Review: THE ROCKETEER (1991)

The Second Annual Remembering James Horner Blogathon

This post is written as a part of the Second Annual Remembering James Horner Blogathon hosted by Becky at Film Music Central.

Cliff (donning the Rocketeer helmet and rocket for the first time): “How do I look?”

Peevy: “Like a hood ornament.”

When you were a kid, was there anything quite as cool as a rocket pack? Sure, superheroes like Superman can fly, but he’s really an alien from another planet. But a rocket pack? That’s something anyone can strap on and fly off anywhere you wish.

Except that in 1938, the ability to fly takes on a whole other nefarious meaning, because both the U.S. and German armies are trying to develop a working model for military purposes. When the audience first sees the rocket pack, it’s being hauled by two goons across an airfield, with the FBI in hot pursuit, and in the process, they destroy a brand new plane being flown by Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell) and manage to stash the rocket in a hanger where it is found by Cliff and his friend/father-figure Peevy (Alan Arkin).

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That’s the set-up for the 1991 Disney/Touchstone Pictures film THE ROCKETEER, which was Joe Johnston’s second directorial effort (following on 1989’s HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS). Based on a comic book series, this was Disney’s second foray into comic-inspired films (the first being 1990’s DICK TRACY).

One thing that I completely missed as a kid but sticks out to me now is how, in becoming The Rocketeer, Cliff is really the accidental hero. When he and Peevy find the rocket, neither of them is thinking anything remotely heroic. Their plane crash in the opening sequence also took out a gas truck, and its owner Bigelow (played with wonderful sleeze by Jon Polito) wants them to pay him back for the loss. This makes Cliff’s motivation for keeping and using the rocket one of financial necessity, not a desire to do good or right wrongs.

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Not to say that Cliff is a bad guy. He’s just a regular guy with real-world problems, and he sees the rocket as a means to an end. Billy Campbell sometimes gets a bad rap for his performance here, but I rather like him. He’s not especially heroic, but then he really shouldn’t be because he’s not a hero in the normal sense.

IMG_0056He’s also a bit of a dolt when it comes to how he treats his girlfriend, aspiring actress Jenny (Jennifer Connelly). If there’s one fault I can find with the film, it’s that there really isn’t much chemistry between the two actors (despite the fact that they were allegedly dating during filming). This is a relationship because the script says so rather than because the actors sell it, even though they both look the part.

Cliff also quickly finds himself the rival (in more ways than one) with leading man Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton). Sinclair is obviously a take on Errol Flynn, and Dalton is clearly enjoying himself in the role. First, he is revealed to be behind the gangsters who were trying to steal the rocket, as he admonishes the head of the gang, Eddie Valentine (played, in a real stretch of casting, by Paul Sorvino). Later, Sinclair starts to make a move on Jenny, at least in part because he knows she knows who has the rocket.

IMG_0055He’s also sent his henchman, Lothar (Tiny Ron) in search of the rocket. I suppose it’s their way of calling back to the fact that this is a comic book movie, but Lothar is a bit distracting because of his obvious prosthetic makeup that seems like a leftover from DICK TRACY. The character also disappears for stretches at a time, becoming more of a plot convenience than an actual important element.

Getting back to Cliff, it’s interesting in that when he finally uses the rocket, he does it because he has no other choice. In fact, pretty much every time he becomes The Rocketeer, it’s to clean up a mess he’s created: he first has to rescue an over-the-hill pilot who is only flying because he’s trying to help Cliff out; later, Cliff needs to save Jenny from Sinclair after he uses it to escape a couple of FBI agents who also are after the rocket.

IMG_0057It’s this last wrinkle that might be the film’s only (minor) misstep plot-wise. Adding in the FBI adds a fourth group that either has or wants the rocket, and it’s a bit much to keep straight (as a kid, I remember being confused by who was who). I can forgive the added complexity a bit by the fact that these agents are working for the inventor of the rocket, who is none other than Howard Hughes (the always good Terry O’Quinn). He wants the rocket back to keep it from falling into Nazi hands; Neville Sinclair turns out to be a Nazi agent hiding within Hollywood society.

