Home > Reviews > TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES – John Du Prez

TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES – John Du Prez

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

For a short while, in the 1990s, the biggest piece of kids pop culture in the world was a story about four wise-cracking reptiles with Japanese fighting skills. Originally appearing in a cult comic book series created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles broke through as an animated television series in 1987. The four titular anthropomorphic turtles – who are named after the Italian Renaissance artists Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael, and Michelangelo – were originally unwanted pets flushed into the New York sewers. After coming into contact with some radioactive ooze, the turtles slowly mutate and eventually become human/turtle hybrids who learn to speak like contemporary teenagers, and love pizza. Eventually they meet Splinter, the former pet rat of a disgraced ninja master, who also lives in the same sewers and was similarly transformed. Splinter trains the turtles in the ancient art of ninjutsu, and together they battle criminals, aliens, monsters, and various other threats, all while attempting to remain hidden from society. The TV show was massively popular (although, in the UK, they were the Teenage Mutant *Hero* Turtles because ninjas were illegal at the time), and so of course a movie was inevitable. It eventually arrived in theaters in the spring of 1990 with a quartet of stunt men in animatronic rubber turtle suits acting opposite the very human Elias Koteas and Judith Hoag. The film was directed by Steve Barron, and featured special puppet effects provided by Jim Henson in what turned out to be his final project before he died.

The score for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was written by the unlikeliest of composers: John Du Prez, the British composer who had previously been the music director for several Monty Python films, and had written the score for A Fish Called Wanda a few years previously. Quite how Du Prez got himself involved in this major Hollywood franchise blockbuster is unclear – there are various tenuous connections between director Barron and the Jim Henson Company, whose previous movie Labyrinth was directed by Terry Jones, who was of course a member of Monty Python – but, still, Du Prez was a completely improbable choice for a movie like this. It also didn’t help that, for the most part, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles concentrated heavily on songs. The soundtrack for the film was dominated by a number of hip-hop and new jack swing tracks, and was wildly popular at the time; the headline artist, M.C. Hammer, was at the height of his fame, while the title track “Turtle Power” by Partners in Kryme was an enormous international hit, reaching Number One in the UK, and charting prominently on the Billboard Hot 100.

What all this meant is that, for almost 30 years, Du Prez’s music for the film was mostly overlooked. He only had three paltry tracks tucked away at the end of the original soundtrack album, and there was no separate score release. This all changed in 2019 when the indie label Waxwork Records finally put out the score – but only on vinyl. The breathlessly excited press release for the album screams: “In collaboration with composer John Du Prez, TMNT co-creator Kevin Eastman, and Nickelodeon, Waxwork Records is proud to present the official and complete 1990 score to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles the movie. Sourced from the original masters, the complete film music by Du Prez has been re-stored and re-mastered for a deluxe double LP album release. This special release marks the very first time the score has been released in any format. The album art was created by Kevin Eastman exclusively for Waxwork Records, and it features his classic comic-book style presented as a sequential storyline of the 1990 film! The packaging also includes double LP 180 gram colored vinyl, a poster illustrated by Kevin Eastman, old style tip-on gatefold jackets with satin coating, and a 1990 TMNT film poster postcard.”

While this release completely alienates anyone who exclusively uses CDs or digital media, it’s still something of a landmark for TMNT fans, and as such is still worth taking a look at. So what does this long-lost musical icon sound like? Well, it’s actually quite good, providing you’re not expecting a big orchestral extravaganza. It’s got a reasonably-sized orchestra, beefed up by the late great conductor/orchestrator Shirley Walker, but is mostly dominated by 1990s electronic beats, proto-hip-hop rhythms, explosive rock music, and some throwback 1970s jazz and funk. To recognize the Japanese elements inherent in the story Du Prez also occasionally makes use of some traditional instruments alongside his western orchestra, and there are several recurring themes that crop up throughout the work, including two for the Turtles themselves, one for Master Splinter, and two representing the Foot Clan thugs and their helmeted leader Shredder.

