Home > Reviews > THE RIGHT STUFF – Bill Conti


December 16, 2019 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Craig Lysy

The 1979 novel The Right Stuff by Tom Woolfe proved to be a hit with the public, which set-off a bidding war for screen rights between Universal Pictures and independent producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler. Chartoff and Winkler won the day and hired screenwriter William Goldman to adapt the novel to the big screen. Goldman was inspired by the project and was seeking a patriotic Americana tale, which celebrated the Mercury 7 astronauts involved. Philip Kaufman was tasked with directing, but he disliked Goldman’s script, believing it too patriotic, with not enough focus on test pilot Chuck Yeager. Goldman left the project, Woolfe declined to adapt his novel, and so Kaufman wrote the screenplay himself. He related; “if you’re serious about tracing where the future — read: space travel — began, its roots lay with Yeager and the whole test pilot-subculture. Ultimately, astronautics descended from that point.” Kaufman brought in a fine cast, which included Fred Ward as Gus Grissom, Dennis Quaid as Gordo Cooper, Ed Harris as John Glenn, Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager, Scott Glenn as Alan Shepard, Lance Henriksen as Wally Schirra, Scott Paulin as Deke Slayton, Barbara Hershey as Glennis Yeager and Veronica Cartwright as Betty Grissom.

The film is set post WWII during an escalating cold war with the Soviet Union, which includes a competition to win the “Space Race”. It traces the history and heroism of the early space program, focusing on the exploits of test pilots flying experimental aircraft to break the sound barrier, the creation of NASA and the seven astronauts of the Mercury 7 program. The film did not resonate with the public and was a commercial failure, which put the Ladd Production Company out of business. It earned only $21.1 million, insufficient to cover its $27 million production costs. However, it did receive critical acclaim and secured eight Academy Award nominations, winning four for Best Sound, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Effects and Best Film Score.

Chartoff and Winkler made an urgent call to Bill Conti’s agent and advised that they had rejected the original score for The Right Stuff (John Barry actually left of his own accord, completely flummoxed with Kaufman) and needed him to come in and rescue the film. Conti needed work, had worked with Chartoff and Winkler before on Rocky in 1976, and trusted them. He accepted the assignment and immediately ran into a serious crosswinds with director Philip Kaufman who insisted that the score be intimate while the producers were obsessed to his temp track, which featured Gustav Holst’s epic work The Planets , Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Minor, and Henry Mancini’s score to the 1974 film The White Dawn, which included the Air Force song “Wild Blue Yonder”. Repeated instructions by Kaufman to more closely replicate the temp track led Conti to counter “If I get any closer, I want a disclaimer.” Also, the film debut had been delayed and he was given just four weeks to compose and record the score as the film debut would not be moved again. Despite all the obstacles, contradictory instructions and drama he rose to the occasion and crafted a score which elevated Kaufman’s disjointed narrative.

Two primary themes are provided and they are both some of Conti’s finest, fully channeling quintessential Americana. The first is Yeager’s Theme, which is dichotomous in expression in that it serves as his personal identity as a heroic test pilot, yet it also operates as a transpersonal identity for the American Space Program. The theme has an ABA construct with the warmly major modal A Phrase born by French horns nobile, filled with reverence, heartfelt patriotism, forthright in its unabashed confidence. While the B Phrase is carried proudly by trumpets eroico, fully capturing the irresistible drive of American exceptionalism. The Triumph Theme supports scenes of triumph by the space program. Its articulation is malleable and ranges from an ethereal expression when the sound barrier is exceeded, which ushers in the Space Age, to a rousing marcia trionfanti, which affirms America’s Manifest Destiny in conquering space. There is one secondary theme, the Russian Theme, which supports America’s Soviet adversaries. It offers a menacing construct born by strings sinistre and woodwinds adorned with balalaikas. Lastly, we have interpolations of several classical works, American military anthems, American folk music and American pop songs, which filled in Conti’s eclectic soundscape.

