December 2006 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Michael McLennan
Managing Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster: Len Mullenger

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Superman Returns  
Music composed and orchestrated by John Ottman
Orchestrated and conducted by Damon Intrabartolo
  Available on Rhino Records (R2 77654)
Running Time: 55:27
Crotchet   Amazon UK   Amazon US

See also:

  • The Fantastic Four
  • X-Men 2
  • When it became fact that the Superman film series was being resurrected with Superman Returns, the question of how its music would sound naturally arose. The John Williams score for the 1978 film is film music classic, its sound intimately connected with the character of Superman. Would the filmmakers opt to use the same original material adapted by a new composer (as it was by Ken Thorne for Superman II and Superman III) or choose to depart from the old material and create a new sound? Since the film was directed by Bryan Singer, it was clear from the beginning that his long-time collaborator John Ottman would be assigned to score the film; a composer that over the past years has proven quite adept in scoring superhero films (with X2 and Fantastic Four) and hopefully would be able to deliver, regardless of what approach the filmmakers chose. With the finished score in my hand, I can say that the above statement holds water: Superman Returns is an appropriately bombastic and sweeping superhero score with a great deal of excellent thematic writing that indeed manages to impress.

    The approach that was ultimately chosen was to keep many of the original Williams themes – namely the Superman fanfare, the Krypton theme, the Kent family theme and the love theme. The famous Superman march was left out except for the main title (a brilliant re-recording, I must say, of the abridged version of the original march), and the other themes are given shorter appearances (except the fanfare, which appears frequently), but they are all there, connecting this new score with the original sound Williams created in 1978. To the mix Ottman adds some new thematic material, as well as his own unique compositional voice.

    It must be an almost impossible task to bring out almost thirty-year old themes and incorporate them in a new score without it sounding like a a bland copy of the original. And, in addition, succeed in combining this old thematic material with newly composed material into a unified, coherent score. But there is no doubt that Ottman has succeeded. Ottman seems to deliberately have written this score in a vein more similar to Williams’ style than he usually does, but even if this score stylistically owes much to John Williams, it has a new and fresh feel to it. It can be contrasted with Don Davis’s use of the themes from Jurassic Park in Jurassic Park III, where the end result became more of an adaptation of Williams original than a new, unique work. That is not the case here. Ottman’s score is entirely its own – Williams’ themes form a base for the score to be built upon, but Ottman treats them like they were his own themes, incorporating them in his music so successfully that they never stick out as an odd element.

    The new thematic material Ottman composed for Superman Returns consists mainly of two themes: a lyrical, more personal theme for Superman himself as well as a theme for his nemesis Lex Luthor. The personal theme is not a particularly complex or very strong theme, a quite simple chord progression, but it is quite beautiful and after a number of listens you recognize it when it surfaces – and it does so many times, in a number of guises, often complemented with wordless chorus (‘Little Secrets/Power of the Sun’). Lex Luthor’s theme is quite the opposite of Superman’s personal theme, being an aggressive descending melody mainly carried by brass – a quite excellent villain theme, and, I must say, rather catchy, especially in ‘Not like the Train Set’. Neither of the two themes have the straight-out melodic qualities of the Williams themes, but Ottman has focused a lot of the score’s development around these two themes, and thanks to the fact that they are repeated frequently, developed throughout the score in a number of arrangements, they are instantly recognizable even if you will hardly walk around humming them.

    Superman Returns is indeed a very thematic score. Already in the second track, ‘Memories’, the Kent family theme is given a magnificent rendering for full orchestra and choir, a powerful, upbeat treatment of the theme that Williams never gave it. It is also very nice when the Superman fanfare surfaces out of the midst of action, like in ‘Rough Flight’, heralded by the Superman march ostinato. Using the ostinato indeed must fit Ottman well – the use of an underlying rhythm like this one is something he has done before and recalls his X2 main theme. Otherwise the action music is familiar Ottman fare – aggressive with heavy percussion and brass. In Superman Returns the heavy thematic presence strengthens the action material somewhat, making it slightly superior to what we heard in his two previous superhero scores.

    There’s also an impressive range to the orchestration – be it either the brassy, almost jazzy moments of ‘Bank Job’, the beautiful string harmonies presenting the personal theme in ‘I Wanted You to Know’ or the sweeping full orchestral statement of the love theme in ‘Reprise/Fly Away’. Ottman has shown he can write well for orchestra previously, but the skilled thematic work here takes it to another level. No matter that Ottman did not write most of the themes here – he still skillfully incorporates them into the symphonic tapestry. Just listen to the slow introduction of the love theme in ‘How Could You Leave Us?’, where strings slowly pick up fragments of the theme, before the theme is presented in complete form at the end of the cue. This is thematic writing of the highest quality, as is the emotional ‘So Long Superman’, where the music modulates from the dark harmonies of Luthor’s theme into the lyrical chords of the personal theme, forming a moving, elegiac rendition of that theme.

