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SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE – Alexander Courage

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The original 1978 Superman film was a groundbreaking motion picture in many respects. It essentially introduced the concept of the contemporary comic book super hero to the movie world, it made a star out of its granite-jawed leading man Christopher Reeve, and it spawned one of the greatest scores in motion picture history, penned by the incomparable John Williams. However, as the 1980s progressed, each successive Superman sequel diminished in quality, until the franchise reached its nadir with 1987’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Despite the presence of both Christopher Reeve and Gene Hackman in the cast, and a potentially interesting environmentally aware plot involving nuclear energy, the film was an utter disaster. An increasingly shrinking budget put the film in a constant state of flux, and forced director Sidney J. Furie to shoot the film mostly in the English provincial town of Milton Keynes instead of New York. Special effects were left apparently half-finished, the script was constantly being re-written and footage re-shot, and the actors were disgruntled throughout. The terrible reviews of the film once it opened signaled the death knell of the franchise at that point, and Superman would not be seen on the silver screen again until 2006’s Superman Returns.

Even the soundtrack was not immune to the film’s problems. As had been the case with the first two Superman sequels, John Williams did not technically score the films; instead, he wrote a handful of new themes which were then incorporated into a new score written by a different composer/arranger. Ken Thorne performed these duties on Superman II and Superman III, but for Superman IV the torch was passed to the veteran composer and orchestrator Alexander “Sandy” Courage. Despite being an excellent composer in his own right, him having penned the iconic main theme for the Star Trek TV series back in 1966, at that point in his career Courage was arguably the most respected orchestrator working in Hollywood; he had already received a pair of Oscar nominations in the 1960s for arranging the music for the screen musicals The Pleasure Seekers and Doctor Dolittle, and had worked with pretty much every major film composer in some capacity over the years. His IMDB page shows a staggering 173 orchestrator/arranger credits, spanning from 1948 to 2001, and this is probably not a complete list. In short, the job of adapting and augmenting Williams’s themes could not have been in better hands.

However, such was the film’s ridiculous post-production, Courage was essentially forced to record a complete score twice: first with the Graunke Symphony Orchestra in Munich, and then with the National Philharmonic Orchestra in London, after reels of footage were re-shot, and entire characters with musical thematic presences removed from the final cut. That the final product ended up being as good as it did is testament to Courage’s skill as an arranger, as well as his years of professionalism working in the high pressure world of the Hollywood studio system.

Courage’s remit was to take the original John Williams material from the first Superman film, and blend it with the three brand new Williams themes unique to this film, while writing a couple of new themes of his own, and adapting it all into a sensible dramatic score. The three new themes Williams wrote for Superman IV are “Lacy’s Theme,” also known as “Someone Like You,” an unexpectedly slinky and sexy saxophone melody for Mariel Hemingway’s character, the daughter of the new owner of the Daily Planet who tries to seduce Clark Kent; “Jeremy’s Theme,” a child-like piece for the young boy whose plea to Superman to rid the world of nuclear weapons initiates the plot; and the “Nuclear Man Theme,” a powerful march which accompanies the appearance of the new super-villain created by Lex Luthor to defeat Superman once and for all.

Unusually, none of themes from Superman IV have ever really found their way into the Williams repertoire, probably because they never entered public consciousness due to the fate of the film. It’s a shame, because on the whole they are good. “Lacy’s Theme” is a peculiar but lovely combination of Marion’s theme from Raiders of the Lost Ark and the theme from the 1976 Hitchcock film Family Plot, filtered through the stylistics of his 1960s jazz scores. “Jeremy’s Theme,” which is barely heard in the final cut of the film, is pretty and light, with tonal similarities to both SpaceCamp and Hook. The “Nuclear Man Theme” features some staccato brass writing that, oddly, sounds like a dry run for the bombastic opening piece Williams would write for Nixon eight years later, augmented with the wooden percussion from The Lost World: Jurassic Park.

