SUPERMAN RETURNS
Music composed by John Ottman, conducted by Damon Intrabartolo. Original themes by John Williams.
Label: Warner Bros. / Rhino
Catalog: R2 77654
Year: 2006

Tracks:

1. Main Titles
2. Memories
3. Rough Flight
4. Little Secrets/Power Of The Sun
5. Bank Job
6. How Could You Leave Us?
7. Tell Me Everything
8. You´re Not One Of Them
9. Not Like The Train Set
10. So Long Superman
11. The People You Care For
12. I Wanted You To Know
13. Saving The World
14. In The Hands Of Mortals
15. Reprise/Fly Away
16. Trailer # 1 (Video)
17. Trailer # 2 (Video)
18. Behind the Scenes: Superman Returns Score (Video)
Total Time: 55:27
Rating:

 

 

In the inevitable rash of superhero franchise resurrections, even the Man of Steel isn't immune from studio unoriginality and profit taking. Perhaps more frightful is the fact that the original Superman film will soon be 30 years old, with an entire generation of youths growing up without remembering the immense and exuberant popularity that spawned so many sequels. The storyline of director Bryan Singer's 2006 Superman Returns does fit relatively well into the original franchise's progression, following Superman's battle with fellow Krypton outcasts led by General Zod in Superman II (the destruction of New York has never been so corny or fun) and the less spectacular Superman III. It's a time in the story when Superman attempts to determine if he is indeed the final survivor of Krypton and allows that journey to let his life on Earth pass him by. The landscape has changed, with Lois Lane involved (and with a young child) and Lex Luther out of prison and a legitimate businessman. The world has seemingly lost its use for Superman, but thanks to Luther's inability to detach himself from world domination attempts, Superman Returns contains both the personal discovery and the action pieces that everyone expects. Regular Singer collaborator John Ottman had the exciting, frustrating, and dangerous task of avoiding the pitfalls of Ken Thorne, Alexander Courage, Jay Gruska, and anyone else who has written music for a Superman-related film or television series. The major pitfall, of course, is the attempt to emulate the superior, established styles and themes of John Williams' highly recognizable 1978 score without simply forcing arrangements of the original score into new scenes. Thorne and Courage did just that, creating three unoriginal sequel scores that neither intelligently advanced the musical ideas of the franchise nor reprised the originals with any sense of progress. For Gruska and others in the television shows based on the character, Williams' themes were buried despite attempts to rehash the heroicism of his work.

John Ottman, however, is a smart cookie, and while his superhero scores thus far had varied from only function to moderately good, he is always respectful of his composing environment. Few composers today actually make a concerted effort to research a franchise's musical history whenever yet another sequel or reinterpretation is made. Some claim to never even listen to the scores of the predecessors, and thus produce scores the opposite of what Thorne and Courage accomplished in the Superman franchise. Criticism awaits any composer who attempts to walk the fine line that Ottman has attempted here, with loyalty and originality always seemingly at odds. It takes a really careful and intellectual understanding of the previous material to actually pull off a successful balance between old and new, and John Ottman has produced such an event for Superman Returns. Ottman's score is everything you hope for a "sequel from a new composer." Its foundation doesn't stray from Williams' mastery, with nearly all of the original 1978 themes used to varying degrees here. It also drops the least functional theme from '78 and replaces it with a more convincing one in its place. Ottman also addresses new challenges of the character with a fresh "theme of discovery" that assists in rolling the franchise along in musical development. Base instrumentation is everything required for the reprises of old themes, while new additions expand Superman's horizons. If you sit and analyze Ottman's Superman Returns from a technical standpoint, it contains few flaws, if any. How you react to it emotionally becomes the key, and that reaction will depend on your personal history with the franchise. For Ottman, he proves his intellectual capacity in this score, something that fans of his have been waiting for the composer to do for several years since he quietly introduced himself with several dark and devious scores of delight in the 1990's. He had once commented that he yearned for the day when he could write a score primarily in the major key, and in the redeeming new theme for Superman's self-discovery, he has done just that. His career page has finally turned.