The Turtles themselves are represented by two recurring ideas, which I am calling ‘TMNT Funk’ and ‘TMNT Antics,’ respectively. The TMNT Funk first appears during the second half of the title track, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” and is based around a fun and funky pop-based keyboard groove, augmented by synth percussion and electric guitars. This idea is a product of its time – the sound was prevalent in a great deal of late 80s/early 90s urban pop music, especially the first wave of commercial hip-hop that came through via bands like Sugarhill Gang and Public Enemy – but Du Prez’s instinct to blend this with references to Harold Faltermeyer and Beverly Hills Cop made it inherently cinematic for the time period. Further examples of this writing can be heard later in cues like “Time to Go Back” and “Street Fight”. Meanwhile, the ‘TMNT Antics’ represents the comedic side of the Turtles, their pizza-munching habits, and their wise-cracking attitude. The comedy is conveyed with a cutesy synth motif, pizzicato phrasing, and even a reference to the famous ‘Charge’ fanfare, which probably relates to the Casey Jones character, a vigilante in an ice hockey mask. It features prominently in the second half of “Crime Fighters,” in “Possess The Right Thinking,” and in the last few moments of “Subway Attack.”

The motif for the Foot Clan, the gang of criminals attacking New York, is a dark and menacing 4-note motif that features prominently in numerous cues, and is first heard just 40 seconds into the opening cue, “Crimewave”. The theme for Shredder, the Foot Clan leader, gets its initial statement in “Shredder’s Big Entrance,” and is a mass of ominous taiko drums, and aggressive and oppressive synth scraping effects. As one would expect, considering that they are the primary antagonists of the story, the Foot Clan motif is everywhere throughout most of the score, but it features most strongly in the numerous action and suspense cues. Interestingly, Du Prez’s action music is very much rooted in that of two other composers who have long histories with both Jim Henson and the Monty Python group – Michael Kamen and Trevor Jones. In many ways you could say that TMNT’s action music is a blend of Lethal Weapon and Labyrinth, with a dash of 1970s Lalo Schifrin jazz thrown in for good measure.

The Kamen/Lethal Weapon aspect comes from the copious amounts of rock music, including wailing electric guitars and heavy rock percussion. The Jones/Labyrinth sound comes from the synths, which are bubbly and energetic, often to the point of over-eagerness. The Schifrin jazz comes from the rest of the orchestration, which makes extensive use of string sustains, tapped cymbals, finger-snaps, and orchestral grooves perfect for an urban setting. This combination of the rock-jazz-synth action music with the Foot Clan motif continues through numerous cues, notably “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” “Crime Fighters,” “Subway Attack,” “Tatsu Attack,” and many others. Perhaps my only criticism of Du Prez’s action writing is that it occasionally feels a little hap-hazard and un-sophisticated, and relies a little too much on fuzzy movement than the tighter, focused rhythmic ideas we are more used to today.

The final recurring idea relates to the rodent warrior Splinter, the wisdom he imparts to the Turtles, and his recollections of his life as the pet of a ninja master back in Japan. Splinter’s motif features watery, dream-like Japanese textures alongside elegant orchestral colors, and usually offers a welcome respite from the boundless energy elsewhere. The pronounced oriental instrumentation includes dulcimers and woodwinds, and occasionally reminds me a little of Bill Conti and his music for The Karate Kid. Cues like “Crime Fighters” and “Possess The Right Thinking” showcase the theme strongly, while the more introspective trio comprising “Trouble,” “Their Greatest Fear,” and “Message from Splinter” focuses on the serious plot point of how the Turtles are going to rescue their kidnapped master, and allows Splinter’s theme to be augmented by some tragic strings and mournfully attractive acoustic guitars. Meanwhile, the two “Splinter’s Tale” cues feature Splinter’s motif accompanied by dialogue performed by Kevin Clash as the voice of Splinter.

A couple of other things worth mentioning include the wonderful Dick Dale/Beach Boys surf music homage in “Sewer Surfin’,“ and the rambunctious orchestral action in “Huge Fight” and “Battles With The Foot,” which may have a hidden in-joke. These two cues have a tone approaching maniacal comedy, and are filled with circus-like whooping brass lines, cascading synth accents, rapped snare drum percussion, and occasional big-ass guitar chords, as well as frequent references to the TMNT Funk action writing. However, most interesting to me are the references to the classical repertoire that Du Prez seems to have hidden: I swear I heard brief but clear allusions to Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, and Ravel’s Bolero here, and I can’t help but wonder whether Du Prez was riffing on the fact that, as the Turtles are named after classical masters from the art world, he wanted his music to riff on classical music too!

