Home > Reviews > THE KARATE KID – Bill Conti

THE KARATE KID – Bill Conti

karatekidTHROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

If you say ‘wax on, wax off’ to anyone of a certain age, they will instantly be transported back to the summer of 1984, when The Karate Kid was one of the box office smashes of the year. Essentially a Rocky story for kids, which replaced boxing with karate, the film was directed by John G. Avildsen and starred Ralph Macchio as Daniel Larusso, a streetwise New Jersey kid who is uprooted and moves to Los Angeles with his mother (Randee Heller) after his parents divorce. Despite being an outsider, Daniel is immediately smitten with pretty high school cheerleader Ali Mills (Elisabeth Shue), but soon becomes a target for her ex-boyfriend, bully and jock Johnny (William Zabka), who attends a ruthless karate dojo run by the equally ruthless former Special Forces veteran John Kreese (Martin Kove). After being beaten up again one night, Daniel is rescued by his apartment building’s janitor, Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita); astounded by the apparently aged Miyagi’s karate skills, Daniel asks to be trained so that he can fight back against the bullies – and so begins their unlikely friendship.

The Karate Kid was one of the seminal sports films of the 1980s, which made a cinema icon and future cliché of Mr. Miyagi, the outwardly gruff Japanese gardener whose curmudgeonly exterior hides a strong character and caring heart, and spawned numerous catchphrases – not only “wax on, wax off”, but “man who catch fly with chopstick accomplish anything” and (somewhat cryptically) “sweep the leg”. It remains a beloved nostalgia classic to this day, the career-defining roles for both Macchio and Morita, who received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his performance. The score for The Karate Kid was by Bill Conti, hot from his recent Academy Award win for The Right Stuff in 1983, who had previously worked with director Avildsen not only on the original Rocky but also Slow Dancing in the Big City in 1978, The Formula in 1980, and Neighbors in 1981.

The most prominent aspect of Conti’s score is his collaboration with the Romanian virtuoso pan flute soloist Gheorghe Zamfir, whose unique, immediately recognizable sound acts as a leitmotif for Mr. Miyagi, the relationship between him and Daniel, and for ‘oriental culture’ in general. Cues such as “Bonsai Tree”, “On to Miyagi’s”, “The Pact”, “Japanese Sander”, “Paint the Fence”, “Fish & Train”, and others, feature the pan flutes as cornerstones, and are often accompanied by light, deft pizzicato effects and elegant harp glissandi, while its appearances in “Miyagi Rattles Bones” and “Miyagi Intercedes” are accompanied by some slightly more urgent and dramatic orchestral lines to underscore the occasionally antagonistic encounters Miyagi and Daniel have before the kid understands what his sensei is actually doing.

Other cues of note include the upbeat, optimistic “Main Title”, which features a lush string theme underpinned by more strident brass pulses and flute accents that are really superb, despite being clearly rooted in early 1980s film score conventions that some might find dated. Recapitulations later in “Dan Ducks Out” and “Decorate the Gym”, when it is performed solely on synths, begin to cement a recurring melody for Daniel himself, while it’s piano-centered soft jazz performance in “The Kiss” is a melodic highlight, despite sounding like a close cousin of Conti’s TV theme from Cagney & Lacey.

Dirty-cool synths and finger-snapping rock elements feature in “Fite Nite” and “Bumpy Ride”, identifying Johnny and the other members of the Cobra Kai dojo as hair-flicking, sneering bullies up to no good. These are counterbalanced by some outstanding orchestral classical pastiche in “Daniel Sees the Bird” and towards the end of “Training Hard”, where Conti really goes for broke with a couple of renaissance-inspired fugue-like string runs, offering dainty, florid counterpoint to Zamfir’s equally elegant flute tones. The big finale, “Daniel’s Moment of Truth”, goes for broke, with stirring synths and a heroic horn line that builds to an epic conclusion of triumph and redemption.

The main drawback with the Karate Kid soundtrack as a whole is that it is missing that iconic musical moment, that singular element that elevates it into something unforgettable. Zamfir’s pan flutes are pretty but are more atmospheric than they are theme based; similarly, neither the romantic relationship between Daniel and Ali, nor the montage moments of Daniel’s training, have a score-based moment to rival, for example, “Gonna Fly Now” from Rocky in terms of memorability. In fact, in the film, Daniel’s montages and final fights were underscored mostly by rock songs, most notably “You’re the Best Around” by Joe Esposito, which is likely to be much more familiar to casual viewers than anything in the score.

While die-hard fans of the film will likely find plenty to entertain them, anyone whose nostalgia for this film doesn’t stretch to the music may find themselves unexpectedly underwhelmed by it all; with just a couple of moments of orchestral excellence and thematic power, the score gets far too bogged down in wandering pan flutes during its middle section, making the whole thing seem much longer than its relatively brief 36 minute running time.

The full Karate Kid soundtrack was not available for over 20 years, as the original soundtrack CD featured only songs. Varese Sarabande released it in a limited edition box set along with the scores for its three sequels in 2007, and then as a standalone single disc in 2010 as part of their Special Edition CD Club.

Buy the Karate Kid soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (3:30)
  • Fite Nite (2:01)
  • Bumpy Ride (1:37)
  • Dan Ducks Out (0:55)
  • Bonsai Tree (0:43)
  • Decorate the Gym (0:39)
  • Miyagi Rattles Bones (2:21)
  • Miyagi Intercedes (1:28)
  • On to Miyagi’s (1:33)
  • The Pact (2:12)
  • Feel the Night (written by Bill Conti and Baxter Robinson, performed by Baxter Robinson) (1:56)
  • Troubled Lovers (0:33)
  • Japanese Sander (1:26)
  • Paint the Fence (3:11)
  • Daniel Sees the Bird (2:38)
  • Fish and Train (2:28)
  • Training Hard (2:29)
  • The Kiss (1:02)
  • Japanese Hand Clap (0:40)
  • No Mercy (0:23)
  • Daniel’s Moment of Truth (1:52)

Running Time: 35 minutes 37 seconds

Varese Sarabande VCL-1110-1117 (1984/2010)

Music composed and conducted by Bill Conti. Orchestrations by Jack Eskew and Angela Morley. Featured musical soloist Gheorghe Zamfir. Recorded and mixed by Dan Wallin. Edited by Stephen A. Hope. Score produced by Bill Conti. Album produced by Robert Townson.

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