Of most interest to die-hard fans of the franchise will be Ottman's loyalty to Williams' most heralded presentations of themes, recording a faithful rendition of the original "Main Titles" that reintroduces us to the primary march and the "Can You Read My Mind" love theme. The title march integration into the score is masterful, existing just often enough to punctuate pertinent victories for the hero without rambling on and becoming tiresome. Where Ottman really shows off his research is in the plentiful incorporations of theme and rhythm fragments. Pieces of the march, whether it's the chopping strings below or the octave-flying brass above pop up everywhere throughout Superman Returns, sometimes in full glory but usually in more interesting fragmented form. Rearrangements of the title theme are top notch, from the first life-saving moments of "Rough Flight" to the triumphant finale burst in "Fly Away." The love theme is a sentimental favorite from Williams' score, faring better through the decades as the title march becomes a tad tiresome, though the nature of the distanced relationship between Lane and Superman doesn't allow Ottman to expand the theme to the same flourishing levels of romance that Williams could. Statements of the theme are often subtle and fragmented, only performed in significance twice (and the theme typically doesn't have a chance to mature to its conclusion, leaving it hanging mostly). Ottman's interpretation of the "Kent Family Theme" is perhaps the most intriguing on the album, offering a jubilant, choral performance in "Memories" and merging the theme with the primary new one and the love theme in "I Wanted You to Know," a fantastic touch of maturity for both the character and Ottman. Only a few statements of the noble "Krypton Theme" (another Williams idea that has held up well with time) are to be heard, one by whispering woodwind in "How Could You Leave Us?" and then by defiant brass in the following "Tell Me Everything." Absent from Ottman's score is Williams' "March of the Villains," a piece that many agree was far too upbeat for the Luther character in the original film (despite Gene Hackman's sense of humor) and better represented the sidekick Otis.

Ottman's new ideas include a replacement for the villains theme, interestingly still set to a strongly rhythmic base, with mechanized strings and woodwinds prancing above blasts of dissonant brass. The construct is by no means spectacular, but it is recognizable immediately upon arrival in "Not Like the Train Set" and is far more convincing in its menace than Williams' original. As this theme is reprised later in the score, Ottman throws in a diverse drum array that causes some of the score's primary action sequences to sound a shade on the Danny Elfman/Spiderman side. Staggered rhythms, disjointed octave-hopping, and a hefty bed of timpani in "Bank Job" is a singular throwback to Jerry Goldsmith's Capricorn One. The most important new idea in Superman Returns is Ottman's introduction of a "personal theme" for Superman's inner turmoil, an idea that appropriately lowers a note before progressively rising as the character's confidence grows. It's exactly the kind of uplifting major-key idea that has eluded Ottman all these years, and by its resolute choral statements in "Reprise," it clearly identifies itself as the heart and soul of the score. Some listeners have criticized Ottman in the past for writing decent scores that are plagued by poor thematic concepts and integration. And on the surface, these listeners might argue that Superman Returns succeeds because John Williams wrote the themes and Ottman was able to use his typically strong arranging and editing skills to make the score soar. But the invention and interpolation of the "personal theme" directly refutes that notion. Additionally, the action material in Superman Returns doesn't suffer from the anonymity of his work for Fantastic Four or
X-Men 2. It moves with purpose and direction. There are some extremely impressive harmonic explosions of rhythmic performances in this work, often balanced very well by slight dissonance or a layer of two of effective counterpoint. Even in the frenziest moments of new battle material, Ottman's use of fragments from Williams' score can be distinctly noticed.

Much of your ability to enjoy each element of Ottman's score is owed to a fine recording quality. The Hollywood performers are not on the same level as the London Symphony Orchestra, and in the opening reprise of the title march, a direct comparison in size does not favor Superman Returns. But the performance is enthusiastic and mixed well; some listeners may not care for the dry mix (and they can certainly add some reverb on their own to rectify that if they choose), but it does allow for the intelligence of Ottman's highly layered score to shine through. Of particular note in Superman Returns is Ottman's use of the choir. In previous scores, his best use of voice has often involved solo, synthetic, or unconventional performances, with usage such as Apt Pupil retaining far more memorability than the rather mundane employment of choir in his more recent superhero scores. His incorporation of the two singing groups in Superman Returns ranges from the majestic (the opening of "So Long Superman" is a highlight in Ottman's career) to the higher-ranging, innocently magical style of Elfman's early fantasy scores in the reflective "How Could You Leave Us?" and "Reprise." Ottman even gives you the opportunity to hear short snippets of Williams' title theme and march with choral accompaniment throughout the score. Overall, Ottman's intelligence has finally matured in a project that will hopefully gain him significant, widespread recognition. His handling of this project, even going so far as inviting Williams to attend a recording session of the score (which he was unable to do because of distance), is admirable. He gave Singer and the producers several options in Superman Returns, recording additional pieces, some of which loyal re-recordings of original Williams cues, that were ultimately rejected, but showed Ottman's intent for goodwill and may even be used in extended versions of the film on DVD someday.

The CD product contains a satisfying 55 minutes of material, though there is additional recorded material, as mentioned, that might make for a better expanded release someday. That space on the commercial CD, however, is reserved for bonus content that includes trailers and a short "behind the scenes" film about the recording of the score. Superman Returns is a success for Ottman in every regard, and should serve as a fine example of how to intelligently and successfully score a sequel or remake.

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