Home > Reviews > MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE – Bill Conti

MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE – Bill Conti

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

When I was a kid, He-Man was all the rage, a staple of playgrounds the length and breadth of the United Kingdom. The franchise began as a line of toys introduced by the Mattel company in 1981, which were accompanied by mini-comic books giving each figure a backstory; this morphed into an immensely popular animated TV series which debuted in 1983, telling the story of the heroic Prince Adam, who transforms into He-Man when he holds aloft his magic sword and says ‘by the power of Greyskull,’ and his battles the evil forces of Skeletor, who wants to take over Adam’s home planet of Eternia. Naturally, a film adaptation of the story was put into production, and in the summer of 1987 Masters of the Universe opened. Directed by Gary Goddard, it starred the muscle-bound Dolph Lundgren in the leading role, with Frank Langella hamming it up in full prosthetic makeup as his bone-faced nemesis.

Unfortunately, the film was a critical and commercial disaster. The screenplay, by David Odell, contrived to have He-Man and his allies travel from war-torn Eternia to Earth by way of a ‘cosmic key’ created by a dwarf-creature named Gwildor (Billy Barty). Skeletor is searching for the key, which he believes can help him attain omnipotent power, and as such he sends his minions – led by the beautiful but deadly Evil Lyn (Meg Foster) – to Earth after it. In an attempt to get back home, He-Man teams up with a teenage girl named Julie (a young Courtney Cox) and her boyfriend Kevin (Robert Duncan McNeill). The screenplay was awful, the acting was cheesy, and some of the special effects were shockingly bad even for 1987, but despite all this the whole thing somehow managed to generate a great deal of knockabout charm which left a positive impression on this 12-year-old kid, and I continue to have fond memories of the film all these years later.

One of the best decisions the producers, Menahem Golan and Yoran Globus, made was to hire Bill Conti to compose the score. Although best known for scores like Rocky and for his disco-and-funk-infused works in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Conti’s background is as a classically trained orchestral composer, and that aspect of his musical personality shines through here. To boil it down to its nuts and bolts, Masters of the Universe is Bill Conti’s Star Wars: a fully orchestral space adventure overflowing with memorable character themes and rambunctious action sequences. It was recorded mostly in Germany by the Graunke Orchestra of Munich under the baton of Harry Rabinowitz, but parts of it had to be completed piecemeal by other orchestras and other conductors in London and Budapest when it became apparent that the German orchestra simply couldn’t handle Conti’s massive blood-and-thunder score; the final soundtrack is a Frankenstein score which Conti and his mixer Dan Wallin spliced together from multiple different takes.

Despite this less-than-ideal scenario, Conti’s music is still, on the whole, quite fantastic. Taking his lead from John Williams, Conti based his music around a central cache of recurring leitmotivic character themes: there is one for He-Man, one for Skeletor, one for Evil-Lyn, one for the related concepts of Eternia and the Cosmic Key, and even one for Julie and her relationship with the memory of her dead mother. Each of the themes recurs frequently as the score progresses, but most of them are actually introduced sequentially in the opening cue, “Main Title/Eternia Besieged.”

He-Man’s theme is the very first thing you hear, a spectacular flurry of strings and a resounding fanfare of epic brass. The second theme, representing Eternia itself and the Cosmic Key in particular, appears at both 0:34 and 1:04 in a heroic version for swelling strings and punchy brass, but its most notable renditions actually come later. The dark, descending brass motif for Skeletor is heard at 1:33, surrounded by a mass of Gustav Holst-inspired rhythmic figures for horns and percussion. As the cue progresses it presents these core themes over and over again, sometimes contrapuntally, in a series of lavish fully-orchestral action settings that underscore the film’s opening battle inside Skeletor’s palace, which ends with He-Man escaping to Earth.

