Trek Charts a New Path Home

Leonard Rosenman and the music of STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME

This post continues my look at the music of the Star Trek film franchise. For previous posts:

STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE | STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN
STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK

STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME completes a trilogy of films that began with STAR TREK II. Yet in many ways, it also feels completely different from the first two parts in that trilogy and perhaps in the Star Trek franchise as a whole. The tone is noticeably and purposefully lighter, and the extensive location shooting makes the entire film feel much more airy and wide open than the others, which were almost exclusively confined to soundstages.

STAR TREK IV also brought with it a change of composer. James Horner, who had scored the previous two films, departed in favor of Leonard Rosenman, who was a personal friend of director and star Leonard Nimoy. Reportedly, Nimoy had wanted Rosenman to score STAR TREK III, but didn’t have the clout at the time to make it happen. While I would have a hard time imagining anyone other than Horner score SEARCH FOR SPOCK, I don’t think I can hear Horner’s themes working well in STAR TREK IV either.

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Rosenman was certainly not a stranger to science fiction, having scored FANTASTIC VOYAGE (1966) and BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1970) among other films over his long career. He composed music in a variety of styles over his career, including jazz particularly early on, but many of his more famous efforts are notable for being somewhat more avant-garde and atonal than contemporaries in film composition. For STAR TREK IV, he would apply both jazz and more modern techniques to his writing, with varying success. This score has always been considered the red-headed stepchild of Star Trek scores (being sandwiched between the two Horner efforts and the return of Jerry Goldsmith for STAR TREK V doesn’t help). But is it really as bad as its reputation?

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Leonard Rosenman

Rosenman’s take on Star Trek is certainly a departure from past films. The movie also includes a mere 30 or so minutes of scoring, which is dramatically less than previously. Nimoy’s direction was to minimize any underscore over dialogue scenes, thus the cues tend to favor either set pieces or take the form of short sequences to connect scenes. During the sequences that take place in 1986 San Francisco, Rosenman emphasizes the comedic aspects of what’s happening on screen (the two chases involving Chekov, for example). His decision to partner with the jazz fusion group The Yellowjackets also dates aspects of the score in ways that are not an issue for any of the other Star Trek scores before or since. This is most apparent in the scene where Kirk and company find themselves walking the streets of San Francisco (the “double dumbass on you!” scene). It’s almost fun in moderation when taken in the context of watching the film, and it solidly places the viewer in the mid 1980s.

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Also unusual for a Star Trek film, there is relatively little music. Nimoy wanted the dialogue to be easily heard, and wanted to minimize the amount of underscore for any dialogue-driven scenes. As a result, there is only about 30 minutes of music, and large sections of the film go unscored.

Main Title

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The difference in composer is noticeable right off the bat with Rosenman’s title theme. After a brassy arrangement of the Alexander Courage fanfare (one of my favorite renditions, if I’m being honest), the music launches into a jaunty, upbeat theme that immediately signals a change in tone for the film. The opening bars feature two thematic ideas: a fanfare in the trumpets that is supplemented by chimes, and a counterpoint melody in the horns. The horn melody is really what becomes the main musical idea for the film, and I quite like it. The trumpets, however, seem rather out of place. Especially with the chimes, they call to mind a holiday sale commercial or the intro to a local newscast. It’s not BAD music, per se, but it doesn’t feel like Star Trek to me (granted this is a subjective thing; your mileage may vary).

The middle of the cue introduces a decending B-theme that also is much lighter in tone than in the past. All in all, it’s a solid title cue, and one that immediately makes you realize you’re in for a different film than the previous outings.

“Logo/Main Title” (as heard in the final film)

Yet this wasn’t the original cue written for the film. Rosenman’s original main title was a full-on adaptation of the original Alexander Courage theme for the Star Trek television show. However, Nimoy requested an original theme be used in its place. In the end, I think this was the right call: the Courage theme was already dated by 1986, and since it’s not long enough to fill the entire running time of the credits, it’s padded out by a modern composition more typical of Rosenman (but which clashes severely with the material that comes before).

“Logo/Main Title” (unused version)

Silliness with Chekov

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As I mentioned above, a good chunk of the music in this film involves two chase sequences centered around Chekov. The first, where he is attempting to escape capture by the FBI and the military, is underscored by some rather silly music with a Russian bent. While it may work all right in the film, I really don’t think it makes for a wonderful listening experience. To be fair, Rosenman does manage to create a theme for the Chekov character here, which is something that I don’t think can be said for any other movie before or since.

