Leonard Rosenman: Composer of the Fantastic

When it comes to science fiction, Leonard Rosenman knows the score, by David Hirsch
Originally published in Starlog Magazine #172, October 1991
Text reproduced by kind permission of the author David Hirsch

For 35 years, composer Leonard Rosenman has been something of a rebel in the Hollywood music community. Refusing to bow to the ever-present pressures to conform and emulate others, he has held on hard to his own composing style. When you hire Leonard Rosenman to score STAR TREK IV or ROBOCOP 2, you get Leonard Rosenman, not an impersonation of Jerry Goldsmith or Basil Poledouris.

His techniques have been described as “avant-garde,” since he continually attempts to look for his own unique approach when musically embellishing a film scene. “I came into films in 1954,” Rosenman remembers, “and they were still writing film scores like Max Steiner and Dimitri Tiomkin. I did the first 12-tone score, which, at the time, was avant-garde. I find that, generally, I’m always a little bit ahead; that’s because I write concert music and I’m always interested in experimenting with my own work.”

Born in Brooklyn on September 7, 1924, Rosenman’s film-scoring career began when a former piano student, the late actor James Dean, introduced him to Elia Kazan, director of Dean’s first film, EAST OF EDEN (1955). Rosenman’s critically-acclaimed EDEN score led to work on Vincente Minnelli’s COBWEB, which allowed the composer to create an innovative, fully atonal composition, where there’s no clear tonal structure to the music. Gracing a story about psychiatric patients, this approach garnered praise.

He teamed with James Dean again in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1956) and worked steadily in Hollywood until 1962, when he went off to Rome, Italy, to work on the European-lensed TV series COMBAT. Between COMBAT scoring assignments, Rosenman spent time conducting overseas until being brought back to Hollywood in 1966 to score the SF blockbuster FANTASTIC VOYAGE. This wasn’t his first foray into the genre; in 1959, he had composed the music for the TWILIGHT ZONE episode “And When the Sky Opened,” a story about three astronauts who return home, only to find out they don’t exist.

Fantastic Composer

“Klangfarbenmelodie’’ – say the word – isn’t the name of a German car; its the scoring technique composer
Leonard Rosenman used in FANTASTIC VOYAGE.

Rosenman had a unique approach in mind for FANTASTIC VOYAGE. “Originally, the producer asked for a jazz score; he wanted it to be the first ‘hip’ science-fiction film. That may have been good for an advertising slogan, but it wouldn’t have fit the film. It would have dated the picture, and I told them I wouldn’t do it. I fought with them about not starting the orchestral score until we were inside the body. I kept telling them, ‘Try it!,’ and they loved it.”

The film’s score is built around a four-note theme presented in a variety of ways. Utilizing a technique known as “Klangfarbenmelodie,” the theme was played with wide, dissonant skips and a variety of changing tone colors.

“It’s the same kind of chord, but done in different ways,” the composer explains. The music’s constantly changing presentation matched the seemingly schizophrenic movement of the bodily functions. Rosenman also concentrated on a particular section of the orchestra to represent a part of the body (Strings and woodwinds for the antibody attacks, for example), and used electronic tonalities to contrast the outside world from the inner body. Only during the injection of the miniaturized submarine and the finale is the theme presented in a full orchestral format.

In 1968, director Robert Altman, a fellow COMBAT veteran, asked Rosenman to tune up his first feature film effort, COUNTDOWN with James Caan and Robert Duvall. Although woefully dated now, this science “fact” film followed the United States’ plan to rush a lunar landing before the Russians. Caan’s character was assigned to land on the Moon in a modified Gemini capsule and stay there until collected by the next landing.

“Altman’s technique was very similar to Orson Welles’ CITIZEN KANE, where everyone talks at the same time,” Rosenman explains. “This was his first film, and Jack Warner, the studio head, literally threw him off the lot because of it; somebody else finished the film. Originally, it ended with (Caan) walking around the Moon running out of oxygen, but they changed the ending to be more upbeat.”

Rosenman’s first SF sequel came in 1970 with BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES. He was brought into the project by two old pals, producer Arthur P. Jacobs (“He was a good friend; I still mourn his death”) and director Ted Post (“We grew up together”). The composer found the film fascinating because each society (the apes and the mutants) was living a hypocritical life which was to be reflected in the score. Despite Jerry Goldsmith’s approach to the music for the Academy Award-winning PLANET OF THE APES, Rosenman felt his own thematic material for the apes should go beyond the first film’s mood. In BENEATH, the apes continually profess their superiority over the “barbaric” humans, even though they desire to wipe out mankind. The mutants also live a lie by telepathically using others to kill, while claiming to be above that sort of thing.

