Movie Themes

Can music really make a good film? Can a really great theme lift a good or even mediocre film up into the lofty heights of the great films? I’m not sure but that’s today’s blog theme and here are a few examples.

Rocky.

Rocky is a pretty good film. It actually won the best picture Oscar in 1976. It’s good, actually pretty good but was it really worthy of a best picture Oscar? I’m not sure. Anyway, it’s about boxer Rocky Balboa played by Sylvester Stallone in his first starring role. Rocky is at the bottom end of the boxing ladder taking cheap weekend bouts as a boxer while he works as a strongarm man for the local loan shark. An incredible piece of luck comes his way though; Apollo Creed, the world champion finds that a multi million dollar bout has fallen through. Wanting to recoup something from the fiasco, Creed decides to fight an unknown boxer in an exhibition match in the hope of saving the event from cancellation. He randomly chooses Rocky. Rocky though, starts to wonder if he can win and backed by his old trainer he starts training and is soon on the path to fitness. Creed wins but Rocky goes the distance with Creed, the first opponent of Creed’s to do so. The second film in the series involves their re-match and is pretty similar to the first as are most of the following films. Rocky doesn’t seem to have much of a technique he just seems to get battered and when his opponent runs out of steam, Rocky usually lands the knockout blow.

The whole series of films in the Rocky saga are pretty much the same. I’ve watched 1 and 2 and gave most of the others a miss until Rocky Balboa. I’d heard it was a good one and picked up a copy of the DVD in a charity shop and to be fair it is an excellent film. Rocky has retired from the ring, his wife has died of cancer and Rocky gets by managing an Italian restaurant where fans come not only for the food but to chat with Rocky himself. Rocky then gets involved in a computer fight with the current champion, an idea based I think, on the computer fight between Rocky Marciano and Mohammed Ali. It’s a bitter sweet film but well put together. All the films use variations of the famous Rocky theme but my favourite is probably in the first Rocky where Stallone takes his fitness routine through the streets of Philadelphia, through the Italian market, finally alighting at the Museum of Art where apparently there is now a statue of Rocky himself. Did the Rocky theme tune really lift this film right up? To be fair it is a good film anyway but that theme tune gave the film, and the series, just that extra boost.

It’s not really relevant but I must add my favourite Rocky story here. Stallone wrote the script in three and a half days after apparently watching a boxing match between Muhammed Ali and Chuck Wepner in 1975. Wepner was expected to be easily beaten but made it through to the 15th round. United Artists liked the script but wanted an established star to play the role, even offering Stallone a million dollars to let James Caan play Rocky. Stallone turned them down, played the part himself and the rest is history.

Verdict: Great film, great theme.

The Magnificent Seven.

The Magnificent Seven was a 1960 remake of Kurosawa’s classic The Seven Samurai. Director John  Sturges directed this version, set in the American Wild West. Yul Brynner produced and starred in the film and the cast also included Steve McQueen, Eli Wallach, Charles Bronson and Robert Vaughn. The story concerns a small Mexican village who hire a group of gunfighters to protect themselves from bandits. Only three of the seven survive the eventual gun fight.

As much as I love a good western, I’ve never really cared for this film. It was, according to Wikipedia, a box office disappointment in the USA although a smash hit in Europe. The score was an Oscar contender but lost out to Ernest Gold’s score for Exodus.

Verdict, love the music but essentially, the film was nothing outstanding and I know it’s a bit mean but if not for Elmer Bernstein’s theme I think The Magnificent Seven would be a forgotten film today.

Mission Impossible.

Mission Impossible was a movie adaptation of the 1960’s TV show about a small team called the IMF (Impossible Missions Force) that take on, you’ve guessed it, impossible missions. This film became the first in a series of films produced by and starring Tom Cruise. Cruise plays Ethan Hunt who is sent to stop the theft of a list of agents kept inside the American Embassy in Prague. The mission fails and Jim Phelps, the agent in charge is wounded and all of his team are killed except for Ethan Hunt. There is clearly a double agent or mole at work and various things happen until we find out the mole was Jim Phelps which was just a little bit sneaky because all of us who watched the 1960’s TV series knew that Jim Phelps was a character in that show and therefore could not possibly be the mole. The fact that he was made me feel a little cheated by this film because they used my nerdy TV knowledge against me. In the TV show Jim Phelps always gets a taped message with instructions for his mission that then self destructs. Tapes are a little old fashioned now in the high tech world of the 21st century but there are a few little nods to the old series along the way.

The last instalment I saw was the fast moving Mission Impossible: Ghost protocol. It was pretty exciting and one particular part was interesting. Ethan Hunt and his people visit the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the tallest building in the world. In one sequence Hunt has to climb outside to get to another room in the building. The sequence looked pretty impressive even though I assumed, it was shot with a green screen in a studio. It was with some surprise then to find that the scenes were shot actually on location with Tom Cruise doing his own stunts, actually climbing outside this impressive structure. He was held safely by cables which were digitally erased in post production. I take my hat off to you Tom but seriously, next time, do it in the studio!

The Mission Impossible theme is an iconic one written by Lalo Schifrin. There are many versions of the theme but personally I like the one from the TV show. Has it enhanced the films? Yes, I think so and of course it makes the connection between the TV version and the films.

Titanic.

Titanic is a 1997 film written and co produced by James Cameron. The production had a budget of 200 million dollars, a staggering amount and included a full scale replica of the ship at Baja in California. The replica was not an ocean going vessel but one built into the dockside and incorporated with a 17 million gallon water tank which provided a sea view and a ramp which could tilt the whole structure for the sinking sequence. Only parts of the ship were fully made, most of the ship itself was just a steel outer structure.

Director Cameron wanted the singer Enya to create the music for the film but she declined. Instead he turned to composer James Horner. The two had fallen out during the making of Cameron’s film Aliens but managed to put that behind them and collaborate on Titanic. Cameron did not want music with singing in the film so Horner composed My Heart Will Go On in secret and played him the demo when he thought Cameron might be responsive. According to Wikipedia, another factor was that a hit song would be a positive factor surrounding the film.

Verdict: I love the music and feel it enhances the film in many ways, so much so I bought the soundtrack CD.  Titanic is an epic production with some outstanding production elements that cement Cameron as a director of the first echelon.

So, what is your favourite movie theme?


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