Action is the centerpiece of the score, and to Conti’s credit he crafts some of the most exciting and energetic action sequences of his entire career. As befits its fantasy heritage, the music is optimistic and positive almost throughout, and there is virtually no dead air or filler – throughout the score Conti is either playing a theme, alluding to a theme, or bridging the gap between themes with interesting textures and touches. In cue after cue Conti lets his writing run rampant, with enormous brass explosions, swirling strings, darting woodwinds, thunderous percussion, and unusual metallic and wooden sound effects keeping the music lively and fun. I’m especially fond of the clanging anvils heard throughout “Quiet Escape,” as well as the enormous and magical orchestral statement of the Cosmic Key theme at the 0:50 mark, which leads into several frantic statements of He-Man’s theme underpinned by scintillating string runs.

“Battle at the Gym” is the first of several sensational action set pieces, written to accompany the scene where four of Skeletor’s mercenaries (including the popular Beast-Man) attack Julie and Kevin in their high school gym, before they are saved by He-Man. Conti builds the piece around a marvelous undulating 10-note action rhythm for brass (listen to the sequence beginning at 1:06), and then layers the rest of the orchestra thick and fast over the top of it. It’s just superb. Later, “Centurion Attack” continues this action style, punctuated with bombastic statements of both He-Man’s theme and Skeletor’s theme, while “Skeletor the Destroyer” showcases a new militaristic variation on Skeletor’s theme that heralds the intergalactic warlord’s incongruous arrival in suburban Los Angeles, sitting on a vehicle that is half-tank half-chariot.

To counterbalance the action, the opening moments of “Earthly Encounter” feature a nostalgic, sentimental statement of the Eternia theme for oboes and searching strings that is quite lovely, before it all becomes much darker and more menacing through several statements of Skeletor’s theme. Later, “Evil-Lyn’s Deception” dresses up treachery as emotion, as Skeletor’s second-in-command betrays Julie into thinking that she is her mother; Conti underscores this with fake-pretty woodwind textures, and a statement of the Eternia theme, before the terrible truth is revealed.

“Transformation of Skeletor” is a bold, but ominous piece that builds as it progresses, gradually ascending through scales and adding layer upon layer of increasingly bombastic orchestration, to underscore the scene where Skeletor finally harnesses the power of Greyskull for himself in order to become omnipotent and all-powerful. It’s interesting to note the orchestrations here, especially the unexpected use of affluent trumpets, light chimes, and hooting woodwinds down in the mix; this may reflect the influence of master orchestrator Ralph Ferraro on Conti’s music, as it was him who gave Leonard Rosenman’s score for Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home a similar sound during its heavier moments.

After another spectacular action sequence in “After Them” – listen to those horns at 1:45! – everything comes to a head in “The Power of Greyskull,” the climactic final conflict between He-Man and Skeletor for the fate of the universe, in which both He-Man’s theme and Skeletor’s theme battle for musical supremacy as their characters do the same. “Good Journey” allows the score to breathe a sigh of relief with a gentle flute performance of the Sorceress’s theme, a warm performance of He-Man’s theme, and a magical statement of the Eternia theme, with good having triumphed over evil. The finale, “He-Man Victorious/End Titles,” provides a 5-minute reprise of all the score’s main thematic ideas played at their fullest and most glorious.

The soundtrack album for Masters of the Universe has been popular since the film came out, and has received multiple releases. It was first released on LP, cassette, and CD by Varese Sarabande in 1987; it was subsequently issued in an expanded version by German label Edel and Silva Screen in 1992. In 2008, La-La Land Records released a two-disc edition with both the complete score and the original album presentation; then, in 2012, Intrada Records issued the complete score on one disc, without the original album presentation. This review is of the 1992 Edel/Silva Screen release, which is my preferred version, as it hits all the score’s thematic and conceptual high points, and presents them in a well-designed 68-minute package, although the liner notes featuring a very antagonistic interview between Conti and album producer Thomas Karban, where Conti has to defend himself from accusations of plagiarism!

Perhaps the one drawback to the score is the fact that Conti does not reference the theme from the original cartoon series in any way. Although that theme, which was written by Haim Saban and Shuki Levy, is now something of a cheesy relic of 1980s Saturday morning cartoons, I have to admit that it would have been a thrill to hear Conti render an enormous fully-orchestral version of it for the end credits, and the fact that he did not do so could be considered a missed opportunity.

