The soundtracks to Steven Spielberg’s mid-80s anthology series Amazing Stories warrant their own blog post due to the number of different scores by different major composers.
Amazing Stories ran for 2 seasons from 1985 to 1987. The idea behind the series was that Spielberg would use his movie-industry influence to attract top talent, particularly directors, to produce half-hour stand-alone episodes made with feature-film production values. Spielberg directed the pilot episode (“Ghost Train”) as well as an hour-long episode (“The Mission”) later in the first season. Other major directors that did episodes of the series included Martin Scorsese, Robert Zemeckis, Clint Eastwood, Joe Dante, Burt Reynolds, Paul Bartel, Danny DeVito, Irvin Kershner, Tobe Hooper, and others.
The big name directors that worked on the series also brought along some of their feature film collaborators, often including their composers of choice. Because of this, the scores for the series represented pretty much a who’s who of the major film composers working during that time. Spielberg brought along John Williams to write the main title theme for the series as well as to score the two episodes that he directed. Other composers that worked on the series, and are represented on the available CDs, include Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, Alan Silvestri, Danny Elfman & Steve Bartek, Georges Delerue, Bruce Broughton, David Shire, Billy Goldenberg, Lennie Niehaus, Craig Safan, David Newman, Thomas Newman, Johnny Mandel, Arthur B. Rubinstein, John Addison, Leonard Rosenman, Michael Kamen, Fred Steiner, and Pat Metheny.
During the series’ original run, I kept hoping that a soundtrack album with some of the music (at least the John Williams music) would be released. I was disappointed that the series concluded its entire two season run without any such album showing up. The first time that any of the music was released on CD was in 1999, when Varese Sarabande commissioned re-recordings of the scores from 2 episodes (John Williams’ “The Mission” and Georges Delerue’s “Dorothy & Ben”) performed by The Royal Scottish National Orchestra conduced by Joel McNeely and John Debney. In addition to the two episode scores, the album also included re-recordings of Williams’ main and end title themes.
In 2006, Intrada released the first of three 2-disc volumes featuring the original recordings of music from the series. The three volumes present the scores of 31 out of the 45 episodes of the series. While there probably are enough scores left for a 4th volume, the scores by major, well-known composers (with one major exception) have all been released making another edition pretty unlikely. The one major score that is still missing is Danny Elfman’s score for Brad Bird’s animated “Family Dog” episode, although a short suite from it is included on Elfman’s “Music for a Darkened Theater, Vol. 2” compilation disc. Intrada was unfortunately unable to locate the master tapes for that score. In fact, the release of volume 3 was delayed for several months due to that search.
The scores on the Intrada CDs are not in the order that the episode aired, but instead are organized to try and provide the best album presentation. They chose to have John Williams’ two scores bookend the releases, with “Ghost Train” opening volume 1 and “The Mission” closing volume 3. Wanting to have other in-demand scores from big name composers open each volume, they placed Jerry Goldsmith’s “Boo!” at the start of volume 2 and Alan Silvestri’s “Go to the Head of the Class” at the beginning of volume 3.
As you might expect, each volume opens and closes with Williams’ main and end title themes and disc 2 of each sets opens with short “bumper” versions of the theme that were used for transitions to or from commercial breaks.
Amazing Stories was the first TV series that I wanted to retain so I could re-watch the episodes. During its original run, I actually recorded every episode on videotape (Beta, no less!) and did re-watch favorite episodes occasionally back in the late 80s or early 90s. A while back, Universal released a DVD set of season one, so I have watched some of the episodes more recently that way. No DVDs of season two have been released, although the episodes are available from Netflix via their instant streaming service.
I still haven’t seen many of the episodes since around the time of their original run back in the mid-80s, though, so my memory of them is pretty spotty. My comments on much of the music will therefore be somewhat disconnected from how they work in the episodes.
After the break are my comments for each of the episode scores available on the albums.
