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Review - “Superman: The Music (1978-1988)”

Superman: The Music By Barry Freiman

It may seem like a fantasy, but "Superman: The Music (1978-1988)" (known informally as the "Blue Box") from specialty label Film Score Monthly (and co-producers Lukas Kendall and Michael Matessino with art direction by FSM designer Joe Sikoryak) is no careless product of wild imagination. No, my good friends, it's very real despite how unlikely. And just as good.

What ties the eight CDs comprising four film scores and one cartoon score together is the John Williams-penned, now classic, Superman Theme. There is no musical theme more evocative of the Man of Steel than the theme composed by John Williams for 1978's "Superman: The Movie". Even "Superman" director Richard Donner has said that the first time he heard the Superman Theme he was amazed that he could hear Superman's name actually being sung in the theme's three note fanfare. "Superman: The Music" celebrates the Superman theme's universal use in "Superman", "Superman II", "Superman III", "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace", and, as a nice surprise, the 1988 "Superman" cartoon.

The Superman Theme and other themes from the first movie recurred in three sequels and 2006's "Superman Returns". Jerry Goldsmith uses a few notes of the theme in his score to "Supergirl" to accompany a scene where Supergirl sees her cousin for the first time on a poster. TV's "Smallville" used it several times including on the episode that introduced Chris Reeve as Dr. Virgil Swann. And the 1988 13-episode "Superman" cartoon, which aired Saturday mornings on CBS in 1988, used it in its opening theme as a segue into their original theme.

"Superman: The Music" is an eight-CD set (limited for now to 3,000 copies) of the complete scores to the four Chris Reeve "Superman" films, with music by John Williams for "Superman: The Movie", adapted by conductor Ken Thorne in "Superman II" and "Superman III", and by conductor Alexander Courage in "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace". There are tons of extras not the least of which is an entire CD of composer Ron Jones' work on the 1988 "Superman" cartoon. The scores are packaged rather cleverly in two "clamshell" or "butterfly" CD holders that each hold four discs.

As if the music itself wasn't enough - and it would be - the set includes a beautiful 160-page hardcover book on the entire musical history of the four "Superman" movies and the 1988 cartoon. Written by Kendall, Matessino, and Jeff Eldrige, the book includes new and rare interviews with those responsible for scoring the films and cartoon including John Williams, Ken Thorne, Ron Jones, Ilya Salkind, Richard Donner, Tom Mankiewicz, and Margot Kidder among others. The liner notes are exhaustive - the book runs through each and every musical cue on all eight CDs presenting information on where the music fits in a film or cartoon scene, information on when things were recorded, and more advanced information that only more sophisticated audiophiles would care about. Not being a musician, there's admittedly a lot in the book that I didn't understand about composing but I sure am glad it's there. There's a dissection of every theme composed by Williams for the first film. And of course the book includes tons of great rare photos (my favorite being Reeve and Kidder sitting back-to-back on a bench down in the Metropolis subway from "Superman IV"). It would be difficult to imagine a more exhaustive look at any film scoring than what's presented here for the four Superman movies.

Discs 1 and 2 contain the complete score to the 1978 original. Even if you have the Rhino release of a few years ago (which "Superman: The Music" co-producer Michael Matessino also co-produced), this version sounds even better and for good reason. The previous release had to be mastered from secondary dubbing elements. Right as the Rhino release was being released, Warner located the six-track 35 millimeter music masters, a first generation source. Additionally, this new version contains about 25 minutes more music from the first film than the Rhino release with two hours and 26 minutes of music on discs 1 and 2 and an additional 28 minutes or so of additional source music and alternate cuts on disc 8's "Extra!" bonus disc.

This is by far the best sounding "Superman" score ever released - listening to these CDs, percussion elements sounded as if I had drummers right here in my tiny apartment. There are musical cues that, as the Superman geek I am, I couldn't be more familiar with and yet the presentation here feels fresh. Improved sound means you can hear every cue from the booming theme in action sequences to quieter moments without having to constantly fiddle with your stereo volume to take in all the subtleties.

