Sunday, February 2, 2014

SUPERMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES -
ORIGINAL TELEVISION SOUNDTRACK

In the early nineties, the Warner Brothers television animation department was in the midst of what would eventually be dubbed a "second golden age" for cartoon musical scores. Programs like TINY TOON ADVENTURES, ANIMANIACS, and BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES featured original scores for each and every episode, crafted by a variety of talented composers and performed by a full (roughly 30-piece) orchestra. BATMAN was followed a few years later by SUPERMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES, from the same creative and musical teams.

Helming the musical side of these DC superhero shows was the great Shirley Walker. Walker came up with the recurring themes and motifs to be used for the majority of the series' main characters and villains, and she contributed many complete scores to both shows herself, but scoring as many episodes as Bruce Timm's production team created was unfeasible for one person. So Walker also trained and supervised a group of younger composers, which eventually shrunk to her core regular group: Kristopher Carter, Harvey R. Cohen, Michael McCuistion, and Lolita Ritmanis.

BATMAN and SUPERMAN aired during my early to late teens, and they were my preferred way to follow the DC Universe. I had long had an ear for film music, and for most of my life (even moreso today) was more interested in classical music and movie and TV scores than in the latest pop hits. From childhood I wanted soundtracks from all my favorite animated programs to listen to as I played with my toys, but there just wasn't a market for such things back then. The closest I got to owning a score for any of the DC properties was the cassette soundtrack to BATMAN: MASK OF THE PHANTASM -- which was certainly something, but nowhere near enough for me.

I had long ago resigned myself to never owning these scores, but then in late 2008, something miraculous (pardon the hyperbole) happened: a soundtrack label called La La Land Records released a 2-CD set of music from BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES. I was elated, and ordered a copy the day they went on sale. Just a few months later, in early '09, La La Land followed up with an expanded release of MASK OF THE PHANTASM, featuring that film's full score.


As I said, I was elated. I listened to both albums regularly. La La Land promised more installments, but legal issues with Warner Brothers prevented any further releases until 2012, when the second (4-CD!) BATMAN set debuted at Comic-Con. Again I was there, this time in person, on release day to grab my copy. We're due a third set to finish the original run of BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES, but it hasn't materialized yet. Which is fine, because this past week saw the release of the first volume of SUPERMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES.

I'm a BATMAN guy myself. I love the themes and scores Walker and her composers crafted for that series. But SUPERMAN was a great series as well, and while the series' writing tended to be more hit-or-miss than BATMAN before it, the music is astounding. Walker's "junior" composers provided music for the majority of the series, as Walker devoted most of her attention to THE NEW BATMAN ADVENTURES. But Superman was in good hands with Carter, Cohen, McCuistion, and Ritmanis.

This first volume of music from SUPERMAN THE ANIMATED SERIES is a tremendous release. It features twenty complete scores from episodes throughout the series' run, including the three-part pilot, "The Last Son of Krypton", the Batman crossover trilogy, "World's Finest", and the majority, if not all, of the episodes featuring Jack Kirby's FOURTH WORLD characters. The set comes in a double jewel case with a very thick booklet of liner notes describing episode plots and featuring quotes from the various composers, along with a history of the musical development of SUPERMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES.


I ordered the set on Tuesday the instant it went on sale (thus snagging a copy autographed by the surviving composers, Carter, McCuistion, and Ritmanis). It arrived Thursday and I immediately set about ripping the whole set to iTunes and creating a playlist (the scores are presented on disc non-chronologically, but I prefer to hear the episodes in their broadcast order).

While working, I listened to "World's Finest" by McCuistion before anything else. Like I said, I'm more of a Batman guy. It was a treat to hear Walker's Batman and Joker themes in action again, and the entire score is a fantastic mesh of the BATMAN and SUPERMAN styles. Per comments from McCuistion in the liner notes, this three-parter featured a slightly larger orchestra than normal, and I believe him. The sound is richer and has more of a feature film quality than most episodes.

Since then I have not finished the set, but I've made it through about a dozen episodes. The themes I remember are all present, weaved beautifully into the individual scores -- Superman's rousing and uplifting fanfare, Lex Luthor's sinister motif (which I somehow never noticed existed until I heard it years later in a JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED episode and thought to myself, "that sounds familiar..." I dug out my SUPERMAN DVDs and found that, sure enough, Lex had a subtle theme present in a handful of early episodes), Darkseid's somber funerary theme, and many more (including the hard rock electric guitar riffs for Livewire).


My particular favorite from the episodes I've listened to so far has to be "A Little Piece of Home", the episode that introduces Kryptonite. Carter scores this one with an insanely upbeat and jazzy motif for the episode's villain, and features bits of Luthor's theme woven in amid the jazz to indicate that the criminal has a hidden employer. And I must admit that I might not have noticed the touches of Luthor's theme if Carter did not mention it in the liner notes. But after reading his comment, it's completely obvious and a wonderful touch.

"World's Finest" comes in right behind "A Little Piece of Home" as my favorite so far, due mainly to the strong BATMAN sound present in the music. Surprisingly, perhaps my least favorite of the scores I've listened to up this point is Walker's "Father's Day". The episode features an all-out battle between Superman and Darkseid's son Kalibak, but the music, a mishmash of orchestra and weird synth -- presumably to indicate the alien nature of the Fourth World -- does not impress me. It feels like a precursor to Walker's BATMAN BEYOND, a series whose music did nothing for me. "Father's Day" does, however, have a terrific rendition of Darkseid's theme at the episode's finale.

Anyway -- I could keep struggling to write about music, but with no musical background of any sort, I feel my words would make little sense. All I can say is that if you're a fan of SUPERMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES or BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES, this show's musical forebear, and if you enjoy musical scores that are equal parts thrilling and subtle, then this set is a must-buy. Bring on volume 2, La La Land! Hopefully it won't take four years this time!

The La La Land DC Animated Collection (Clockwise from top left):
BATMAN THE ANIMATED SERIES vol. 1 (2008), BATMAN: MASK OF THE PHANTASM Expanded (2009),
BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES vol. 2 (2012), SUPERMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES vol. 1 (2014)
Addendum (2/3/14): I received a delightful surprise this morning as I scrolled through my Facebook timeline and did a double-take when I saw that La La Land had shared a link to this very review! It looks like album producer John Takis, who also wrote the comprehensive liner notes mentioned above, came across my review and shared it with La La Land, who then shared it with their Facebook followers. In less than twelve hours, this page has received more hits than any other page on my blog since I launched last August. Thanks to John and to La La Land for deeming my little jumble of words and pictures worthy of note!

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