CD Review: The Right Stuff (3,000 Edition)

By • August 3, 2009

Composer: Bill Conti
Label: Varese Sarabande
Suggested Retail Price: $19.98
Grade: A

There’s always been a wonderful, symphonic bombast that’s gone with the heroes of space operas, probably no more notably then when John Williams re-launched the old-school sound of the Big Hollywood Orchestra with 1977’s STAR WARS. Yet as he made a new generation of sci-fi fans imagine they were Luke Skywalker, Han Solo or Princess Leia Organa, there was a group of earthbound heroes with names like Alan Shepard, John Glenn and Gus Grissom who needed to get their Hollywood due, not to mention the swirling strings and brass that would come with it.

The composer who would help elevate them to icon status would be Bill Conti, whose main theme for 1983’s THE RIGHT STUFF became the soundtrack equivalent of “Entrance of the Gladiators” – music that defined pride, bravery and duty with no small measure of rousing excitement. Here that patriotic vibe is played under a slow-motion shot of astronauts marching towards the fearsome wonder of space itself, a classic cinema image that would be riffed on in every film from RESERVOIR DOGS to ARMAGEDDON.

However, one of film scoring’s greatest marches would be one of the few pieces that actually got heard in THE RIGHT STUFF, as director Philip Kaufman’s adoration for classical pieces would rival Stanley Kubrick’s temp love in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. But where that film’s composer Alex North wouldn’t discover his music was MIA until he was actually at that film’s premiere, Conti got through the director’s temp love to win an Oscar. Though he’d produced an album for the film’s release, it’s Varese Sarabande head Robert Townson’s perseverance that has gotten it out after too long a wait on the label’s CD Club imprimatur. Sure Conti had re-recorded a suite from STUFF for a 1985 release on Varese (pairing it with NORTH AND SOUTH), but there’s no comparison between riding to space in a simulator, and taking the trip in the real deal.

It’s a ride that Conti’s voice that shares the joystick with such formidable musical co-pilots Gustav Holst, since Kaufman’s probable insistence on following his classic-filled temp track was as strict as NASA orders to their men not to open the rocket windshield. But like other famed composers who’ve overtly made classical composers their co-pilots, it’s Conti’s ability to put his own heroic energy into the likes of “The Planets” that makes his RIGHT STUFF achieve the sound of legend- hearing the instant country-and-glory melodies that get you up at the beginning of the ball game to salute the flag. And in THE RIGHT STUFF, that instant patriotism is well earned by the men who stood for all that was good, and glorious about our country’s space race.

But then, few composers had a knack for anthem-like heroism like Bill Conti, whose similar, classically-styled march theme for ROCKY was no doubt a factor in helping him land his second most-popular gig with THE RIGHT STUFF (I’ll have to place the composer’s KARATE KID third for its understandably subtler approach). Though Conti varies his march theme through most of the cues, Varese’s full release shows just how much more meat there was to this STUFF beyond the famed motif. When Chuck Yeager achieves “Mach 1,” Conti accompanies his oncoming breaking of the sound barrier with sparkling synths that wouldn’t be out of place in a Rush song- except here those electronics are capturing a moment of science fiction come to life, the true beginning of mankind’s march to the stars. But as serious as director Kaufman was in visually treating his film’s themes, he also gave THE RIGHT STUFF a bunch of outrightly goofy humor to play the pomposity of the NASA scientists and government bureaucrats- a playfulness that Conti has fun with in “Training Hard,” with “Russian Moon” captured with Soviet balalaikas that wouldn’t be out of place in DR. ZHIVAGO.” There’s even a “Tango,” and vibrant renditions of “The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You” and “The Yellow Rose of Texas” that pokes further fun at LBJ.

Like its subjects, Conti’s music is all about being bold, if not bigger than life. Yet beyond the adventures that turned them into media stars, Conti’s music also plays the inner thrill of going where no man has gone before. Even though the movie’s breakout “star” Chuck Yeager is laconic (when he deigns to speak at all), Conti speaks volumes for him when Yeager marvels at the aircraft that will almost take him to the stars in “Yeager and the F104.” However, its people like John Glenn who will really get there in “Glenn’s Flight,” a cue that lets Conti play “Mars” from Gustav Holt’s “The Planets”- undeniably the most famous classical piece to capture space itself. But Conti isn’t hitching a ride on famous coattails here, as he invigorates Holst with a sense of classical joie de vie that compares to Georges Delerue’s energetic love of Baroque music in such scores as THE DAY OF THE DOLPHIN and A LITTLE ROMANCE.

Few scores display the never-ending kind of thrills, emotion and noble huzzahs like THE RIGHT STUFF. And by the time that Conti launches into his most glorious version of his main theme with “Yeager’s Triumph,” you’ll feel like standing up and saluting. It was one thing for author Tom Wolfe to coin a term to describe the spirit that enabled these all-American heroes to ascend to the stars. But it was probably a whole other thing to musically talk about that true grit- all while hearkening back to a musical sound from an era where it seemed that only gods would ever live in the heavens. Much of it may have been too bold for Kaufman, who’d make nonetheless effective choices in replacing much of Conti’s score with classical pieces. But to at least hear THE RIGHT STUFF as Conti intended it leaves no doubt that this was a mission accomplished from the start.

RIGHT STUFF copies have almost blasted off from Varese Sarabande, so be sure to march to space glory HERE as soon as possible.


By MrSelim Rana Shelly on August 3rd, 2009 at 12:33 pm

I will try to see this film.

By victor on October 9th, 2011 at 7:47 am


I love this movie!! and the soundtrack. However, I found that the last song of the movie when the rocket goes up (Gordon Cooper) is not list on the cd.

I like that song very much. Do you know what’s the song’s name?

Thank you!! 🙂

By victor on October 9th, 2011 at 5:11 pm


Well, I listened the Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” and it’s a very slow song. I’m talking about the one played when Gordon Cooper goes up with the rocket in the final part of the movie.

If you have seen the movie, the music is quite inspiring and kind of “epic”

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