by Jonathan Jarry
My favorite theme from the Superman canon is neither the March nor the opening Fanfare, but rather the Kent Family Theme. John Williams created such an infectious Americana melody for the wheat fields and simple life of Smallville, Kansas, a theme that owes a lot to Aaron Copland's vintage style. The cue "Leaving Home" from the original soundtrack to Superman has to rank as one of my all-time favorite score pieces, but the great thing about the score as a whole is that Williams' clarity of vision was such that it is a masterpiece every cue of which can be studied and appreciated. His modernistic clashes for the fall of Krypton are in sharp contrast to the elegiac and sweeping American vistas of his Smallville material which, themselves, have very little in common with the sometimes bombastic, sometimes quirky metropolitan life evoked by the second half of the score. It is an unavoidable part of the canon of film music, an orchestral tour de force that many composers must admire and few would want to touch for fear of tarnishing it, of not living up to it.
This curse has also plagued directors who have, in recent years, waltzed in and out of the project to resurrect the Superman line of movies at Warner Bros. Major names like those of Tim Burton, Brett Ratner, and McG were once attached to the project; the director shuffle continued for many years, public relations citing creative and financial differences. One man did recently step up to the plate to put a new shine on those red boots and dust off the old cape. Faced with completing the X-Men series he helped launch or take over the oft delayed revival of the Superman franchise, director Bryan Singer chose to leave the mutants aside and step behind the camera on a dream project of his.
For the major motion picture revival of the Superman franchise, Singer turned to long-time composer / editor John Ottman. The latter has had a pretty successful career outside of Singer's sphere of influence, scoring a variety of films from the intense human dramas of The Usual Suspects and Incognito to quirky comedies like Bubble Boy and Eight Legged Freaks to the slasher genre, with Urban Legends: Final Cut and House of Wax. Some might argue that his talent lies especially with the dark psychological drama of tortured souls, such as Apt Pupil whose darkly Germanic score remains an underappreciated gem in Ottman's collection. The composer has recently imbued his writing pen with super powers for the first sequel in the X-Men franchise, X2: X-Men United, and for the popcorn-popping adaptation of the Fantastic Four comic book legacy.
From Marvel's first family, Ottman then went to editing and scoring duties on the Man of Steel himself, a DC Comics legend and worldwide pop cultural icon. Most of the raw material present in Williams' original oeuvre (the Fanfare, the Love Theme, the Krypton Theme, the Kent Family Theme) is preserved here and it is with great anticipation and pride that SoundtrackNet presents an exclusive first listen to the official motion picture score release of John Ottman's Superman Returns. Sit back, crank your speakers, and find out for yourself if John Ottman lives up to the monstrous and gargantuan expectations set forth by Superman fans all over the world (no pressure). Please note that we have not seen the film, and what follows is a track-by-track analysis of the soundtrack album.
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1. Main Titles (3:49)
The album opens with the traditional "Main Titles" without the regular intro; we are thus thrown right into the Fanfare Ostinato which quickly builds to the Superman March. The clarity of the recording is nothing short of spectacular. We rapidly move onto the secondary Cluster Theme and, I must say, the percussion is great, with some powerful and well miked cymbal hits. We segue into the Love Theme, more than adequately performed by the brass. The Superman March returns in a powerful fashion with the four-note descending tuba line. The orchestra kicks it up a notch for the send-off. Overall, a solid performance of the abbreviated Main Title which would be almost identical to the original were it not for the editing and the improved sound clarity.
2. Memories (3:07)
The cue opens with a subdued rendition of the Kent Family Theme for oboe which leads the way into a brassy fanfare over percussive clicks and a short reprise of the end motif from the Superman Fanfare. An amazing violins, trumpet, and choir moment follows where the music literally takes off with a superb performance of the Kent Family Theme. A classical string ostinato then accompanies a fun and dynamic musical romp recalling the train material from the original before we cut to a quiet piano piece. We hear a slow and delicate rendition of the Fanfare, followed by some shimmering music for woodwinds and a misterioso chant for mixed choir. It plays with ideas introduced in the original score when Clark found the crystal in the barn which would set him up on a journey to the Arctic.