Main Title, End Credits, and Bumpers (John Williams): Williams wrote a very memorable main theme for the series that I’m surprised hasn’t been more widely heard in subsequent years. I had kind of expected it to show up periodically on compilation albums (such as the ones Williams did with the Boston Pops), but I believe the recordings on the Intrada and Varese CDs are the only releases.
The theme opens with a brass fanfare that segues into the brassy main theme. Using a similar structure to what Williams used for his famous Superman and Raiders of the Lost Ark themes, there is a secondary theme that takes over about midway through. In this case, that secondary theme is primarily piano based. It then closes out with a re-statement of the primary theme and then a repeat of the brassy fanfare.
The shorter end credits version is just the secondary piano theme, played at a somewhat faster tempo than the opening title version. Even all these years after the original broadcasts, I still keep expecting the end credits music to segue into the Universal Television logo music, even though it doesn’t on any of the CDs.
Finally, the “bumpers” are very brief (just a few seconds) excerpts from the main theme. These are pretty much the minimum length to still be recognizable as coming from the main theme. One of these is included at the start of disc 2 of each of the Intrada sets as well as at the mid-point of the lengthy “The Mission” score that closes Anthology Three.
Amblin Logo (John Williams): Although it isn’t technically directly related to Amazing Stories, while going through the score masters Intrada found Williams’ music that accompanied Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment logo at the end of a few movies that they produced in the late ‘80s (I believe it debuted on Young Sherlock Holmes). Variations on this short, but catchy theme were the final track on each of the three volumes. Particularly amusing is a Christmas-themed version (with sleigh bells in the background) that ends Anthology Two and makes for a good match for the “Santa 1985” score that precedes it on the disc.
Ghost Train (John Williams): This pilot episode of the series was directed by Spielberg and, not surprisingly, featured a score by John Williams. The episode was on the sentimental side, with a fantasy-based storyline that dealt with aging and, ultimately, death. As you would expect, the music is also pretty sentimental in tone. Williams builds most of the score around a fairly simple, mainly string-based theme that he created for the Grandfather character. This is also the only episode score that briefly incorporates the series’ main theme. This is the lesser of the two Williams’ scores for the series and is also recorded with a smaller orchestra, but it still is very good music and gets the soundtracks off to a great start.
Alamo Jobe (James Horner): Horner’s one score for the series only runs about 10 minutes on the CD soundtrack, although it likely is pretty nearly complete. The episode he scored was largely a western and Horner’s upbeat music is very much in that style, even including a few harmonica solos. For the battle and chase sequences, he includes brassy fanfares and some patriotic-style action music. It is a fun suite of music and definitely recognizably in Horner’s familiar style.
Gather Ye Acorns (Bruce Broughton): At a little over 18 minutes, this is one of the longer scores for the series. The primary theme for this score features a solo harmonica as the primary instrument, with the orchestra frequently coming in kind of as a counterpoint to the harmonica. The episode covered a pretty lengthy time period, which is reflected by some evolution of the score, particularly the introduction of electronic instruments in the cue “1985” as well as a couple of era-reflecting source cues.
The Doll (Georges Delerue): Delerue’s usual gift for melody is very much on display in this score, although the overall tone of the music is vaguely sad in a style that brings to mind a doomed romance. The cue entitled “Toy Carousel” is particularly interesting, with music box style music (as from a child’s toy) overlaying the orchestral themes to very intriguing effect.
The Amazing Falsworth (Billy Goldenberg): This short (8 minutes) score to a Peter Hyams directed episode is a dark and scary horror-style piece. The primary theme is a very minimalist piano melody that sounds like it could be coming from a music box. It is used in combination with occasional orchestral bursts to a very unnerving effect.
Moving Day (David Shire): This is a primarily synthesizer-based score that has more of an ‘80s contemporary sound than most of the episode scores. The opening main theme with its very active synthesizer music feels like a pretty dramatic change of pace after the previous scores, but it definitely makes an impression. Shire does include orchestral elements, particularly strings, to supplement the synthesizers and the result is generally effective and even fairly beautiful at times.
