Home > Reviews > ROBOCOP 2 – Leonard Rosenman

ROBOCOP 2 – Leonard Rosenman

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

After the unexpected critical and commercial success of Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop in 1987, it was inevitable that a sequel would be produced, and so in June 1990 Robocop 2 debuted in cinemas. Peter Weller returned to don the chrome armor for a second time as Alex Murphy, a detective in the futuristic Detroit Police Department who, after being murdered by criminals while on duty, is transformed into a half human-half machine cyborg crimefighter. The original movie was a violent action story that masked Verhoeven’s critiques of American hyper-consumerism and corporate corruption; Robocop 2 is a much more straightforward (although perhaps more graphically violent) story that sees Murphy trying to bring down a gang of drug dealers that are flooding the city with Nuke, a synthetic and highly addictive narcotic. Meanwhile, rampant corruption within the police department and its corporate owner, OCP, causes more issues with policing in the city, including mass strikes by cops. In order to address the problems city officials try to strike a deal with Cain, a vicious drug kingpin with a messiah complex. What could go wrong? The film co-stars Nancy Allen, Tom Noonan, and Belinda Bauer, was co-written by cult comic book creator Frank Miller, and was directed by The Empire Strikes Back’s Irvin Kershner, in what turned out to be his last film prior to his death.

The score for Robocop 2 was by composer Leonard Rosenman, who had worked previously with Kershner on Return of a Man Called Horse in 1976. It’s not entirely clear why the services of Basil Poledouris were not retained for the sequel, but one man who was clearly pleased by this development was Leonard Rosenman himself. I don’t like to criticize composers on a personal level, so I’ll just say this about Rosenman: he certainly thought he was a superb composer, and he would never pass up an opportunity to say so. He certainly had impeccable credentials: he was a personal friend of James Dean and made his film music debut scoring his film Rebel Without a Cause in 1955. He was the first composer to score a film using the modernist twelve-tone techniques of his mentor Arnold Schoenberg – The Cobweb, again in 1955. He received Oscars for scoring Barry Lyndon in 1973 and Bound for Glory in 1976, and received further nominations for Cross Creek in 1983 and Star Trek 4 in 1987. He scored box office smashes like East of Eden, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, Fantastic Voyage, and the 1978 animated Lord of the Rings. But, in an interview with Starlog Magazine in 1990, he had this to say:

“I thought the score for the first film was so absolutely dreadful. There was no sense of the orchestra, no sense of drama. It was just a dopey, lousy score and it just didn’t work. I’m not a fan of Poledouris. The end credits, which is the best opportunity for any composer, was just pasted together. My end title is a real piece of music, and the middle part is something very different from most film scores.”

For a working composer to publicly trash a peer like that is almost unprecedented, although Rosenman clearly didn’t see Poledouris as a peer – he saw him as a composer beneath him. What’s ironic about this is that, for many years, I considered Rosenman’s score for Robocop 2 to be vastly inferior to the original. It’s true that, in film context, it seems to badly miss the mark in terms of the central character, who he is, and what he’s all about. Rosenman seemed to see him as a sort of wild west gunslinger, striding in to bring down the bad guys, accompanied by bold brass fanfares and a heroic march. This is in complete opposition to how he was originally envisaged by Verhoeven: a tortured, self-loathing character who is constantly afraid of losing his humanity, but eventually comes to be redeemed as a quasi-Christlike figure.

With that in mind, the problem then became the fact that, at times, the score was much too bright and chippy, while at others it bordered on the absurd. One other major flaw in the score is how it never really addresses the threat that Cain and his cohorts poses to Robocop and to the city itself, instead treating him in a cartoonish manner with music to match, a rather bland wash of electric guitars and synthesizers. And, for a man who continually talked up his own originality and creativity, this score further shows that Rosenman appeared to only have one recurring idea when it came to scoring fantasy and science fiction films, because much of Robocop 2 has its thematic and compositional roots in his scores for The Lord of the Rings and Star Trek 4.

But, here’s the thing. When you remove the score from it’s in-film context and actually listen to the score on a technical level, some of the things Rosenman does are fascinating and quite brilliant. The score’s main theme, representing Robocop himself, comprises four distinct parts which can be performed separately or together, and in different combinations, depending on the whims of the composer. The fact that Rosenman was able to construct this, put it all together, and have it work both sequentially and individually, is just astonishing, and is testament to how he understood music. The opening “Overture” introduces the theme in its different parts: there’s an initial five note fanfare for French horns (0:01), a six note fanfare variation at 0:11, a three-note motif for trumpets that fits in between the statements of the six-note fanfare, and finally a lyrical bridge for strings (0:27) that also features a re-orchestrated string version of the five note fanfare in a different time signature, and then switches back to the five note fanfare for brass – and this is all just within the first minute of the score! The lyrical bridge Rosenman uses is almost identical to the ones that feature in both The Lord of the Rings and Star Trek 4, and is perhaps the only part of the core motifs that is disappointing in its lack of originality.

