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THE ROCKETEER – James Horner

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The Rocketeer is an early entry into the annals of Disney comic book action movies, and is based on a character created by Dave Stevens for Pacific Comics in 1982. The film is set in Los Angeles in 1938 and stars Billy Campbell as Cliff Secord, a stunt pilot working for Howard Hughes in the early years of Hollywood. A pair of mafia gangsters steal a prototype jetpack from Hughes, and events lead to the jetpack coming into Secord’s possession; seeing a chance to further his career, Secord re-invents himself as the high-flying Rocketeer, and he wows the crowds at a local airshow, but his antics bring him to the attention of both the police and the FBI, and get him mixed up with the sinister forces who arranged for the initial theft, and who have plans for the jet pack that stretch way beyond Hollywood. The film was directed by Joe Johnston, and has a wonderful supporting cast that includes Alan Arkin as Cliff’s gruff friend Peevy, Jennifer Connelly as Cliff’s sensationally sexy nightclub singer/actress girlfriend Jenny, Terry O’Quinn as Howard Hughes, and Timothy Dalton as the devilishly handsome matinee idol actor Neville Sinclair, to whom there is more than meets the eye. The whole movie is awash in stylish art-deco production design that glamorizes the Hollywood of the 1930s, and is capped off by a sensational score from James Horner.

As we all now know – tragically – James Horner was obsessed with planes and the freedom of flight throughout his life. Although he had written some scores which had story elements related to flying in them before – notably space adventures like Battle Beyond the Stars, Star Trek II, and Star Trek III, or during the ‘fire mares’ sequence in Krull – writing The Rocketeer gave Horner the first opportunity to really lean into the concept and express how he felt about it in music. As such, The Rocketeer is an absolute delight from start to finish; fully orchestral, multi-thematic, sweeping and romantic, peppered with musical stylistics from the period, and anchored by a series of absolutely magnificent action set pieces that showcase the composer at his best.

The original soundtrack release for The Rocketeer was a zippy hour long CD that covered all the score’s major bases. In 2016, to coincide with the film’s 25th anniversary, Intrada Records released an expanded 2-CD version of the soundtrack, sourced from the complete 48-track session masters. CD 1 features everything Horner recorded for the film, including all scoring cues intact and uncut, plus the big-band arrangements. CD2 features Horner’s original album presentation, digitally re-mastered for pristine sound. The whole thing is presented in a lavish art-deco style book designed by Joe Sikoryak, with expert liner notes by Tim Grieving. It’s one of the few expansions which I feel is absolutely essential, and so it is this album that I’m reviewing.

Everything is built around three recurring main themes. The first is for Cliff, the Rocketeer himself, and is gloriously rousing and tuneful, accompanying his daring adventures with a sense of positivity, heroism, and expansive freedom. It has an A-phrase and a B-phrase which are used sequentially, contrapuntally, and individually – basically in whatever combinations Horner saw fit. The second is the love theme for Jenny – beguiling, soft, sensitive, and just gorgeous, one of the best romance themes of Horner’s career. The third theme is a sinister 4-note motif for Neville Sinclair (no, not that one) which plays throughout much of the film’s action-packed finale. Everything is woven into a tapestry of dense, complicated, endlessly creative action and suspense music that contains dozens of Horner’s personal compositional hallmarks and flourishes, and is rounded out by a couple of source cues and songs featuring new big-band arrangements by the legendary Billy May.

The main theme is introduced in the “Main Title,” a magical and nostalgic piano melody that gradually grows to encompass warm strings and deep bass chords, before erupting into effervescent life just after the 2:00 mark. The rest of the cue is the first of many stylish action arrangements, complete with rousing horns and driving percussion, some of which foreshadows the music Horner wrote for the launch sequence for Apollo 13 four years later, especially from its use of clattering xylophones underneath heraldic brass fanfares.

Many of the subsequent cues offer interesting variations on this main theme, as Cliff and Peevy find, examine, and test the jet pack, ultimately leading up to the moment where Cliff dons the helmet and becomes the Rocketeer. Many of these cues did not feature on the original album, so it’s fascinating to hear them here for the first time. I especially like the version heard in “The Gizmo,” where Horner surrounds the theme with mysterious string chords that echo his use of Khachaturian’s Gayane ballet in scores like Aliens and Project X, while also foreshadowing its subsequent use in scores like Patriot Games; all of these films explore the concept of technology used for nefarious purposes, which fits right in with the Horner Career Symphony theory and how he would use similar ideas across different scores to illustrate similar concepts.

The end of this cue, as well as large parts of both “Finding the Rocket” and “Testing the Rocket,” often head off down a lightly comedic avenue, where the tension in the writing is piqued with curiosity, and features notable sequences for pizzicato strings, fluttery woodwinds, and tubas, as well as a couple of light swing jazz arrangements of the main theme. The four note ‘danger motif’ makes its guest appearance at the beginning of “Neville and Eddie,” before it quickly morphs into one of the first really prominent performances of Neville’s different four note motif.

