Review: Robocop (1987)

Composer: Basil Poledouris

Label: Varese Sarabande

Catalogue Nr.: 302 066 429 2 (2003 expanded re-relase)

---

---BACK TO MAIN PAGE                BACK TO COMPOSER PROFILE                BACK TO LIST OF COMPOSERS

Director Paul Verhoeven is probably the one and only director in Hollywood who is capable of the difficult balancing act between gory entertainment trash and profound social criticism - seemingly without much troubles. Well, that is if you ignore his critics who never seem to realize that the real genius of this filmmaker's work only reveals itself if you are willing to look behind the entertainment. After all, that's what makes his so good because they are mix the seemingly unmixable which makes them entertaining, thought-provoking and mainly... provocative. Robocop benefits from all these aspects in that it is entertaining sci-fi action movie a good portion of trash, gore and explosions while raising a number of philosophical questions. It shows the audience how in an over-commercialised future big companies are ruling over large parts of the society. OCP is one of these companies and they are developing plans of their new future community Delta City replacing the 'old' Detroit. Since there are large crime waves threatening the project, they are building a Cyborg as the perfect cop to clean the streets. Cop and family father Murphy was just killed during a shootout with bank robber Clarence Boddicker and his gang, so they use his body for the experiment. But there is more going on at OCP: a whole complot surrounding weapon deals and everything leads to the company's second chef, Dick Jones. In order to fight for justice, Murphy has to handle the shock over his new existence as a semi-robot and fight people on the highest level. It's exciting sci-fi cinema with a point. None of the sequels lived up to this marvellous original.

The score:

Among the best things that ever happened to Verhoeven's films were the scores from Basil Poledouris. Although the composer only scored three of the director's films including Robocop, the results have always been stunning scores that can easily compete with Jerry Goldsmith's musical output for Verhoeven's films. One can say a lot about the guy's controversial movies but he certainly has a lot of taste when it comes to the right composers for his projects. Basil's score for Robocop is an amazing sci-fi action score which gladly avoids the overly synthetic rock approach that was so popular during the 80's and instead goes the route of combining gentle synthetic elements with the much more human sound of the symphony orchestra. It's that combination that is essentially the movie's saving grace because everything mainly comes down to the main character Murphy and making him believable as a human-turned-robot that still is more human with real emotions, dreams and hopes. Basil's music is selling the entire concept of the film in that it helps the audience to accept Robocop as a person and an individual and not just a cold machine. This musical concept even works during the big action moments due to an impressive main theme composition from Poledouris. The Robo-theme consists of two main parts with the first one being a rousing set of trumpet fanfares plus rushing cymbal waves, expressing Murphy's inner desire for revenge of his murder, and the second part being a propulsive march like structure with a percussive basis of anvil strikes supporting a build up of low brass playing grim and sort of tragic notes rising to a bright, heroic finish. This is easily one of the best themes an action film has ever brought to life. Of course, this is a Poledouris score after all!

He opens his score with the "Main Title" on low strings rising up to a tortured-sounding fanfare variation on the first three notes of his heroic Robo-theme as the title appears on screen followed by steady clashes of xylophone and marimba to accompany the beginning of a TV news broadcast. This news broadcast is followed in the film by a commercial for artificial heart transplants which carries one of the bonus cues from the end of the album called "Have A Heart" with warm strings almost going through a love theme like development as the doctor in the commercial explains the services of the Family Heart Center. Why these bonus cues and also the other cues where not presented in film order is something I can't understand because they make absolutely no narrative sense in disorder. What's worthy to note about the film is how well it was spotted with music. The entire OCP meeting that follows the TV broadcast and the introduction of Murphy and the police station are left unscored completely. For now, the music continues chronologically with a "Van Chase" when Murphy and Lewis are going after bank robber Clarence Boddicker who is escaping with his gang after they screwed up their coup. A driving, steady synth-rhythm is bringing tension to the chase and Poledouris is introducing his theme for Clarence, a fast and twisted march-like idea with a lot of punch for the sadistic gangster. The second half of the cue is suspense material for strings and very high pitched synthesizers. For a brief moment, Poledouris' quotes his family-theme, or his theme for the human Murphy if you want, as the officer is getting trapped by Boddicker.

"Murphy's Death" continues with a moment of careful tension on strings and what sounds like a muted trumpet when Louis finds what's remaining of Murphy. The rush to the hospital is scored with dramatic clusters of low brass fanfares, low cellos, strings and edgy electronics with a dramatic swell at the end as the doctors try to re-animate Murphy who's dying mind is reliving moments with his family and the moment when Boddicker shots him, echoed in the music by a brief low-brass statement of Boddicker's theme. It's really cool and very effective how Poledouris scored this passing-scene but now the real action follows in a track that is easily the centerpiece of the album for many Poledouris fans. Now the tracks order will become completely random. "Rock Shop" is heralded by many as one of the coolest, most thrilling pieces of action music from the 80's. Who am I to disagree? After all, this has certainly the coolest action theme of the 80's. It starts with some really fast staccato-strikes for horns and synthesizers as Murphy-turned-Robocop breaks through the doors of Boddicker's hideout to arrest the gangster. After a brief passage of electrifying but calm synth-sparkling, which is certainly a musical figure for the shocked stares of the gang on Robo's appearance, high-pitched strings and electronics set up an ostinato with the horns rising until the first part of the robo-theme erupts in large brass fanfares and cymbal waves, quickly followed by the second, more propulsive and march-like part of the theme, seemingly driving Robo forward as he fights his way through the gangsters. A brief moment for the Boddicker theme is heard when we see his puny attempt to escape. There is so much happening in this cue you can buy the CD for this piece alone and it will be well worth the expense.

