Director Phil Kaufman (who helmed the 1978 version of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers) was difficult to work with over this massive film project, depicting the heroism and challenges of the Mercury Space Flight Program. His version of Tom Wolfe's best-selling novel, after two other directors had been seen off the production, was hailed as a spectacular mess, or an entertaining folly. Certainly it was mixed-up in tone and somewhat clumsily put together. He and his original screenwriter, the one and only William Goldman, had fallen out over the direction and theme of the story. Goldman wanted to inspire and create patriotic verve of a tale of real-life triumph over adversity, whilst Kaufman wanted to reverse the whole notion of national pride and depict a tale that showed Americans what a failed society they lived in and what a sham of a government they had put in power. It was obvious, especially to composer Bill (Rocky) Conti, that this was not going to be an easy gig.
But what was beyond criticism was the Academy Award-winning score that Conti eventually came up with under the most pressing and awkward of circumstances. Although the composer was better known for his inspirational brass fanfare for Stallone's boxing classic and then again for the tragic, heartfelt trumpets of Uncle Joe Shannon, he was also quite adept at producing incredibly bold and exciting full orchestral scores for the likes of He-Man And The Masters Of The Universe, I, The Jury, The Karate Kid and a fair chunk of Stallone's other action vehicles, such as F.I.S.T. and Lock-Up. I'm sorry, but there's no way that I can dress up his woeful 80's disco score for Roger Moore's back-to-basics Bond outing in For Your Eyes Only, though.
Sadly, the original masters for Conti's full score have long since vanished from the archives. But what remains is the terrific album presentation that he compiled to coincide with the film's theatrical release back in 1983. Composed of emotional highlights and running in something of a more ear-pleasing approach, rather than a full film-sequential order, the album never actually saw the light of day. With the film's apparent dismissal at the box office regardless of the critical appreciation that it received, the studio pulled the plug on the vinyl release and no official CD was ever released. Until now. But Varese Sarabande's wonderful debut CD ensures that Conti's own album masters now have a new lease of life and that fans of his score can now breathe a sigh of relief now that one of their Holy Grails has finally gotten the attention that it deserves.
Conti had virtually no time at all to complete this score, and he would find that Kaufman would be breathing down his neck for almost of it. Kaufman had definite ideas of the tone and the direction in which he wanted the score to go - ideas that would rankle Conti, who would feel that his own unique voice was not going to be heard. Having enjoyed the music he received from Henry Mancini for his earlier film White Dawn, Kaufman had already temp-tracked the movie extensively with the score and he wanted Conti to follow suit, almost mimicking Mancini's music. And not only that, he wanted interpretations of Holst's The Planets - which is only fitting, of course, given the subject matter - so Conti's own vision for the film was to be skewed considerably and his creative reins tightened. In particular, Kaufman wanted elements of both the Mars and Saturn suites, music that he had also temped his film with.
Yet what Conti managed to do under this restrictive regime was nothing short of remarkable.
Not only did he give Kaufman exactly what he wanted - Holst is very definitely and cleverly referenced, as is Henry Mancini - but so is John Williams, who Conti very cheekily tips the wink to with a little burst of not only Superman's momentous main title build-up, but even a tiny hint of Jaws cruising just beneath the surface of his score. Listen out for them - there are definitely there - one signifying American heroism, the other, the sinister two-note Jaws-riff coming to denote the coming of the Russians. It is a weird and slightly anarchic gamble ... but one that truly pays off.
Starring an incredible cast - Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Dennis Quaid, Lance Henrikson, Fred Ward and Sam Shepherd among the sky-blasting guys, and Kim Stanley, Barbara Hershey, Veronica Cartwright and Pam Reed as the earthbound wives pining for their boys - the film couldn't quite decide whether it would be a nuts 'n' bolts docu-drama, a patriotic flag-waver or a space race satire. In the end, it wound up being a combination of all three. Picking themes for NASA's Mercury Mission and its Soviet rivals actually came quite easily for Conti, and he skilfully weaves motifs and ideas for both all the way through the score. Track 1, Breaking The Sound Barrier, gets straight into the valour and intrepid nature of these rocket-jockeys, bringing out Conti's main theme for the film. It starts out slow and semi-elegiac, French horns, strings and trumpet rising to a noble fanfare of dignified, hand-on-heart stuff that has just the right amount of “twinkle-in-the-eye” coy sentiment to help release the jingoistic fervour that Kaufman, no doubt, wanted to both inspire and poke an accusatory finger at. But then Conti shifts into another gear, and one that should be immediately recognisable to many as his homage to Holst's suite for jolly old Jupiter. Rousing brass and high singing strings herald the dream of the heavens and then he drops into that little nod to Jaws, before driving towards a playful, but excitingly executed, finale.
Ethereal synthesisers echo on Track 2, Mach 1, Conti's 80's vibe suddenly kicking in for a brief spell. Where John Carpenter's Moog beats and tonal assemblies have retained a timeless quality that has become addictively cultish, Conti's use of electronica feels precisely modulated for the decade that taste forgot. As such, there is a queer sort of warbling from the keyboard and the impression can, unfortunately, be one that reminds you of some of those short-lived action TV shows. Sadly, this is the element that I feel lets the album down. As apt as it was at the time, this shimmering wave of sound can't help but date the score.