The ape themes presented basically utilize brass and percussion; the apocalyptic “Mass of the Holy Bomb,” with lyrics such as, “All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful, the good bomb made us all,” reflects their twisted logic.

After BENEATH, Rosenman worked with actor and friend Robert Brown on the Ivan Tors-syndicated TV series PRIMUS. Following several TV movies, Rosenman was asked to “Go Ape!” again for BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES in 1973, wherein he created new musical material for the final APES epic.

Over the next five years, Rosenman scored such theatrical and TV projects as THE CAT CREATURE, THE PHANTOM OF HOLLYWOOD, JUDGE DEE AND THE MONASTERY MURDERS, RACE WITH THE DEVIL and THE CAR (“I did A MAN CALLED HORSE for that director and I did THE CAR as a favor. Oh, God, that was awful”). Outside the genre, he earned Oscars for BARRY LYNDON and BOUND FOR GLORY, and adapted his early James Dean scores for SEPTEMBER 30, 1955, a film about the actor’s tragic death.

Lord Composer

The composer would have preferred writing a LORD OF THE RINGS score for real actors,
not Ralph Bakshi’s animated characters.

Sometimes, great effort goes into the most frustrating of projects. Rosenman found that to be true of Ralph Bakshi’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s LORD OF THE RINGS (1978). For his first animated feature, Rosenman was ready to be challenged. “It’s extremely problematic. You never know what you’re going to get as the animation is changing all the time. Sometimes it doesn’t work, so they have to go back and reanimate it. That’s like reshooting an entire scene with actors.”

“It wasn’t really the animation that was a challenge to me, but that most of the film was so unbelievably violent. There was very little chance of musical contrast, and I had to write approximately 80 or 90 minutes of music, a very violent kind of music. It was a great challenge for me to make contrasts within those parameters. I also wrote the chorus’ lyrics. They’re all kinds of strange words, including my name backwards!”

“In doing an animated film, you have a responsibility to give the characters more depth, since you aren’t dealing with human beings,” he continues. “This is an abstract. Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle opera is very nearly the same kind of legendary idea. There isn’t one human being in it. They’re either gods, immortals, elves or whatever. You’re dealing with fantasy from the beginning.”

Much of LORD OF THE RINGS was, in fact, filmed live. These scenes were later rotoscoped in an attempt to give the characters a more life-like movement. “I scored a lot of the picture to either line drawings or the live-action footage,” the composer recalls. “It was extraordinary! I was on the set one day to see Ralph, and I was surrounded by 150 midgets. I felt like Gulliver. They were all dressed in costume and I thought, ‘My God! Why didn’t he shoot it live with these people?’ They looked wonderful. I really don’t think the animation worked. Frodo was just awful, like some strange character drawn and pasted on the walls. He had no shadow!

“Ralph Bakshi just didn’t have his finger on the thing. There were too many styles and they just didn’t meld together. The animation was at fault. It didn’t work, so the thing was a flop. The emphasis on the violence was too great; you can have tension and suspense without it.”

Although the composer thought the film a failure, he believed the script for LORD OF THE RINGS “was marvelous. It was simple, but the film came out very confusing, not because of the subplots, but because Ralph Bakshi didn’t have any story sense. All he was interested in was the violence. That’s the problem with all his films. FIRE AND ICE was all violence.”

“Oddly enough, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Bakshi blames the score for the film’s demise! I’ve never seen the filmmaker of a successful film say the score was bad.”

Despite the movie’s critical drubbing, Rosenman is proud of his symphonic score to RINGS and pleased by its reissue on compact disc. “THE LORD OF THE RINGS album has an entirely new sound now that we’ve remixed it for CD,” the composer explains. “It’s the sound I had a vision of in the first place, which never really came out on the LP version. Now, 14 years later, looking at it as a piece of music unto itself, and remixed, it’s sensational.”

“The problem with the original recording was that we had a giant orchestra, a wonderful orchestra and chorus. But, since the film kept getting delayed, we couldn’t get a hall in which to record. So, we wound up at the old RCA Studios in Hollywood. It was a horrendous kind of room without any ambience whatsoever. Even though we had about 100 musicians, one critic wrote that I composed a charming march for chamber orchestra! The sound of the recording was terrible, and the vinyl LP couldn’t contain the full dynamics of the score.

