Monday, July 03, 2006

Superman Returns hits just the right note

Superman: The Movie, starring Christopher Reeve and directed by Richard Donner, is one of those movies that defines my adolescence. Without even necessarily being able to articulate it, I felt a significant kinship at the time with young Kal-El: though I wasn’t adopted, as he was, I did feel terribly out of place throughout my childhood. Superman, as a man, offered hope of hidden powers and, perhaps, an eventual feeling of fitting in.

John Williams’ score for the film was another landmark for me. I remember that the LPs came in a cover that opened wide, and the inner sleeves featured color photos from the film.

When I learned that the classic Superman story was being picked up by director Bryan Singer, whose Usual Suspects, Apt Pupil, and X-Men films are so wonderfully, thoughtfully crafted, I breathed a heavy sigh of relief. In addition to Bryan’s talent, I knew that having him at the helm meant another great talent would be involved: composer/editor John Ottman.

Ottman has edited and scored all but one of Bryan’s films. Their partnership will probably become one of those legendary Hollywood tales, like Hitchcock and Bernard Hermann, like Spielberg and Williams.

His superb score for Superman Returns, while a complete score unto itself, also works as a continuation of the work Williams did for the original 1978 film. When I spoke to Ottman recently, he wasn’t even aware that the film was about to hit theaters (cut him some slack; he was moving into a new house). “I forgot it was even coming out this week,” he told me. “When I’m finished with a film, I just move on…”

I was curious about how he and Bryan met and started working together. “We met at film school on a student movie,” he said, “when he was a PA and I was going to re-edit the film for the director, and Bryan got a bird’s eye view of me reconstructing that movie from scratch. So he befriended me…”

Later, he was editing Bryan’s first film, Public Access, when the original composer dropped out. It was chance for Ottman to throw his composer hat in the ring. He’d been a film-music geek had done some experiments with scoring.

“Bryan saw the symbiosis that occurred with me doing both tasks,” he said. “So for The Usual Suspects, he put me in his deal, to do both jobs. And from then on, the blackmail has continued. He said, ‘Look, you’re not gonna score this movie unless you’re the editor,’ and I said, ‘Well, I’m not going to edit it unless I score it.’”

It seems each has the other over a barrel.

The notion of one man doing both jobs has not, to my knowledge, ever happened before in Hollywood. Many artists do two big jobs—directing and editing, for example, or even directing and scoring—but this one seems unique…and appropriate. After all, the editor creates the rhythm of the film, and the composer takes those story beats and creates music that brings them to life in a new way.

For his part, Ottman originally wanted to be a director—and he’s done that job, too—but I wondered which was harder for him, editing or composing. “The scoring is more difficult for me, especially on Bryan’s films, because by the time I’m faced with it, I have so little time. It’s the last big task on a film, in terms of release date or a finish date.”

Of course, for Superman Returns, it was a very big task, hardly just another scoring gig. He knew that there were big shoes to fill. In recent weeks, the Internet has been abuzz over Ottman’s choice to use John Williams’ famous “Superman March.” I suggested that not using it would like making a 007 movie without using the “James Bond Theme,” and Ottman agreed.

In fact, the original score is one of his favorites. “I know that music so well that I never even had to refer to any of the score because it just comes to me naturally, where to weave something in… The theme is so simple you can apply it to almost anything. Its power is its simplicity, you can massage it in different ways.”

The score borrows liberally from the earlier work, but then transforms it into another sound, and certainly into another storytelling device. I can’t recall hearing a score that was, at the same time, so new and yet so reminiscent of earlier music. Perhaps Williams’ own work on the new Star Wars trilogy is an example, as he had to weave new music into the continuum of the music he originally wrote in the 1970s.

For Superman Returns, John Ottman has woven a new score from the threads of the old. The result is a stirring, thrilling tribute to an American icon—and a fitting backdrop to his new adventures. The score is a winner, and if that’s any indication, the film will be, too.

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