Disc 2 also contains different versions of some of the tracks including a few recently discovered early alternate cues that have never been released before. The highlight of these is a very different sounding and sinister Phantom Zone imprisonment on disc 2, track 13's "The Dome Opens" which is later adapted for use in "Superman II" when Superman faces down against the three villains in Metropolis.

If you approach this set as many casual fans might, you might erroneously conclude that the only music worth listening to in this set comes from the first film. Nothing could be further from the truth. This release finally gives the music from the sequels their proper due.

Disc 3 contains the complete score to "Superman II". According to "Superman" franchise producer Ilya Salkind, Williams was set to return to score "Superman II" until he sat down with "Superman II" director Richard Lester for the first time. Lester, who directed the Beatles in "Help!", had very definite ideas about scoring that didn't mesh with Williams. Conductor Ken Thorne was brought in to score the sequel using Williams's themes.

Over the years, Thorne has gotten an undeserved bad rap for purportedly producing a score inferior to the first film's score. The size of the orchestra was smaller on "Superman II" than the London Symphony Orchestra overseen by Williams on the first film. In "Superman II" and in the original album release of the score - which only saw a partial release on CD on a limited release, now out-of-print Japanese CD that combined it with the score to "Superman III" - the music sounds a bit hollow. This expanded remixed score for "Superman II" ought to put all that negativity to rest.

Remixed entirely from the 35mm music scoring masters, the score sounds the way it always should have - bombastic and powerful. The complete score is presented on disc 3, coming in at about 80 minutes, with another 13 minutes of alternate cuts and source music on Disc 8's "Extra!" bonus disc. Score highlights include the previously unreleased "Superman to Paris" (disc 3, track 2) which plays as Clark runs to an alley, becomes Superman, and flies off to Paris to rescue Lois, and "Superman Pulls Big Switch/Superman Triumphs Over Villians" (disc 3, track 25) which plays as Superman defeats the villains in the film's climax at the Fortress of Solitude.

Thorne returned to score "Superman III" and had a freer hand in composing new music given the film's change in tone from the first two movies. Only 20 minutes of Thorne's "Superman III" score was included on the film's 1983 LP (and aforementioned Japanese CD). Disc 4 contains Thorne's complete score to "Superman III". Also, on disc 8's "Extra!" disc, there's about nine minutes of alternate cues and source music as well as the five pop songs on side two of the LP by "Flashdance" composer Giorgio Moroder (including the infamous synthesizer version of the Superman Theme).

Discs 5 and 6 contain what FSM's press material refers to as the "Holy Grail for Superman music aficionados" - the complete score to 1987's "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace." Don't snicker. If "Superman IV" taught movie fans anything, it's that bad editing can ruin a film (not to mention bad effects and a silly villain). At this point everyone should know the story with franchise-killing (or at least coma-inducing) "Superman IV". It's the only film in the franchise not produced by the original producers. The producing Canon Group cut the film's budget virtually in half after filming began which had a lethal effect on the (not-so) special effects. The film preview which came in over two hours was not well-received and Canon ordered extensive cuts to the film before its official theatrical release. The final version of the movie came in at 89 minutes making it the shortest "Superman" movie - not to mention the least coherent.

This new release of the music to "Superman IV" (the first ever score release for the film anywhere) teaches, in hindsight, that bad editing can also have abysmal results for a film score. "Superman IV" conductor Alexander Courage didn't help matters any over the years by insisting that "Superman IV" didn't need a soundtrack released because it was simply a rehashing of the original "Superman" movie themes. It appears Courage took a page from Clark Kent's mild-mannered, humble nature. The full score to "Superman IV" - the way it was meant to be heard without being sped up or cut apart to fit abbreviated scenes -- is truly a triumph. Finally, there's something about "Superman IV" that in all objectivity more than stands up. Courage's complete score for "Superman IV" - recorded due to scheduling reasons in both Germany and England - has been newly remixed from the original two-inch multitrack masters. One of the bigger revelations of the score to "Superman IV" is confirmation of the long-standing rumor that Williams composed the three new themes for the movie - the themes for Nuclear Man, Lacy Warfield, and little letter-writing Jeremy. Courage's score feels the most closely connected to the original film -- perhaps because of Williams's newly-penned themes, or perhaps because Courage is a long-time friend and collaborator of Williams, or more likely for both reasons.