"Home" is an interesting piece of dramatic development. The first part has some orchestral/synthetic sound design moments, including an interesting synthetic solo-voice effect, with subtle woodwind playing as Murphy is hacking the police database to find out about who he was and what happened to him. Poledouris' cleverly throws in his family-theme as Murphy then wanders through his old house and sees flashes of his family. It's not overly emotional but works on a very subtle basis as it shows musically that even Robocop is more human than his creators want him to be. "Robo vs. ED 209" is the music for the first confrontation between Robo and Dick Jones, who sets his pet-robot ED 209 on Murphy. The enemy robot received a theme of it's own consisting of a series of pounding low-trombone strikes combined with a forward-driving, mechanical percussion rhythm. The anvil-like instrument used for that effect is actually a fire-extinguisher beat with a metal rod. Unconventional maybe but darn effective. The second part of the Robocop theme slowly comes in over the rhythm of the ED theme when robo starts a hand-to-blaster fight with his opponent. "The Dream" is one more piece that has a lot of sound design going on. Really cool is the use of quick atonal flute clusters as Robo is struck by spasms during a nightmare. The Robocop marching-theme starts pounding with power when he awakes and leaves his resting station. "Across The Board" is music from the end of the film when Robo is giving Dick Jones what he deserves. Brass swells, breathing slowly from lower to higher tones as Jones is coming closer to his end. A statement of the Robocop march is closing this piece.

"Betrayal" starts a bit dull with strings holding a suspenseful tone but luckily, a tragic statement of the robo-theme comes in to save the piece as Robo is saved by Louis from raging cops while the music heard when "Clarence Frags Bob" is nearly completely bare of comparable highlights apart from the Boddicker theme lurking slowly under suspenseful string-carpets. "Care Package" may not offer any big statements either but instead is a very subtle piece for quiet synthesizer and soft strings effectively creating a reflective mood as Murphy sees his face in a mirror. A funny moment follows when "Robo Drives To Jones". After some dramatic string and low brass playing-around, a dramatic swelling of the strings is announcing another mighty rendition of the Robocop march... with Dick Jones tipping his fingers in the rhythm of the music as he sits in his office and awaits Robo's arrival. That part will make you smile when you see the film. More dramatic statements of the Robo-theme follows in "We Killed You" where tortured brass picks up the tune for the dramatization of Robo facing one of his killers. The one cue that really does not do much for me is "Directive IV" because it's basically just a collection of layered string pads without much going on thematically. This underscores a scene when Robo is trying to arrest Jones in his office but a security barrier in his program is holding him back. The last highlight of the CD is the music for the "Showdown" when Robo wipes out Boddicker and his gang. Poledouris filled this set piece with numerous variations on both parts of the Robocop main theme and a lot of vibrant action music with the Boddicker-theme occasionally thrown in.

 

RATING:

Score as heard in the film: 85%

Score as heard on CD: 75%

TOTAL: 80%

 

The presentation:

Varese has re-released this score in 2003, corrected a mistake in the track listing and threw in some brief additional cues ("Have A Heart, "OCP Monitors", "Nuke 'em" and "Big Is Better"). While the additional cues don't add much it's really the extended liner notes and the richly illustrated booklet that boost the rating into the 60% area. A big no-no has to be said about the track order. I don't know why Varese bothered to correct a track name error while most of the tracks are not in the correct film order. I mean, it is understandable to break up the chronological order when it actually helps the flow of the music but this is another instance where a non-chronological order robs the music of it's narrative qualities, especially because these qualities are developed very subtle and you will easily loose a lot of connections (that's why I added a chronological cue order for you at the bottom of this review, hope this will be of help). The new artwork is welcome... however... *bragging-mode on* mine was signed by the man Poledouris himself! *bragging-mode off*

Presentation by the Label: 67%

 

Summary:

Poledouris was the man for classy action music and his rousing music from the 80's can blow most of the recent newcomers' attempts at action music away even after all these years. His attempts at fusing orchestral with synthetic elements as heard in his work for Robocop are convincing because they are never overbearing and only used when necessary. The Main Theme is always a formidable event whenever it kicks in but especially in tracks like "Rock Shop", "Across The Board" or "Showdown" and there are also several secondary themes and motifs. Too bad the album as a whole was arranged in a non-chronological order which cloaks some interesting developments and slows down the listening experience. But even in chronological order Robocop does not flow as easily on CD as Starship Troopers (1997) or Poledouris' other action stuff, so you will probably need some more time than usual to get into it. Once you are, there will be well enough surprises to discover.

Review by Andreas Creutzburg

 

                   Tracklisting:

01. Main Title (00:39)
02. Van Chase (04:51)
03. Murphy's Death (02:36)
04. Rock Shop (03:42)
05. Home (04:15)
06. Robo Vs. Ed-209 (02:07)
07. The Dream (03:06)
08. Across The Board (01:50)
09. Betrayal (02:18)
10. Clarence Frags Bob (01:43)
11. Care Package (02:09)
12. Robo Drives To Jones (01:46)
13. We Killed You (01:44)
14. Directive IV (01:03)
15. Showdown (05:15)
16. Have A Heart (00:31)
17. OCP Monitors (01:15)
18. Nuke 'Em (00:26)
19. Big Is Better (00:27)

 

Correct film order:

 

01. Track 01

02. Track 16

03. Track 02

04. Track 03

05. Track 18

06. Track 07

07. Track 09

08. Track 13

09. Track 05

10. Track 10

11. Track 04

12. Track 12

13. Track 14

14. Track 06

15. Track 08

16. Track 19

17. Track 11

18. Track 15

19. Track 17 (unused)