3. Rough Flight (5:13)
The first thing we hear is a fast descending line for strings with muted brass and a lot of dissonance for orchestra. Things settle down shortly before the Ostinato rears its head again, with occasional bursts from the brass. The action picks up again for strings and brass, making use of insistent motifs and frequent timpani hits, recalling the battles from Episode III. The Fanfare is heard again in a rushed fashion before some romantic strings come forth. The Fanfare Ostinato brilliantly leads the way into a strong rendition of the Superman Fanfare. A familiar urgent motif comes forward and dissonance is mixed with insistent rhythms and hints of the Fanfare in the brass section. A very dramatic and heroic theme is heard for the first time past the four-minute mark: it is a rich, descending theme for strings with insistent brass recalling the end motif from the Fanfare. The choir starts again in the middle of some crazy brass and string work with frequent percussive hits. And then everything stops. That is one awesome action cue.
4. Little Secrets / Power of the Sun (2:49)
The track begins with some unobtrusive French horn melody before the Love Theme is stated by the flute. We then get an ebbing melody for flute, woodwinds, and strings in triple meter. A very quiet piano comes in to accompany romantic and lush harmonies for strings which introduce Superman's Personal Theme, a new melody by Ottman. The trumpet punctuates with the Fanfare before a huge roll leads us into the Personal Theme again and a beautiful choir segment. It is a sad yet hopeful rising short theme which will become the calling card of the score. It's all gone so fast, though. A dramatic call to arms is then heard, with the choir singing a sustained chord behind it. Things dramatically spiral down into silence.
5. Bank Job (2:21)
A timpani roll opens the track which makes cool use of bongos. Muted trumpets and mousing woodwinds recall Mystique's music from X2. Among this percussive mayhem, Lex Luthor's Theme remains half concealed but is occasionally heard on the trumpets. Then, electronic flickers come in with aggressive bow hits. This is a very cool, percussive track (a little Planet of the Apes-ish), with some almost fiendishly big-bandish brass play on the last two notes of Luthor's Theme. Atonal string glissandi are heard before the brass takes up those glissandi and the big band motif comes back with some loud bass drumming. The Fanfare is briefly heard in the highest pitches of the trumpet; after a while, the male choir accompanies a grand rendition of the Fanfare over racing strings. The track ends with a short, dissonant progression.
6. How Could You Leave Us? (5:49)
This cue begins with a gentle intro which leads us to the Krypton Theme for solo English horn. It is only hinted at and we quickly move on to some peaceful brass chords. The Personal Theme is voiced by the celli. The whole cue is a beautiful, quiet piece with a strong bass line and some quiet murmurs in the higher pitches. The violins play tremolo in the background and then the first violin takes it away. The choir comes in over progressively louder strings in a great ascending and romantic moment but we are left hanging. The choir, piano, and strings take turn and the Personal Theme is reintroduced by the singers. It is both sad and beautiful, with a quiet timpani roll in the background. The string harmonies are not your traditional Ottman fare and... then comes the Love Theme, beautifully presented by fully-layered strings, but it is cut short in its motion and falls back into dust.
7. Tell Me Everything (3:13)
Having seen the trailer, I am assuming this is Lex's visit to the Fortress of Solitude. The brass states Luthor's Theme before the choir comes in to accompany some beautiful work for strings and brass, very vibrant and mysterious, playing around Luthor's Theme. The main motif from the Krypton Theme is given a strong but abbreviated rendition before things settle down. What follows has a similar feeling to Williams' original "Fortress of Solitude" cue but in a fully orchestral fashion. The choir makes itself known in a grand, operatic fashion, delving into the more unsettling Krypton material from the original score, before quieting down. The final minute is composed of alternating warm and suspenseful moments, mainly harmonic, for strings and brass, while melodic fragments for strings hint at Luthor's Theme.