The rumbling brass and elongated high string sustains in “Testing the Rocket” go all the way back to the early 1980s, especially scores like Humanoids from the Deep and Krull, while combining with sequences of prancing comedy, turbulent mickey-mousing, and more variations on the main theme. “Lothar Gets Wilmer” showcases a series of low, rumbling pianos and sinister woodwind chords to accompany the Rondo Hatton-style villain who acts as Neville’s henchman, and then “The Helmet” provides a slow, emotional, magical statement of the main theme for strings and those wonderfully rich ‘Horner chords’ that give the piece a sense of anticipation and valiant destiny.

“The Laughing Bandit” is a knockout one-of-a-kind – a florid, Korngold-style swashbuckling extravaganza used as a piece of ‘period score’ for the film Neville is making in between his other more despicable activities; the cue is only 71 seconds long, but it’s a sensation, a rich, dense, powerful throwback to the best Golden Age action music. Jenny’s love theme is introduced in “Neville Eavesdrops,” but more on that later, because it is immediately followed the by score’s first main barnstorming action set piece, “The Flying Circus”.

All of the action music in The Rocketeer is dripping in classic Horner stylistics; in each of them you can hear his personal touch – the circular strings and call-and-response brass echoes the nautical adventure music from Battle Beyond the Stars and Star Trek II, the rhythmic writing recalls Aliens, the bombastic horns recall Krull and Willow, and there are even brief flourishes from scores as obscure as Uncommon Valor. It’s not self-parody, or self-referencing, or laziness, or anything like that – that’s just who Horner was and how he wrote, and I for one love it. “The Flying Circus” is so bold, so colorful, so magnificently orchestrated; it’s rowdy without being overbearing, chaotic without ever losing focus, and throughout it all Horner expertly weaves little nuggets of both parts of the main theme. The end of the cue even features a comedic hoe-down featuring banjo, fiddles, and other western pastiche instruments, which draws from the well of The Pursuit of DB Cooper, and would later go on to feature in An American Tail: Fievel Goes West. It’s all just fabulous.

The next two cues – “A Hero Is Born/Bye Bye Bigelow” and “Jenny’s Rescue” – offer several dark and moody versions of the three main themes, including a performance of the main theme on saxophone in the latter, before the concert version of the Love Theme for Jennifer Connelly’s character Jenny in, appropriately, “Love Theme”. Horner has written some staggeringly beautiful romance music in his career, but the Love Theme for Jenny remains one of his all-time best. It swoons gracefully between piano, solo horn, and the full string section, an incredibly effective combination of innocence and sexuality that drips with 1940s golden age panache; structurally, it has a great deal in common with both Irina’s theme from Gorky Park and Lyssa’s theme from Krull, while the shimmering cascades of string-based loveliness in the cue’s second half would later go on to much greater fame as one of the famous bits from “For the Love of a Princess” from Braveheart. The way Horner plays Jenny’s theme contrapuntally with the Rocketeer theme beginning at 3:02 is movie music magic.

The action continues in “South Seas Send Up,” which again incorporates all the main themes into a wonderfully vibrant set piece. The percussion writing here is notably excellent – glockenspiel, cymbals, chimes, triangles, tambourines, and other light metallic elements – which combine to give the whole thing a magical, almost whimsical sound. Listen especially for the brass triplets which would later go on to feature prominently during the action sequences in scores like Legends of the Fall and The Mask of Zorro.

“Neville Sinclair’s House,” which underscores the scene where a kidnapped Jenny learns of Neville’s true plans for the jet pack, and where his political allegiances lie (hint: it’s with the Nazis), is a series of ominous extended variations on both Neville’s theme and Jenny’s love theme: insidious strings, cold horns, metallic percussion, and a terrific minor key version of Jenny’s theme, capturing the cat-and-mouse element to their relationship. The subsequent “Rendezvous at (Griffith Park) Observatory” opens with a sequence of quintessential Horner action suspense writing, darkly twisted allusions to Neville’s theme and Jenny’s love theme, and subtle variations on the main Rocketeer theme, before the whole thing explodes into thunderous thematic bombast, with the main theme leading the charge. The agitated string writing in the finale of the cue echoes the weeping, collapsing effects Horner used so brilliantly during the “Lillian’s Heart Attack” sequence in Brainstorm in 1983, except here he counterpoints them with a startlingly bold performance of Jenny’s love theme on brass. Just listen to the writing that begins around the 6:31 mark; it’s just outrageously good.