“An extra 12 minutes of score has been added, and we now have equipment that can create an electronic ambience similar to the sound of an orchestra recorded in a great hall. It’s really quite spectacular. Back then, all you could put on the recording was an echo that sounded artificial. I supervised the remixing and wrote the liner notes,” he adds. “We treated the CD certainly like an adjunct of LORD OF THE RINGS, but more a symphonic concert inspired by the legend than the film.

Trek Composer

THE VOYAGE HOME had a “more modern” score than the previous STAR TREK films, says Rosenman.

After journeying to Middle Earth, Rosenman moved on to score the Emmy winning TV movie, FRIENDLY FIRE, as well as the feature PROPHECY. “That had a marvelous script, but was a terrible film. I had scored (director) John Frankenheimer’s first film, HANDS OF A STRANGER. I asked him why he bought the PROPHECY script if he was going to change everything and ruin it. He told me that he thought it was a little too wild. The creature was entirely different looking in the original story; it was an evolutionary throwback with wings. We ended up with a bear with strawberry jam on his face!

“I think I was responsible for some kind of change in the film, because I was the first one to see it complete. I told John about a letter I once read in the Los Angeles Times years before about a 12-year-old boy who wasn’t afraid of these kind of horror movies, since the monsters are always so slow and any kid on a bike can outdistance them. Here was this slow-moving bear that the characters could just walk away from. The beautiful thing about Jaws is that the people were in the shark’s territory. They were slow, the shark was fast and they couldn’t see it! If you’re locked in a tiny room with a slow-moving, relentless creature, that’s a different story, but in a wide open forest with this thing moving a mile-an-hour, escape’s no problem. Frankenheimer agreed with me and what he did was to have the background blurring real fast and the bear lurching. It didn’t work! It was really dumb.”

For the PROPHECY score, Rosenman added to his orchestra an electronic instrument known as the “Blaster Beam,” which gave the mutant bear its own otherworldly theme. This device was also employed in the Jerry Goldsmith and James Homer STAR TREK feature scores, but Rosenman’s approach to THE VOYAGE HOME precluded its use. Director Leonard Nimoy was essentially creating a lighthearted comic romp set in 20th-century San Francisco, and he turned to Rosenman to create a musical motif reflecting the change in the saga’s mood.

The composer wasn’t instructed to use any themes from the previous films, but “the script called for me to use Sandy (Alexander) Courage’s TV theme for the main title. Leonard told me to just use it there, and of course I used it for the first glimpse of the (new) Enterprise. Then, I went on to arrange the end titles with all my themes, including the ‘Whale Fugue.’ When we mated the music to the film, Leonard liked my arrangement of Sandy’s theme for the main title, but felt it didn’t show the film was fun at all.

“We were in (Nimoy’s) office at the time, and he took a tape of the end credit music and put it at the film’s beginning. ‘That’s what we need!’ he said. ‘Let’s throw the Courage theme out and redo the main title. We just used the opening fanfare of Sandy’s theme. Leonard wanted that sense of adventure and fun, something like a fast chase, which it was.”

Rosenman feels strongly about the proper application of electronic instruments. For THE VOYAGE HOME, he used synthesizers only when choosing the fusion jazz group The Yellowjackets to capture the musical change from 23rd-century space to 20th-century San Francisco. “Leonard wanted something like ‘An American in Paris’ by George Gershwin, but I pointed out to him that San Francisco is the home of jazz. When we previewed the picture in Tucson, Arizona, and the jazz stuff started, the audience just went berserk; they started applauding wildly. It was just incredible. I sketched out the music, and (band members) Russell Ferrante and Jimmy Haslip would fill stuff in. Sometimes we would change the music in accordance to the sounds we got. We worked well together; it was quite nice.”

In fact, Nimoy was so pleased with Rosenman’s work that he asked the composer to score the short film for Epcot Center’s BODY WARS ride, which Nimoy had been hired to direct. “It was entirely different from FANTASTIC VOYAGE. They wanted loud adventure kind of stuff that would stimulate the audience. It wasn’t really very long — just a march and three or four sections.”

Unlike his predecessors in the film series, the composer points out that what you hear is pure Leonard Rosenman, not a variation on Erich Wolfgang Korngold with electronic overlays. “Well, that’s my style,” he observes. “First of all, you have to understand that — not as far as Goldsmith is concerned — but most of these other people don’t have their own style. Homer certainly doesn’t. They’re very good, but my style existed before I went into films. I came in as a concert composer, and you need to be a trained concert composer to wind up with a style. You can’t get it in film; it’s not possible.”