But he comes thundering back with Track 3, Training Hard/Russian Moon is another example of how Conti moves brilliantly from one theme to another. Like the first track, several elements go into this. Introducing us to the film's recurring theme of the astronauts learning the tricks of their trade, a lilting brass fanfare is borne aloft cavorting strings - and again the mood is patriotic, but very definitely zestful and somewhat mischievous. The second major component of the track is composed for our heroes' Russian counterparts and this theme, which appears often on the full score, is possibly my favourite. That happy little Jaws motif sees out the American portion, and then a benign harmonica croons its way in to bridge the gap between the continents before the mock-sinister Soviet rhythm strikes up. With Russian balalaikas tinkling exotically away, a striving five-note line makes its presence felt and becomes, in my opinion, the strongest theme of the score. The Russians aren't idealists, dreamers or starry-eyed pioneers like the Americans, this seems to suggest. They are spit and grit toilers who will stop at nothing to conquer space. So, Kaufman's film adopts the same stance as the US Administration, with Conti's score slyly going along for the ride.
Track 4 is a delightful aside to the main thrust of the rocket-tripping score. With Tango, Conti just lets rip and indulges himself in mariachi brass, castanets, guitar, mandolin and other strings and takes us on a surprisingly globe-trotting formal dance. There are gasps of Russian, Mexican, Spanish, German, Italian and all manner of ethnic strains running through this piece. As enjoyable as it is anachronistic to the score in general, Tango reveals the luscious devil-may-care attitude of the composer and it becomes clear that Conti is winning his own little race with Kaufman, ducking tiny personal swipes and neat touches just under the radar. And then, wouldn't you know it, he swings back into that chest-beating nobility of champions undertaking another challenge with Mach II. American brass and strings search the clouds of far-reaching hope and glory, but Soviet balalaikas and an irresistible gypsy-like motif inveigle their way in and undermine things yet again. It really shouldn't be understated just how good at this musical interpretation of rivalry Conti is. Then again, he had already proved himself a master at playing off opposing forces against one another with those early Rocky movies, his signature theme of pushing to the limits and rising to the challenge cementing itself with this space-bound clash of the titans.
But before one theme, or style takes hold of the album, Conti pulls another wild stunt.
What follows is a fun, but easily sidelined track composed of Conti-riffs on established American anthems. Full of mock pomp and ceremony, he treats us to his camped-up and brazen interpretations of such Southern classics as The Eyes Of Texas Are Upon You, The Yellow Rose of Texas, Deep In The Heart Of Texas and Dixie, making this track sound a little like a Confederate rallying call. Now I have to admit that this is not an element that immediately appeals to me, but in the context of an album that is designed to run the gamut of what the film and its score are all about, this fits the bill as the joyous , but smirk-inducing celebration of the Mercury Mission as its team become celebrities that the US Administration sort of demands the nation take to their hearts. Conti is certainly having fun with this and, as a result, so are we.
But then we reach Track 7, and the album goes stratospheric and piles on a couple of tremendous action cues and gripping set-piece challenges, and then some of his most beautiful and fragile compositions one after another. But this track, Yeager and The F104, is a thunderous cue that begins with a rousing and heroic rendition of the main theme, simply soaring with adrenaline and boundlessly upbeat in its approach to Sam Shepherd's unsung test pilot making his epic, but neglected speed/altitude-record smash. There is a great take a deep breath and grit your teeth approach to this that can't help but get you going. But - and we should be getting used to this by now - at the midway point, Conti abruptly drops the sensation and segues marvellously into a rapid Stravinsky-esque string-led double-beat pulse that is pitched somewhere between tense anticipation and earnest victory. The Russian theme takes the controls and this second half of the track nudges ahead in the speed and passion race to become my favourite part of the score. Uniquely moving at the same time as it surges ahead toward a point that seems to blur at the edge of your imagination, this is Conti's most propulsive cue.
Track 8, Light This Candle, also hits two themes right on the nose. Depicting the controversial and disastrous flight of Gus Grissom (Fred Ward), this starts out with yet more valiant excitement - Superman's caped flight is teasingly captured with some energetic bass and brass, but even if it seems as though Conti just can't take this thing with any sense of righteousness, he marvellously switches gears on us ... yet again. Things turn rapidly into dread and turmoil half-way through, twisting an emotional knife in the gut as disaster strikes. Strings shiver with fear, guilt and tragedy and a delightfully poignant refrain for woodwinds floats further back, signalling the genuine danger that these men are facing.
A startlingly heavy and serious wall of strings and brass greets us for the start of Track 9, Glenn's Flight, before Conti gives in to a burst of Holst's celebrated beginnings to Mars, The Bringer Of War. Arguably the album's grand centre-piece, this is electrifying and stirring in all the right places. There is an old school weight and grandeur given to the fanfare that comes to dominate the track, and a cosmic serenity that moves towards to the gasp-inducing qualities of John Glenn's (Ed Harris) historic multi-orbital flight. Conti develops this literally star-spangled journey further in the next track, Daybreak In Space, which cruises alongside Dennis Quaid's wisecracking Gordon Cooper as the awe-inspiring majesty of space steals his breath and heart in one momentous and spiritual moment of near-transcendence. Conti's delightful strings and woodwinds seem to hover beneath us as though forming a cushion as we, and Quaid's starstruck spaceman traverse the firmament.