Without Diana (Georges Delerue): Delerue’s second score on the set opens with an upbeat, 40s style melody before shifting into a more melancholy style of music. As it is Delerue, the score is of course very melodic, but it definitely explores the darker side of his style. The use of a gentle, solo string melody in “George in Doorway/Diana’s Story” is especially effective and a highlight of this particular score.
Mummy, Daddy (Danny Elfman & Steve Bartek): This score is for one of the most purely comical episodes of the series. Elfman is co-credited with his Oingo Boingo band mate (and frequent orchestrator) Steve Bartek, but the music is very recognizably in the same kind of zany, off-beat style of Elfman’s other ‘80s comedy scores. The storyline involved an actor in a mummy costume in full costume while trying to get to a hospital in time for his child’s birth. This gave Elfman and Bartek the opportunity to do some bits of mock monster movie scoring as well. It’s a fun score and definitely likely to appeal to any Elfman fan.
Vanessa in the Garden (Lennie Niehaus): Clint Eastwood brought along his usual composer, Lennie Niehaus, for the episode that he directed. The score is very string heavy with a fairly classical feel to it. The score has a number of interesting variations to its main themes including some pretty stirring full-orchestral arrangements in the penultimate cue and an effective but simple solo-piano version (with the orchestra joining in at the tail end) in the final track.
Welcome To My Nightmare (Bruce Broughton): This is a synthesizer-heavy score with fairly dissonant horror elements intermixed with a pleasantly melodic theme (that kind of resembles Broughton’s score to Harry and the Hendersons) for the romantic elements of the episode. The episode included references to Psycho and Broughton does include a synthesizer version of the famous screeching strings theme from that film.
Boo! (Jerry Goldsmith): Director Joe Dante was able to bring along his usual collaborator, Jerry Goldsmith, to write the score for this episode, one of two that he directed for the series. Goldsmith’s scores for Dante’s projects were often among his quirkiest and this one is no exception.
The score uses synthesizers extensively, usually to generate fairly odd sounds. There is also a lengthy percussion solo during the cue “What Fun; It’s Okay; Jungle Zombie”, something that is relatively unusual for the composer. Goldsmith does interweave a melodic, orchestral theme into the score as well, although it is never quite fully developed during the 12 minute running time of the score. While this isn’t really a high point in Goldsmith’s impressive career, it is certainly an interesting composition and nice to have it available.
What If…? (Billy Goldenberg): This is a pretty sensitive, melodic score with lots of strings and little brass. The cue “Bubbles;Nails;Kitchen Odyssey” very effectively uses woodwinds and solo piano. Much of the score has a heartwarming, fantasy-oriented sound to it. One odd exception is the somewhat aptly named cue “Obnoxious” that mainly features electric guitar and synthesizer to create a kind of hard rock sound. It likely makes sense contextually in the episode, but it is pretty jarring on the CD.
Dorothy and Ben (Georges Delerue): Delerue seemed to be the first choice for most of the more sad episodes of the series and this is another one with a melancholy style to it. The score is built around a warm string melody that is well developed over the course of the score’s running time, eventually building up to a more fully orchestrated theme towards the end.
Note that this is one of the two scores that was re-recorded for the Varese Sarabande CD and that version runs about 2 minutes longer than on the Intrada album, due to some differences in the orchestration of some of the cues.
The Main Attraction (Craig Safan): This fun score opens with a main theme that is designed to sound much like a brass marching band performing school fight song. This catchy theme continues as a primary theme through the rest of the score, although it does switch to a more traditional orchestral approach (including some of the later renditions of the theme), with the marching band occasionally returning. The score also includes some synthesizers to underscore the material dealing with the meteor strike that is a key plot element of the episode. The last cue, “Magnetic Love”, is an entertainingly overblown romantic theme.