    As an album, Superman Returns is a great listening experience from beginning to end. It is varied enough, from the tranquil moments of cues like ‘You’re not One of Them’ (quite a highlight with variations of the personal theme) to the harsh action and heroic moments of ‘Saving the World’ and the mysterious feel of ‘Tell Me Everything’. It comes very close to its 1978 predecessor in terms of listening experience and quality, but of course, when faced with the comparison with Williams’ original, it stands clear which work is the masterpiece and which one is not. Williams’ Superman: The Movie is considered, almost thirty years after it was composed, one of the essentials of superhero film music (or film music in general for that matter). I doubt that this score will carry that same reputation thirty years from now – it just lacks that originality and inventiveness in the greater sense.

    But regardless of whether it will be remembered, Superman Returns is a very well-written score. It is nice to hear that it is possible to reuse old thematic material like this and still create a score with inspiration and feeling. Ottman has not been tied down by how Williams used the themes, which is to his credit. Highly recommended.

    Adam Andersson

    Rating: 4.5

    Michael McLennan adds:-

    John Ottman is a composer whose work falls into several genres – horror (Gothika, Hide and Seek), superhero (X2, Fantastic Four) and modern thriller (Incognito, Usual Suspects, Goodbye Lover). For me at least, it’s the last genre he excels at: he has a knack for modern noir music… darkly romantic, sleek and supple in recording, with nice use of disconcerting solo performances of haunting themes. As far as the other two go, I truly don’t get the appeal of the man’s film music – the horror seems fairly undistinguished in its capacity to truly chill the bones, and the action scores alternate between fairly anonymous action and awkward bombastic themes.

    It comes as no surprise that Superman Returns is far closer to the latter scores – since the film is yet another superhero epic. (A ‘reboot’ in the tradition of the Sam Raimi sensitive new age Spiderman series.) Bryan Singer’s stated desire was to interact with the continuity of the Richard Donner / Richard Lester Superman films (why exactly is that? – have I laboured all these years under the false impression they were earnest, well-cast, but ultimately inconsequential films about a man who could fly?). This presents an extra dilemma for Ottman: how to better John Williams iconic score?

    The simple answer seems to have been: DON’T. So the Williams Superman march is back, as is the love theme for Superman and Lois Lane, the theme for the Kent family, part of the theme for Krypton… the new score is if anything a wholesale acquisition of John Williams’ themes, translated through John Ottman’s compositional sensibilities. That in itself is something of a problem – arrangements reconstructed by ear often lack the elegance that is the Williams trademark, for example in the more direct arrangement of the love theme, and the awkward transition from love theme to Superman march in ‘How could you leave us?’ and ‘Reprise / Fly Away’.

    That’s not the only problem. There are of course long stretches of the film where the original Williams score, written in the days before superheroes were allowed to have ‘personal demons’, simply wouldn’t fit in any form. Cue the Thomas Newman-style piano-and-strings theme for Superman’s feelings of isolation. And a theme for Lex Luthor that is probably the most impressive track of all – a brief glimpse of one of Ottman’s finest scores: Incognito. The problem is that this material simply doesn’t belong in the same score as the Williams material. It’s worthy in its own right and in keeping with current film music aesthetics, but that’s the problem – half the score is rooted in a different approach to the character. It ends up feeling like one of those collaborative scores where the division of responsibilities is all too apparent.

    Even if the awkward treatment of the Williams’ themes and the problems of interpolating old film music standards into a work based on very different principles wasn’t problem enough, there’s still the issue of Ottman as composer. Firstly there’s the temp track issue. As Singer’s editor of choice, Ottman cut this film and its temp track, and quite a few familiar moments from great scores of the past pass through along the way. (Fans of those other films Ottman edited and composer for – The Usual Suspect, Apt Pupil and X2: Xmen United – would be acquainted with this recurring theme in the composer’s work.) Secondly there’s a laxness in the structuring of excitement in the score – every big moment feels as big as the next, the choir is overused to add in extra feeling, and it doesn’t feel like the music is doing more than serving each moment in isolation. At the very least, the whole thing simply isn’t tied together with the aplomb of… John Williams, whose scores often exhibit a structural genius in the way that move with the narrative.

    I say all this to serve as a kind of anti-review to Adam’s thoughts above. Because on a certain level, this is an enjoyable work (‘Bank Job’ and ‘Not like the Train Set’ are the standouts). I just feel there was a missed opportunity here. Not so much for Ottman to fashion an entirely original superhero score –I’ve heard X2: X-Men United and The Fantastic Four, so I’ve heard what he has to offer in the genre. The real missed opportunity is for an original score (sans any Williams themes) from someone suited to the task. Who can do the buoyant orchestral optimism of John Williams? Before his tragically-premature death, I would have said Michael Kamen, who did ebullience like no-one else. But now? Don Davis is a brilliant, underused composer who I’m sure could have found a fascinating way into the material. As is Christopher Gordon, whose recent Commonwealth Games score seemed like it could have been the foundations for a Superman symphony. Whoever was hired to do it, they should have been given free reign – Singer’s latching onto the Williams material as a necessary point of continuity is understandable, but it hamstrings any composer that isn’t a match for John Williams.

    Michael McLennan


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