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SPACEBALLS – John Morris

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Comedy is such a subjective thing. What makes one person laugh uncontrollably leaves the next person totally confused as to what they could possibly find funny, and vice versa. My personal taste in comedy is one of extremes – on the one hand I like the smart and sophisticated comedy found in a lot of British films, while on the other hand I also love the absurdity, slapstick, and sight gags of things like Airplane and The Naked Gun. Mel Brooks is a director who made a career, at least in the movies, of parody. Blazing Saddles was a parody of westerns. Young Frankenstein was a parody of horror movies. And Spaceballs, my favorite movie of his, was a parody of Star Wars. It stars Bill Pullman as Lonestarr, a roguishly handsome space pirate, who has been hired to find and bring home Princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga) after she runs away from her wedding on her home planet, Druidia. Meanwhile, the evil Spaceballs, led by the incompetent President Skroob (Brooks) and the ruthless Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis), have hatched a plan to steal Druidia’s air supply, and want to kidnap Vespa before Lonestarr gets to her…

This flimsy plot is basically just an excuse for Brooks to pack as many Star Wars parodies and sci-fi gags into the film as possible, and it works superbly. From the barely-disguised references to other Star Wars characters (John Candy as Mawg/Chewbacca, Brooks again as Yogurt/Yoda, Joan Rivers as Dot Matrix/C-3PO), to the lightsaber battles using the ‘schwartz’ (a Jewish version of the Force), to the intergalactic gangster Pizza the Hut, everything evokes a sense of loving comedy homage. There are celebrity cameos, endlessly quotable one-liners, slightly risqué references to Star Trek and ‘beaming’, a re-creation of the Alien chest-burster scene, and a finale that mocks Planet of the Apes. Even the score, by John Morris, is intentionally littered with musical in-jokes, many of them not related to John Williams.

New Jersey-born John Morris was Mel Brooks’s go-to composer for more than thirty years, them having first worked together on a Broadway musical called Shinbone Alley in 1957. Morris subsequently scored all of Brooks’s most popular films, including The Producers, Silent Movie, High Anxiety, and The History of the World Part II, as well as the aforementioned Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. He received an Academy Award nomination for his serious score to the Brooks-produced drama The Elephant Man in 1980, and scored several popular non-Brooks movies, notably Clue, Ironweed, and Dirty Dancing, but Spaceballs remains a favorite. Morris is 90 years old now, and hasn’t scored a major project since the mid 1990s, but anyone wanting to get a taste of the music he could write could do much worse than start here.

The most prominent part of the score is clearly the “Spaceballs Main Title,” a wonderfully bright and boisterous fanfare-filled march for the full orchestra. It certainly doesn’t have the gravitas of something like Star Wars – what does? – but it’s fun and light hearted in a way that reminds me of Robert Folk’s Police Academy march, although the whizz-whoosh sound effects are sure to annoy many people. It plays throughout the score in several guises; the statement in “Planet Druidia” is pastoral and warm, and it is thrillingly re-imagined as an action motif in “Sharking the Ship,” while in “Yogurt’s Goodbye/Liquid Schwartz” it ranges from bittersweet to triumphant, before it receives a final rousing statement at the end of the score proper.

The Spaceballs themselves have several recurring ideas. Their ridiculously large spaceship, Spaceball One, gets a variation on the two-note motif from Jaws in cues like “Long Ship,” the various “Bad Ship” cues, “Bad Year Blimp,” and others. Meanwhile, the fearsome Dark Helmet himself has a bombastic, menacing brass march that first appears in “Dark Helmet Entrance,” and gets a slightly more evil-sounding recapitulation in “She Will Come” underpinned by impressionistic string and woodwind passages. The “Mega Maid” cue, where it is revealed that Spaceball One is a ‘transformer’ that can go from suck to blow, underscores the metamorphosis sequence with dramatic chords, bold and menacing brass, and thunderous timpani hits. Ready, Kafka?

To capture the burgeoning relationship between Lonestarr and Vespa, Morris pens a classic-sounding Golden Age “Love Theme” for light, romantic strings that is quite lovely. It doesn’t feature much in the score, which a little disappointing, but it does crop up towards the end again in “Keep It for Yourself/Romance,” and in the conclusive “Fanfare for Prince Lonestarr/Kiss/Big Finish,” which rises to some quite sweeping heights of passionate melodrama.