The presence of the FBI also provides one of my favorite little touches in the film. Towards the end, the FBI and the Valentine gang find themselves on the same side, shooting against the Nazis. At one point, Valentine and one of the agents stop firing their machine guns for a moment, look at each other, have this moment of ironic realization, and resume firing.

Despite a few creaky effects that definitely show their age, the film’s climax aboard a Nazi zeppelin works pretty well, and the final resolution that does Sinclair in calls back nicely to an earlier sequence where the rocket is damaged. I also really enjoy how Sinclair’s fiery plunge takes out the “land” in the “Hollywoodland” sign.

The Music

When I first saw THE ROCKETEER I really only knew James Horner based on his scores for STAR TREK II and STAR TREK III. Also being a big fan of John Williams’ score for SUPERMAN (1978), I was a little apprehensive about a composer who I felt was more subdued in his approach (silly me).

Indeed, his opening cue is not bombastic in the classic superhero vein. Instead, Horner wrote an absolutely gorgeous, long-lined melody from which to base the score. His main Rocketeer theme is one of my favorites from Horner’s entire body of work, and it is absolutely gorgeous in its first appearance, performed initially by solo piano over the opening credits. He also wrote a “B Theme” for The Rocketeer, which kicks in just as Cliff’s ill-fated flight takes off:

“Main Title / Takeoff”

Character Themes

In a style similar to Williams, Horner also wrote themes for Jenny and for Sinclair. His  “Jenny” theme, which follows her character throughout the film, receives a lovely concert arrangement on the soundtrack that is introduced by piano, strings, harp, and solo French horn:

“Jenny”

Sinclair’s themes consist of two motifs. The first is a descending motif similar to the one that Horner used in STAR TREK III to represent the Excelsior. The second, more sinister is four rising notes that are usually played in the low brass. Both make several appearances in the track “Neville Sinclair’s House” which plays over Jenny being brought to Sinclair’s home, his (unsuccessful) attempt to seduce her, and her discovery that he is a Nazi agent.

Excerpts from “Neville Sinclair’s House”

Action Cues

IMG_0059Because this is a superhero film, the action music is arguably the most important part of the score. Despite my unfounded initial reservations about the main theme, Horner does a magnificent job in tweaking his themes for the action cues. My favorite bits come from Cliff’s first appearance as the Rocketeer, as he rescues a pilot in mid-air. A bombastic version of the main theme accompanies Cliff’s attempts to successfully pilot the rocket, including two falls that are wonderfully scored by Horner:

“Flying Circus” excerpt #1

He also brings back the second “flying” motif at the end of this sequence, scoring a humerous bit of action as Cliff flies out of control. This also includes one of the moments I definitely remember from the trailers: Cliff plows through a field as two guys who look like they should be selling Bartles and James wine coolers remark, “biiiig gopher.” It’s also perhaps the best use of the Jew’s harp I’ve ever heard in an action cue (an admittedly short list).

“Flying Circus” excerpt #2

IMG_0058One of the unfair criticisms of James Horner is that he tends to recycle themes from previous scores. While he does do this, I don’t think its to any greater degree than most composers. If anything, he tends to reuse rhythms or short phrases rather than whole themes. For THE ROCKETEER, he does keep this to a minimum, save for the Sinclair theme I mentioned earlier, and his chromatic motif from “Genesis Countdown” in STAR TREK II. This latter motif appears most prominently in the build to the climax, which occurs in Griffith Park Observatory. As the tension builds between Cliff and Sinclair over an exchange of the rocket for Jenny, this motif plays prominently in the underscore. As Cliff manages to turn the Valentine gang against Sinclair (because of his Nazi roots), Sinclair then unleashes a hidden squat of Nazi foot soldiers, followed by the reveal of a giant zeppelin hiding behind the observatory (not sure how this is physically possible but  go with it). The remainder of the cue is rounded out by the expected action music featuring the main themes as well as Sinclair and Jenny’s themes.

Excerpt from “Rendesvouz at Griffith Park Observatory”

The final selection is from the final climax of the film, which takes place aboard the zeppelin. Once Sinclair is killed, Cliff (now rocket-less) and Jenny run across the top of the zeppelin which is being engulfed in flames. Finally, Hughes and Peevy arrive in the nick of time to rescue them, as a final statement of Sinclair’s theme plays over the Nazi emblem disappearing in the fire.