These four ideas are the recurring building blocks of the score, and it is from them that Rosenman crafts the entire musical identity of Robocop. Everything in these opening moments is underpinned by strong, clanking metallic percussion ideas – anvils and the like – acknowledging Robocop’s industrial nature. However, for some people, everything will go to pot just after the 1:00 mark, which is when Rosenman takes the three-note motif and has it performed by four soprano soloists singing the syllables ‘Ro-Bo-Cop’ in a high, wavering falsetto. For years and years, I hated this. Absolutely hated it. It turned a character I loved into a parody, a joke, closer in tone to Neal Hefti’s Batman or Henry Mancini’s Condorman than the serious, violent hero that Basil Poledouris defined so well. For a long time I considered it to be the most misjudged super hero theme ever, and I discounted the entire rest of the score because of it. However, if you grit your teeth and ignore this one thing, it becomes clear that everything else Rosenman is doing in the “Overture” is great.

For another minute or so he cycles back through the various Robocop motifs, but then it all changes at the 2:00 mark, and becomes light and pretty, full of impressionistic strings and woodwinds that at times remind me of Grieg, little electronic bubbles, and unusual passages that move around the orchestra. At 3:09 a sequence of light action emerges, filled with prominent percussion, Stravinsky-style churning string and woodwind figures, and numerous allusions to one or more of the Robocop motifs; of special note is the way the 5-note fanfare gets passed around the brass section, becoming increasingly chaotic with each sortie. Eventually the whole thing coalesces into a sweeping finale, wherein all four major ideas play off each other, before finishing with a bold major key flourish.

Most of the rest of the score is based on one or more of the ideas introduced in the Overture, but the mileage Rosenman gets out of them is the thing that’s most impressive. In “City Mayhem” he engages in sequences of unusual orchestral dissonance, focused mainly on brass and woodwinds, which churns and boils with disjointed rhythmic ideas that are rooted in his 1970s experiments with cinematic serialism. Again, it all reminds me very much of Stravinsky, and feels harsh and angular. Unusually, at 1:23, there is an unexpected moment of 1950s jazz that strongly echoes his score for Rebel Without a Cause. Later, in “Robo Cruiser,” Rosenman layers all four Robocop motifs on top of each other, with constant rapid statements of the 5-note theme and the 4-note fanfare underpinned with tapped cymbals and dark piano lines. At the 1:42 mark Rosenman introduces his musical identity for the sadistic drug dealer Cain, a combination of electric guitars and choir with oddly-phrased strings dancing underneath it.

“Robo and Nuke” contains numerous bold statements of the five-note march and the six-note fanfare, and cleverly transfers the three-note motif from choir to strings, while “Robo and Cain Chase” brings together all four of the main Robocop motifs, and offsets them against the electric guitar pulses for Cain, while the anvils hammer away relentlessly underneath it all, giving it energy and forward motion. Rosenman’s orchestrations in this cue are quite fascinating, as he creates a series of unusual colors by placing unexpected instruments against each other – piano clusters with nervous agitato strings, xylophones doubled against muted trumpets, and so on. It sounds chaotic, but it’s fascinating from an intellectual standpoint.

A couple of cues do introduce new ideas too. Both “Happier Days” and “Robo Memories” feature some pretty woodwind writing that moves between clarinets, bassoons, and oboes, but which is tempered with sad, isolated strings and ghostly choral passages. Interestingly, these cues are the only ones where Rosenman seems to be approaching the score in a way similar to Basil Poledouris; the original Robocop scored Murphy’s fleeting memories of his old life with cascading strings and light electronica, and occasionally Rosenman adopts a similar texture. Conversely, “Robo Fanfare” is a bold and flamboyant brass fanfare that sounds like one of John Phillip Sousa’s lesser known marches. It’s good, but inexplicable in context.

The final two cues underscore the ultimate showdown between Robocop and Cain, once the OCP mad scientists have removed the latter’s consciousness from his mangled human body and used it to give life to Robo II – an even more menacing cyborg whose dependence on the Nuke drug is supposed to make him more controllable. “Creating the Monster” underscores the Frankenstein scene, and is filled with textures that constantly shift and collide, creating a sense of unease and impending danger. Again, a lot of praise has to be given to Rosenman’s orchestrations here – he creates these unusual ambiances by combining instruments in odd ways, and bringing in unusual textural ideas, ranging from hammered pianos to ethereal woodwind textures, ghostly choirs, quiet gongs, and cymbal rings. The introduction of electronic synth tones at 1:05 illustrate the moment Cain becomes Robo II, and his human guitars are replaced by something much more unnatural.

