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RADIO FLYER – Hans Zimmer

February 18, 2022 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Radio Flyer was a somewhat misguided nostalgic drama directed by Richard Donner from a screenplay by David Mickey Evans. The film stars Tom Hanks as Mike, a middle-aged man telling the story of his childhood in the 1960s to his two sons; 11-year-old Mike (Elijah Wood) and his younger brother Bobby (Joseph Mazzello) find their lives altered irrevocably when their divorced mother (Lorraine Bracco) marries a man they know as ‘the King’ and moves them all to California. The King is a drunk and is physically abusive, especially towards Bobby, and so as a way to escape their situation the boys fantasize about modifying their ‘Radio Flyer’ toy wagon into an aeroplane, and flying away. Despite clearly being a look at an abusive relationship through the eyes of a child, and an unreliable narrator at that, the film was heavily criticized for what some saw as trivializing a serious subject, with critic Roger Ebert being especially ‘appalled’ by the film’s ending. As such, the film is mostly forgotten today, a footnote in the otherwise successful careers of its creators and stars.

The score for Radio Flyer was by Hans Zimmer, and marked the first and only collaboration between him and the director of The Omen, Superman, and Lethal Weapon. Zimmer was still in the process of building his career in 1992, and at that time children’s fantasy was a new genre for him – his successes had come very much in the action and comedy-drama genres through films like Rain Man, Driving Miss Daisy, Black Rain, and Backdraft. In order to capture the lyrical orchestral style required for the film Zimmer again collaborated with the late great Shirley Walker, with whom he had previously worked on Pacific Heights and Chicago Joe and the Showgirl in 1990, and White Fang in 1991; the resulting score is one of the most charming scores of Zimmer’s early career, an upbeat, imaginative score for the full orchestra, which combines lovely thematic ideas and moments of energetic adventure with synth percussion, sparkling solo harmonicas, and an array of specialty woodwinds, the latter conveying a sense of warm Americana.

The soundtrack album, unfortunately, is sequenced in a very peculiar way: as a collection of three long suites of ten, seven, and fourteen minutes, with each suite containing three cues spliced together. The album is not in anything approaching film order, so the dramatic development and narrative specificity of the music is almost entirely lost, and for people who need that in order to properly connect with a score, listening to this is likely to be an irritating experience. That issue aside, however, what remains is half an hour or so of genuinely lovely music – at times it is carefree and whimsical, at other times it is almost silly in its evocation of childhood fantasy, and then occasionally it hits you in the face with a moment of serious drama that brings you right back to reality and to the circumstances from which the boys are trying to escape.

The first suite comprises the cues “Building the Flyer,” “On the Road to Geronimo,” and “Lost Secrets and Fascinations,” and begins with a whole range of those lovely innocent textures. The pan pipes have the unmistakable flavor of Gheorghe Zamfir via The Karate Kid, while the prancing strings and mischievous rhythms are just delightful, and feel like a prototype of the similar ideas Zimmer would later go on to use in Muppet Treasure Island. A nostalgic theme runs through much of the cue, and the middle section features some robust action music from the Backdraft school of writing, but by the time it reaches its third and final part the cue becomes darker and a little abstract, with percussion ideas that seem intentionally mimic a heartbeat and a gunshot, before climaxing with a tragic-sounding variation on the recurring theme featuring a boy soprano solo and a mournful harmonica.

The second suite comprises the cues “Expeditioning,” “Mix the Potion” and “Four Discoveries,” and is perhaps the most upbeat and captivating of the three. Here Zimmer’s music simply sparkles with innocent whimsy and frothy ebullience, a fantasy of twittering woodwinds, lively strings, prancing metallic percussion, and moments of homespun nostalgia. Some of the phrasing reminds me of the music James Newton Howard would write for Dave a couple of years later – perhaps that film was temp-tracked with Radio Flyer? – while some of the sillier music in the suite’s middle section has a smidgen of Jerry Goldsmith about it, and some of the childish comedies he was scoring at around the same time. The mocking neener-neener sound of the children’s choir is unexpected, as are the circus-style xylophone runs and oompah rhythms.

The third suite comprises the cues “Sampson and Shame,” “Fisher’s Legend,” and “The Big Idea,” and again begins with a vivacious piece, albeit one which seems to derive much of its sound from American folk music – fiddles, banjos, pennywhistles, and the like – before devolving into some knockabout comedy music. The main theme returns in the lovely “Fisher’s Legend” section with something of an Irish lilt, giving a folk tale quality to the story of the young boy who supposedly successfully flew away on his own radio flyer, and whose story inspires Mike and Bobby to try to do the same. A huge outburst of thrilling orchestral action underpinned with snares adds some much needed energy, and the whole thing concludes with a soaring statement of the main theme with bold brass counterpoint, including some vibrating triplets, and some broad and spirited ragtime elements .

Despite the odd sequencing and presentation, Radio Flyer is nevertheless a triumphant and wholly enjoyable score. As I mentioned, Zimmer (and, to be fair, most of the other senior members of the production) got quite a bit of criticism at the time for being far too flippant about a very serious subject matter, and Zimmer maybe agreed with the critics – in an interview he gave at the time with Darren Cavanagh for Soundtrack Magazine he talked in depth about the fights he and Donner had over the score’s tone, there being too much music in the film, and the balancing act between evoking childhood and being childish about the music. And, it’s true, some people may have difficulty reconciling the two issues. But, as a listening experience, Radio Flyer works like a charm – it’s emotional, full of energy and heartfelt spirit, and features a lovely main theme and several excellent instrumental performances.

The physical soundtrack album for Radio Flyer is somewhat rare these days – the label, Big Screen Records made a splash in the early 1990s with several high profile releases but then went out of business very quickly – and copies of the score go for fairly hefty prices on the secondary market, although it is available as a digital download for much more reasonable amounts. As such, for anyone interested in experiencing what is one of Zimmer’s earliest and best scores for a children’s film, and until a better expanded release comes out, Radio Flyer is an easy recommendation.

Buy the Radio Flyer soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Radio Flyer Part I – Building the Flyer/On the Road to Geronimo/Lost Secrets and Fascinations (9:58)
  • Radio Flyer Part II – Expeditioning/Mix the Potion/Four Discoveries (7:00)
  • Radio Flyer Part III – Sampson and Shame/Fisher’s Legend/The Big Idea (13:37)
  • The Name Game (written by Lincoln Chase and Shirley Elliston, performed by Shirley Ellis) (3:00)

Running Time: 33 minutes 35 seconds

Big Screen Music 9-24452 (1992)

Music composed by Hans Zimmer. Conducted by Shirley Walker. Orchestrations by Shirley Walker and Bruce Fowler. Featured musical soloists Nick Glennie-Smith, Richard Harvey, Tommy Morgan and Jim Kanter. Recorded and mixed by Jay Rifkin. Edited by Laura Perlman and Jim Flamberg. Album produced by Hans Zimmer and Jay Rifkin.

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