In addition to these central ideas, there’s a witty little string scherzo in “Retreat,” some darker material in “The Cave” where Lonestarr is trained by Yogurt to use the Schwartz for the first time, and a glittery magical motif for the Schwartz which can be heard in both “The Schwartz/Power of Schwartz” and “Schwartz Switchoff.” Towards the end of the score Morris even throws in a couple of quite energetic action sequences full of frantic string runs and throbbing brass, including the lively “Lonestarr & Barf Enter As Guards/Lonestarr-Corridor/After Stunt Doubles,” and the three “Lonestarr & Helmet Fight” cues.

Elmer Bernstein always said you should never write ‘funny music’ for a comedy, but Morris ignored this entirely in Spaceballs, ultimately writing several cues that turn into jokes in and of themselves. The stop-start performance of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March in “Here Comes the Bride” continually gets interrupted as Vespa second-guesses her marriage to the sleepy Prince Valium. President Skroob gets his own version of “Hail to the Chief.” Both “First Desert” and “Desert, Thirsty, March, Falls” are lush, sweeping homages to Maurice Jarre and Lawrence of Arabia. The “Dink March” is an adaptation of Kenneth Alford’s Colonel Bogey March, famously used in the film The Bridge on the River Kwai, performed here chipmunk-style by the Dinks themselves. Some of these parodies will undoubtedly fall flat for some people, especially those who may not be familiar with the source of the parody in the first place; it’s a fine line to tread, but I feel that Morris has stayed just the right side of the taste line and avoided ruining things by trying to be too clever.

Another significant drawback to the score for Spaceballs, in addition to its omnipresent lightheartedness and the potentially annoying parodies and homages, is the fact of how bitty it is. Several of the cues are basically spliced-together cuts comprising half a dozen 20-30 second cues, and some of the standalone tracks aren’t much longer. This scattershot approach to the scoring, squeezing music in between the gags, doesn’t give Morris much room for development or variation, resulting in a score which occasionally sounds a little Mickey Mousey, jumping from one style to the next in quick succession.

The original soundtrack album for Spaceballs released in 1987 featured just three cuts of Morris’s score – “Main Theme,” “Love Theme,” and “The Winnebago Crashes/The Spaceballs Build Mega-Maid” – alongside several songs by artists like Van Halen, Berlin, Kim Carnes, and The Pointer Sisters, plus one original one, “Spaceballs,” which was written by Mel Brooks with Jeff Pescetto and Clyde Lieberman, and is performed by The Spinners in full-on 1980s rock/disco/funk fashion. It took almost twenty years for the full score to be released properly, until 2006 when La-La Land Records released a ‘19th Anniversary Edition’ featuring Morris’s complete score and numerous alternative takes and bonus cues, presented in a handsome package produced by Ford A. Thaxton and featuring liner notes by Dan Goldwasser.

It’s likely that the score for Spaceballs will appeal to fans of the film more than anyone else – the nostalgia factor is high on this one, and some of the in-jokes won’t mean anything unless you’re familiar with the context, and what Morris was trying to achieve at that point. Having said that, I personally think that the score is a fun way to spend a half hour; it’s an energetic parody of several great sci-fi film classics, anchored by a memorable and enjoyable main theme. Don’t forget to bring your matched luggage, drink some coffee while watching radar, and prepare to go to plaid!

