Latest reviews of new albums:
The Rocketeer
  • Composed by James Horner
  • Intrada / 2016 / 139m (score 75m)

To describe Joe Johnston’s 1991 adaptation of The Rocketeer – starring Billy Campbell as a stunt pilot in 1938 Los Angeles who discovers a jet pack which allows him to become a superhero fighting crime, with Jennifer Connelly, Alan Arkin and Timothy Dalton – as much-loved would not seem to be an overstatement based on what people say about the film today; but it wasn’t really like that at the time, when it received a reasonable but not exactly spectacular response from critics, and struggled to find much of an audience.

Campbell may have played the hero, but there’s little doubt that the film’s real hero was James Horner, who provided it with one of his most rousing and popular scores.  The album he produced at the time was a great one which included all of the score’s highlights; 25 years on, Intrada has given it the deluxe treatment by expanding it with around 25 extra minutes of score, slightly oddly presenting the 75-minute score over two discs (because a pair of source cues are also included which means the programme just breaks the limit of a CD) and including the original album sequence as a bonus, even the source cues are both presented twice).

James Horner

James Horner

Two breathtaking cues would alone be enough to mark this down as one of the highlights of the composer’s career.  The first is the barnstorming action cue “The Flying Circus”, which begins with a blast of a great action motif (perfectly judged with its comic book tone) and some lovely bars of the score’s outstanding main theme (one of Horner’s most wonderful) before it goes into a set of fast-paced, boisterous, brilliantly-orchestrated little vignettes of brightly-coloured action, culminating in of all things a bit of a hoe-down before things calm down for a lighthearted Russian classical pastiche.  It’s very uncharacteristically mickey-mousey for James Horner, which actually boosts its charm because he does it so well, so musically.  And it’s such incredibly great fun.

Right at the end of the score comes its pièce de résistance, “Rocketeer to the Rescue” (whose beautifully romantic title is sadly ditched in favour of “End Title / End Credits” on the expanded album – sigh).  It’s essentially a fantasy on the main theme, an extended set of variations on the simple melody that you’d think would be far too much at six-and-a-half minutes, but isn’t even close.  It starts off just as the opening title piece (which is nearly as good) does, twinkly, magical chimes ushering in a solo piano version of the theme.  The strings take over, the horns enter, things gradually build to absolute fever-pitch, a soaring and majestic celebratory piece.  Even if the composer’s love of flying weren’t so well-known, it would only take one listen to this piece to get it.  Culminating in the ultimate version of the “James Horner ending” (originally from Star Trek II, later appearing a few more times in other works), it’s quite possibly my favourite single piece of music that he ever wrote.  I could listen to it on repeat for hours on end and not grow tired of it, such is its irresistible sense of joy.  Film music just doesn’t get any better.

Of the previously-unreleased selections on album, there’s nothing to stand up to the cues that were on the original, and I have to say the flow that Horner crafted so carefully on that one is possibly disrupted a little bit (the long wait for “The Flying Circus” means you don’t get drawn into the thrills as quickly) but it’s probably just a case of taking a bit of getting used to given how familiar the earlier presentation of the score has become to someone who’s listened to it as often as I have: there’s nothing amongst the new material that isn’t high-quality and so the listening experience is enhanced a little, though you’re not missing out on anything particularly unique without the extra music.  “The Gizmo” serves as a new introduction for the villain theme, given a strident variation; there’s some potent action in “Finding the Rocket”; “Neville and Eddie” has a particularly sinister take on the danger motif; a blast of Star Trek and a lovely John Williams-style scherzo in “Testing the Rocket”; and “The Laughing Bandit” is probably the pick of the lot, barely a minute long but great fun, including what sounds like a variant on the theme from Willow.  All of those cues, and others, now appear before “The Flying Circus”, which used to be the second track!

The love theme gets its own album arrangement (“Jenny” on the original album, “Love Theme” on this one).  Again it’s a simple melody but it’s a really lovely one, deliciously direct and romantic.  The extended form the composer recorded for the album really allows it to breathe (and includes some material unique to the cue).  In “Jenny’s Rescue” (not the same as the “Jenny’s Rescue” on the original album – that’s now called “South Seas Send Up”) the sinister villain theme gets a good airing, so too the love theme – and some brilliant action/suspense material that recalls Star Trek III‘s magnificent “Stealing the Enterprise”.  Speaking of “South Seas Send Up”, it’s another delightful piece of action music mostly based on the B-section of the main theme (which is just as good as the A-section).

At the end of the score comes a pair of excellent, lengthy action pieces.  “Rendezvous at Observatory” begins with the villain theme before an absolute onslaught of brass heralds the hero’s arrival and a sequence of short variations on a number of the score’s main ideas, blended together remarkably well to form a typically coherent whole.  “The Zeppelin” continues in much the same vein, gloriously heroic derring-do fighting off dastardly deeds – it’s just so entertainingly done, so perfectly fitting for the comic book tale.

The Rocketeer has always been a fan favourite and there’s no mystery as to why – it’s big-hearted, built around one magnificent theme and several other excellent ones, unabashedly romantic and continually satisfying.  Few would hesitate to put it up as one of James Horner’s most wonderful film scores.  The expanded form might not be a revelation given all the highlights were on the previous album, but it does add more depth to it and it’s a complete no-brainer that all Horner fans should get it.  This is one of those film scores where it’s very hard to think of a single bad thing to say – it’s so enthusiastic and positive but at the same time musically impeccable.  It’s a knockout.

Rating: ***** | |

Tags: , ,

  1. Nick (Reply) on Monday 15 August, 2016 at 00:41

    I made a custom album CD-R of it for car ride listening, and if you indeed take off the two songs that were redundant since they’re on the original album, the whole film score itself fits onto the disc easily. They could have done that and kept the second disc as the pre-existing album we’ve all known for so long and it would’ve been an even better release.

  2. Aidabaida (Reply) on Monday 15 August, 2016 at 16:33

    ” it’s quite possibly my favourite single piece of music that he ever wrote. I could listen to it on repeat for hours on end and not grow tired of it, such is its irresistible sense of joy. Film music just doesn’t get any better.”

    Wow, that’s high praise! I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite thing he wrote, but yes…that’s quite a piece. You can’t help but grin at the end.

  3. Kevin (Reply) on Sunday 28 August, 2016 at 08:45

    Another great review, but can you review Enemy at the Gates when you get a chance? It’s such an incredibly underrated score. It’s essentially Horner’s love letter to Shostakovich.