Rosenman has sometimes been accused of not being a “modern” film composer. “I’ve gotten that criticism from rather stupid critics,” he says. “It seems to me that THE VOYAGE HOME is more modern than any of the other STAR TREK films, as far as music is concerned. The other films are basically interchangeable with most other science-fiction films — big themes with electronics that aren’t that extraordinary. If they got someone like Mark Isham instead of Goldsmith or Homer, he would have done something interesting. He’s really a composer for electronic instruments. Someday, I would like to do a score wherein I use electronic music in a way that has never been done before.”


David Hirsch with Leonard Rosenman

After his voyage with the Enterprise, Rosenman did some TV movie work before signing on to score Irvin Kershner’s ROBOCOP 2. Prior to his start on the picture, he was excited about the possibilities that the script offered in scoring themes for “Robo,” “The Cain Monster” and the TV commercial parodies. In hindsight, Rosenman only shakes his head. “Now that was a case of throwing pearls to swine,” he sighs, “because that picture had a superb script which was really screwed up during shooting. There were some brilliant scenes, but no story.

“There’s that scene where the kid (Gabriel Damon) points the gun at the screen and says, ‘Take that, mother—.’ I told Kersh the audience was gonna kill him for that; he pushed it too far beyond the boundaries of good taste. It was corrupt. If you make a film about corruption, you don’t make a corrupt film. If you make a film about a boring person, you don’t make a boring film. That’s the difference between art and reality. People don’t want to see reality unless it’s a documentary. That’s the problem.”

For the ROBOCOP 2 score, the composer wasn’t limited to the themes Basil Poledouris penned for the first film. Despite Orion Pictures’ use of the ROBOCOP theme in preview footage, Rosenman was determined to write his own score.

“I thought the score for the first film was so absolutely dreadful” he notes. “There was no sense of the orchestra, no sense of drama. It was just a dopey, lousy score, and it just didn’t work. I’m not a fan of Poledouris. The end credits [for ROBOCOP], which is the best opportunity for any composer, was just pasted together (from previously scored cues). My end title is a real piece of music, and the middle part is something very different from most film scores.”

Rosenman wanted his ROBO-theme to musically present the contrasts between Murphy’s current mechanical body and his ever-hidden human soul. Starting with a percussion track, the six-note motif changed from a mechanical sound to a “mystical” one, with the inclusion of four soprano singers, sitting in with the flutes, whose voices are almost heard subliminally. It was the composer’s desire that the audience should never forget Murphy’s inner conflict between robot and machine.

“I try to enter directly into the movie’s plot,” he points out, “and tell the audience something about the story that they can’t possibly perceive by just watching the film. For example, if I write for a scene of two people kissing and I write some horrendous music, you know more than just a kiss is happening. I’m always interested in participating that way. Just to write sad music for a sad scene, sure, I’ll do it, but it doesn’t offer me a great challenge.”

Rosenman agrees that it’s a bonus if his scores hold up on the concert stage, but he recognizes that his first priority is to the film. “After all, you’re supporting something. That’s what I do. The main thing is that you have communication with the filmmaker. By the time you get it, they’ve been on it for years. In six weeks, I’m expected to crystallize their ideas. Psychologically, it’s very stressful for them because it’s the only time they lose control of the film.”

To make sure his own interests are protected, Rosenman sits in on every dubbing session, where the music is put to film. If a scene doesn’t work with music, he feels very strongly about voicing his opinion that the scene should remain music-free. He remembers, less than fondly, how difficult the dubbing went during LORD OF THE RINGS.

“It was horrendous, ghastly. Ralph Bakshi and I had such arguments that I just walked out and said, ‘Do what you want, baby; it’s your ass.’ Everyone complained how loud and horribly mixed the sound was. I said the whole thing was horrible and that I had no interest in it. Whatever good the score could have done, he ruined it. Do you know he told (producer) Saul Zaentz he was going to dub the film in four days? You need four days just to do one (seven-minute) reel of film!

“I was so distressed by the relationship with Ralph Bakshi and everything being changed all the time that I just really had no time to simply listen to it. Now, 14 years later, I think I can be somewhat objective. I just discovered in hearing it again.” Leonard Rosenman says, “despite its limitations, LORD OF THE RINGS has some of the most interesting music I’ve ever done.”


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