8. You're Not One of Them (2:22)
The cue starts off with a warm glow and slight, caressing electronic touches. The clarinet pokes its head for a moment among the warmth; the first cello comes in afterwards. We hear a nice piano line while the violins reiterate the Personal Theme. This theme is carried over by the celli and then by the choir in a beautifully restrained moment that is a highlight of the score so far.
9. Not Like the Train Set (5:12)
The muted trumpets are back in full-on evil fashion with some staccato strings and flutes introducing a cool theme that is a powerful variation on Lex Luthor's Theme. The choir "ah-ah"s over the theme, recalling Fantastic Four. The flutes reprise the theme over a rising line for muted trumpets. The theme is given a few more iterations and it is a really good representation of the character, both smart and slightly maniacal at the same time. A really cool vocal motif briefly seeps through, sounding like something from "The Eclipse Begins" in The Brothers Grimm. We then move to the major mode with a rising passage led by the piccolo and trumpet. A driving line for basses cuts off the proceedings and the trombones state Luthor's Theme. But all this is cut short again with a beautiful, floating cue for resplendent trumpet and female choir. And the driving line is back, then disappears, leaving us with some dramatic string harmonies. The Fanfare Ostinato comes back in full force near the end, along with the Fanfare, allowing the trombones to shine. The flutes accompany the performance with a driving, one-note line. The brass finally quiets down, leaving only the Ostinato which picks up some instrumental strength along the way. The heroic Fanfare is back for trombones and is serenely resolved by flutes.
10. So Long Superman (5:31)
A great cyclic motif opens the cue with full choir and brass over which the Personal Theme is performed. Very powerful and ominous. The male choir then starts chanting a dark lament before the brass erupts onto the scene in the minor mode with Luthor's Theme and some cool dissonant brass clashes, recalling Goldenthal's stylistics. A high-pitched chord for violins is sustained and keeps us in suspense... tragic chords ooze in and out of the soundscape before everything becomes silent. We hear some faint drums in the background while dissonant woodwinds move away from tonality. Tolling bells are heard, as is the first phrase of Luthor's Theme for trombones. The strings gain in volume and we hear longer harmonies that mutate into the Personal Theme. It turns into a restrained elegy for the Man of Steel, the intensity of which keeps changing from quiet to loud. A metallic hit forces us out of this trance. The elegy comes back after a few seconds of silence. A loud, two-note hit from the bass drum is heard multiple times. The voices and violins come back and we hear the horns performing the Fanfare and injecting a bit of hope into the music.
11. The People You Care For (3:27)
A drum roll leads into low, male chanting. Another roll ups the ante and gives us an ostinato and some scheming brass work hinting at Luthor's Theme. We are then taken to a starry, spacey ostinato for violins, which sounds like a close cousin of the "Trip to Earth" music. A strange muffled scream then gives way to horn and string interplay carefully articulating Luthor's Theme. Another call to arms leads us to a low piano rhythmic figure and some Goldenthal-esque brass chords, reminiscent of Batman Forever (especially "Perpetuum Mobile"). The snare and percussion go into full-on Goldenthal mode with some dissonant string glissandi and col legnos. The brass starts screaming and the violins go Psycho. Harp runs leave us hanging, before the brass resolves things in a quietly heroic fashion.
12. I Wanted You to Know (2:56)
We open with a delicate glockenspiel melody and quiet strings, recalling the birth of the baby raptor from Jurassic Park. A harp is quietly plucked in the background. Then the clarinet states a melody with some quiet piano in the background. The strings shimmer. There is a lot of quiet motifs being spun by various instruments for short periods of time over a dreamy soundscape. Then the first trumpet utters a short figure before the clarinet reprises the Personal Theme and the whole orchestra gains momentum and volume. A great, powerful performance of the Personal Theme is heard for strings with lower brass accompaniment, the longest rendition so far. The celli finish it off with a variation on the Kent Family Theme.
