Musings About Music In Film

From The Archives: Superman - The Animated Series


By Karol Krok Superman-The-Animated-Series

Contrary to what most people would say, the 1978’s title march is not the only notable theme to depict Superman throughout history. There are other good (to great) ones out there. Sammy Timberg, who worked on Popeye, composed the first iconic tune back in 1941 for a legendary Fleischer cartoon. The instantly memorable tune became a template for any other ones to follow - inherently American sounding with a touch of military propaganda. Many decades later, John Williams redefined the character once again with his durable and memorable long-lined melody. For majority of viewers and listeners, it became a definitive one. Both Ron Jones and Jay Gruska paid their respects to it, in more or less obvious fashion, while working on their respective television interpretations.

Shirley Walker, however, opposed the idea and made several attempts to do something else entirely. Originally, both the producers and composer felt it should stand apart from the usual heroic figure. The more modernist approach would be tested but ultimately wouldn't work. So, in the end. they did exactly the opposite, although with a slight trace of sound they were seeking. The resulting melody, while really simple and curiously non-heraldic, turned out to be really effective, especially when used in shorter snippets. The B section has a certain whimsical James Horner quality to it. It is not as omnipresent as one might think: first full appearance is delayed until the end of second episode. That way, Superman, as envisioned in this incarnation, never musically outstays his welcome.

The series presented a much more larger canvas for composers than Batman: The Animated Series - bolder, bigger and even more eclectic. To think that each episode was scored with mere 20-30 musicians is absolutely astonishing. It shows you that with the right skill-set you don’t need massive resources to create something epic and imposing. Shirley Walker invited her usual team of composers to work on this project: Michael McGuistion, Lolita Ritmanis, Harvey R. Cohen and Kristopher Carter.

Just as it happened with the series dedicated to Caped Crusader, Superman set is a selection of several different mini-scores. It’s probably best to enjoy each one of them as a separate entities, rather than a one long album (with the running time clocking around 5 hours!). The producers, John Takis and Neil S. Bulk, made a wise decision to offer us a glimpse of different types of adventures and showcase some of each composer’s best work. That way things are always interesting, especially if one wants to treat this album as one long programme. From Looney Tunes/Mancini-flavoured  ‘Mxyzpixilated’ (ending with a terrific climactic chase cue) through a darker episodes incorporating to a more menacing Lex Luthor (‘A Little Piece of Home’) and Darkseid (‘Apokolips...Now!) material.

The opening “The Last Son of Krypton” serves as an almost standalone Superman score, with Ritmanis, McGuistion and Cohen each tackling one chapter of the story. What’s really interesting, those three acts seem to mirror the structure of Superman: The Movie (score and film), with each episode devoted to a different stage in character development.

Some of the scores move beyond the traditional orchestral palette. ‘Father’s Day’, one of the few episodes actually scored by Shirley Walker, offers a terrific funky and action-packed accompaniment, featuring electric guitar and percussion. A rock-infused “Livewire” by Cohen is another example. Both sound noticeably different from anything else heard on this set and they are some of the strongest sections.

One of the clear highlights is Michael McGuistion’s two-part World’s Finest. It is in this episode that the musical world of Superman series is joined by ideas from Batman: The Animated Series. In a clever musical crossover - both series converge into one. Of particular note is the final cue in this score (“Bruce Returns to Gotham’) in which the composer sets the two themes for the heroes in counterpoint to each other.

The Darkseid episodes are some of the weightiest and most dramatic in any animated series ever (‘Apokolips...Now!). The villain receives a mournful and ominous theme, which serves as the most consistent thread throughout the 4 disc set, certainly a testament of his constant presence throughout the show. The climactic “Legacy” is a dramatic conclusion to all those storylines and ends the animated Superman saga on a surprisingly bitter and muted note.

La-La Land became a sort of a home for all things related to Shirley Walker. Since 2009, they released several notable albums with music dedicated to this talented woman. And while Superman set contains only a fraction composed solely by her (she wasn’t as active on this series), the unmistakable fingerprints can be found virtually everywhere. Numerous themes and rich sound palette both make it an easy recommendation for superhero fans. And a gorgeous design from Jim Titus is, once again, immaculate.

Superman: The Animated Series is out now from La-La Land Records