Monday, November 21, 2011

Music Review: The Music of DC Comics - 75th Anniversary Collection



In case you weren't aware, last year (2010) was the 75th Anniversary of DC Comics.  The company came out with a lot of cool products to celebrate, including a Poster Book of comic book covers from their entire 75 year history and the massive $200 75 Years of DC Comics: The Art of Modern Mythmaking. One of the more interesting releases, in my opinion, was a collection of music called "The Music of DC Comics - 75th Anniversary Collection."

What's included on this album?  You get 31 tracks of music spanning from 1941 up through 2009.  You get a lot of the ones that you'd expect (the John Williams' "Superman" theme, the Danny Elfman "Batman" theme, and the "Batman" live action TV show theme, for example). 

What I liked about the set, though, were the more obscure tracks that I either didn't have on another disc, or that I hadn't even heard of before. 

"The Superman March" from 1941 is from the old Fleischer Studios animated series, about which I've written before.  Although I have the entire run on DVD, it's awesome to have the theme song on my iPod now so I can listen to it in the car.  As much as I like the John Williams "Superman" theme, the version by Sammy Timberg is just so much more regal.  The Williams' version feels like a big sweeping theme that was created for a big budget movie.  The Timberg version feels like... well, it feels like Superman.  It's a brass-driven score and includes the famous opening "Up in the sky... Look!  It's a bird!  It's a plane!  It's Superman!"  This track leads off the album and is the start of seven Superman-related themes.  In addition to this one and the Williams' theme, you also get the opening theme (including voice-over) to the Filmation 1960s "The New Adventures of Superman" by John Gart, who is responsible for nearly a third of all of the tracks on this album; the theme song to the TV show "Lois & Clark"; "The Adventures of Superboy", also from the Filmation animated series from the 1960s; "Superboy", from the 1988 live action show; and the end credits theme to the TV show "Smallville." 

Next up is one that I wasn't familiar with at all, a piece called ""Batman: The Electrical Brain" by Lee Zahler.  This theme is from Batman's very first live-action on-screen appearance from 1943.  I have heard of these old live action black-and-white serials before, but I've never seen them.  This music was previously unreleased, making it a gem to find on this CD.  It includes a voice-over that sets up the scene.  The music that plays underneath is very typical of the era and the serials that were popular at the time. 

This tracks leads off another seven-track set, this time of "Batman" related music.  The Danny Elfman "Batman" theme from the 1989 Tim Burton film is next, which has always been my favorite Batman theme, hands down.  This is followed by the John Gart track "The Adventures of Batman" from the 1960s Filmation cartoon series (complete, as with all of the John Gart tracks, with voice-over).  Next we get the famous Neal Hefti theme to the campy 1960s live-action "Batman" show starring Adam West (complete with the BIF! BAM! POW! trumpet sound effects) and then a more modern piece - the theme to Cartoon Network's "Batman: The Brave and the Bold" and then the main title to "Batman Beyond."  The Batman set wraps up with the track "Molossus" by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard from "Batman Begins." 

The third "set" of tracks relate to the Justice League and its televised incarnations.  The first one is by John Gart from the 1960s Filmation "shorts" that aired during the "Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure" Filmation cartoon series that ran in 1967/1968. This series included a bunch of "guest star" cartoon shorts, one of which was the "Justice League."  The music in this piece is actually rather incidental - the track is mainly about the announcer listing the names of the various of the Justice League, and then ends with a triumphant brass and wind instrument fanfare. 

Following this is the theme to the 1970s "Super Friends" cartoon - specifically the incarnation that included Marvin, Wendy, and Wonder-Dog (all of whom are mentioned by name during the voice-over).  This is one of the old classic cartoon themes, even if the actual show itself left a little to be desired. 

Next up we get a newer incarnation of the Superfriends from the "All New Super Friends Hour", which this time include the Wonder Twins and their stupid idiot monkey.  The announcer, amazingly, sounds pretty much like the same guy through all of these different tracks, even though they are recorded many years apart.  The theme is by the same guy as the original Super Friends theme, Hoyt Curtin, and it's really just a different take on the same song.  But, it's fun to compare the two and hear the differences. 

We then flash forward to the 2000s with the theme to "Justice League Unlimited."   While I am a big fan of this show (and I own the entire run on DVD), I was never super thrilled with the theme song.  It's modern mix of electric guitar with orchestral type music just never worked for me.  It never seemed to capture the majesty of Earth's greatest superheroes. 

Then we go back in time to 1979's "Legend of the Superheroes", which is oddly show that I have no memory of.  It was a live action version of the Hanna Barbara cartoon series, and it aired on NBC in 1979.  I can't say that I'm anxious to see these, given the description of a Super Hero "roast" featuring an African-American character named "Ghetto Man."  As far as the music, like many of the "opening credit themes", the music track here is really incidental.  The focus is on the voice-over.  The team line-up is quite different: Captain Marvel, Green Lantern, Hawkman, the Huntress (?!), the Flash, Black Canary, Robin, and Batman. 

Going back in time again, we get a short 30-second theme by John Gart from the "Teen Titans" short that aired during the aforementioned "Superman / Aquaman Hour of Adventure" in the 1960s.  The Titans line-up includes the classic group of Kid Flash, Wonder Girl, Speedy, and Aqua Lad.  Missing is Robin, who at the time in this incarnation was actually a member of the Justice League.

