CD Review: The Right Stuff

Forty years ago today, man walked on the moon, an event that, along with the death of Judy Garland earlier that year, remains one of my earliest memories of life outside my own little world in Irving, Texas. Just in time for the 40th anniversary of this phenomenal achievement in space, Varese Sarabande has released Bill Conti‘s Oscar-winning score for THE RIGHT STUFF (1983).

Tom Wolfe’s original book and Philip Kaufman’s film tells the story of the “flyboys” and Mercury astronauts in the early days of the space program who paved the way for Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong’s historic flight. Even though audiences had no interest in THE RIGHT STUFF, it still received eight Academy Award nominations, winning a surprising, yet well-deserved, four awards. Julie Kirgo’s entertaining liner notes features some delightful input from Conti detailing the challenges behind the troubled production.

Conti was brought on late in the game after another composer’s score had been rejected (though Conti can’t remember who). One of the challenges came from contending with Kaufman’s temp track that included Gustav Holst’s The Planets and Henry Mancini’s score from THE WHITE DAWN, a 1974 film also directed by Kaufman. While Conti did what he could to minimize the Holst influence on the score, it is still readily apparent in tracks like “Breaking the Sound Barrier” and “Glenn’s Flight.” Both Holst and Mancini are credited in the film’s end credits.

The Right Stuff CDIn the mid-1980’s, Conti footed the bill for an excellent recording on Varese of a 20-minute suite from the score, backed by a suite from his sweeping music for the NORTH AND SOUTH miniseries. A bootleg of the RIGHT STUFF original tracks has floated around for years but the masters for the tracks have been lost. What Varese has released here is Conti’s original album presentation that was scheduled to be released in 1983 but was summarily canceled when the film tanked at the box office.

The score is based on two memorable main themes. The first can be heard in the strings, French horns, and trumpet at the beginning of “Breaking the Sound Barrier.” “Mach I” features a synthesized rendering of the other main theme which will form a rousing march later in the score.

Conti strays from the flag-waving with some insistent Russian-tinged music for “Russian Moon” and “Mach II.” My favorite track is “Glenn’s Flight.” Even with its stirring strings, quasi-Baroque fugue, and lovely oboe solo at the end, it’s the diminished chord at 4:22 that sends chills down my spine. The film ends with a merging of the score’s major themes into a march that sends the Mercury program off into the wild blue yonder.

The CD closes with a surreal “disco” version of the score’s main themes. How or why this was recorded is not explained in the liner notes, but surely they didn’t expect it to get radio airplay. And yet the track has an early 80’s New Wave charm that put a grin on my face.

Conti’s patriotic (and I mean that in the best possible way) score beat out some other high-profile films and composers: Leonard Rosenman (CROSS CREEK), John Williams (RETURN OF THE JEDI), Michael Gore (TERMS OF ENDEARMENT), and Jerry Goldsmith (UNDER FIRE). While the score may not appear to be the most musically complex of the nominees, Conti’s music elicits the proper emotions in the film.

I’ve waited 26 years for a proper release of this score and I couldn’t be happier. I hate holes in my Oscar collection and I can now cross another title off the list. At just over 30 minutes, the CD is frightfully short but all the major Conti moments are there. Visit Varese’s site to hear audio samples. At 3,000 units, this oft-requested title will undoubtedly sell out.

Film Score Click Track [rating:4.5/5]

2 comments

  1. Still waiting for my Cd to arrive by mail.I know I’m gonna enjoy it just as much as the Varese Symphonic Suite album.Also,I watched the movie for the very first time on TCM and LOVED IT!

    1. Hi Mark, hope your CD has arrived by now. It’s a great movie that probably had the wrong timing when it first came out. Let me know how you like the new release.

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