Such Interesting Neighbors (David Newman): Newman creates a fairly straightforward orchestral score for this episode. The music has a bit of a mysterious and somewhat dark style to it and doesn’t really establish overly distinctive themes. Later in the score, particularly in the cue “Microwave and Meatloaf;Off Kilter”, some unusual instrumentation is used to generate a bit of a, well, off kilter style to the piece. There’s nothing really wrong with this score, but it doesn’t particularly stand out either and is one of the more dull entries in the series.
Thanksgiving (Bruce Broughton): Broughton’s score for this episode is one of the more distinctive ones of the series. The use of wordless female choir for the main theme gives it a strange, rather otherworldly sound. The theme is combined with orchestral elements (including some orchestral-only versions of the theme) to create one of the richer scores of the series.
Hell Toupee (David Shire): Shire gives this Irvin Kershner directed episode a mix of film noir style music as well as some brassy action/adventure fanfares. The score is mostly orchestral, although with a few electronic elements that were pretty standard to Shire’s work during that time period.
One For the Road (Johnny Mandel): This score has a kind of folksy sound to it with lots of solo horns and piano melodies and even some banjo music. It is centered around a very catchy main melody that kind of sounds to me like it should have lyrics, even though it doesn’t in any of the versions included on the album. Mandel’s main claim to fame is his score to M*A*S*H and there is a bit of resemblance between this score and that famous main theme.
The Remote Control Man (Arthur B. Rubinstein): Rubenstein provides kind of a cartoonish music style for this episode, which was written as essentially a cross-promotional journey through NBC shows. The music also includes brief excerpts from theme songs, including “Leave It to Beaver” and “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson”, as well as bits of original music that sound like they could be TV themes.
The Greibble (John Addison): For some reason, Jerry Goldsmith didn’t score Joe Dante’s second episode for the series and John Addison was brought in to write the score instead. Addison’s score is much more of a straightforward orchestral score than Goldsmith’s score for “Boo!”, although I seem to recall that this episode was a bit less manic as well. The score starts off fairly tense but becomes warmer and more melodic later on as the mood of the episode also moves in that direction.
No Day at the Beach (Leonard Rosenman): The episode has a World War II setting and features quite a bit of old-fashioned war movie music, full of percussion and brass. The majority of the music is either very action or suspense oriented, types of music that Rosenman handles well.
Santa ‘85 (Thomas Newman): For the series one Christmas-themed episode, Thomas Newman provided a cheerful score with a definite holiday sound, including use of bell choir bells and the occasional ringing of sleigh bells in the background. The score does reflect Newman’s usual style of laid back melodies with lots of piano solos. Interesting, Newman avoided the temptation to incorporate any traditional Christmas carols into the score.
Go to the Head of the Class (Alan Silvestri): Robert Zemeckis directed the second of two hour-long episodes (the other is “The Mission”, which closes Anthology Three) and brought along his usual composer Alan Silvestri to write the score, which runs nearly a half hour on CD. The episode was a macabre horror-comedy and Silvestri provided a generally strange and non-melodic, mostly electronic score. The cue “Curse of the Dolkite” is pretty much a techno-pop piece very heavy on electronic drum machines. A few cues use bits of organ music (or, more likely, the synthesized version of it) as well. Throughout, the score includes some fairly tense suspense music peppered with occasional sudden bursts of sound.
The Wedding Ring (Craig Safan): This score incorporates the 1940s song “On the Boardwalk in Atlantic City”, opening with a full performance of the song by an unknown female vocalist (a bit of a jarring transition coming right after Silvestri’s score). The result is a mostly charming and upbeat score with a bit of a romantic side as well. One odd side trip (that probably makes sense in the show) is the cue “Waxed Horror”, which includes organ music and some tension-filled suspense music.
