Review: Airplane! (1981)

Composer: Elmer Bernstein

Label: Bootleg (DVD rip)

Catalogue Nr.: Bootleg


Another controversial comedy (and arguable classic) from the 80's, Airplane! introduced the ZAZ (Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker) humour to the audience. If you have watched films like The Naked Gun, Hot Shots or Jane Austen's Mafia you will be familiar with the concept which is always the same: Take a dead-serious plot and create a parody by making every serious aspect look silly and over the top (a.k.a. 'spoof'). In the case of Airplane! it is the disaster movie genre which gets 'spoofed'. The humour is very fresh but might not be everyone's taste because it is like a machine gun fire of over the top gags from start to finish. However, it is certainly an unusual comedy worth checking out.

The score:

Composer Elmer Bernstein had his own very special concept of adding another level of humour to the movie: He scored it like a serious film in the way a young composer who just graduated from film music school would have scored his first disaster flick. He already used the same concept to a huge effect on the cult-comedy Animal House (1978). Elmer Bernstein himself stated in several interviews that the idea of scoring a comedy in a serious way originally came from Animal House director John Landis. While the concept was great for Animal House, it was working wonders in Airplane because it perfectly embodies what the film makers were trying to create: a hilarious spoof.

The score for Airplane! is rich of parodies of classic (film) music pieces and also of Elmer Bernstein's own compositions. "Opening Titles" contains a very funny quote of John William's main theme for Jaws (1975). The rather simplistic airplane theme introduced in the same cue and the LAX theme which follows in "LAX" and "LAX continued" are beautiful parodies on all the disaster scores from the 60's and 70's because they bear the same hectic feeling with the nervous woodwinds and percussion. A huge portion of the Airplane score consists of this kind of 'tension' music. The cue "Take Off" features a beautiful piano solo before it goes into a tragic and lush string melody which makes the scene it was composed for really hilarious, but you have to watch the scene to understand the brilliance of the idea.

"Bar Fight" is a direct quotation from Elmer Bernstein's opening cue for Men In War (1957). The love theme for Elaine and Ted is a beautiful and memorable tune even though it is performed completely on the edge by strings which gives it a very kitschy sound. This theme is following the tradition of those kind of "golden age" love themes and Elmer Bernstein already composed some of them, for example the beautiful love theme for the film From The Terrace (1960). The rendition of the love theme in the finale cue is reaching a level of hilarious insanity because it is accompanied here by a small chorus of female voices which rises... and rises... and rises... until they literally break their voices. After that, we hear a quote of the French national anthem followed by the famous finale of Tchaikowsky's "1812 Overture". The "Airplane Suite" follows with a pretty insane but catchy march which starts using the same drum rhythm as Alfred Newman's 20th Century Fox Fanfare and continues with the frenetic 'football-fanfare' theme from the track "Win one for the Zipper". Elmer Bernstein completely abandons the serious approach in these last two original score tracks and gives us a suite of highlights from his fun score.

And it really is a lot of fun to look for all these references to other music in Airplane. I am sure there is much more than the above mentioned examples. Especially Elmer Bernstein fans will have a lot of fun with this score and even people who are only looking for a fun listen will have a good time as well. The only problem is that a lot of the cues are rather short as you can see in the track list and sometimes they fade in and out before any notable musical development can happen. Of course this is just a DVD rip which means that we hear the music as it was used in the film (including all cuts and edits), so there are probably longer versions of these cues hidden in the Paramount Pictures warehouse somewhere.


Score as heard in the film: 70%

Score as heard on CD: 69%

TOTAL: 70%


The presentation:

Unfortunately, the DVD rip is the only acceptable way for film music enthusiasts to hear Elmer Bernstein's score. You can also find this score on another bootleg paired up with Elmer's score for the TV movie Little Women (1978) but it has a terrible sound quality so you should better go with the DVD rip or wait for an official release. Unfortunately, this is not going to happen anytime soon. While the guys at Columbia Pictures already noticed that releasing wonderful scores does not harm anyone, Paramount Pictures still has to learn that lesson and thus it can take ages until scores from the Paramount vaults will receive proper CD releases. Reports about lost or damaged tapes of Paramount-owned scores certainly don't make the situation any better. Everyone who is still interested in hearing portions of Elmer's Airplane score can get the compilation 'The Essential Elmer Bernstein Film Music Collection' from Silva Screen Records which contains a re-recording of the "Airplane! Suite" conducted by Nic Raine.

Presentation by the Label: Bootleg



Elmer's music for Airplane is certainly another must-have for fans of the composer and all enthusiasts for unusual comedy scoring mostly due to the clever references to other scores that are not only fun but also added a lot to the film.


  1. Opening Titles (1:45)

  2. LAX (0:54)

  3. Elaine and Ted (0:46)

  4. LAX continued (0:33)

  5. Donation / The Plane (0:21)

  6. Tickets (0:51)

  7. Ted Finds Elaine (0:30)

  8. Take Off (1:26)

  9. Airborne (0:20)

  10. Reminiscing (1:00)

  11. Bar Fight (0:44)

  12. Love Theme (Lounge) (0:23)

  13. The Beach (2:03)

  14. Elaine and Ted (1:10)

  15. Flashback Disolve (0:09)

  16. The Molombo Tribe (0:44)

  17. Remembering George Zip (0:29)

  18. First Illness (0:35)

  19. Clarence is Out (0:24)

  20. Roger is Out (0:48)

  21. Declaring an Emergency (0:20)

  22. Oveur is Out (0:57)

  23. Otto to the Rescue (0:41)

  24. Get Me Rex Kramer (0:19)

  25. Elaine Services Otto (1:15)

  26. Elaine on the PA (0:17)

  27. Tension Theme (0:05)

  28. Cockpit Controls (0:40)

  29. Kramer on the Road (0:15)

  30. Ted at the Controls (0:28)

  31. Nose Dive (0:29)

  32. Ted Recovers (0:16)

  33. Attacking Solicitors (0:34)

  34. Kramer Signs On (0:39)

  35. Off the Autopilot (0:51)

  36. Got to Concentrate (0:13)

  37. Radar Range (0:21)

  38. The News Spreads (0:50)

  39. Ted Loses Confidence (0:31)

  40. Win One for the Zipper (2:29)

  41. The Decision to Land (0:22)

  42. Elaine Confesses Love (0:29)

  43. Preparing to Land (0:14)

  44. The Landing (4:06)

  45. Success (0:34)

  46. Finale (1:16)

  47. Airplane Suite (4:21)

  48. Lounge Music (0:28)

  49. Stayin Alive (3:42)

  50. The River of Jordan (1:25)

  51. Respect (0:16)

  52. WZAZ (0:09)