The conclusive “Robo I vs. Robo II” is a battering ram of heavy action, wherein all four of Robocop’s motifs feature strongly, accompanied by endless insistent percussive rhythms. These rampaging rhythmic ideas will be especially pleasing to fans of the Whaling Ship sequence from Star Trek 4, as many of them recall the music in that scene. Also notable here is the way Rosenman layers and mutes the brass, moving it in and out and placing it on top of itself, creating a series of fascinating textural passages. As the cue builds to its finale the music becomes more staccato, hammering away under the various Robocop themes; the painful electronic groans at the end of the track depict Cain’s demise.

The original album for Robocop 2 was released by Varese Sarabande in 1990, but was one of those dreaded ‘30 minute’ releases, and included just a few highlights. In 2019 Varese re-released the score as a ‘Deluxe Edition’ as part of the limited edition CD Club series; this release increased the score’s running time to over 70 minutes, with the inclusion of more than 40 minutes of additional score, plus bonus cues and source material. Unfortunately I haven’t heard the expanded edition, so this review concentrates solely on the original 1990 release.

I can’t express enough just how much of a frustration Robocop 2 is. Considering the score in terms of its in-film context, I’m actually beginning to wonder whether Rosenman saw the movie as a parody of the genre as a whole, and then wrote music to match. It’s the only logical explanation for how Rosenman could look at this movie, and then write the score that he did, which at times not only seems to completely misunderstand every societal point it was making, but seems to outright mock the entire effort. However, when you actually listen to the score from a scholarly compositional point of view, there is so much to recommend. The way Rosenman manipulates the four constituent elements of his main thematic identity for Robocop – mixing and matching and moving them around – is a masterclass in form and structure, while his forays into serialism and Stravinsky-style dissonance and abstraction are occasionally quite breathtaking.

Fans of Leonard Rosenman’s music in general will likely appreciate it a great deal, and at the end of the day the only recommendation I can give is this: on the one hand, Robocop 2 is a perfect example of how NOT to score a fairly serious sci-fi action movie, and to go some way towards musically undermining the Robocop series as a whole. On the other hand, it’s a score which – from a musicologist’s point of view – reinforces Rosenman’s self-proclaimed genius, as it contains numerous passages that come close to genuine brilliance. I just can’t get over that damn choir… ro-bo-coooop… ro-bo-coooop…

Buy the Robocop 2 soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • ORIGINAL 1990 RELEASE
  • Overture: Robocop 2 (6:05)
  • City Mayhem (3:38)
  • Happier Days (1:30)
  • Robo Cruiser (4:41)
  • Robo Memories (2:09)
  • Robo and Nuke (2:24)
  • Robo Fanfare (0:34)
  • Robo and Cain Chase (2:43)
  • Creating the Monster (2:50)
  • Robo I vs. Robo II (3:41)
  • DELUXE 2019 RELEASE
  • Overture: Robocop 2 (6:06)
  • Logo/MagnaVolt (1:05)
  • City Mayhem (3:39)
  • Robo and Nuke (2:26)
  • Cain and Angie Escape (1:16)
  • Happier Days (1:31)
  • Robo Memories (2:11)
  • Robo Cruiser (4:44)
  • Robo Gets Dumped (0:55)
  • Duffy Nukes/Robo In Pain/Duffy Gets Diced (3:32)
  • Robo Gets Faxxed (2:02)
  • Kids Rob Electronics/RoboSparks (2:33)
  • Nuke Lab/Nuke Lab Blows (1:17)
  • Robo and Cain Chase (2:45)
  • Creating the Monster (2:52)
  • Monster at Meeting (0:44)
  • Monster Cleans House/Monster Finds Angie (1:52)
  • Goodbye Angie (3:29)
  • Robo Finds Hob (3:21)
  • Robo Fanfare (0:36)
  • Elevated and Depressed (3:28)
  • On the Street Again/Robo Gets Nuke (0:59)
  • Robo I vs. Robo II (3:45)
  • Robo Resolve and End Credits (6:52)
  • Creating the Monster (Film Version) (2:54) BONUS
  • Robo Hangs Out (Film Construct) (0:38) BONUS
  • Monster Theme Stings (0:50) BONUS
  • Fanfare Suite (1:02) BONUS
  • Sunblock 5000 (0:49) BONUS

Running Time: 30 minutes 15 seconds (Original)
Running Time: 70 minutes 13 seconds (Deluxe)

Varese Sarabande VSD-5271 (1990) – Original
Varese Sarabande VCL-0219-1191 (1990/2019) – Deluxe

Music composed and conducted by Leonard Rosenman. Orchestrations by Ralph Ferraro. Recorded and mixed by Dan Wallin. Score produced by Leonard Rosenman. Deluxe album produced by Robert Townson.

  1. Ian Smith
    June 19, 2020 at 2:44 am

    Rosenman? Horrible. I can’t watch Star Trek IV, or this RoboCop 2. He may have been an accomplished musician, but he didn’t have a clue about taloring his music to the mood or subject of a film. RoboCop 2 is a horrible score that ruins it’s (admittedly flawed) movie. I could never imagine listening to the score seperately, I’d sooner have to suffer root canal work.

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