Fans have been clamoring for this score for almost thirty years, and it’s very good that it’s finally out, but it’s also very frustrating that it was only released on vinyl, as this alienates entire sections of film music fans who still buy CDs, or listen digitally or via streams (including a large portion of the people who would, presumably, make up their target demographic). Whether it’s worth investing in an LP player for this is entirely up to you. Du Prez’s beats might have been on the cutting edge of the zeitgeist at the time, and although I personally got a kick out of wallowing in the nostalgia, they have clearly not aged well. As such, unless you have a strong affinity for the subject material (or have a soft spot for zany early-90s synth action scores), instead of shouting ‘cowabunga’ for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, you may want to look elsewhere to ‘shell’ out your hard-earned money.

Buy the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • 2019 SCORE ALBUM
  • Crimewave (2:52)
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2:41)
  • Crime Fighters (2:25)
  • Possess the Right Thinking (2:13)
  • Subway Attack (2:08)
  • Splinter’s Tale I (dialogue by Kevin Clash) (2:32)
  • Hidden Treasures (1:35)
  • Shredder’s Big Entrance (3:21)
  • Raphael in Trouble (2:28)
  • Huge Fight (2:48)
  • Tatsu Attack (2:04)
  • Trouble (2:12)
  • Their Greatest Fear (2:34)
  • Message From Splinter (2:50)
  • Time To Go Back (3:03)
  • Splinter’s Tale II (dialogue by Kevin Clash (4:33)
  • Battles With The Foot (2:32)
  • Sewer Surfin’ (0:48)
  • Street Fight (2:01)
  • Shredder’s Last Stand (3:27)
  • The Fall of Shredder (2:16)
  • TMNT [Alternate Mix] (2:41) BONUS
  • Splinter’s Tale I [Alternate Mix] (1:57) BONUS
  • Splinter’s Tale II [Alternate Mix] (3:16) BONUS
  • 1990 SOUNDTRACK ALBUM
  • This Is What We Do (written by Stanley Burrell, performed by M.C. Hammer) (4:55)
  • Spin That Wheel (written by Manuela Kamosi and Jo Bogaert, performed by Hi Tek 3 feat. Ya Kid K) (3:51)
  • Family (written by Monty Seward, performed by Riff) (4:50)
  • 9.95 (written by Dan Hartman and Charlie Midnight, performed by Spunkadelic) (4:02)
  • Turtle Power (written by James Alpern and Richard Usher Jr., performed by Partners In Kryme) (4:20)
  • Let The Walls Come Down (written by Johnny Kemp and Rhett Lawrence, performed by Johnny Kemp) (4:09)
  • Every Heart Needs A Home (written by Paul Peterson, Carl Sturken, and Evan Rogers, performed by St. Paul) (5:08)
  • Shredder’s Suite (4:25)
  • Splinter’s Tale I and II (dialogue by Kevin Clash) (5:28)
  • Turtle Rhapsody (3:45)

Running Time: 44 minutes 53 seconds (Original Soundtrack Album)
Running Time: 61 minutes 17 seconds (LP Score Album)

SBK Records CDP-91056 (1990) – Original Soundtrack Album
Waxwork Records B07JK2HZF5 (1990/2019) – LP Score Album

Music composed by John Du Prez. Conducted by Shirley Walker. Orchestrations by Shirley Walker. Recorded and mixed by John Richards. Edited by Katherine Quittner. Score produced by John Du Prez.

  1. Joel Calhoun
    April 9, 2020 at 12:39 pm

    Actually, Waxworks DID release an (albeit) limited CD run of Duprez’s work on the 1990 live-action TMNT flick.

    In fact, it’s the only CD that Waxworks has released so far, and I was lucky enough to snag a copy before it completely sold out.

    • HunterTech
      April 9, 2020 at 2:45 pm

      They did actually recently reprint the set, as I managed to grab it in January. It sold out again of course, but it’s not unlikely that they’ll do another print eventually. Also, I did see that the score is up on YouTube and Spotify, so I should be widely available through those means.

  2. Brendon
    April 9, 2020 at 3:10 pm

    It’s on iTunes in the UK

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