After the display of The Ladd Company logo and Film Title we enter the film flying through a shifting cloudscape as narration informs us of the impenetrable sound barrier mankind seeks to challenge. Conti supports the narration with strains of the Triumph Theme, an allusion that America’s test pilots would soon break the barrier. The theme is sustained as we see the X1 prototype plane carried aloft by a super fortress bomber. The X1 is released and its rocket propels it forward as the Mach countdown displays on the screen; Mach .92, .93, .95, .96, .98. An electronica sustain supports the tense sequence. At Mach .99 the pilot loses control and the flight ends in a fiery crash. The music is not found on the album. A scene change to a man in a dark suit delivering the bad news to the pilot’s wife is supported diegetically by him singing the “Lord, Guard and Guide the Men Who Fly” hymn, also known as the United States Air Force hymn. The hymn is sustained with accordion accompiament as we switch to a sunset lite burial service with an aerial flyover. The music for this scene is not found on the album. Later we see Yeager riding a horse in the desert and coming upon a prototype jet undergoing an idle test of its engine. Dark formless percussion and electronica carry the scene as we see him contemplate his future and then ride off. The music for this scene is not found on the album.

“Breaking The Sound Barrier” offers a magnificent score highlight, which achieves a perfect synergy with Kaufman’s narrative and cinematography. Yeager has accepted the air force offer to fly the X1. Unbeknownst to the brass he shows up with two broken ribs, having been thrown from his horse. Jack provides him with a cut-off broom handle to help him secure the jet door. As the super fortress departs it is carried by an inspiring extended rendering of his theme, offering a stirring Americana moment. As the ten second launch countdown begins at 2:10, an accelerando on a vortex of strings ernergico commences, which interpolates music from Holst’s “Jupiter” piece from “The Planets”. The music propels Yeager with exhilaration on his flight to his destiny. The music is dialed out of the film for the tense Mach countdown sequence and historic sonic boom when he breaks the sound barrier. They initially believe the boom was the plane exploding. But when he is sighted, we launch into “Mach I”, which offers a resplendent rendering of the Triumph Theme on synthesizer. The transition from orchestral music leading up to the breaking of the sound barrier to electronica for the celebration of the historic event was purposeful and brilliantly conceived. Conti sought to contrast the before and after music, with the acoustic orchestra symbolizing a terrestrial bound humanity, and a electronic synthesizer symbolizing humanity’s first steps towards the conquest of space.

In “Mach II” Yeager pilots the new prototype X1-A and takes her to Mach 2. Not content with this milestone, he pushes the engines to Mach 2.5 and loses control of the airplane, spiraling down 25,000 feet before regaining control. The cue offers a powerful score highlight, which Kaufman dialed out of the film. Solemn trumpets and shimmering violins commence a stepped ascent and culminate with proud trumpets emoting the Triumph Theme. At 0:38 a full rendering of the Russian Theme joins on strings, woodwinds and balalaikas, before yielding once more at 1:25 to a proud declaration of the Triumph Theme. In “Tango” the men have forced enemas and must make their way through public hospital corridors to relieve themselves. To support the comic scene Conti juxtaposes a classic rendering of the South American dance, which could proudly compete in any Latin dance competition. “Training Hard” offers a wonderful score highlight, which supports the Mercury 7 team training. The training montage is supported by a classic fugue carried by baroque strings and a woodwind chorale with interplay of the Triumph Theme on French horns nobile, which informs us that America will prevail in the Space Race. We end on a diminuendo as we shift to chimpanzee’s also undergoing training. At 1:05 of cue 3 we segue atop a harmonica into where the music soon darkens with the Russian Theme carried by violins inquietanti with balalaika adornment as we see the Soviets launching Yuri Gagarin successfully as the first man in space.

Later as the Mercury 7 team walk in their space suits determined to follow-up the Soviets with an American in space, Conti supports with a rousing exposition of the Triumph Theme. This music for this scene is not found on the album. Alan Shepard is selected to fly Mercury 3 to place America’s first astronaut into space. As he walks to his destiny Conti supports texturally with a percussive storm of drums, metallic strikes and electronica. As he is secured in the capsule in “Light This Candle”, Conti supports the drama with one of the score’s finest cues. An ascent on churning strings dramatico bring anticipation and tension. Next, the swirling strings and horns bravura of Holst’s “Jupiter” join and create an intensification as the ten second launch countdown commences. The Triumph Theme enters boldly on trumpets at 0:41 to support the successful launch as the rocket propels Shepard into space. At 1:05 religioso strings usher in a passage of sublime beauty carried by shimmering ethereal strings and woodwinds tenero as Shepard gazes out at the starry skies of the vast cosmos. Regretfully this music was dialed out of the film. As the capsule descends to earth supported by a parachute a live band on the recovery vessel offers diegetically the US Navy anthem “Anchors Away”, which later supports Shepard’ heroic welcome by the sailors, and the press. The anthem supports the award ceremony at the white house as President Kennedy bestows the Distinguished Service medal award to Shepard. Next we shift to the flight of Mercury 4 with Gus Grissom, which shows his capsule descending by parachute to the ocean below. Conti reprises his tense textural percussive storm used in Shepard’s boarding sequence. We see in Grissom’s facial expression claustrophobic stress, which leads him to panic and blow the hatch prematurely before the helicopter had secured the capsule. This causes the capsule to fill with water and sink as Grissom struggles to stay afloat in the choppy water.

