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STARMAN – Jack Nitzsche

January 29, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

starmanTHROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Starman is a science fiction romance movie, directed by John Carpenter at the height of his studio powers, from a screenplay by Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon, who would later collaborate on the classic coming-of-age drama Stand By Me. The film stars Jeff Bridges as an alien who, in response to the message of peace from the Voyager II probe, is sent to Earth on a scouting mission prior to a planned ‘first contact’ meeting between humanity and the rest of his species. Unfortunately, the alien’s craft is shot down by the military and it crash lands in rural Wisconsin, next to a farm owned by the recently-widowed Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen). The alien takes the form of Jenny’s late husband, and convinces her to drive him to Arizona to rendezvous with his mothership; on the journey, Jenny and the alien bond, initially due to his physical resemblance to her husband, but later due to the alien’s child-like curiosity regarding Earth, and his genuine goodness and compassion. Unfortunately, the US government – personified by NSA colonel Fox (Richard Jaeckel) and a compassionate scientist named Shermin (Charles Martin Smith) – has found out about the alien, and wants to capture him for their own ends.

Starman was a major critical and commercial success over the winter of 1984/1985, earning an impressive $28 million at the box office, and giving Jeff Bridges a Best Actor Oscar nomination. Starman was also one of the few films director John Carpenter did not also score; instead, the music was written by Jack Nitzsche, who at the time was in the middle of the most significant period of his film music career, him having already written the music for An Officer and a Gentleman and The Razor’s Edge, and with scores like The Jewel of the Nile and Stand By Me on his horizon. He earned a Best Score Golden Globe nomination for Starman too, to go with his various Best Score and Best Song Oscar wins and nominations. Electronics were very big in Hollywood at the time, in the wake of successful scores by composers like Brad Fiedel, Giorgio Moroder and Harold Faltermeyer, and Starman sought to capitalize on that; mainly due to Nitzsche’s compositional talent, the resulting score is actually one of the better examples of the style.

I’m not well-versed enough to really know what sorts of synthesizers Nitzsche and his programmers/performers Brian Banks and Anthony Marinelli used to create the sounds of Starman, but there is a great deal of depth and creativity in the end result, with different textures and synthetic elements combining in the final work. The score is built around a recurring main theme, dream like and haunting, which has an airy, repetitive 4-note pulse and a beautiful, elegant 6-note melodic core. Both the pulse and the melody feature strongly throughout the score, with the melodic part generally representing the growing romantic relationship between Jenny and the alien, and the pulse representing Starman’s memories of and need to return home.

Cues such as the opening “Jenny Shot” and “What’s It Like Up There?” feature both the melody and the pulse strongly, while a secondary melody, a more traditional love theme for synth pianos, appears in “Honeymoon,” and in more extended performances at the beginning of “Do You Have Somebody?” and at the end of “Pickup Truck,” although the statement in “Do You Have Somebody?” is quickly altered by the inclusion of insistent, eerie synth tones, giving the cue an unsettling feeling) Later, “I Gave You a Baby” and “Define Love” feature a combination of the 4-note pulse, the main theme and the romance theme which is really lovely.

Other elements of note include the threatening staccato tones of “Here Come the Helicopters” and “Road Block,” representing the looming danger the US government presents to Starman on his journey; the brutal first moments of “Jenny Shot,” which are dissonant and aggressive; the playful “Pickup Truck,” with its pseudo-pizzicato stylings; and the harsh and grating “Balls,” which represents the extent of Starman’s powers. Everything comes to a close in the 7-minute tour-de-force finale, “Starman Leaves/End Title,” which presents the main theme in its fullest and most expansive statement yet, culminating in a rousing and emotional climax, complete with noble rolling sampled timpani and spine-tingling sampled cymbal clashes.

The Starman soundtrack was one of the first ever released by Varèse Sarabande, on both LP and CD in 1990, in the now-rare and highly prized VCD series. As such, the CD is a little expensive these days, and copies are going for almost $30 on Amazon. As a further note to collectors: a stunning symphonic/choral version of Nitzsche’s main theme, performed by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and conducted by Nic Raine, is available on the Silva Screen compilation album Alien Invasion: Space and Beyond II, released in 1998. This cue makes for a wonderful ‘bonus track’ addition to the score, as it gives flavor of what the score could have sounded like had it been orchestral rather than electronic.

For contemporary audiences used to more sophisticated sounds, I can see how Starman could come across as sounding terribly dated. Nitzsche faced a great deal of difficulty in actually creating the sounds that feature in the score with the technological limitations of electronic instruments in the early 1980s, and taking those limitations into account, the end result is quite astonishing in terms of the different layers of sound and varying electronic timbres the score contains. Nevertheless, I feel I still have to remind readers that this score is a product of its time, and should be approached with the appropriate amount of prudence. With that in mind, I would still give Starman a cautious recommendation. The main theme is iconic, and the creativity Nitzsche brought to the project is worth experiencing in its own right.

Buy the Starman soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Jenny Shot (1:30)
  • Here Come the Helicopters (5:04)
  • Honeymoon (0:55)
  • Road Block (1:38)
  • Do You Have Somebody? (1:18)
  • Pickup Truck (3:01)
  • What’s It Like Up There? (1:46)
  • All I Have to Do is Dream (written by Felice Bryant and Boudleaux Bryant, performed by Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen) (3:29)
  • Lifting Ship (1:22)
  • I Gave You a Baby (2:11)
  • Morning Military (1:04)
  • Define Love (1:33)
  • Balls (1:10)
  • Starman Leaves/End Title (7:04)

Running Time: 33 minutes 04 seconds

Varèse Sarabande VCD-47220 (1984/1990)

Music composed and arranged by Jack Nitzsche. Featured musical soloists Brian Banks and Anthony Marinelli. Recorded and mixed by Brooks Arthur. Edited by Curt Sobel. Score produced by Jack Nitzsche. Album produced by Robert Townson.

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  1. Max Waxman
    January 29, 2015 at 3:00 pm

    According to the 1984 tray insert, the CD was produced by Tom Null and Chris Küchler.

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