The big finale comes in “The Zeppelin,” a massive set piece which sees Cliff, the FBI, and the local mafia gang teaming up to fight Neville and his Nazi comrades as he tries to escape with both Jenny and the jet pack on board an airship. This cue is the outstanding culmination of the action style – the references to Star Trek II and Krull and Willow, action settings of all three main themes, and terrifically intense sequences of dissonance, all wrapped up in a scintillating barrage of swashbuckling adventure that balances light, prancing strings against heavier, thrusting brass. The intricacy of it all is brilliant, but the best thing about it is that despite the complicated nature of the actual music it never loses its joie de vivre, its good-hearted heroism, or its comic book swagger. It’s endlessly enjoyable, the sort of action music I love the most.

The “End Title/End Credits” – famously called “Rocketeer to the Rescue” on the original album – is one of the finest end credits pieces of Horner’s entire career, and that’s saying something. For almost seven minutes Horner runs through a series of extended variations on the main theme that range from the quietly intimate to the magically wondrous, to the most grandiose, soaring, enthusiastic performance possible, encompassing the entire orchestra resounding at its fullest. After a brief interlude, where Horner presents a gorgeous final version of Jenny’s love theme, he then returns to the main theme and builds up to one of the most celebratory grandstand finales he ever wrote. As album producer Douglass Fake noted in the score’s publicity material, Horner was one of the very few composers who actually scored full end titles himself, rather than leave them to music editors to “cut and paste” from existing cues. Typically, he concluded them on exquisite, pianissimo chords for strings, but The Rocketeer’s end credits instead climax in spectacular fashion with a resounding fortissimo coda for the full orchestra. It’s utterly, utterly glorious.

It would also be remiss of me not to mention the two songs on the album, Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine,” and Einar A. Swan’s “When Your Lover Has Gone,” both arranged in period big band style by Billy May, and performed with smoky-voiced seductiveness by actress Melora Hardin. I love them both, and they add a great deal of historical authenticity to the album.

As I write this, we have just marked the sixth anniversary of James Horner’s death, and the passing of the years doesn’t make his tragic demise any easier to bear. Listening to scores like The Rocketeer in this context is bittersweet, because the brilliance of it only reminds us of what was taken from us far too soon. This score is a masterpiece, one of his absolute career best, and one which only gets better with age, especially as new ways of scoring super-hero movies emerge, and scores like this one are dismissed as ‘old fashioned’ and ‘corny’ by some contemporary audiences. Personally, I don’t care. I live and breathe this music. It’s scores like The Rocketeer that made me fall in love with film music in the first place, and anyone who loves film music the way I do needs this album in their collection.

Buy the Rocketeer soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • ORIGINAL RELEASE
  • Main Title/Takeoff (4:30)
  • The Flying Circus (6:30)
  • Jenny (5:10)
  • Begin the Beguine (written by Cole Porter, performed by Melora Hardin) (3:36)
  • Neville Sinclair’s House (7:20)
  • Jenny’s Rescue (3:20)
  • Rendezvous at Griffith Park Observatory (8:10)
  • When Your Lover Has Gone (written by Einar A. Swan, performed by Melora Hardin) (3:23)
  • The Zeppelin (8:00)
  • Rocketeer to the Rescue/End Title (6:30)
  • EXPANDED RELEASE
  • Main Title (4:43)
  • The Gizmo (3:25)
  • Finding the Rocket (1:52)
  • Neville and Eddie (1:07)
  • Testing the Rocket (2:40)
  • Lothar Gets Wilmer (1:44)
  • The Helmet (0:45)
  • The Laughing Bandit (1:10)
  • Neville Eavesdrops (1:25)
  • The Flying Circus (6:35)
  • A Hero Is Born/Bye Bye Bigelow (2:51)
  • Begin the Beguine (written by Cole Porter, performed by Melora Hardin) (3:44)
  • Jenny’s Rescue (3:52)
  • Love Theme (5:10)
  • Cliff to the Club (0:49)
  • Cliff the Waiter (0:32)
  • When Your Lover Has Gone (written by Einar A. Swan, performed by Melora Hardin) (3:28)
  • South Seas Send Up (3:43)
  • Neville Sinclair’s House (7:19)
  • Cliff Caught (1:38)
  • Rendezvous at Observatory (8:10)
  • The Zeppelin (7:56)
  • End Title/End Credits (6:30)

Running Time: 59 minutes 29 seconds – Original
Running Time: 81 minutes 55 seconds – Expanded

Hollywood Records HR-61117-2 (1991) – Original
Intrada IFC-357 (1991/2016) – Expanded

Music composed and conducted by James Horner. Orchestrations by John Neufeld, Elliot Kaplan, Billy May and Conrad Pope . Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Jim Henrikson. Original album produced by James Horner. Expanded album produced by Douglass Fake.

  1. Kevin
    July 7, 2021 at 8:59 am

    Great review for a great score, especially those end credits. And I’m still not over Horner’s death either. Such a terrible loss. 😦

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