13. Saving the World (3:12)
The Luthor percussion from "Bank Job" is back, reminiscent of The Lost World, along with the villain's theme. Meanwhile the violins are climbing up their scales and the brass brings on the heroics. We fall back into a quiet resolution for brass and strings with gleaming chords. We ascend with the violins and trumpets, and the choir gently comes back. The Fanfare Ostinato rolls onto the scene with the trumpets and a hyperactive snare in what promises to be a great action sequence. The brass states Luthor's Theme over the Ostinato and then it's the full Fanfare for trumpets, joined by the choir to hold that last note. Dissonance cuts the celebration short, however, and we slowly rebuild with a solo trumpet, violins, and choir. A loud bang erupts from the speakers, coming from a mini Mahler's Hammer, and the choir slowly sings a rising line, sounding like an angry mob. The orchestra builds and builds on top of the atonal choir, creating tonality, but everything ends with an unresolved ascent.
14. In the Hands of Mortals (2:11)
An insistent note accompanies a boys' choir which sings through some harmonic writing that is at once urgent and mysterious. A trumpet briefly comes in before the harmonies the choir sung return, soon to be accompanied by flutes. It is beautiful and you can feel that insistent note wants to develop into the Ostinato. It has great drama and urgency but is beautiful all the same. The simple ostinato stops and we move to an understated glockenspiel motif for a few seconds.
15. Reprise / Fly Away (4:15)
For the last cue on the album, we open with some very quiet harp and glockenspiel work, leading the way for the flutes to come in and, soon, the choir, too. The Personal Theme is painfully uttered by the strings and choir. We shimmer back into yet another of its renditions, for celli, and then the brass shifts into heroic mode. We hear the Fanfare for trumpet and build and build into the Personal Theme for violins and choir. The tracks grows quiet and we hear some understated, dramatic music from the string and choral ensembles which turns into a variation on the Personal Theme. The Love Theme is briefly alluded to, before the Fanfare is slowly restated for solo trumpet and string harmonies are guaranteed to generate a tear or two. It is a moving farewell to the Man of Steel and... yes! The Love Theme is heard again, in a grand, sentimental form and is pushed to its highest note... but is resolved quietly instead. The Ostinato comes back in the bass and we segue into the End Title material but, before we can hear the victorious March, we actually shift gear and go to the very end of the original End Titles, with the closing fanfare and the mad rush to the finish line. And that is how it ends.
While my thoughts on the score and the album release itself will follow in a future review, I will risk a few comments. I remember something Bryan Singer wrote in the liner notes to the score release of Apt Pupil. He wrote that every time he and Ottman work together, the latter asks him, "When can I give you a sweeping romantic scorean ode to love in green fields and deer-filled pastures?". There are no green fields and deer-filled pastures here, but wheat fields and the urban landscape of Metropolis, and I believe this is the closest this composer is going to get to that sweeping romantic score for the moment. And that may be why it sounds unlike anything Ottman has composed so far. It is bold and energetic, but here is a caveat. While the Superman Fanfare is present throughout the score, the Superman March is nowhere to be found (except for the "Main Titles"). The Krypton Theme and the Kent Family Theme both make short cameos on the album and don't go looking for the March of the Villains (AKA Otis' Theme) or the Kryptonite/Legacy Motif. Superman Returns is not a mindless rehash of John Williams' original material; it is an inventive and strong continuation of the vein that was tapped into for the first time in 1978.
The CD release comes with a four-minute video consisting of a one-minute interview with Bryan Singer, in which he discusses his working relationship with John Ottman and the reason why John Williams' original themes were integrated into the score, and a three-minute look at the scoring session as the "Main Titles" are performed by the orchestra. I believe it is safe to say that John Ottman will make us believe a man can fly again June 28.
The soundtrack to Superman Returns will be released by Rhino Records on June 27, 2006. The film opens nationwide on June 28, 2006 in movie theaters and IMAX 3D.
Special thanks to Nikki Fair, Kevin Gore, Nick Bonomo, Debi Streeter, Amanda Goodpaster, Joe Bonn, John Ottman, Damon Intrabartolo, and Dan Goldwasser.