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ROBOCOP – Basil Poledouris

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The 1980s was an especially good decade for films which blended extensive, sometimes quite brutal action with pointed social and political commentary that bordered on satire. Robocop is one of the best examples of its type; it stars Peter Weller as Alex Murphy, a dogged cop in crime-ridden Detroit in the near future. After being transferred to a new precinct, and meeting his new partner Lewis (Nancy Allen), Murphy is unexpectedly murdered during his first patrol by a gang of ruthless criminals led by the vicious Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith). Meanwhile Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer), an ambitious executive at Omni Consumer Products, the corporate behemoth that runs Detroit’s police department, pitches his ambitious Robocop program to the head of the company after a presentation by the ruthless Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) of his competing ED-209 program goes disastrously wrong. The Robocop program would use the remains of a recently-deceased police officer to form the biological component of a near-unstoppable human-robot cyborg, controlled by OCP. After being given the green light by OCP’s chairman (Daniel O’Herlihy), Morton selects the luckless Murphy to be his test subject, and Robocop quickly embarks on a single-handed crusade to clean up the city. However Jones, never one to be outdone, plots revenge against his rivals on the other side of the boardroom, and enlists Boddicker and his gang to carry it out – bringing Robocop back into conflict with the men who killed him.

Robocop marked the mainstream studio debut of Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, who had received critical acclaim for his domestic films Turks Fruit, Keetje Tippel, and Soldaat Van Oranje, prior to making his English-language debut on the pan-European independent co-production Flesh + Blood in 1985. Given his track record, it’s not surprising that Robocop was a much more thoughtful film than it appears at first glance; yes, it’s a blazing action crime thriller, but it undercuts its violence and bloodshed with a piercing satirical agenda focusing on corporate corruption, the absurdities of 1980s consumer culture, and over-reliance on technology, as well as a much deeper philosophical conversation about identity and individuality. It was one of the best-reviewed films of the year, was a box office smash, and received three Academy Award nominations, winning for Best Sound Editing.

The score for Robocop was written by composer Basil Poledouris, who returned to work with Verhoeven for a second time after their collaboration on Flesh + Blood. Despite introducing himself as a fully orchestral composer through scores like 1980’s The Blue Lagoon and 1982’s Conan the Barbarian, by 1987 Poledouris – like every other composer in Hollywood – was adding a heavy electronic and synthesized element into his music. However, whereas other composers seemed to be doing little more than following trends and fads, Poledouris’s use of electronics was purposeful, an intentional statement to illustrate the nature of Robocop himself – a metallic, technological machine, with a core that is all too human. As such, Poledouris’s score blends the sound of the Sinfonia of London Orchestra with an array of synthesizer elements, many of which were designed and performed by the pioneering British keyboard player Derek Austin.

Thematically, the score is built around two major ones. The theme for Robocop himself is the score’s most iconic, and is actually a two-for-one job, consisting of both a heraldic fanfare and a more long-lined martial march that is the score’s most memorable musical element. The first hint of the theme is introduced towards the end of the anguished, tortured-sounding “Murphy Dies In O.R.,” but it does not make itself fully known until the eighth cue, “Drive Montage,” where the iconic march heralds the arrival of a new cop in town. Listen out for the metallic clanging effect, which Poledouris created by hitting the side of a fire extinguisher with an iron bar! The theme is a perfect encapsulation of the character: aggressive, imposing, authoritarian, and with a determined heroism perfect for a man intent on avenging his own death and settling scores.

Poledouris’s themes for Robocop of course bleed through into the score’s action sequences, which are plentiful and exciting. The first of them, “Van Chase,” underscores the scene of Murphy and Lewis desperately pursuing Clarence Boddicker and his gang down a Detroit freeway, avoiding shotgun blasts and flying bodies (Bobbys?) along the way. Poledouris blends pulsating orchestral rhythms, including a sequence of furious swirling string writing, with pounding metallic percussion, and introduces a low, menacing 6-note brass motif for Boddicker’s character at 0:29.