Throughout it all, as per his instructions, Courage also makes liberal use of at least five themes from the original Superman – the main “Superman March,” the “Can You Read My Mind” love theme, Lex Luthor’s bloated and comical “March of the Villains,” the mysterious “Krypton Theme” usually heard in the Fortress of Solitude sequences, and the warmly Americana-tinged “Smallville Theme” – each of which are featured in numerous cues in order to anchor this score to the rest of the franchise. Finally, Courage’s own new thematic material comprises a “missile” motif for when nuclear arms are shown or discussed, and a “Russian” motif, a stereotypically Slavic-sounding march used when the Soviets and their weapons appear.

As one would expect, given Courage’s excellence at adaptation and arranging, the resulting soundtrack handles this multitude of themes and motifs superbly, and there are several notable highlights. The Smallville theme receives an especially lovely statement in “Back in Time,” nostalgic and wholesome. “To Work” features a jaunty, almost circus-like arrangement of the love theme complete with oompah brasses. “First Nuclear Man” presents the first of several extended statements of the Lex Luthor theme, as well as the first hesitant performance of the Nuclear Man theme. “Headline” features a slightly introspective woodwind variation on the Krypton motif, and “Fresh Air” presents an especially glorious statement of Clark and Lois’s “Can You Read My Mind” love theme.

“United Nations” features a slow, noble, patriotic arrangement of the under-used Superman Theme B-section, as the caped crusader makes the case for nuclear disarmament to the dignitaries inside the Milton Keynes City Council building… I mean, the UN Building in New York; there’s an especially interesting piece of contrapuntal writing at 2:22 here, which plays the Superman March and Jeremy’s Theme simultaneously. The subsequent “Net Man” showcases the first prominent performance of Courage’s Russian theme, while both “Sunstroke/Enter Nuclear Man 2” and “Flight to Earth/Introducing Nuclear Man 2” present the Nuclear Man theme with might and intensity, giving a taste of the sort of formidable adversary he could have been had he not been played by a blond-haired bodybuilder with radioactive fingernails.

As the score builds to its conclusion, “Ear Ache/Confrontation/Tornado” cleverly jumps between the Superman march, Lex Luthor’s theme, and the Nuclear Man theme; in this cue, especially, the compositional links between the latter two themes are made clearer – Lex Luthor the father, Nuclear Man the son – with the Nuclear Man theme appearing as a darker and more aggressive spawn of Luthor’s pompous march. Both “Volcano” and “Statue of Liberty Fight” feature genuinely spectacular action settings of the main Superman march. Later, “Two-Faced Lex/Missile Buildup” juxtaposes Luthor’s theme against a second major performance of Courage’s Russian theme, as the pesky Soviets threaten to destroy the world with their warheads.

Courage’s own original action music is quite impressive too, including the whirling strings in “Space Saver,” the imposing brass writing of “Train Stopper,” and the energetic “Nuke 1 Fight” which places the Nuclear Man theme in an action setting, underpinned by surging strings and rolling pianos. The score’s final sequence – from “Persuader/Awakened” through to the extended “Come Uppance/Lifted/Quarried/Flying With Jeremy/End Credits” – is powerful and exciting, and runs through at least one significant performance of each of the score’s thematic elements. This series of cues is a masterclass in leitmotivic contrapuntal writing; in “Abducted/Mutual Distrust” especially, listen to how easily Courage jumps between Lacy’s Theme, Nuclear Man’s theme, Lex Luthor’s march, the Russian theme, and the Superman March, one after the other and back again, illustrating the different conflicts occurring in the scene. This is not an easy thing to do, because the keys and rhythmic progressions of each individual theme have to be complementary, especially when they are played simultaneously, and it’s a testament to Courage’s skill as an arranger that it all sounds so seamless.