“Chekov’s Run”

This theme carries over to the second chase scene, where Kirk, McCoy, and Gillian Taylor rescue Chekov from the hospital, where he is being guarded after being injured during his attempted escape from the FBI. It’s another very silly cue, but I feel like this one is much more entertaining as a stand-alone listen.

“Hospital Chase”

The Rosenman Style

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Like pretty much every (film) composer, if you listen to multiple Rosenman scores, you’ll begin to notice common scoring techniques, including ostinato (repetetive notes, usually at the same pitch) during suspense and action sequences, complex harmonic textures, and the use of a “tone pyramid” in which individual notes are performed in sequence to form a chord. While this last technique appears throughout the score, mostly over sequences involving the mysterious probe that threatens Earth, the “Rosenman Style” is most evident at the end of the film, particularly in the cue “Crash/Whale Fugue.” Played over the climax of the film, in which Kirk must work to free the trapped whales and then during the whales’ conversation with the probe.

This is one my favorite cues of the film, because it features a variety of techniques in the scoring, and it includes some of the most interesting music heard in any film in the Star Trek series. Unfortunately, the sound mix dials out a lot of the music, but the original cue has been restored in the expanded album. The conversation between the probe and the whales is colored by unusual atonal passages and flutters of woodwinds and brass that resolve into a triumphant blast of melody as the probe leaves Earth orbit. This is followed by a joyous passage as the whales, Kirk, and company celebrate.

“Crash/Whale Fugue”

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Another section of the film that is a standout in terms of music is the very end, where Kirk is demoted back to captain and given a command of his own once again, while Spock is able to finally reconcile his differences with his father, Sarek. Spock’s motif begins the cue that then shifts to a fantastic rendition of the Alexander Courage theme from the original series.

The inclusion of the Courage theme (aside from the fanfare) is something that doesn’t happen often in the Star Trek films. While this is not my favorite reuse of that theme in the Trek movies, it’s certainly fitting, as our crew is reunited with the U.S.S. Enterprise (NCC-1701-A).

“Home Again”

To be clear, I really like the concluding music to the film. I think it’s some of the best writing that Rosenman did in the score. However…it bears a strong resemblance to the finale to another science fiction film that I like a lot: FANTASTIC VOYAGE (1966). That score is largely atonal, with the exception of a longing melody for the Proteus submarine that carries the main cast throughout the human body. At the end of the film, the crew slowly reverts back to their normal size, and the accompanying music also reverts back to a more melodic form as well…a melodic form that strongly resembles what Rosenman does at the end of STAR TREK IV. Is it a mere coincidence of 20 years separation between the two scores, or is Rosenman copying himself? I leave you to decide:

Excerpt from “Optic Nerve/End Cast” (FANTASTIC VOYAGE)

Final Thoughts

For a variety of reasons, Leonard Rosenman’s score is probably the most polarizing for Star Trek fans. It is certainly a departure from the scores that came before and after, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad. Yes, there are a few unfortunate moments, largely around the sillier cues and the choice to include some (now) very dated jazz fusion music, but there is also a lot to like in the soundtrack.

With the success of STAR TREK IV, Paramount Pictures approved yet another Star Trek film, this time to be directed by William Shatner. While the merits of that particular film can be debated, one of Shatner’s best decisions was to bring back the man who, in my personal opinion, defines what Star Trek movie music is: Jerry Goldsmith. Coming up next in this series looking at the music of the Star Trek films will be a discussion of the music of STAR TREK V: THE FINAL FRONTIER.

What are YOUR thoughts about Leonard Rosenman’s music for THE VOYAGE HOME? Please let me know in the comments below!

“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”

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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…

General Chang and STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY (1991)

“In space, all warriors are cold warriors.”

This post is written for the Christopher Plummer Blogathon hosted by Sean Munger. Thanks for the opportunity to participate, Sean!

plummer-blogathon-banner-2aEver since the success of STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, subsequent films in the Star Trek universe have largely been judged by their villains (with STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME (1986) being the obvious exception). And like Shinzon in STAR TREK: NEMESIS (2002) and Nero in STAR TREK (2009), many often feel like pale imitations of Khan himself.

