And the band played on

The first album I ever owned was the soundtrack to Mary Poppins.

At the time nobody in the family knew what I was getting into. My folks just wanted something age-appropriate for me to listen to, and I thought it was cool that I had “my own record” to play. (My parents, understandably, didn’t want me fooling with their own collection, which has some standouts and rarities.)

It wasn’t all I had. My parents loved music, and I was given some pure kiddie albums too, some of the songs of which I can still hear in my mind nearly four decades later.¹ And my Dad loved superheroes and comics, so I got a series of spoken adventures on 45 featuring Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, and others. I remember those less clearly, but anyone who knows me can tell that they had an influence as well.

But it was the brilliance of Richard and Robert Sherman that wound up helping to hook me on musical scores and soundtracks. I own dozens of every description, from video games to movies and television, foreign and domestic. And this guest post over at Sarah Hoyt’s reminded me of those great times growing up and all the joy I’ve had since then listening to these wonderful compositions.

The Sherman Brothers weren’t the starting point, however. The starting point, as it was so often for folks of my age group, was the great John Williams.

When I was just short of five years old, George Lucas surveyed the bleak dystopian movie landscape of the mid-1970s, where all was pain, despair, and cynicism, and blew it up the way the Death Star nuked Alderaan. And he did it without a single line of dialogue or image of heroism. A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

And then the huge brass fanfare came crashing through and all that cinematic weltschmerz was blown right out of the back of the theater. You remember that Memorex ad? THAT, basically.

When you’re just short of five you don’t know weltschmerz from your Aunt Tilly, and don’t care. Everything is still awesome. But this was the movie that confirmed that everything was still awesome. And my parents had this soundtrack on 8-track (God bless the 70’s!)… and, in an adult version of my own DC spoken-word adventures on 45, they also had selections of the spoken dialogue from the film on 8-track, because, again, God bless the 70s.

It turns out that in all the best ways, my Dad was four going on five himself. He never lost his wonder and it is a mighty blessing to share with your kids. But, again, he couldn’t have me fooling with the 8-track player so I got Mary Poppins.

Julie Andrews’ trilling was the gateway drug to all of the Shermans’ wonderful work, much of it for Disney. In the meantime, of course, Williams was still composing: Superman, E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the other Star Wars movies. Others slightly older than I will also mention Jaws and Close Encounters, young-uns will immediately recall the Harry Potter films and Jurassic Park instead; it’s a testament to the man that he’s had such staying power over the years as to touch so many generations of filmgoers.²

John Williams is responsible for two of my favorite cinematic moments, neither of which would have been worth beans without his leitmotif – the first, Luke’s rescue of Leia from the detention level. “I’m Luke Skywalker, I’m here to rescue you!” Luke breathlessly says. Leia, who was this close to snarking him out of the room, must have overheard the music in the background, because she pulls a complete 180 on the spot – “I’ve got your droids, I’m with Ben Kenobi, c’mon!” – and dun-dun, du-du-du dun-dun, du–du BA DAAAA BUM BA DAAAA BUM ba-DAAAAA da-di-di-daaaa daaaaa! VROOM they’re off.

The second, quite similar thematically, is from Superman, after the interminable psychadelic graduate class that Jor-El gives Clark, when the scene returns to the Fortress of Solitude. We get our first look of Superman in his costume. The fanfare starts, slow and stately, and the kettle drums roll….. DA da-daaaaa….. and then he just steps off the ledge and flies past the damn camera as the soundtrack (and all of us) lose our collective minds.

Man, I could go on. Paul Williams is another favorite, thanks to Emmet Otter and The Muppet Movie. I bought Michael Giacchino’s soundtrack to The Incredibles the morning after seeing the movie, similar to what I did (much more expensively) with Yoko Kanno’s soundtrack to the anime Cowboy Bebop. I have since added Kanno’s soundtrack to Wolf’s Rain and the various Ghost in the Shell discs. I have some Henry Mancini, some Ennio Morricone; the OSTs to Read or Die, Licensed by Royalty, Kung Fu Hustle, and Spirited Away; some of the Rankin/Bass Christmas Specials; Superfly, Shaft, and the retro funk grooves for the video game Interstate ’76; and a large collection of TV theme songs. Nor is this an exhaustive list.

If you want exhaustive, visit the conversation here. I’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s out there, and whose work deserves wider notice.

I’m still in the market for more. I have no Danny Elfman, for example – well, unless you count the cassette for Beetlejuice, but I can’t find my old tapes right now and it’s quite sad. But he’s got some great stuff. Dad was quite fond of the original Batman score; it was about the last of the soundtracks he bought himself before his passing. And I’d like to get my hands on the work Tsuneo Imahori did for Trigun, and the complete Star Trek Original Series television score which comes in a glorious box set with extras and whose cost I cannot at all justify.

Unless I call it an investment in my son’s musical tastes. He bops back and forth to the Handy Manny theme song when he hears it so I think he’s got a good head start.

¹ It’s a whale of a tale, it’s the tail of Dickie Dragon

And the long and the short of it is true

And if you should doubt what this song is all about

Then I feel sorry for you…

² In doing some research to reinforce my memories, I found an odd moment of kismet: John Williams and the Sherman Brothers worked on the same movie once, a musical adaptation of Tom Sawyer that starred a young Jodie Foster as Becky Thatcher. It was a favorite of mine as well, though I had no idea who had done the songs or the score. “He’s late for supper and late for school and he’s taking me for a fool!” Since this was 1974, I think I can be forgiven for not being up on the credits.

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