Excerpt from “The Zepplin”

Final Thoughts

All in all, THE ROCKETEER is an immensely enjoyable film that unfortunately didn’t do well at the box office. Joe Johnston does a terrific job nailing a period feel (a talent he would also bring to CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER later in his career), and all of the actors perform their roles well. It’s a shame that the film didn’t do as well as it could have on it’s initial release, but it seems to have found an audience thanks to home video. Despite the rash of comic book movies these days, few seem to have the heart and characters of a film like THE ROCKETEER. If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend you check it out.

 

“Nautical But Nice”

James Horner and the Music for The Wrath of Khan

This post is written as a part of the Second Annual Remembering James Horner Blogathon hosted by Becky at Film Music Central. It also continues my look at the music of the Star Trek film series. For previous reviews: 

STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE 

Despite the financial success of STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE (1979), the film was considered by Paramount Pictures to be a disappointment, owing to spiraling production costs and a script that came together literally at the last minute and that led to a story that left many Trek fans cold.

The end result was that Paramount Pictures decided, if there was to be a second Star Trek film, the budget would have to be considerably smaller. Series creator Gene Roddenberry, who was largely blamed for the cost overruns from the first film, was reduced to an “Executive Consultant” role, while well-regarded TV producer Harve Bennett was put in charge of the franchise.

As he was developing the script with writer Jack B. Sowards, Bennett turned to novelist-turned-director Nicholas Meyer to helm the film. Meyer had recently directed TIME AFTER TIME (1979), but he had almost no familiarity with Star Trek. This actually turned out to be a good thing, since he was able to focus on making the best film possible without staying overly (excessively) reverential to the material.

The worst of times; the best of times…

The reduction in the film’s budget affected several aspects of production; however, what could have been seen as a hindrance was actually embraced by director Meyer. In addition to finding creative solutions around the need to have to starship bridges (the Reliant is simply a redress of the Enterprise) and a decreased effects budget (there is a number of re-used shots of the Enterprise from the first film), the film’s music would be affected as well.

“I believe that art thrives on restrictions, and that when you’re forced to be ingenious, things get better than if you can throw oodles of money at the problem.”
– Nicholas Meyer, STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN director’s commentary.

Because of his standing in the film community, there was simply no way the producers could afford to bring back Jerry Goldsmith, despite the incredible score he had produced for the first film. To take his place, Meyer would turn to a 28-year-old relative unknown: James Horner. Horner had scored a few small films to that point (including BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS [1980] for Roger Corman), but this was his first major composing assignment.

Needless to say, Horner took advantage of the opportunity.

IMG_0051From the start of the project, Meyer had envisioned Star Trek as a version of Horatio Hornblower in outer space (ironically, this was one of Gene Roddenberry’s initial takes as well). This in turn led Horner to consider a more sea-faring style compared to the high-concept science fiction approach taken by Jerry Goldsmith.

This new focus is certainly evident in Horner’s main titles, which are made up of two complementary themes: first is one that I’ve always identified with Admiral Kirk, while the second with the Enterprise. I’m not sure if Horner himself intended this, but it’s how I’ve always associated them. On balance, I think I prefer the smoother Enterprise theme, but both work quite well. Horner also restored the Alexander Courage fanfare to the main titles (it having been dropped by Goldsmith), and its use at the beginning of the titles would become a staple for the series until STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY (1991).

“Main Titles”

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James Horner would also write a motif for Khan, and thus a controversy was born. While I find the charge to be mostly overblown, Horner has garnered criticism over the years for self-plagarization. Nowhere is this more apparent than his continued use of variations of the Khan theme , which became known as the famous/infamous “Horner Four-note Danger Motif.” Here, the four notes appear as the Enterprise is approaching the Reliant, unaware that Khan and his group have taken over the ship. When the image cuts to a closeup of the Reliant bearing down on Kirk and company, Horner lets loose with the full Khan motif:

Excerpt from “Surprise Attack”

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The Kirk and Khan motifs play well off of each other, and Horner uses them both to great effect particularly during the final battle in the Mutara Nebula. Here at times, he uses a more action-oriented, abbreviated form of Kirk’s theme to play off the more fanfare-like qualities of the Khan theme. Quiet mysterious underscore follows the ships playing hide-and-seek in the nebula, with the occasional blast of one or both themes as one captain tries to get the upper hand on the other. Another aspect the the cue that continues to catch me off guard occasion is the way the sound drops off into silence, only to roar back as Khan suddenly appears immediately in front of the Enterprise.