However, this is not the case for Klingon General Chang in STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY, which in my humble opinion is the only film in the series to challenge WRATH OF KHAN for the top spot among all Star Trek films. Chang is a big part of why I love the film so much, and a lot of that is due to his portrayal by Christopher Plummer.

img_0047As an actor who comes from theater, Plummer was the ideal choice to play a Klingon general with a penchant for quoting from the works of Shakespeare (even if they are not, as he remarks in the film, in the “original Klingon”). Unlike some of Trek’s more one-note villains, Chang is at various times cordial, cunning, or ruthless. Plummer’s theater background is most evident in the trial scene, where Chang is called upon to prosecute a case against Captain Kirk and Doctor McCoy for the assassination of the Klingon chancellor. He shows tremendous range here, from quiet and almost chatty when he discusses the amount of Romulan ale consumed by McCoy prior to the attack to bombastic when, in perhaps the most famous exchange in the scene, he evokes Adlai Stevenson II’s famous remark to Russian Ambassador Zorin by yelling at Kirk, “…don’t wait for the translation! Answer me now!!!”

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“Have we not heard the chimes at midnight?”

Because Chang is not (deliberately) set up as the villain of the film, Plummer also has the added challenge of portraying someone who might be a reluctant ally to the Federation when he comes aboard the Enterprise for an ill-fated diplomatic dinner. His initial encounter with Captain Kirk is not one of hostility but one of admiration, as Chang sees himself and Kirk as two sides of the same coin. Plummer plays both his arrival and departure scenes with the perfect balance of relish, comradeship, and menace so that, despite the good intentions of Chancellor Gorkon, you’re not quite sure what to make of this bald fellow with the bolted-in eyepatch.

His attitude also serves as an interesting mirror on the character of Captain Kirk. Of course, Kirk is portrayed as the hero in these stories, but how would that hero be viewed by his long-time adversaries? While his deeds may not be celebrated, he certainly deserves respect as a warrior, particularly from a race like the Klingons. One gets the sense that Chang has had a similarly distinguished career as Kirk, and it’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that his appearance to Kirk and his crew is not dissimilar to how Kirk is viewed by the Klingons. The fact that both Christopher Plummer and William Shatner are classically trained Canadian actors makes the parallel even that much closer.

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Both characters also carry with them considerable prejudices as well. While some of Kirk’s is rooted in the death of his son at the hands of the Klingons, there is also the ingrained distrust built up over years of conflict that is shared by both. This is most apparent during the dinner scene, where a comment by Chang is attributed by Kirk to Adolf Hitler just prior to the Nazi invasion of Europe. It also helps that Plummer’s delivery when he responds, “I beg your pardon?” is absolutely perfect. Ultimately though, Kirk is able to overcome these prejudices (admittedly only after being sent to a Klingon gulag) and recognize that it is possible to make peace with one’s enemies.

ffh7ymChang, of course, isn’t able to make this leap, and because of how he sees Kirk as a mirror of himself, he believes that Kirk is right there with him about there being, “no peace in our time.” It is here during the final battle that Plummer lets loose, chewing the scenery with incredible gusto as he mockingly quotes Shakespeare from his cloaked bird of prey. While I suppose this aspect of his performance could be considered hammy, I just enjoy it so much that I can’t find fault. Chang is clearly having a wonderful time, slowly toying with his adversary, and his shocked expression upon realizing that Kirk has beaten him along with his subdued, “to be…or not to be,” final line is the perfect way for him to go out.

A couple of minor character issues aside — I was never convinced that Chang was anything BUT the bad guy, and his reveal as such in the film is more of a “well duh” moment than a surprise — Christopher Plummer certainly belongs up there with Ricardo Montalban when discussing the best villain portrayals the Star Trek franchise has produced. I cannot imagine another actor in the role, which is perhaps the greatest compliment you can give.

Finally, Christopher Plummer also made his mark in a different role: narrating the first teaser trailer for the film. Set to clips projected over the surface of the Enterprise, it’s probably my favorite Star Trek trailer of all time.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on Plummer, Chang, and the trailer, and thanks again to Sean Munger for the chance to revisit one of my favorites.

 

 

 

The Gold(smith) Standard

The Music of STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE

In the coming weeks, I will be taking a look at each of the scores to the films in the Star Trek franchise. Here, I will talk a bit about the first film, which really set the template for what Trek film music would sound like for more than 35 years.

In 1979, Star Trek, a TV show that had been on the air only for three short seasons yet drew a fan base unequaled for its time through syndication, was reborn as a feature film. While the music written for the series by Alexander Courage, Gerald Fried, Fred Steiner, and others had often been memorable but not what I would call “cinematic.” To bring Trek to the big screen would require the skills of one of the biggest names in film music: Jerry Goldsmith.

Continue reading “The Gold(smith) Standard”