In “Glenn’s Flight” we have an album/film incongruity. The music heard in the film is not what Conti recorded for this album. I provide two descriptions; The album version, a score highlight, begins with a drum roll, which ushers is grim low register horns that sow tension and unease as we see Glenn’s atlas rocket in launch position. Slowly dire strings rise in their register in a dramatic swelling crescendo until 1:07 when strident horns bellicoso interpolate Holst’s “Mars” martial fanfare to create an intensification as the ten second launch countdown commences. At 1:38 a celebratory baroque fugue supports as the rocket launches Glenn to his destiny. As we enter space at 2:30 celebratory strings and trumpets trionfanti interpolate Conti’s Yeager’s Theme for “The White Dawn”, which graces us with a sublime rendering of the theme. As he passes into night and beholds the radiant light of the full moon, the theme blossoms for a wondrous exposition, which fades in a woodwind pastorale as sun rise approaches. In the film version we open with a dark low register string sustain from which arises dire horns as the ten second launch countdown commences. As Glenn launches strident horns bellicoso interpolate Holst’s “Mars” martial fanfare to create a dramatic intensification as we see the rocket soar aloft. As the men cheer a successful launch the celebratory exuberance of Holst’s “Jupiter” fanfare joins to carry Glenn to his destiny. As he enters space we transition to an interpolation from Holst’s “Neptune”, which bathes us in and a serene ethereal tranquility. As the capsule flies over the cloudscape of Earth, strings tranquillo interpolate Conti’s Main Theme for “The White Dawn”, which imbues the scene with a calming serenity.

As he leaves night to behold “Daybreak In Space” we are graced with another wonderful score highlight. In the film most of the cue was dialed out with Conti’s music entering at 1:47. Ethereal tremolo strings and muted horns usher in a shimmering passage of breath-taking beauty from which arises a solemn statement of the Yeager’s Theme, which commemorates Glenn’s triumph. At 1:47 repeating declarations of the Triumph Theme fanfare join in interplay with the sumptuous strings of the Main Theme from “The White Dawn” for a breath-taking exposition. A warning light alerts NASA that the capsule’s heat shield may be loose, which would result in Glenn being incinerated with re-entry. Grimm formless and shifting electronica sustains sow tension as Glenn fails to respond to repeated hails. When he does respond he relates a bizarre tale of swarming luminescent firefly like objects swirling around the capsule. After the swarm disappears NASA orders Glenn to prepare for re-entry after only three orbits, advising him of the heat shield problem. A mechanical vibration supports his descent. The landing is not shown and with some dubious editing, we abruptly change scenes to Glenn’s victory parade supported by a rousing exposition of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” (1862) by Julia Ward Howe. The film cuts away to Yeager contemplating flying the F104 prototype jet to beat the Soviet altitude record. The scene is unscored and we return to the celebration of the Mercury 7 astronauts in “The Eyes Of Texas Are Upon You”/“The Yellow Rose Of Texas”/“Deep In The Heart Of Texas”/“Dixie”. Conti supports the Texas style jubilation with a medley of traditional American folk songs.