Yeager's Triumph comes next and, with it, no small measure of dignity and unabashed reverence. Slowly building, with gathering brass, drums, strings and woodwinds, to a suitably heroic crescendo, a pensive, drawn-out violin-line then embraces that little Russian motif that gently “tum-tum-tums” beneath another, and altogether more jubilant fanfare rendition of the main theme. With harp and celli helping to add something of a vague glistening dreamscape to the proceedings, Yeager's Triumph takes us through the ticker-tape, the flags and the cheers of a nation that, for a time, was united in pride. The crescendo is slower and more genteel than you may think, but it brings with it a sense of tired - and relieved - satisfaction. Excellent stuff.
The album ends with a disco variation of the main theme that was supposed to be released as a single back when the film came out. Actually not as bad as it may sound, Conti arranged this and backed it up with synth and drum-machine to create a flippant, easygoing track that retains all the necessary ingredients of the theme, but laces them together with a bit of breezy 80's funk. Once again, this may not float your boat - and normally this sort of commercial folly totally irks me, too - but it fits right on in with an album that is deliberately eclectic and spiced with as much fun as it is with adrenaline, gravity and grandeur. For all of its stately grace, vigour and nobility, Conti's score doesn't take itself too seriously, and this means that it delivers an incredibly rich and fully-rounded experience that runs the emotional gamut, yet still leaves a smile on your face.
Despite the hardships and awkward situation that Bill Conti found himself in with composing this score, he certainly reaped the rewards by winning one of The Right Stuff's four Academy Awards. Considering that he was sitting out on his normal baton-swinging duties as conductor for the ceremony's orchestra, this must have been a real tonic, especially as he beat out Leonard Rosenman's (atypical for him) score for Cross Creek, Michael Gore's for Terms Of Endearment, Jerry Goldsmith's for Under Fire and, perhaps most pleasingly of all, John Williams' for Return Of The Jedi, a score that was part of a classic body of music that, itself, borrowed liberally from Holst's The Planets.
So, with a score that playfully nods to Williams, trips out a trumpet fanfare that would make Rocky proud, serenades both the glitz and glamour of American razzmatazz and the hard-edged might of Soviet determination, and even incorporates well-placed homage to Gustav Holst and Henry Mancini, Bill Conti comes up trumps. His music is buoyant, propulsive and heroic. It takes you by the scruff of the neck, rises up and up and scratches against the roof of the world, igniting the imagination and fuelling the spirit of symphonic adventure. That it checks its pride with something approaching a tongue in cheek style is all part of the appeal. The film wasn't all that it could have been, despite its sweep at the Oscars, but it was an admirable hodgepodge that was ambitious, if nothing else. Plus, it added another string to Bill Conti's bow and proved that his Rocky fanfare wasn't the epitome of talents.
Accompanying this fine release is a 12-page booklet of illustrated liner notes from the always-fascinating Julie Kirgo. Containing some great information about Conti and his score, as well as few pertinent quotations from him, this provides good solid background stuff to the production. You should note that Varese Sarabande's CD is limited to 3000 copies worldwide and, considering the high regards in which it is held, it won't be around for long.
Full Track Listing -
1. Breaking The Sound Barrier (4:47)
2. Mach I (1:22)
3. Training Hard / Russian Moon (2:18)
4. Tango (2:19) 5. Mach II (1:58)
6. The Eyes Of Texas Are Upon You / The Yellow Rose of Texas / Deep In The Heart Of Texas / Dixie (2:49)
7. Yeager and The F104 (2:27)
8. Light This Candle (2:44)
9. Glenn's Flight (5:08)
10. Daybreak In Space (2:47)
11. Yeager's Triumph (5:36)
12. The Right Stuff (Single) (3:16)
A real treat, this one, folks. Bill Conti is a composer that I've never really given enough credence to over the years, but his Oscar-winning score for The Right Stuff, even in this truncated album presentation, is pure gold.
He may confuse and confound with his obvious spoofing and classical lifts, but his musical depiction of the excitement of early rocket missions and speed-barrier bumping is forceful and gripping. The US/Soviet rivalry is musically ignited in several tracks, as is the etherealness of touching space and the emotions that it, inevitably, evokes. Trumpet fanfares, exotic balalaikas, glistening harp and some good old Texan salutes mash-up against a solid bank of agile strings that slide sinuously through the skies, dazzling synthesisers and a cheeky little tango ... and, against all the odds, gel almost perfectly.
Varese Sarabande supply a terrific set of liner notes from Julie Kirgo that really takes you behind the scenes of Conti's endeavours and the challenge that he faced in getting the score done on time and also to the satisfaction of a single-minded director. And the quality of the disc is thoroughly excellent, too.
An outstanding release of a long-awaited score.
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