Despite the iconic status of Rocky, the Oscar-winning grandeur of The Right Stuff, the sentiment of The Karate Kid, or the contemporary jazz of The Thomas Crown Affair, I have always felt that Masters of the Universe was Bill Conti’s best score, and listening to this score in-depth has just solidified that opinion further. Of course it helps that bold fantasy action scores always appeal directly to my taste, but even if that was not the case there is still a great deal of impressive music contained within Masters of the Universe. The fact that Conti was able to write music with this many themes, this much energy and excitement, and this much orchestral creativity, for a film as lifeless as this one is testament to his skill; my advice is to imagine the sort of film that music this good should accompany, instead of the one it does. You have the power!

Buy the Masters of the Universe soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • 1987 ORIGINAL VARESE EXPANDED RELEASE
  • Main Title/Eternia Besieged (7:25)
  • Gwildor’s Quadrille (1:52)
  • Earthly Encounter (4:23)
  • Procession of the Mercenaries (2:49)
  • Evelyn’s Deception (2:44)
  • Skeletor the Destroyer (3:10)
  • He-Man Enslaved (4:42)
  • Transformation of Skeletor (2:30)
  • The Power of Grayskull (3:33)
  • Good Journey (4:39)
  • He-Man Victorious/End Title (5:11)
  • 1992 EDEL/SILVA EXPANDED RELEASE
  • Main Title/Eternia Besieged (7:25)
  • Gwildor’s Quadrille (1:51)
  • Quiet Escape (2:39)
  • Earthly Encounter (4:23)
  • Battle at the Gym (6:29)
  • Procession of the Mercenaries (2:50)
  • Evil-Lyn’s Deception (2:43)
  • Centurion Attack (5:52)
  • Skeletor the Destroyer (3:11)
  • He-Man Enslaved (4:42)
  • Transformation of Skeletor (2:30)
  • Kevin’s Plight/After Them (9:13)
  • Julie’s Muzak (1:47)
  • The Power of Greyskull (3:33)
  • Good Journey (4:40)
  • He-Man Victorious/End Titles (5:13)
  • 2008/2012 COMPLETE LA-LA LAND/INTRADA RELEASES
  • Main Title (5:20)
  • Quick Escape (2:50)
  • Battle in Greyskull (2:36)
  • To Earth (1:11)
  • Where’s The Key? (0:46)
  • The Cemetery (1:28)
  • Getting a Bearing (1:03)
  • The Mercenaries (1:23)
  • Battle at the Gym (6:26)
  • Skeletor’s Wrath (3:02)
  • Evil-Lyn to Earth (1:04)
  • Kevin’s Plight (3:37)
  • Centurion Attack (4:28)
  • Julie Takes the Key (2:40)
  • Skeletor Arrives (7:31)
  • He-Man’s Last Battle (3:51)
  • Julie’s Muzak (1:47)
  • He-Man Gets Whipped (4:01)
  • People of Eternia (3:52)
  • The Final Battle (6:57)
  • Time To Go (2:43)
  • Happy Ending (1:58)
  • End Credits (5:12)
  • The Cosmic Key (0:17) BONUS

Running Time: 42 minutes 58 seconds (Varese)
Running Time: 68 minutes 46 seconds (Edel/Silva Screen)
Running Time: 117 minutes 51 seconds (La-La Land)
Running Time: 76 minutes 03 seconds (Intrada)

Varese Sarabande VCD-47300 (1987)
Edel/Silva Screen SIL-5095-2 (1987/1992)
La-La Land Records LLLCD-1071 (1987/2008)
Intrada ISC-205 (1987/2012)

Music composed by Bill Conti. Conducted by Harry Rabinowitz. Orchestrations by Bill Conti, William Kidd, Joel Rosenbaum and Ralph Ferraro. Recorded and mixed by Mike Ross-Trevor. Edited by Stephen Hope. Score produced by Bill Conti. Varese album produced by Richard Kraft and Tom Null. Edel album produced by Joachim Hansch and Thomas Karban. La-La Land album produced by Ford A. Thaxton, MV Gerhard and Matt Verboys. Intrada album produced by Douglass Fake and Roger Feigelson.

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