Excerpt from “Battle in the Mutara Nebula”

Genesis_device_transporting

The aftermath of the battle leads to Khan activating the Genesis Device, causing the wounded Enterprise to flee and Spock to ultimately sacrifice himself for the good of his ship. This sequence also introduces another motif that would find its way into many Horner scores in the future (including THE ROCKETEER (1991), which I am also reviewing for this blogathon). It’s something I affectionately refer to as the “revving-up theme,” it consists of three notes that rise chromatically. Often, Horner repeats this twice in different registers, allowing the two “revs” to overlap. It’s an effective way of the music showing that there is a build-up to something happening. Here, that motif builds as Kirk’s theme appears in the high brass, as he realizes that the crew is doomed unless they can somehow restore the warp drive.

Excerpt from “Genesis Countdown”

In a subtle but effective bit of directing, Meyer allows the camera to slowly track from Kirk over to Spock, who realizes that there is only one way out. It’s also a fantastic bit of acting by Nimoy in this scene, as he conveys so much in just a slight tilt of his head and a determined exit from the bridge.

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I would also be remiss if I didn’t point out the theme that Horner writes for Spock, which plays throughout the film, most notably in the scene in Spock’s cabin where he transfers command of the Enterprise to Kirk and at the end of the film, where he dies trapped inside the reactor room.

“Spock (Dies)”

His theme is first introduced with electronics played over a lovely harp melody. As he dies, the electronics are largely replaced by a solo French horn. Spock’s theme would be developed further in STAR TREK III, forming a third thematic pillar with the Kirk and Enterprise themes in that film.

But that’s another blog post…

Ubiquitous Cues: #10

Just for fun, I’m starting a rundown of the Top 10 Ubiquitous Cues in film. This is a list scientifically curated by me sitting down with a notepad and jotting 10 titles down as they came to me. I’m sure I’ve forgotten some, which is what the comments section is for 🙂

In any case, this will be a list of what I think are ten of the most recognizable cues from film, and in one case, it’s not even a cue that was written for the film in question. This is music that almost anyone on the street will recognize, even if they don’t know where it’s from.

“Bishop’s Countdown” – Aliens (1986), James Horner

Case in point, unless you are a film music fan, I doubt you’ll immediately recognize this choice from the track name or perhaps even the film. That said, I can almost guarantee you’ve heard it before.

“Bishop’s Countdown”

During the 1990s-2000s especially, you would hear a portion of this track in a movie trailer each summer (sometimes for multiple movies). Heck, even the trailer to THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY (2005) managed to work it in:

How many times can you remember hearing this cue in a movie trailer? Let me know your thoughts in the comments, and be on the lookout for the #9 cue coming soon, which will be a bit of an evolutionary step forward.

Announcing the 2nd Annual Remembering James Horner Blogathon

Check out this upcoming Blogathon hosted by Becky over at Film Music Central. I’ll be joining in, will you?

Film Music Central

The 2nd Annual Remembering James Horner Blogathon

The time has come once again to honor the memory of the late James Horner, a genius of the film music world who is still sorely missed. Many of you joined me last year for my first ever blogathon and I hope you can join me once again for the 2nd Annual Remembering James Horner Blogathon, which will be held June 23rd-June 25th later this summer.

As with last year, this blogathon will focus on any film that features the work of James Horner. To give you an idea of what this looks like, here are links to the recaps of last year’s blogathon:

Remembering James Horner Blogathon: Day One Recap

Remembering James Horner Blogathon: Day Two Recap

Remembering James Horner Blogathon: Day Three Recap

I am only allowing two entries per film, so if someone wants to write about Titanic, then only two people can use that topic…

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