We also get the short John Gart track for the Filmation "Aquaman" cartoon, which again is overpowered by the voice-over explaining who Aquaman and Aqualad are.

A surprising inclusion is the theme from the live-action TV series "The Swamp Thing" by Christopher Stone.  This is another show that I've never seen, but I at least remember hearing about it.  Like most of the other tracks, this one includes a voice-over, but at least the music plays uninterrupted for about 35 seconds or so.  This one is more woodwind-based with a lot of percussion (not loud percussion, just a lot of different kinds of percussion).  It does a good job of provoking a feeling of mystery. 

Then we are treated to the theme from the live-action "Shazam" from the 1970s.  I remember watching this show on Saturday Mornings every week as a kid.  Almost the entire track except the last 15 seconds is overdubbed with a voice-over explaining who Billy Batson / Captain Marvel is.

The next two tracks are very short John Gart compositions for "The Flash" and the "Green Lantern" cartoon shorts that aired as part of the "Superman / Aquaman Hour of Adventure." The music for each is, of course, covered up by a voice-over explaining who the characters are and the what their powers involve.

After that is a slightly over two-minute track of all instrumental music from "Green Lantern First Flight", one of the recent direct to home video DC Animated Movies.  This is more of a standard musical score and theme that you would hear for a movie - it's a big, sweeping score featuring a full orchestra and some interesting percussion that somehow does a good job of imparting a feeling of being in "outer space." You wouldn't listen to this and think that the subject matter is fantasy or Western, for example.  Interestingly, though, I don't think the theme has a good "hook" to it.  I remember an interview once with Danny Elfman wherein he described that a good theme is one that you can hum or whistle in just a few notes.  Think of Elfman's "Batman" score.  Ba-ba-ba-BAAAAAAAAAaaaa-bum.  The "First Flight" score just doesn't have that hook to it. 

We then go back to two themes from the cartoon shorts from the "Superman / Aquaman Hour of Adventure" - the Atom and Hawkman, both by John Gart and featuring the requisite explanatory voice-over.

Another surprise inclusion is the theme and voice-over from the opening credits of the old "Plastic Man Comedy Adventure Show" from 1979.  I had completely forgotten about this show, but the truth is I didn't really like the show that much as a kid.  I was never really much of a Plastic Man fan until much later in life when he was incorporated into the Justice League.  I think he's better when playing off of other heroes rather than being on his own.  The music, by Dean Elliott, is rather incidental underneath the long voice-over and the kooky sound effects, but it's mainly a brass-driven score that does a decent job of combining the elements of comedy and adventure.

The last two tracks on the CD are dedicated to Wonder Woman.  The first is is a 3+ minute score from the 2009 direct to home video release "Wonder Woman the Animated Movie."  The music here is by Christopher Drake, and similar to the score for "Green Lantern First Flight", it does a good job of evoking the subject matter.  There is a sweeping, adventurous part of the score over which a female voice sings in gibberish (I know that's not the technical musical term - she's not seeing actual words) that sounds vaguely ancient and "Greek-like."  If you've heard the score to the movie "Gladiator", you know what I'm talking about. There's a regal, majestic section, followed by a darker piece toward the middle of the track with lots of drums and chanting male voices (somewhat reminiscent of some of the score from "The Lord of the Rings" movies), which gives way to a softer, more lyrical section, leading into a return of the theme from the beginning of the track.  All of this happens in the space of three minutes.  Again, it's a good piece of music, but there is no "hook."  If I were hearing this out of context, I don't know that I'd be able to pinpoint that it was from the Wonder Woman movie.

The disc closes out with the classic theme to the TV series "Wonder Woman" from the 1970s.  You all know the track.  It's a fun, goofy way to end the album. 

I'm really happy that I picked this up.  It's not necessarily the world's best music, and many of the musical tracks are actually covered up by long voice-overs, making it extremely unlikely that one would pop this CD in to just sit and listen to the music.  However, many of the tracks were previously unavailable in any other format, making their inclusion here important from a kind of documentation aspect.  Also, the really short John Gart compositions from the cartoon shorts that appeared during Filmation's "Superman / Aquaman Hour of Adventure" were all brand new to me.  I don't actually remember seeing any of those cartoon shorts before, but I've learned that they are all available now on DVD. The voice-over explanation of each character and his or her powers is actually a pretty good introduction to the world of DC Comics, as evidenced by my young 2 1/2 year old daughter, who loves listening to these in the car on the way to Daycare every day, and has memorized the names of pretty much all of the heroes.  She will even request, "More Hawkman, Daddy!" and other similar demands. 

Fans of DC Comics Characters and of old cartoons from the 60s, 70s, and 80s will definitely enjoy this collection.

Hanging: Home Office

Drinking: Latest beverage was a 2005 Core Greneache, Alta Mesa Vineyard (drank with leftover rosemary basted rack of lamb, roasted fingerling potatoes, and lemon/butter/pine-nut green beans)

Listening: The Music of DC Comics - 75th Anniversary Collection (link to buy on iTunes)

3 comments:

  1. @Kelvin - yeah, it was strange at the themes they didn't include. The Cartoon Network's "Teen Titans" was one that immediately came to mind, along with "Superman: The Animated Series" and also the live-action version of "The Flash" from the early 1990s (theme by Danny Elfman).

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  2. I was just about to ask about The Flash theme by Elfman. Loved that opening from the show.

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