The year I turned 16, a film was released which I didn’t see at the time, and I’m not sure I have ever watched in its entirety. The year I was sixteen (sweet sixteen and never been kissed, but that’s another story) my mother died, and I probably had other things on my mind. In any case, the film performed poorly, not because my mother died, but in large part because of its timing. It was released a matter of months after the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster, and became a bit of a marketing nightmare.
Be that as it may, the music was penned by the one and only John Williams. Compared to many of his scores of the period, its quite a restrained affair. The Main theme is a graceful, expansive piece with large intervals in a strings and brass dominated theme, with sparkly textures on piano and celeste. It’s a pleasant theme, but not, dare I say it, one of William’s great themes, although it does make wonderful use of what I sense is William’s favourite instrument, the French horn. Have a listen:
However, the original soundtrack album has a Williams rarity which appears in the second track, “Training Montage”. It is, unusually for Williams, the main theme played on synths, complete with heavy 80’s drum-track. Depending on your mood, it is either inspired, or truly awful. I’m going to sit on the fence. It is, however, fun to hear Williams flexing his writing muscle within a different genre.
The next piece accompanies the unexpected launch of the shuttle with 5 frightened children and their mentor Andie, in the shape of Kate Capshaw. Oh and whilst we’re on the cast, the youngest member of the crew, Max, is played by a young Joaquin Phoenix (when he was still going be the name Leaf). He treats the whole affair as if he were training for a mission against the Evil Galactic Empire, so that’s a big thing in the film’s favour for me. (Star Wars nerd? Me? Yeah maybe a little).
There is a statement of part of the main theme in low brass as Jinx the robot watches from the computer room. The high strings and glistening harp perform a light-hearted and exciting passage. Indeed, in the run up to the launch the music is playful, and when the time comes for main engine ignition, Williams provides one of his wonderful fugue-like figures which bears some resemblance to both the shark cage fugue from Jaws and the theme to Hook. The effect is a thrilling build up of emotional drama which culminates with the thrilling lift-off sequence. It’s beautifully powerful, with leaping octaves in the horns and crashing cymbals. It’s the sort of music that John Williams does best. I’ve always felt that he excels when writing music for flight sequences. Think of the glorious theme to ET as the bike seems to plummet from the cliff, but then soars over the treetops, passing in front of the moon. Or think of the music Williams provides in the same film for the spaceship lifting off, first without ET, and then, at the end, with him on board. That same feeling is here – brilliant brass punctuated by crashing percussion. Or think of the theme to Star Wars, which is in essence a theme to star travel, reaching for the stars.
In the following track, “The Computer Room”, Jinx the robot works his magic in the computer systems to ensure that his friend Max will achieve his dream of travelling into space. (In the film, this track comes before the previous one). It’s a lovely piece which features a simple motif drawn from the main theme, made up of 5 4# 3 4# 5 6 3. But the way Williams treats it is masterful, by using a process of adding layers and modulation. He builds it up from it’s simple bones into a really quite thrilling piece, full of blazing trumpets and crashing percussion, before it dies back down to it’s bare simplicity again.
The next couple of tracks on the OST album are lovely, but don’t really stand out for me – “Friends Forever” is slightly reminiscent, particularly in its instrumentation, of the music Williams wrote for ET and Elliott – it’s all shimmering strings and celeste. The main melody is simple but charming, making use of the fifth interval which Williams uses so well in themes such as Superman, Star Wars and ET, but here it is in the opposite direction, downwards rather than up.
In fact, if there is one thing that can be said about this score is that it is reminiscent of many other Williams scores, without ever quite reaching the heights of more well known entries in his ouvre. The following track, “In Orbit” actually prefigures some of the writing in “The Witches of Eastwick”, of all things – it has the same falling string figure with trill that we hear in “The Township of Eastwick”. You can hear it from about 0:44 in the following recording:
And the similar figure in the Eastwick music can be heard at the start of the Theme here:
It’s only a resemblance in the shape of the melodic line, but it’s there.
In the film, “In Orbit” accompanies the scene after the lift-off, and suddenly there is peace where there was terror, suddenly there is silence where there was the roar of engines. The shuttle floats above the atmosphere, and the music seems to float as well – it’s a such a change from what has just gone before, and it’s beautiful. This is one of the most effective parts of the film, and one can not help but be caught up in the wonder of it all. And the music is the oil that makes it happen.
There are some other highlights in the score, such as the atonal string writing which Williams provides for the scene in which Max goes out on a space walk to help Andie fetch an oxygen tank, and ends up floating into space. The music is quietly unsettling, another great example of Williams’ ability to make the right choices when it comes to scoring for action sequences. He could have written something heroic. Instead, he provides music which is sinister, difficult to get a hold of, rather like the fragile skeleton of the Daedalus Space Station which he tries to grab hold of as he is flung into space.
Now of course this sort of film needs tension and it has that in spades, as things do not go exactly to plan, and the five young crew members are left to pilot the shuttle on their own back to earth after Andie is injured in an accident involving the oxygen canisters. Williams provides music at every step of the way, for every turn of events, and it works exceedingly well within the film. I’ve been re-watching the film as I type to spot where the different tracks of the OST are used. I can say without a doubt that the music adds in every way to this film. However, taken in isolation from the film, it doesn’t stand out as one of William’s stand-out scores. I’ve heard it several times, and none of the main themes quite lodges in one’s skull as do the more famous themes from the likes of Star Wars or Indiana Jones. Those scores stand alone and can be listened to away from the films which gave them birth. Don’t get me wrong. This is an enjoyable listen. It’s just that John Williams is just so good, that a score that is only “good enough” pales in comparison to his others.
When I bought the soundtrack album to “The River” as a teenager, it was a choice between this and The River, and I chose The River. I think that at the time, it was a good choice to make. Though the orchestration is far less dense and the orchestra itself far smaller in that score, I can’t help feeling that it is a richer score. It’s inventive, full of interesting ideas and motifs. Conversely, to me Spacecamp feels like John Williams on autopilot. And don’t get me wrong, John Williams on autopilot is still better than an awful lot of film composing out there, but there’s something that doesn’t quite have the brilliance of much of his other work of the period. Do I therefore encourage you to give it a miss? Not at all. It’s still beautifully orchestrated, it touches the emotions, it’s wonderful writing. But when you compare it to some of the other works in Williams’ ouvre, it’s just not up there for me. But taste is entirely subjective.
Give it a listen, hear it in the context of the film, and make your own judgment. My point is that this album really comes alive when you hear the pieces in the film itself. As a stand-alone listening experience, for me, it doesn’t work as well as so much of his other scores.
I leave you with the End Titles (entitled “Spacecamp” on the original album). It’s fun, it’s energetic, and includes perhaps the fullest statement of the main theme motif, with it’s leaping intervals. It also features an energetic figure for the trumpets – which is heard right at the start of the piece, and is interspersed throughout as an underlying counterpart to the main melody. It also forms the basis of the secondary theme on the strings. After this comes a reiteration of the “In Orbit” music, which here prefigures the “Imaginary Air Battle” music from Empire of the Sun. It’s beautiful. And that’s the thing about this album. It’s a beautiful one. There are so many lovely ideas, so many exquisite climaxes. But it’s never been one I’ve returned to very often. Maybe that needs to change, and I need to rediscover it, or properly discover it for the first time! Certainly as I’ve listened to it now in order to write this post, I’ve heard it with new ears. And if I’ve encouraged someone else to listen to it, perhaps for the first time, then I am very glad.
All music ©John Williams