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SPACECAMP – John Williams


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Having enjoyed what will, in all probability, go down in history as the most successful creative period of any composer in film music history from 1975 through 1984, when he wrote the scores for Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, three Star Wars films, Superman, two Indiana Jones films, and E. T. The Extra-Terrestrial, among others, John Williams quite rightly decided to take a break. With the exception of a couple of episodes of the TV series Amazing Stories, he didn’t write anything in 1985, while in 1986 his only score was this one: the children’s adventure film SpaceCamp. Directed by TV veteran Harry Winer, the film followed the escapades of five brilliant teenagers (including Lea Thompson, Tate Donovan, Kelly Preston, and Joaquin Phoenix) who enroll in NASA’s SpaceCamp program with a view to becoming astronauts when they grow up. After meeting their instructors (Kate Capshaw and Tom Skerritt), and a friendly robot named Jinx, the kids are allowed into the cockpit of the Space Shuttle Atlantis during a routine engine test; however, a malfunction occurs, launching the shuttle into space, and forcing the inexperienced children to work together to try to bring the shuttle safely back to Earth.

In what is possibly the worst coincidental timing of any movie release date in history, SpaceCamp hit cinemas just a few months after the Challenger disaster, resulting in the film being an enormous box office flop. In the wake of this, the planned soundtrack album was also scrapped, meaning that for many years the score was one of John Williams’s least-known, and rarest, with the only legitimate releases being a German vinyl LP, and a Japanese CD pressing on the SLC label that came out in 1992. This was a real shame, because the score is an under-rated Williams gem: elegant, exciting, and containing that sense of child-like wonder that only he could bring to a project like this.

His main theme, first heard in the “Main Title,” is a beauty, a gorgeously balletic piece for strings and light, chiming accents, underpinned by a four-note motif that acts as a heroic fanfare elsewhere in the score. It’s a celebration of the vast, untapped potential of space, full of awe and wonder. Restatements in cues like “In Orbit” and the stately “Viewing Daedelus” are lovely, and the rousing finale in “Re-Entry” and “Home Again” contains all the relieved heroism and exhilaration the orchestra could muster. However, the score’s pièce de résistance is the concert arrangement of the main theme in “SpaceCamp,” which is described in the score’s accompanying information as being “anchored by a dazzling fanfare, which races into a riveting allegro for full orchestra using the fanfare as its thematic basis, and which then crescendos into a stunning fortissimo reading of the main theme for entire orchestra.” This technical description of the cue really doesn’t do it justice though – it’s a magical, energetic, uplifting triumph, one of Williams’s best, but most unheralded greats.

Contrasting the balletic elegance of the main theme, cues like “The Shuttle,” “White Sands,” “Max Breaks Loose,” and the quite distraught-sounding “Andie is Stranded” are thrilling action sequences, which take the central elements of the main theme but turn them into something completely different, tonally. Stabbing violin clusters, darkly-hued interjections from the brass section, moody woodwind phrases, and rapid, nervous cello lines give these cues a real sense of danger. There are echoes of the conclusive chase sequence from E.T. in “White Sands,” especially in the brass writing, and some allusions to the moody Tatooine underscore of Return of the Jedi in “Max Breaks Loose,” but Williams never loses the core sense of overt musicality; the way the music shifts around the entire orchestra, fragments of the main themes wafting between them, with subtle changes in key conveying different emotions as the cues progress, is masterful.

Meanwhile, “Friends Forever” speaks to the relationship between Joaquin Phoenix’s character Max, and the robot Jinx, and engages in some delightfully expressive interplay between trilling woodwinds, harp glissandi, and gentle, tremolo-heavy strings, mirroring some of the heartfelt E.T. and Elliot material from that score, as well as riffing on a 2-note deconstruction of the main theme. These ideas are cleverly re-worked into the pivotal “Max Finds Courage” sequence, during which Williams takes the same orchestral textures and thematic ideas, but runs them through an emotional subverter, adding a sense of trepidation to them that cleverly speaks to Max’s inexperience in the face of real, tangible danger, and his eventual conquering of those fears.

Perhaps the score’s only misstep is the dreadfully dated disco variation on the main theme in the “Training Montage,” a relic of the period which should be quickly forgotten, and which confirms that the only instrument John Williams ever failed to master totally was the drum machine.

Thankfully, after many years of being the highly prized collectible I mentioned earlier, producer Douglass Fake and Intrada Records finally stepped into set the record straight, initially releasing a 3,000-copy special edition of the score in 2010, and finally an unlimited full commercial release in December 2014; both releases have the same content as the original German LP and Japanese CD releases. There are very few John Williams scores in existence that fail to stir the senses, but there are a surprising number of excellent scores which, for one reason or another, have flown under the radar, either because the film ended up not being very popular, or because he wrote other, more acclaimed scores during the same period. SpaceCamp is one of those, but to overlook it would be a serious mistake: fans of Williams’s hopeful, optimistic children’s action scores will find it to be the equal of many of its more illustrious counterparts, and many will be astounded at the quality and emotional punch of its magnificent main theme.

Buy the Spacecamp soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (3:07)
  • Training Montage (2:00)
  • The Shuttle (5:02)
  • The Computer Room (1:54)
  • Friends Forever (2:20)
  • In Orbit (3:12)
  • White Sands (6:52)
  • SpaceCamp (4:06)
  • Viewing Daedalus (2:45)
  • Max Breaks Loose (2:21)
  • Andie Is Stranded (4:08)
  • Max Finds Courage (3:53)
  • Re-Entry (3:55)
  • Home Again (3:30)

Running Time: 49 minutes 05 seconds

Intrada MAF-7140 (1986/2014)

Music composed and conducted by John Williams. Orchestrations by Alexander Courage and Herbert W. Spencer. Recorded and mixed by Armin Steiner. Edited by Ken Wannberg. Score produced by John Williams. Album produced by Douglass Fake.

  1. March 12, 2021 at 8:42 pm

    Wonderful score, one of my favorites by Williams. Definitely a forgotten gem.

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