In “Yeager And The F104” we are treated to another score highlight, which supports Yeager taking the prototype jet up without authorization. The take off and initial flight is unscored with the music entering as he takes the plane upwards in a very steep ascent in an attempt to beat the Soviet altitude record. He is carried by an energetic ostinato by strings animato with horn declarations from which arises a confident rendering of his theme, as he is propelled into the stratosphere. Interplay with the lyrical strings of the Main Theme from “The White Dawn” offers a wonderful exposition. A change of scene back to the stadium reveals a stage artist performing a stylized feather plume dance set to Claude Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” (1890). Debussy’s music bleeds in to a return to Yeager’s flight, which fades away as Yeager beats the Soviet record only to have his engines flame out. He goes into flat spiral death descent and escapes miraculously by ejecting at the last moment as his plane slams into the ground. “Yeager’s Triumph” offers the score’s supreme cue, one of the greatest ever written in cinematic history, and one, which earns Conti immortality. The scene reveals an ambulance rushing to the crash site hoping to find Yeager alive. Solo oboe tenero and kindred woodwinds emoting Yeager’s Theme carry their progress. A transfer to French horns nobile and proud trumpets resoundingly supports the badly burned Yeager walking defiantly towards the ambulance. At 1:07 a martial snare drum roll takes us to the launch of Gordo Cooper in Mercury 9, the last flight of the Mercury program, where he sets the record with 22 Earth orbits. A woodwind prelude ushers in antiphonal horn declarations by trumpets bravura and proud French horns emoting the Triumph Theme, now rendered as a drum propelled marcia trionfanti, which carries Cooper aloft to his destiny. As NASA cheers, the US Air Force anthem “Into The Wild Blue Yonder” joins (not found on the album). At 2:39 the Yeager’s Theme joins in interplay, now rendered as a marcia grandioso. The cue concludes gloriously with inspired interplay of Yeager’s Theme and the Triumph Theme for one of the finest film closures in cinematic history. Bravo! The album closes with “The Right Stuff” is a bonus cue, which offers a very 80’s pop rendering by synth of the two primary themes.

When the film bombed at the box office, the Ladd Company was forced into bankruptcy and cancelled the release of Conti’s film score. Years later Conti recorded excerpts of the score, which was included in a multi-CD release of his renown “North and South” TV series score. Since the original master tapes were lost, this Varese Sarabande reissue provides an album mix Conti recorded to promote his music. Much of the score’s music is missing, but in my judgement enough remains for an enjoyable listening experience. The mastering by Erick Labson is excellent and provides superb audio. Conti demonstrated yet again his talent for composing rousing Americana music, providing two of the finest ever written. It is remarkable that given the conflicting musical direction between director Kaufman’s and producers Chartoff and Winkler that Conti was still able to compose one of his finest scores. In scene after scene Conti’s music elevated Kaufman’s flawed and unfocused narrative, an enduring testament to his mastery of his craft. While Conti’s Oscar win was surprising and not without controversy, I never the less believe it merited the nomination. I consider this score one of Conti’s finest, brimming with rousing Americana, and a gem from the Bronze Age. I highly recommend you purchase this fine recording for your collection as it contains one of the greatest cues ever written, “Yeager’s Triumph”, a cue which has rightfully earned its inclusion into the hallowed halls of the pantheon of great film score cues.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to the rousing and now iconic “Yeager’s Triumph”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZmimRZSVIyo

Buy the Right Stuff soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Breaking The Sound Barrier (4:47)
  • Mach I (1:22)
  • Training Hard/Russian Moon (2:18)
  • Tango (2:19)
  • March II (1:58)
  • The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You/The Yellow Rose of Texas/Deep in the Heart of Texas/Dixie (2:49)
  • Yeager and the F104 (2:27)
  • Light This Candle (2:44)
  • Glenn’s Flight (5:08)
  • Daybreak in Space (2:47)
  • Yeager’s Triumph (5:36)
  • The Right Stuff (Single) (3:16)

Running Time: 37 minutes 31 seconds

Varese Sarabande VCL-0609-1095 (1983/2009)

Music composed and conducted by Bill Conti. Recorded and mixed by Dan Wallin. Score produced by Bill Conti. Album produced by Robert Townson.

  1. Jonathan Wotka
    February 6, 2021 at 11:20 pm

    Excellent review. I’m a film score fan and TRS has always been up there as a favorite. I’m curious about something though. As I was driving home tonight, a wonderful piece of classical was playing on the radio and I’d heard it before but didn’t know the name. It had a triumphant celebratory motif that kept popping up, and it was one of my favorite classical sounds. I had always associated it with The Right Stuff in my mind.

    The station wouldn’t tell me the name, so I started googling and first thing I look up is the Right Stuff soundtrack influences and I find your page. Then, three paragraphs down, you mention the temp track and Holst, which is obvious, and then Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. I knew immediately of course the song that was playing was the concerto.

    I don’t remember any direct uses of Tchaikovsky’s score, but the music playing as the credits roll through Cooper’s flight is the closest I can think of without watching it again. Are there any other capacities in which the concerto was used directly with the film? A trailer, perhaps?

    Decades I’ve associated one with the other. Finally made the connection today.

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