Movie Wave Home | Reviews by Title | Reviews by Composer
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No! It's John Ottman!
A review by JAMES SOUTHALL
Music composed by
* * * 1/2
Superman themes composed by
Album running time
Album cover copyright (c) 2006 Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc..; review copyright (c) 2006 James Southall
The most expensive movie ever made, Superman Returns has had its share of well-documented production problems - Nicolas Cage was paid $11m not to appear in the film (if only they'd paid me $11m not to appear in it) and it went through so many directors, most thought that it would probably never happen, but eventually the Caped Crusader landed in the safe hands of Bryan Singer. Casting an unknown in the lead role seems a slightly strange move, until one considers that the same thing happened with Richard Donner's original movie (though in that case, most of the budget was taken up by Marlon Brando, by then bringing a new definition to "widescreen entertainment"). It's a sacred cow to many, though seems to be a uniquely American thing - personally I think the original Superman was a load of rubbish, so there's no possibility of damage being done to it with this new film.
With directors coming and going, so of course did composers - it was assumed that Tim Burton would use Danny Elfman, which would have been a scintillating prospect - and the only saving grace about McG (the only film director named after an Australian cricket ground) would have been if he'd brought Edward Shearmur along for the ride with him. With Bryan Singer, of course, comes John Ottman, a composer who - despite a promising start with The Usual Suspects and some nice nod-and-wink music for trashy films like Cellular and Goodbye, Lover - has failed to deliver on the blockbusters he scored, with extremely poor efforts on X-Men 2 and Fantastic Four hardly filling the film music world with confidence that he would carry on John Williams's popular score from the original movie.
Fortunately, Ottman seems to have been unusually inspired this time around - in his liner notes he mentioned how fond he was as a boy of Williams's Superman music, and this seems to have brought an extra sense of responsibility to the composer. Early speculation was all about how much Williams music would be included: at first it was announced that the famous main theme would be used, but that was it (with Ottman attracting controversy by saying that the classic love theme was outdated) - now the score is here, it's therefore surprising to hear not only the original Williams theme, but also that "outdated" love theme, and plenty more music from the original score besides (the most notable exception being the "March of the Villains" - but don't worry, that cropped up in Alan Silvestri's score for The Wild earlier in the year). I'm not sure what caused the change of plan.
While it's a good score, I don't think the years have been kind to Williams's Superman theme - more than his others, it just sounds a bit silly now, having been used in too many parodies to any longer be effective. I do appreciate that I am in a pretty small minority in that view. However, it's still entertaining, and it's nice to hear a new digital recording of it in the main title for Superman Returns, minus its famous prologue section. The first "new" piece, "Memories", opens with a blast of new material, but then goes back into Williams territory, so it's in "Rough Flight" that the Ottman part really begins. Even that must be checked a little by saying the temp-track appearance of Legends of the Fall is not in doubt, but it's an exciting piece of modern action music.
It's in "Little Secrets / Power of the Sun" that Ottman introduces his love theme - a simple piece, drawing heavily on that outdated "Can You Read My Mind?" - and arguably being even cheesier and more over-the-top - but it's most endearing and pleasant. "Bank Job" is a nice piece of action music - again, it seems to lean heavily on works of the past, this time of Jerry Goldsmith - Capricorn One and The Swarm - maybe Ottman decided to do tributes to all the films of 1978, not just Superman! "How Could You Leave Us?" marks the most sweeping presentation on the love theme, and it's one of the score's highlights - for sure, the choir maybe pushes it a bit too far over the top, but the orchestration is unusually thoughtful for Ottman and it's no exaggeration to say that it wouldn't have been a surprise to find Williams himself writing a piece like this in 2006.
"Tell Me Everything" is another surprising piece, with intelligent choral writing - not just the usual "oohs" and "aahs" - and clearly-written orchestral parts, perhaps loosely based around the original score's "Fortress of Solitude" (arguably its best feature). "Not Like the Train Set" is another decent action track - maybe a bit less focused than what has gone before - but again it has a distinctly Goldsmithian vibe which is a pleasure to hear. Sadly Ottman's material is cut off with another burst of Williams before the end, and it is this that is the most frustrating thing about the CD - it's like listening to two completely different scores pasted together. Ottman's original music is maybe a bit derivative, but it's still a fresh-enough modern action score which rises well above anything else he's done, and would probably make a far better listen if Williams didn't keep popping out of nowhere. Of course I completely understand the reasons for wanting to include the Williams material, but Ottman does not write in anything like a similar style to Williams, and the transitions from one score to another are frequently jarring.
The action returns in the surprisingly-dissonant (at times) "The People You Care For", a far darker piece than the rest of the album, and none-the-worse for it. "Saving the World" reprises some of the action from "Bank Job" and is another impressive piece; there's some lovely choral music in "In the Hands of Mortals" before the sweeping finale "Reprise / Fly Away".
Superman Returns is an impressive effort from Ottman - it's his best score to date, and does contain some really good music - and is probably on a par with John Powell's X-Men 3 in the 2006 comic book hero stakes. It's a shame that the problems I documented above make it slightly less than the sum of its parts overall, but nevertheless I recommend it.