I would probably place Superman IV in second place in a ranking of the original Superman scores, behind Williams’s masterpiece, but ahead of Ken Thorne’s scores for II and III, which occasionally came across as being a little too light-hearted, and lacking in gravitas. The way Courage deftly handles the multitude of thematic ideas, weaving them into a cohesive whole, is nothing less than superb, and it makes me wonder what sort of composer he could have developed into had he been given more chances to stand in the spotlight in his own right; as great as they are, it’s a shame that the Star Trek theme and this score remain his personal career highlights. He only received a composing credit on one other film after this, a Waltons TV movie in 1993, prior to his death in 2008.

Although an album release for Superman IV was planned, it was cancelled when the film flopped, and as such the soundtrack remained unheard on CD for more than 20 years, save for a poor-quality bootleg which emerged onto the secondary market in the late 1990s. Finally, in 2008, producer Lukas Kendall and Film Score Monthly rectified this oversight when it was released as part of the 8-CD box set Superman: The Music, colloquially known as the ‘Big Blue Box’. The entire score as originally envisaged by Courage was included (including several cues that were recorded and then excised when the film was changed); also included were a number of original songs written by Paul Fishman of the 1980s British rock group Re-Flex, which were supposed to be heard in the deleted Metro Club disco sequence. Unfortunately, at the time of writing, there is no way to purchase Courage’s score independently of the Big Blue Box, meaning that, as it has been sold out for quite some time, collectors will have to shell out upwards of $200 for the whole collection on the secondary market in order to hear this excellent work.

Buy Superman: The Music from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Fanfare/Space Saver (1:48)
  • Main Title/Back in Time (5:40)
  • Pow!/Good Morning (2:45)
  • Smoke the Yokes/Nefarious (1:04)
  • To Work/Train Stopper (2:06)
  • Someone Like You (Lacy’s Theme) (3:17)
  • Jeremy’s Theme (2:13)
  • For Real/The Class (1:43)
  • Hair Raisers (0:59)
  • Lacy/The Visit (2:27)
  • First Nuclear Man (5:24)
  • Nuke 1 Fight/Ashes (3:45)
  • Headline (2:48)
  • Fresh Air (4:33)
  • United Nations/Net Man (4:42)
  • Sunstroke/Enter Nuclear Man 2 (5:25)
  • Flight to Earth/Introducing Nuclear Man 2 (3:27)
  • Lacy (disco version) (2:13)
  • Lacy’s Place (5:23)
  • Ear Ache/Confrontation/Tornado (8:09)
  • Volcano (2:18)
  • Statue of Liberty Fight (3:44)
  • Nuclear Man Theme (2:45)
  • Down With Flu (3:12)
  • Two-Faced Lex/Missile Buildup (1:39)
  • Persuader/Awakened (3:13)
  • Abducted/Mutual Distrust (4:43)
  • Metropolis Fight/Lift to the Moon (3:36)
  • Moon Fight/Goodbye Nuke (5:06)
  • Come Uppance/Lifted/Quarried/Flying With Jeremy/End Credits (9:34)
  • Fresh Air (Alternate Album Version) (4:35)
  • Someone Like You/Lacy’s Theme (Alternate Slow Version) (3:33)
  • Red Square Band (Source Music) (0:52)
  • Superfly Guy (written by Paul Fishman) (4:11)
  • Headphone Heaven (written by Paul Fishman) (3:23)
  • Revolution Now (written by Paul Fishman) (4:26)
  • Saxy Sadie (written by Paul Fishman) (4:47)
  • Krypton Nights (written by Paul Fishman) (4:44)
  • Life’s Too Dangerous (written by Paul Fishman) (3:14)
  • Workout (written by Paul Fishman) (2:27)
  • Lois Love (written by Paul Fishman) (4:56)

Running Time: 152 minutes 36 seconds

Film Score Monthly FSM Box-02 (1987/2008)

Music composed and conducted by Alexander Courage. Performed by The Symphony-Orchestra Graunke and the National Philharmonic Orchestra. Orchestrations by Frank Barber and Harry Roberts. Original Superman themes by John Williams. Recorded and mixed by Peter Kramper and Dick Lewzey. Edited by Bob Hathaway. Score produced by Alexander Courage. Album produced by Lukas Kendall.

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