Buy the Spaceballs soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • ORIGINAL ATLANTIC RECORDS RELEASE
  • Main Theme (2:32)
  • My Heart Has a Mind Of It’s Own (written by Gloria Skerlov and Lenny Macaluso, performed by Kim Carnes and Jeffrey Osborne) (3:58)
  • Heartstrings (written by John Crawford, Rob Brill, Terri Nunn, and Matt Reid, performed by Berlin) (4:13)
  • Love Theme (2:24)
  • The Winnebago Crashes/The Spaceballs Build Mega-Maid (2:27)
  • Spaceballs (written by Jeff Pescetto, Clyde Lieberman, and Mel Brooks, performed by The Spinners) (3:44)
  • Hot Together (written by Sharon Robinson, performed by The Pointer Sisters) (4:14)
  • Good Enough (written by Sammy Hagar, Eddie Van Halen, Alex Van Halen and Michael Anthony, performed by Van Halen) (4:04)
  • I Wanna Be Loved By You (written by Michael Lloyd and Dick Bauerle, performed by Ladyfire) (3:33)
  • EXPANDED LA-LA LAND RELEASE
  • Spaceballs Main Title (2:30)
  • Long Ship/Dark Helmet Entrance/Evil Schwartz/Planet Druidia (2:22)
  • Wedding #1/Here Comes The Bride/Retreat (1:40)
  • Hail to the Chief (0:12)
  • Bad Ship #1/Beam Bad Ship/Luggage Down/Matched Luggage/Bad Year Blimp/Sharking The Ship (2:24)
  • First Desert/Desert Playout (0:50)
  • Love Theme (1:06)
  • Desert, Thirsty, March, Falls/Bad Ship #2 (1:44)
  • Dink March (Colonel Bogey March, written by Kenneth J. Alford) (0:25)
  • Into Cave/The Cave (1:25)
  • The Schwartz/Power of Schwartz (0:31)
  • She Will Come (1:31)
  • Yogurt’s Goodbye/Bad Ship #2 (0:46)
  • Taking Her In/Lonestar & Barf Enter As Guards/Lonestarr-Corridor/After Stunt Doubles (2:54)
  • Bad Ship After Rambo (0:12)
  • Mega Maid (1:34)
  • Tymp Hits/Schwartz Switchoff (0:32)
  • Entering the Ear/Down the Ladder/Hand Print #1/Hand Print #2/Lonestarr & Helmet Fight #1/Lonestarr & Helmet Fight#2/Lonestarr & Helmet Fight#3 (4:38)
  • Post-Explosion Barf (0:22)
  • Keep It for Yourself/Romance (0:58)
  • 2nd Wedding (0:53)
  • Yogurt’s Goodbye/Liquid Schwartz (0:59)
  • Fanfare for Prince Lonestarr/Kiss/Big Finish (1:22)
  • Spaceballs Main Title (without sound effects) (1:42)
  • Spaceballs (written by Jeff Pescetto, Clyde Lieberman, and Mel Brooks, performed by The Spinners) (3:42)
  • Spaceballs Main Title – Alternate #1 (1:51) BONUS
  • Druidia Landscape – Alternate (0:20) BONUS
  • Ladder Down/Matched Luggage/Luggage – Alternate (0:50) BONUS
  • Love Theme – Alternate (1:10) BONUS
  • Love Theme DB (2:15) BONUS
  • Love Theme DG1 (2:37) BONUS
  • Love Theme DG2 (2:25) BONUS
  • Love Theme [Rev1] (2:21) BONUS
  • Love Theme [Rev2] (1:14) BONUS
  • March/Col Bogey – Alternate (0:40) BONUS
  • Power of Schwartz/Yogurt’s Goodbye – Alternate (0:58) BONUS
  • Mega-Maid– Alternate 1 (1:33) BONUS
  • Mega-Maid – Alternate 2 (1:34) BONUS
  • Schwartz Switch Off/Entering the Ear – Alternate (1:42) BONUS
  • Yogurt’s Goodbye – Alternate (0:35) BONUS
  • Kiss/Big Finish – Alternate (1:19) BONUS
  • Spaceballs Main Title – Alternate 2 (1:55)
  • Love Theme [Original Album Version] (2:21)
  • The Winnebago Crashes/The Spaceballs Build Mega-Maid [Original Album Version] (2:23)
  • Main Title [Original Album Version] (1:44)

Running Time: 31 minutes 09 seconds – Atlantic
Running Time: 70 minutes 45 seconds – La La Land

Atlantic Records 81770-2 (1987)
La-La Land Records LLLCD-1050 (1987/2006)

Music composed and conducted by John Morris. Orchestrations by Jack Hayes and Angela Morley. Recorded and mixed by Armin Steiner. Edited by Eugene Marks. Score produced by John Morris. La-La Land album produced by Ford A. Thaxton, MV Gerhard and Matt Verboys.

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