Subsequent cues like “Helpless Woman” and “Murphy’s Dream” thread the Robocop themes into some sequences of occasionally quite abstract and progressive orchestral and electronic dissonance. Clarence’s theme returns with terrible malevolence in “Clarence Frags Bob,” for the scene where the ruthless killer tells the bitches to leave, and then carries out Dick Jones’s dirty work for him. The monumental “Rock Shop,” which underscores the brutal set piece wherein Robocop single-handedly decimates all the henchmen in drug dealer Sal’s cocaine warehouse, heroically blasts the Robocop theme at its fullest volume, an orgiastic musical celebration of cinematic carnage.

A more poignant theme, representing Murphy’s family and Robocop’s subsequent shattered memories of that life, provides a much-needed counterweight to the aggression and testosterone in the rest of the score. It first appears, unusually, embedded deep within the action of “Gas Station Blow-Up,” as a chance encounter with one of Boddicker’s thugs rekindles long-dormant thoughts. It subsequently forms the centerpiece of the quietly devastating “Murphy Goes Home,” where a distressed-sounding sequence of undulating strings, beginning at 2:44, leads into a desperate variation on the Robocop theme, to form the score’s emotional high point.

There is also a related ascending motif for light woodwinds and keening strings, which first appears around 2:55 into “Van Chase,” and which acts as a recurring musical marker for the relationship between Murphy/Robocop and Lewis. This relationship gradually develops from a simple police partnership into something much deeper and more profound, and is explored further in the intimate, quiet “Care Package”.

Interspersed within the score are a number of short pieces which Poledouris wrote for the sardonic and ironic commercials and TV inserts that Verhoeven used to show just how far down the drain American consumer culture had gone. The second half of the “Main Title” performs a parody of a news theme – ‘Media Break’ with Casey Wong and Jess Perkins – complete with sampled urgent xylophones. “Have A Heart” features warmly saccharine strings for the Family Heart Center commercial – you pick the heart! “OCP Monitors” plays in the background of the doomed board meeting, underscoring the company’s vision of the future with soaring patriotic trumpets and a Western vibe that Poledouris would later explore in scores like Lonesome Dove. “Nukem” provides dark, menacing chords for the world’s worst family board game. The final moments of “Force Shoots Robo” provide a gargantuan, Godzilla-esque brute force to the commercial for the 6000 SUX, the car with the worst gas mileage in history. It’s all very cleverly designed to work subliminally on the viewer, just like the commercials themselves, but the music is clever, and it allows Poledouris to have a little fun mocking advertising conventions.

The score’s conclusive action sequences are all superb, with Poledouris using the full might of the orchestra and the wide array of electronic textures to embolden the action, while he weaves his various thematic ideas through them as required. “Robo & ED-209 Fight” sees the most prominent statement of the brutal, mechanical motif for Dick Jones’s preferred enforcement droid, and Poledouris has fun jumping between it and the Robocop theme as first one, then the other, gets the upper hand, prior to the decisive intervention of a flight of stairs. Things go terribly wrong in “Force Shoots Robo,” as his former colleagues turn on him with a hail of gunfire, and the Robocop fanfare wails with anguish in response. “Looking For Me,” which underscores the final showdown in the deserted steel mill, is a superb cacophony of howling brass, pounding percussion, swooping strings, and wailing electronics; on several occasions Poledouris brings both the Robocop fanfare and the Robocop march to the fore with a resounding flourish, while pits them against the brutalism of Boddicker’s theme.

The end credits sequence, “Across the Board,” begins with a minute sequence of electronic tension that is finally lifted by the most perfectly-timed, vicious – and permanent – job termination in cinematic history; it then launches into a 6-minute recapitulation of all the score’s main themes, comprising full and powerful statements of the fanfare, and the march, as well as an extended exploration of the Robocop’s Memories ideas, before a couple of slightly downbeat statements of the Robocop march end the score on an unexpectedly contemplative note.

The score for Robocop has been released several times. The original 1987 soundtrack CD was distributed by Varese Sarabande in the United States, Colosseum on mainland Europe, and TER in the United Kingdom, with each providing an identical 38 minute presentation of the score’s highlights. Varese expanded the score in 2004 by adding in several of the advertisement pieces as bonus tracks, but all these releases were rendered redundant in 2010 when Intrada Records finally released the complete score, presented in chronological order, and featuring the first-ever assembly of the complete end credits. The album was re-mixed and re-mastered from the 24-track session masters, and was presented in a lavish package featuring liner notes by Jeff Bond.

