scores for the era, he constructs distinct aural landscapes for each section of the film.
The film begins with the shot of a child opening a comic book and narrating the intro to the film. This moment sets the tone that Williams follows throughout the rest of the film, by creating a piece of music that transitions from a limited scope to a larger one. As the child narrates, we are given a piece of music that is effectively a hybrid of “The Superman March” from this movie and the staccato 1950’s “Adventures of Superman” theme. The score begins using only a very small portion of the orchestra; strings, a horn or two, chimes, piano and a harp. Intentionally Williams begins this prelude to the film using the instruments that would have been available to a television orchestra 20 years earlier. He leads us through a lilting intro that ends in the arrival of a drum beat. The drum doubles, then triples, then quadruples, then adds strings that hum the rhythm just before the French horns come in with the elegiac three note refrain that introduces us to Superman. The theme then continues throughout the opening credits with the entire orchestra bombastically playing Superman’s fanfare.
Strategically using different sections of the orchestra, and assigning different genres to different sections of the film will continue throughout the score. For the purposes of this analysis we’ll break the film down into four distinct parts: Krypton, Smallville, Metropolis before Superman and Metropolis after Superman.
The Krypton section of the movie features the mournful yet brassy “Planet Krypton” theme which serves as a narrative precursor to “The Superman March,” this is a piece that gives us almost all the elements of what will eventually be Superman’s theme – the heavy horns, the deep bass and a three to four note motif that is the mirror of the Superman motif. The noteworthy work here is that rest of the music in the section of the film set on Krypton is full of things you won’t hear anywhere else in the movie. This portion of the score is driven by percussion and synthesizers to create an auditory experience that stands apart from the traditional score that will come after, a rhythmic and somewhat alien sounding score that all too soon comes crashing down as Krypton explodes to the clash of cymbals.
From the moment baby Kal-El’s spaceship crashes in Smallville we exist in a world of strings and woodwinds, lyrically flowing violins and other string instruments but very little percussion and very little brass. Here we are given the next piece of the puzzle that will eventually be combined into the full-blown Superman Theme, powerful strings that can stand toe to toe with the horns of the Krypton piece. The Krypton music re-emerges in this section, after the death of Jonathan Kent, as the theme for the green crystal which drives Clark north and creates the Fortress of Solitude. It is in the Fortress that the audience is taken on an interlude of narration by Marlon Brando’s Jor-El set to light chimes intoning “The Krypton Theme.” The longer the narration goes on the more the theme is turned around on its head until finally it is deconstructed fully and put back together as a prototype version of “The Superman March” as Superman flies out of the fortress in costume for the first time. Musically something is still missing. Visually something is missing as well, we are shown Superman flying toward camera and then out of view but without ever seeing Christopher Reeve’s face. Superman is poised to reveal himself, but not quite yet.
In Metropolis, we enter the world of the full orchestra, at last, and are introduced to the “March of the Villains” which serves as Lex Luthor’s theme. We are also delivered the final piece of “The Superman March” in the form of a refrain from the “Love Theme” (effectively Lois Lane’s theme) that will become prominent in “The Superman March” after he arrives. Prior to Superman’s arrival in the helicopter scene, the score is driven by the “Love Theme” but once he reveals himself in costume for the first and takes to the skies to rescue Lois, the “Love Theme” takes a backseat as “The Superman March” becomes the prime mover of the score for the rest of the film. The leap into the air to save Lois is where “The Superman March” finally takes all the disparate pieces it has collected from earlier in the score and puts them together in the configuration we know. This moment is also when Williams delivers the march in its most bombastic orchestration of all.
While this is the building of the musical narrative, it also serves as metaphor for the character himself. Just like his musical theme Superman is constructed from the strength of Kyrpton (horns,) the simple clarity of Smallville (strings) and his love of Lois Lane (a lyrical motif that stands alongside his fanfare.)
The usage of different types of instruments for different locales is not something Williams does a lot of in his other scores, and it creates very different musical tones for sections of a film that have very different cinematic qualities. Krypton is a very stilted and foreign place, and its music feels alien. Smallville is an idyllic pastiche of the 1940’s and 1950’s and the music delivers homespun simplicity in spades. Metropolis before Superman’s arrival is a massive New York style city with a massive populace going through their own lives – and that is reflected in a section of the film with disparate themes that don’t always connect. Finally, Superman arrives and he becomes the focus of the film and the score. He becomes the connective tissue that puts it all together in its proper order and arrangement, working in concert with Lois Lane’s “Love Theme” motif and contrasting Lex Luthor’s villain motif until we come to the final conflict of the film.
Lois lays dead in a car, the west coast is ravaged by Lex Luthor’s earthquake and Superman races to the sky to turn back time. Donner’s afterthought ending employs voice over and Williams’ score to construct the central argument of both the film and Superman’s relevance as a character: is he the last son of Krypton or the Man of Tomorrow? The Krypton theme representing Jor-El and the Smallville strings representing Jonathan Kent clash against each other as Clark must make his choice. Jor-El forbids Clark to interfere with human history, and Johnathan Kent says he knows that Clark is here for a reason. In the last piece of voice over Clark says “All these powers and I couldn’t save him.” The strings of Smallville rise, the horns of Krypton give way to the horns of the Superman theme and Superman races to turn back time and bring Lois back to life. The score and Superman have both seemingly chosen to be children of Earth rather than Krypton. Aside from brief restatements of the Lois theme as she returns to life and the Luthor theme as Superman deposits him in jail – all that is left to do is reprise the elegiac Superman March and roll the credits with Superman flying away smiling.
Amongst Williams fans there is always the debate over which theme is the most iconic: “The Star Wars Main Title”, “The Raiders March”, “The Jaws Theme” or “The Superman March”. I contend that the answer to that question is Superman, and not just because I have adored this score for 35 years. Star Wars, Raiders, Jaws, these films have truly iconic pieces of music that John Williams created whole cloth for those works and as a fan of score music I can say that those pieces are the gold standard. Superman was the bigger undertaking.
Star Wars didn’t exist fully until Williams wrote the music and breathed life into it, but in 1978 Superman had existed for forty years as a comic book character, a pop icon, a cartoon, and a live action television hero. John Williams took all of that previously existing character information and distilled it into a piece of music that defines not only the Christopher Reeve performance but also the broader strokes of Superman. This theme he created then essentially becomes THE piece of music that defines the character for the next 35 years. It isn’t easy to create something as iconic as the Star Wars theme out of thin air, but it’s a thousand times harder to recreate something that has expectations already tied to it. When you picture Superman in your head, is he accompanied by the soaring John Williams theme, or the driving drums of Hans Zimmer’s Man of Steel score?
Almost forty years after the release of the movie, Williams’ music evokes the majesty of Superman, the powerful potential of the character, and the wonder of what he can do. Despite different incarnations of the character with different theme music, still Williams’ version of the character theme persists in the public consciousness and defines the Man of Steel just as thoroughly as his S shield or his never-ending battle for Truth, Justice and the American Way.
Thank you for exploring the Superman: The Movie score with us and I hope you’ll join us here next month as we celebrate the late great Roger Moore with a special 40th Anniversary look at Marvin Hamlisch’s score for The Spy Who Loved Me.
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