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SUPERMAN RETURNS – John Ottman

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

As much as Marco Beltrami was walking into a film music minefield by being asked to follow on from Jerry Goldsmith’s score for The Omen, John Ottman’s task following in the footsteps of John Williams on Superman Returns was probably too daunting to imagine. John Williams between the mid 1970s and the early 1980s was enjoying arguably the most creatively fruitful period of his career, writing Jaws, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. within eight years of each other. The original Superman came right in the middle of this golden period in 1978, and became an instant classic, with Williams’ music providing the right amount of thrills and spills and heroic ebullience the film required. The Superman March has since gone on to become one of film music’s most well-loved and recognisable themes.

In re-creating Superman almost 30 years later, director Bryan Singer, screenwriters Mike Dougherty and Dan Harris, and lead actor Brandon Routh found themselves in an almost unwinnable situation. How to maintain the integrity of the original, and not upset the legions of fans who grew up watching Christopher Reeve as the Man of Steel, while re-working and updating the story to make it relevant for modern viewers? It’s a tough assignment, but by all accounts they have succeeded admirably. Despite the common misconception, Superman Returns is NOT a remake of Superman. It actually takes place in between the events of Superman II and Superman III: after the successful battle against General Zod and the super-villains, Superman leaves Earth, intending to find out once and for all what happened to his home planet and to find out if he is truly the last son of Krypton. Finding nothing, Superman returns to Earth six years later, to find that things have changed: his old flame Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) is in a relationship with Richard White (James Marsden), son of newspaper boss Perry (Frank Langella), and has a five year old son. Metropolis itself has moved on, and learned to live without their red-and-blue protector. But worst of all, his arch-nemesis Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) has been released from jail and is now a successful and seemingly legitimate businessman. However, when Superman discovers that Luthor is actually hatching yet another plan to take over the world, he responds to the call, intent on saving humanity and reclaiming his place in the hearts and minds of the citizens he protects.

Again, like Beltrami on The Omen, Ottman’s dilemma was how much of Williams’ music to use in his new score. Too much, and he is criticised for being lazy and unoriginal; too little, and he runs the risk of alienating fans of the franchise who want to hear musical consistency between the films. In the end, he took the path of least resistance by not only seamlessly working in several of Williams themes into the fabric of his underscore, but by also actively emulating Williams’ writing style while remaining true to his own musical persona. It’s a difficult juggling feat to achieve, but Ottman succeeds admirably, resulting in what is probably his best score since the turn of the millennium.

From the word go, the love and admiration Ottman has for Williams’ work is apparent: his “Main Title” is faithful recreation of Williams’ near-legendary main title march, performed by the Hollywood Studio Symphony Orchestra with a little more brightness than the LSO did back in 1978, but with the same sense of adventurous spirit and unbridled energy. The whirling counter-melody in the second performance of the march sounds especially superb. The action music is loud and gregarious, and is filled with Ottman’s familiar offbeat rhythmic devices and spiky orchestrations, but is underpinned the welcome presence of the Superman ostinato, the first of many subtle, and not-so-subtle, references to Williams throughout the album. The love theme, ‘Can You Read My Mind’, re-appears in “Little Secrets”, the sweeping “I Wanted You To Know”, and the lovely “How Could You Leave Me”, the latter of which also includes the first of several fleeting performances of the Krypton fanfare. The only thing missing from the album as a whole is a huge performance of the march to finish: instead, it teases us with a massive restatement of the love theme and a thunderous ostinato build-up, before cutting away instead to the march’s closing coda.

But this is not to say that Ottman has simply re-arranged Williams’ scores in the way Ken Thorne and Alexander Courage did on Supermans II, III and IV. A decidedly un-Ottman like ‘Family Theme’ first appears in “Memories”, a wholesome slice of unbridled Americana which gallops across the Kansas cornfield like a relic from a triumphant western, complete with angelic choir. There is a menacing new theme for Lex Luthor, given a spectacular work-out by snaky violins and fluttering woodwinds in the opening moments of “Not Like the Train Set”. Some of the action music is quite superb, notably the frenetic “Rough Flight”, the rough-and-tumble “Bank Job” (which at times reminded me of Jerry Goldsmith’s Capricorn One), the rambunctious, piano-driven “The People You Care For” (which also has some brilliantly edgy brass writing), and the powerfully climactic “Saving the World”, which manages to work in some frenzied bongo playing alongside everything else. At the other end of the spectrum, the emotional string writing in “So Long Superman” is among the best he’s ever written.

As is often the case with Ottman, choral elements also play a big part, rising to chilly heights during the latter half of “Memories”, and embracing angelic majesty at the end of “Little Secrets”. They sing with sweeping nobility in “How Could You Leave Me”, with bittersweet poignancy in “You’re Not One of Them”, with sorrow and tragedy in “So Long Superman”, and with both solemn heroism and dissonant chaos in “Saving the World”. If you’ve ever wanted to hear the Superman March accompanied by a choir, now’s your chance. In earlier scores, Ottman’s over-use of the choir has over-egged the pudding, giving his music an overbearing grandiosity which actually made it seem overly-manipulative. Here, it works. It adds a new dimension to Superman’s character. Despite him being alien, it makes him more human.

In sum total, the bulk of album’s running time is given over to new Ottman material, but such is the integration between his themes and Williams’ themes, it’s at times difficult to separate the two. Ottman’s manipulation of the Williams themes is at times masterful: it feels completely organic, almost as though Ottman’s new material is a natural progression of what was written thirty years ago. Several times during the course of the score you think that Ottman is going to break out into a performance of a Williams theme, until he turns the music on its head and, from the same starting point, takes it in a new direction. I had hoped that the transition from Williams to Ottman wouldn’t be too jarring, but I never expected it to be this good.

After hearing his rather flat work on X-Men 2 and Fantastic Four, I had hoped that Ottman would never write another superhero score again, and was fearful that he would not be able to pull off something as important as Superman Returns. Thankfully, he has redeemed himself. On balance – and this might be stating the obvious – Ottman’s music is not as good as Williams work on the original, and will likely never be held in the same esteem, but credit has to be given where credit is due, and he has not been overawed by his source material. Superman Returns has as sense of being different, but the same; familiar, but altered just enough to give it a new spin. This is a new Superman for a new generation and, whether we like it or not, times change and things move forward. In this case, I like it.

Rhino’s CD release, as well as the score itself, also includes some bonus enhanced content, including three trailers and a behind-the-scenes documentary on the making of the score.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • Main Titles (3:47)
  • Memories (3:05)
  • Rough Flight (5:11)
  • Little Secrets/Power of the Sun (2:47)
  • Bank Job (2:19)
  • How Could You Leave Us? (5:47)
  • Tell Me Everything (3:11)
  • You’re Not One Of Them (2:20)
  • Not Like The Train Set (5:10)
  • So Long Superman (5:29)
  • The People You Care For (3:25)
  • I Wanted You To Know (2:54)
  • Saving The World (3:10)
  • In The Hands Of Mortals (2:09)
  • Reprise/Fly Away (4:17)

Running Time: 55 minutes 10 seconds

Rhino R2-77654 (2006)

Music composed John Ottman. Conducted by Damon Intrabartolo. Orchestrations by Damon Intrabartolo, Frank Macchia, Lior Rosner, Kevin Kliesch, John Ashton Thomas, Rick Giovinazzo and Jeff Schindler. Music from the 1978 film “Superman” composed by John Williams, arranged by John Ottman and Damon Intrabartolo. Recorded and mixed by Casey Stone. Edited by Amanda Goodpaster. Album produced by John Ottman.

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  1. January 23, 2019 at 3:39 pm

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