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How Iconic Themes for ‘Star Wars,’ ‘Rocky’ and ‘Charlie Brown’ Get Reboots

John Williams’ themes from “Star Wars” and “Jurassic Park.” Bill Conti’s “Rocky” fanfare. Vince Guaraldi’s music for TV’s “Charlie Brown” cartoons. The John Barry arrangement of Monty Norman’s “James Bond Theme.” Lalo Schifrin’s “Mission: Impossible.”

These are iconic film and TV themes, and viewers of today’s sequels, spinoffs and franchises might well feel cheated if they didn’t hear the music that is so indelibly associated with these franchises. But where to use them? And how to adapt them into a larger, original score?

That was the challenge faced by several composers this past year, only one of whom was actually working with his own themes: the venerable John Williams, who has been composing for more than half a century and whose original “Star Wars” music was written 38 years ago.

Williams returned to George Lucas’ sci-fi mythology for a seventh time in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” and while he estimates that 95% of the score involves new themes (for Rey, Kylo Ren, Poe, the Resistance, Snoke and others), “there are a few references for this character or that place” to themes from previous films.

All are from the original trilogy: themes for the Force, Princess Leia, Han Solo and Leia’s love theme, Darth Vader, “and of course the main title theme, we’ll probably always have that on the front part of every film,” Williams says.

“There are recollections of earlier times. They seemed to be de rigueur, to put the audience in the right place.”

Indeed, Williams’ identifying signatures provide audience-rousing accompaniment for the presence of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill and other original cast members in the new film.

GALACTIC SCORE ENCORE: John Williams’ classic themes for “Star Wars” and “Jurassic Park” were cleverly utilized in the two franchises’ newest installments.
Jonathan Player/REX/Shutterstock

As for “Jurassic World,” that other 2015 blockbuster, composer Michael Giacchino insisted upon the inclusion of Williams’ fanfare for the original “Jurassic Park.”

“Colin (Trevorrow, the director) and I agreed from the start that we would use it where it would be most earned and emotional, and that was during the reveal of the finished park, which was promised to us years ago in the original,” Giacchino says.

“We didn’t want to just plaster it all over the place as some films do with existing themes like this,” he adds. “It was an important link to the past, placed for maximum impact, which hopefully wouldn’t dilute the new material we wanted to bring forth in the film as well.”

When you’re scoring a James Bond film — which nine composers have done since the 24-film series was launched in 1962 with “Dr. No” — the incorporation of Monty Norman’s “James Bond Theme” (as arranged and recorded by John Barry) is a must.

How and where to use it, however, is a decision not lightly made, says “Spectre” composer Thomas Newman. “You try it, and ask yourself: Does this belittle the moment or does it enhance it?” he says. Every use required the approval of director Sam Mendes.

The well-known Bond guitar riff only appears at the beginning and the end of “Spectre,” Newman points out. “There is something so outspoken about it, that it has to be a real retro moment or an outwardly fun, swaggering one.”

Newman does use the Bond theme bass line (which can “simmer well, it adapts well to drama,” he says) and its jazzy midsection (“you can get moodier with that motif”).

The overall Bond style, cemented by English composer Barry over 11 scores from 1963 to 1987, “inspired some of my more lush moments with string orchestra,” Newman adds. “That major-minor thing he did so well is evocative and sensual and strong at the same time.”

Creating a “Peanuts Movie” for a new generation, however, required updating the musical approach from Guaraldi’s piano-based, small-combo jazz so familiar from TV’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and the 14 subsequent “Peanuts” specials he scored before his 1976 death.

“There are just certain franchises to which the theme is inextricably linked.”
Joe Kraemer

Composer Christophe Beck is a Guaraldi fan. “His music was tuneful and catchy,” he says. “He managed to incorporate sophisticated jazz harmonies in a very accessible way, and also a sense of melancholy.”

In his initial work on the film, Beck created “a much more direct descendant of that Guaraldi sound. I wrote a suite of piano pieces with rhythm section — the same basic idea, very uplifting, simple, catchy tunes, but a little more from a pop perspective.”

Early test screenings suggested otherwise. “We needed to go for a more contemporary, more orchestral approach,” while hinting at the Guaraldi style with “jazz voicings, just enough to make you feel a little nostalgic” in pieces like Snoopy’s love theme, or the theme for the Little Red-Haired Girl.

Craig Schulz, co-writer and son of “Peanuts” creator Charles M. Schulz, agreed that, among “iconic things that we felt were needed, that people were going to look forward to, top of the list was the ‘Linus and Lucy’ music.” So Guaraldi’s fun theme, as well as his “Skating” waltz and the holiday song “Christmastime Is Here,” are reprised in both classic Guaraldi recordings and new interpolations within the score.

For “Creed,” seventh movie in the “Rocky” franchise, composer Ludwig Goransson initially didn’t plan to use Conti’s familiar “Rocky” fanfare, the “Gonna Fly Now” song or other score cues. “Ryan (Coogler, the director) was excited about creating something totally new, unique and different,” says the Swedish composer.

Early on, Goransson visited an Oakland gym and recorded “boxing sounds” (which he then turned into percussive beats as part of the score’s electronic textures). They were part of an initially “dark and emotional” approach that he and Coogler reconsidered and modified as work on the score proceeded.

“When Rocky gets sick, you really want to play his emotions. Why wouldn’t you want to play his theme?” Goransson asks. And later, as Rocky’s protege Donnie (son of his old friend Apollo Creed) finds his footing, Goransson incorporates both the “Rocky” fanfare and Conti’s “Going the Distance” cue from the 1976 original.

Stallone came to all the scoring sessions, Goransson says, and “he started tearing up” when he heard the orchestra playing the old “Rocky” themes. And, the composer reports, Stallone kept saying he wanted “more music, more music!” in the final fight scene. The finale intertwines the Conti classics and Goransson’s own winning theme.

For “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation,” composer Joe Kraemer deconstructed Schifrin’s “Mission” theme and used pieces of it, along with Schifrin’s secondary “Plot” theme from the ’60s TV series, throughout.

“I wanted them to feel cohesive and organic to the score,” he says. And he “created a theme for Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) that works in counterpoint to Lalo’s ‘Mission’ theme without it being too obvious. By the climax of the film, I have them interweaving with each other.”

Kraemer says doing “Mission: Impossible” without Schifrin’s universally beloved 5/4 tune would be “like doing Bond without Barry, or ‘Star Wars’ without John Williams’ music. There are just certain franchises to which the theme is inextricably linked.”

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