The Iconic Soundtrack of Superman (1978)
aka “John Williams is a master, and he’s proved it time and again and again.” – Stuart Baird
Superman began in 1938 as a handful of pages. Just pictures. No sound. Some might call those humble beginnings, but really, DC reigned king in the comic book world, and arguably still do to this day. It was the comic’s popularity that gave it the means to branch out into radio. The first adaptation, The Adventures of Superman, broadcast in the US from 1940 to 1951 with a phenomenal 2,088 episodes. Following this, for the comic’s 50th anniversary in 1988, the BBC produced a Man Of Steel docudrama called Superman on Trial, which recently (this week!) had it’s 33 year anniversary.
While the popularity of superheroes and their stories was quite high with the comics and radio series alone, this only seemed to skyrocket further with the release of TV shows and film – finally, having both visual and sound combined, it drew in a much wider audience.
Skipping a handful of animated shows and live-action movies, we come to the first big-budget adaption, simply Superman, released in 1978. The soundtrack of which is originally performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, and composed by John Williams. Does the name sound familiar? It should, as John Williams is known within cinema for his unforgettable sound and scoring across some of the most renowned film series, such as Harry Potter, Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones, Jaws, and many more. However, if you are still left feeling sceptical over the credibility of his talent with the Superman adaption specifically, it is worth noting that “Theme from Superman (Main Title)” managed to reach #81 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. Quite an impressive feat for a movie soundtrack at the time. According to Mark Richards way back in 2013, the theme itself ‘leaves an indelible mark on the memories of many a filmgoer,’ as is apparent with the lingering effect on its audience.
We here at Short Sounds Fest would argue that the 1978 Superman theme is a layered experience. There is obvious drama, power, and a building of suspense with the opening trumpeting that hooks the audience in. It is a song of optimism, a clear signpost saying, “Yeah, this guy’s the hero! He’ll save the day!” However, there is another layer, not so much beneath the display of strength, but intertwined with it. It is whimsical. Fun. Almost childlike. Which is absolutely appropriate for a science-fiction fantasy film about an alien who flies and lifts helicopters with one hand.
Williams commented on the film’s score, and his vision with it, saying, “I try to have the music constructed in such a way that it would be heroic and big and operatic – but not take itself seriously.” He commended the director, Richard Donner, and the lead actors, Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder, on their contribution to the film, stating that with them ‘it had [an] almost, kind of, theatrical camp [feel] to it.’ And while, yes, superhero films can be serious with darker themes – look at Batman’s The Killing Joke for example – at the end of the day, it is just a bunch of dudes in tights. Can’t get any more theatre than that, right?
We think Williams succeeded in constructing a score that was both powerful and playful. Heroic, yes, yet still whimsical. And today, on Superman Day 2021, we are reflecting and marvelling on the genius of Williams, and his ability to elicit such complex emotions with sound waves alone.