Even within his own impressive filmography, Robocop stands as one of the finest achievements of Basil Poledouris’s career, a perfect synthesis of the human and the mechanical, the warm and the cold, the organic and the artificial, which captures the heart and energy of this iconic film. The popularity of the Robocop franchise, even thirty years later, has ensured that the central March theme is one of his most famous compositions, but listening to the soundtrack reveals that there is so much more depth and complexity to the score than might be apparent at first glance. If you get the chance to buy this soundtrack for a dollar, go right ahead, but in my opinion it’s worth much, much more.

Buy the Robocop soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • ORIGINAL 1987 VARESE ALBUM
  • Main Title (0:32)
  • Van Chase (4:50)
  • Murphy’s Death (2:30)
  • Rock Shop (3:38)
  • Home (4:05)
  • Robo vs. ED-209 (2:00)
  • The Dream (3:00)
  • Across The Board (2:28)
  • Betrayal (2:12)
  • Clarance Frags Bob (1:40)
  • Drive To Jones’ Office (1:40)
  • We Killed You (1:30)
  • Directive IV (1:00)
  • Robo Tips His Hat (2:00)
  • Showdown (5:00)
  • EXPANDED 2004 VARESE ALBUM
  • Main Title (0:39)
  • Van Chase (4:51)
  • Murphy’s Death (2:36)
  • Rock Shop (3:42)
  • Home (4:15)
  • Robo Vs. Ed-209 (2:07)
  • The Dream (3:06)
  • Across The Board (1:50)
  • Betrayal (2:18)
  • Clarence Frags Bob (1:43)
  • Care Package (2:09)
  • Robo Drives To Jones (1:46)
  • We Killed You (1:44)
  • Directive IV (1:03)
  • Showdown (5:15)
  • Have A Heart (0:31)
  • OCP Monitors (1:15)
  • Nuke ‘Em (0:26)
  • Big Is Better (0:27)
  • COMPLETE 2010 INTRADA ALBUM
  • Main Title (0:45)
  • Have A Heart (0:33)
  • OCP Monitors (1:41)
  • Twirl (0:25)
  • Van Chase (4:56)
  • Murphy Dies In O.R. (2:35)
  • Robo Lives (1:05)
  • Drive Montage (1:04)
  • Helpless Woman (1:16)
  • Nukem (0:26)
  • Murphy’s Dream (3:05)
  • Gas Station Blow-Up (1:44)
  • Murphy Goes Home (4:15)
  • Clarence Frags Bob (1:45)
  • Rock Shop (3:42)
  • Robo Drives To Jones (1:47)
  • Directive 4 (1:04)
  • Robo & Ed 209 Fight (2:10)
  • Force Shoots Robo (2:43)
  • Big Is Better (2:33)
  • Care Package (2:58)
  • Looking For Me (5:13)
  • Across The Board (End Credits) (7:32)

Running Time: 38 minutes 05 seconds (Original Varese Album)
Running Time: 41 minutes 43 seconds (Expanded Varese Album)
Running Time: 55 minutes 17 seconds (Complete Intrada Album)

Varese Sarabande VCD-47298 (1987)
Varese Sarabande VSD-6429 (1987/2004)
Intrada ISC-129 (1987/2010)

Music composed by Basil Poledouris. Conducted by Howard Blake and Tony Britton. Performed by The Sinfonia of London Orchestra. Orchestrations by Steven Scott Smalley. Recorded and mixed by Eric Tomlinson. Edited by Tom Villano. Score produced by Basil Poledouris. Original 1987 album produced by Richard Kraft. Expanded 2004 album produced by Robert Townson . Complete 2010 album produced by Douglass Fake and Roger Feigelson.

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  1. July 27, 2017 at 12:12 pm

    Great post. I had the TER album on vinyl. One hell of a cover. Later bought the Intrada edition- it came out in 2010? Where have all the years gone? Thought maybe two/three years ago, crikey, seven years?

    Love this score. Bold, bombastic genius..

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