Because "Superman IV" was scored before the film was cut apart, the score is presented here as it was meant to be heard over the longer cut of the film. In the movie, the Superman fanfare plays over the Warner logo, then the movie opens with an abbreviated credit sequence. As it's presented here, the fanfare would have played over the Warner logo and the movie would have opened with the scene of Superman rescuing the Russian cosmonaut. After the space rescue, the film would have cut to the opening credits with a main title much more evocative of that in the first movie than what's speedily played in the film.

In 2006, when "Superman IV" was released on DVD as part of the 14-disc "Superman: Ultimate Collectors Edition", the DVD included many of the cut scenes in a deleted scenes section. Several scenes involve Lex Luthor's experiments with a first unsuccessful Nuclear Man and a fight between this first Nuclear Man and Superman outside the Metro Club (where Lacy and Clark are on a work date for Clark's piece on young Metropolis). The fight scene is scored in the deleted scenes section with horribly silly generic music more fitting to a Hanna Barbera cartoon than a Superman movie - even THIS Superman movie. For the first time ever, the "Superman IV" score includes the music that should have accompanied this scene on disc 5, track 12's "Nuke 1 Fight/Ashes". I can't wait for someone to get the idea to dub this music into that deleted scene and present it on YouTube.

Courage and Williams weren't the only musicians attached to "Superman IV". Paul Fishman wrote eight pop-style songs to accompany the orchestral score. In particular, Fishman's work would have been heavily showcased in the Metro Club scene (and would have been included on the planned but eventually shelved 1987 soundtrack release). One track can still be heard in the movie in a scene with Clark and Lacy working out at the Gym. Fishman's eight tracks, comprising about 32 minutes, are presented following the score on disc 6. Fishman's music isn't bad, though like the Moroder songs in "Superman III", they don't feel like they belong in a Superman film (notwithstanding titles like "Krypton Nights" and "Lois Love"). Fishman's music is somewhat typical of the generic 80's pop that regularly showed up on late 80's soundtracks - think "About Last Night" or "The Secret of my Success". Nonetheless it makes a nice bonus for completists.

Disc 7 is a treat - it contains Ron Jones's beautiful soundtrack to the 1988 "Superman" cartoon. The cartoon by Ruby-Spears Enterprises deserves a DVD release. Each of the 13 episodes contained two stories per show - a Superman tale and a short from "Superman's Family Album" which told stories about young Clark growing up in Smallville (Clark's first trip to the grocery store, Clark's first day at school, Clark's first experience with a babysitter, etc.). Jones was hired to bring a symphonic feel to the soundtrack and CBS licensed the Williams' theme for use in the show's opening credits (the first time the theme was used on a property other than the super-films) which segues into Jones's original theme with a similar fanfare that expands on the Williams theme.

Finally, disc 8 contains alternate cues and source music composed for the first three movies as well as the Moroder pop songs from "Superman III". Disc highlights include the music playing on the car radio as Lois and Clark drive from the Fortress to the Diner in "Superman II" (though the exhaustive liner notes still don't explain where Superman got a car in the North Pole).

"Superman: The Music" retails for $119.95 and can be purchased at Screen Archives (www.screenarchives.com). Though many fans question the high price tag for eight CDs, the quality more than makes up for the price. FSM is a collectors' label dedicated to releasing film scores unlikely to see any other release. Superhero fans will recall FSM released the score to the 1966 live-action "Batman" film several years back. Only if Warner Music released the scores would a lower price have been possible but the end result would not have been the same. "Superman: The Music" is an unexpected gift to Superman's fans befitting the character's 70th anniversary and the 1978 film's 30th anniversary.