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THE RIGHT STUFF
Spectacular, heroic, Oscar-winning adventure score
A review by JAMES SOUTHALL
Music composed by
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Album running time
Album cover copyright (c) 1983 Warner Bros. Entertainment; review copyright (c) 2009 James Southall.
A film which wasn't particularly successful at the time, The Right Stuff has grown a large following over the years. Philip Kaufman's adaptation of Tom Wolfe's novel charts America's Mercury space programme and the race with the Russians. It doesn't really show in the final product, but it wasn't a particularly happy production - Kaufman didn't take the film in quite the direction which had originally been intended; and then the producers threw out the original score (by John Barry) and hired Bill Conti to write a last-minute replacement.
Kaufman's instructions to Conti were clear: keep it small. The producers' instructions were also clear: make it as big as possible. Since he had been hired by the latter, that's the direction the composer went - and it certainly seems to have been a wise decision (with Conti even receiving an Academy Award for his music). The first thing to note about it - and there's no getting away from this - is that this is very temp-track heavy. Conti was forced to go as close as possible to the temp-track (Holst's The Planets and Henry Mancini's The White Dawn, with a bit of Tchaikovsky's violin concerto thrown in for good measure). While it's not all that unusual for a film composer to find himself in that position, what is unusual is Conti's attitude towards it here - openly acknowledging it in the liner notes - and even crediting his sources in the film's end titles. A nice touch.
Whoever composed it, one thing's for sure - this is wonderful music. The album opens with "Breaking the Sound Barrier", presenting the main theme before an explosion of adventure music. It's rousing, magical stuff. There's a real change of pace in "Mach I", in which the main theme is played on a (very much 1983) synthesiser. At first I found this quite jarring - but on reflection, it's not hard to see what Conti was going for - a celestial, mysterious sound. And he got it. The pesky Russians intervene for the second part of "Training Hard / Russian Moon" - which even has a balalaika (subtlety is very much not the order of the day here). "Tango" does what it says - its appearance is unexpected, but it's a lovely tune, with Conti at his showy best. The heroism returns in "Mach II" - glorious brass statements heralding our heroes' triumphs.
Adventure comes even more to the fore in the album's second half, beginning with "Yeager and the F104". Conti's theme for Chuck Yeager cleverly plays against a Tchaikovsky-style string theme as the test pilot tries to break a Russian speed record. "Light This Candle" begins with a thrilling passage culminating in the heroic fanfare from the main theme, before turning rather darker with a beautifully-realised passage for strings. "Glenn's Flight" is a piece which moves from drama and danger at the start to beauty and triumph by the end - as ever, Conti holds nothing back as he plots the character's emotional and literal journey.
"Daybreak in Space" is a stately piece, at a more reserved pace, a nice variation on the main theme. The score's piece de resistance is its finale, the spectacular "Yeager's Triumph", one of the most heroic and entertaining pieces in all of film music. Conti sends his main themes through the wringer and they emerge somehow even more triumphant, even more heroic than before. It's stirring, emotional stuff.
Unfortunately (and disgracefully), the master tapes for this score have been lost, so what we have here is the album which Conti had prepared at the time of the film, but which was never released after its disappointing box office return. What we have therefore is a typical 1980s soundtrack album - 37 minutes long, including a piece of source music and a pretty hilarious synth version of the main theme. There seem to be a couple of sound quality issues in the wonderful "Glenn's Flight", as some distortion - presumably inherent on the original album's master tapes - is evident on occasion - but otherwise it sounds fine. Julie Kirgo's liner notes are insightful and delightful, and this is one of the greats, so it's not hard to recommend. About half the score had previously been released on a re-recording (paired with North and South) issued by Varese Sarabande in 1986 - and this is one of those scores where owning more than one recording is no bad thing.