Mirror, Mirror (Michael Kamen): One of the series darkest, most intense entries was this Martin Scorsese directed episode. Kamen provides a very active score with very fast paced and active strings along with creative use of woodwinds and only occasional bits of brass, mostly muted. The lengthy opening cue, “Zombies”, is almost all violent and dissonant strings, with the score taking on somewhat more melodious elements in subsequent cues. This is an extremely busy and complex score and, with a 25 minute running time on the CD, this episode must have been pretty much continuously scored.
Mr. Magic (Bruce Broughton): This score opens with kind of a pop music styled instrumental featuring a guitar melody backed by synthesized drums. The second cue then has more of a early 20th century lounge band style to it, which ends up being a main theme carried through the rest of the score.
In between these pieces, the score does jump around in styles quite a bit, including some mystery-style music, one short disco-styled section, and some quieter melodic statements of the theme. Most strangely, one cue opens with a direct quote of Billy Goldenberg’s theme from the previous episode “The Amazing Falsworth”. I don’t recall specifically, but I assume the show included a direct reference to that previous episode.
Secret Cinema (Billy Goldenberg): This is a fun score that plays something like a parody of film scoring conventions for an episode that was mostly a parody of movie cliches. It covers pretty much the full range of commonplace dramatic scoring, presenting all of them with as much of an over-the-top approach as possible. It includes fully orchestral romantic music, pop music, synthesized thriller music, and even calliope music. The score features lots of big flourishes and false climaxes to further build the impact.
Life On Death Row (Fred Steiner): Steiner was a long-time veteran of television scoring (including quite a few scores for the original “Star Trek”) and he provides a taut, tension-filled score for this episode. It is a mostly orchestral work with a focus on strings and piano. It has something of an old-fashioned feel to it that is pretty appealing.
The Pumpkin Competition (John Addison): This is a very upbeat, comedy score. It opens with a fast paced piece with a bit of a country feel that quickly sets the mood. The score features a lot of electronic instruments as well as some piano and horn solos. There is a little bit of tension-filled music, most notably in the cue “Big Pea”,
Grandpa’s Ghost (Pat Metheny): Although this score is by a famous jazz musician, the style is mostly fairly slow tempo, kind of “easy listening” style music primarily for piano and synthesizer. Parts of the score do have a bit of a mystical, supernatural sound to them. This is a very low key effort overall with some pleasant themes.
The Mission (John Williams): The John Williams score for this Spielberg-directed hour long episode is the high point for the series’ scores and definitely the one that was most wanted by film music collectors over the year. Recorded with a full-sized orchestra (most of the other episode scores used smaller orchestras and synthesizers) this 30-minute score is very much in the familiar style of Williams’ other 1980s scores.
The episode is about a World War II bomber crew (including Kevin Costner and Kiefer Sutherland before either was well known) and how they deal with damage that knocked out their landing gear and trapped the gunner in the plane’s belly turret. The episodes includes some very tense and moving sequences and eventually takes a turn into the type of fantasy that Spielberg was already well-known for during that time. The episode is usually cited as the series’ strongest
As you would probably expect for a Williams score from that era, the music uses lots of brass and strings to create a very lush sound filled with quite a bit of drama. Williams introduces a simple but distinctive main theme early in the score and very effectively weaves it throughout the score. In keeping with the episode’s theme, the score does include some soaring segments that definitely bring to mind flight. The cue entitled “Off We Go” even opens with a quote from “Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder” before segueing into variations on Williams’ theme.
The score’s finale is a nearly 11 minute cue (the longest of any for the entire series) that builds through increasingly dramatic and heroic thematic material and some of his trademark fanfares and march-style music. It is an enormously satisfying conclusion both to this episode score and to the full currently available collection of music.
“The Mission” is one of the two scores (along with “Dorothy and Ben”) that was included on the Varese Sarabande re-recording. That version is a couple minutes shorter than the original recording and subjectively doesn’t feel quite as warm as the original soundtrack recording. It is still a good presentation of the score, though, and that disc might be a good alternative for a casual fan that doesn’t want to go with the more expensive Intrada sets.