To paraphrase Die Hard 2, how can the same film score happen to the same guy twice? Sometimes it’s all in the mix.
It’s a bit of a slow news week in the world of classic film scores, so it’s a perfect time to revisit an underappreciated favorite: Arthur B. Rubenstein‘s outstanding score from 1983’s WarGames. It has been released in numerous forms, each of them with their own charms (and, occasionally, drawbacks), dating all the way back to the year of the movie’s release.
The soundtrack LP issued by Polydor Records was very much a specimen of soundtrack records at the time: it mixed movie dialogue with music, a practice often looked down upon by modern day movie music collectors. And while yours truly isn’t the biggest fan of dialogue in a soundtrack album, let’s rewind a little bit to put things in context: in the days before VCRs were commonplace, and cable movie channels like HBO were still a bit of a high-end luxury, there was no pathway for the consumer with an average budget to experience a recent movie, short of standing in line for another ticket. Story records were one way to relive the excitement, but WarGames was aimed at a decidedly teenage audience, so a story record was probably not on the table. Dialogue from the movie, reinforcing key scenes and ideas (and bear in mind, WarGames was very much an “idea” movie with a message for the audience to ponder after the credits rolled), was interspersed with selections from the movie’s music. And the LP presented a fairly generous selection of that music, though it also left a lot unreleased. But what was there was a fascinating listen into a masterfully-constructed score.
Take, for example, the background music of the scenes in which David Lightman researches the (presumably) late Dr. Falken obsessively in the local library. By the end of what starts out as an authentically synth-heavy new wave song, heavier, orchestral, ominous hints of the tense action music from later in the movie begin to take over – while the lyrics cheerfully run through a catalog of Earth’s past mass extinctions, clearly hinting that another could be on the way…at humanity’s own hand.
In 1998, an even smaller selection of music – a mere 25 minutes – appeared on a CD box set, The Film Music Of Arthur B. Rubenstein, released by now-defunct label SuperTracks. While those 25 minutes of music were uninterrupted by movie dialogue, there was even less material than what had appeared on the 1983 LP. Like the remainder of SuperTracks’ output, this release went out of print when the label itself went under.
It wouldn’t be until 2008 that the WarGames score appeared in anything like its complete form, this time courtesy of Intrada Records. It was this album that finally pulled some of the music that had been stuck behind dialogue into the foreground. The track “Tic-Tac-Toe” is a fascinating example of what we’d been missing: it turns out that some of the foreboding, high-frequency “computer sounds” in the build-up to the movie’s climactic scenes weren’t part of the sound design – they were part of the music score all along. Rubenstein’s construction of the score is almost a master class in how a film composer participates in the telling of the story.
There’s just one problem with the Intrada album: it went out of print fast, and now commands secondary-market/eBay prices that would make it a real WOPR of a purchasing decision for any budget.
Fortunately, Quartet Records re-released the WarGames score in 2018, only now it had suddenly expanded to two CDs. The first CD contains the complete score, though in a slightly different mix from the Intrada CD, which was overseen by Rubenstein himself prior to his death. Quartet’s release presents the score as mixed for the film itself, a mix that is strikingly different in some regards. The second disc presented – for the first time on CD – the original 1983 LP (complete with dialogue), and a few unused/alternate takes of various portions of the score… though a quick check of Quartet’s website reveals that this release, too, has gone out of print.
Can this film’s music get no respect? WarGames was not an obscure cult classic – it was 1983’s fifth highest-earning movie.
But wait! As if Rubenstein’s music hasn’t already been relegated to “sold out” status, there’s still something missing from all of the above albums – something that might have escaped the notice of anyone who didn’t experience the build-up to WarGames’ 1983 premiere in real time. Where was the song itself?
As the movie’s premiere approached like an oncoming missile barrage, an atypically hard-rocking Crosby, Stills & Nash track sharing the movie’s name was in heavy rotation on radio, and even had a video in MTV rotation featuring scenes from the movie.
Written by Stephen Stills and featuring guitar work by Danny Kortchmar and synth/keyboards played by James Newton Howard – himself a future film score composer who would go on to create the music for Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy with Hans Zimmer – the CS&N song was a huge part of the marketing push for the movie…and yet it was nowhere to be seen on the 1983 LP or any of the subsequent reissues, and it appeared nowhere in the film itself (one wonders if it was, perhaps, replaced by Rubenstein’s harmonica-driven end credits at some late stage). It appeared in 1983 on the Crosby, Stills & Nash album Allies, one of only two new studio songs on an album otherwise made up of the band’s choice live performances from the previous five years.
It’s frustrating to be a fan of the music from WarGames – three albums, each with their own unique selling points, plus a related song, apparently abandoned by the studio at a late stage for reasons unknown…which may be the only piece of music one can still get that’s related to this film.
It’s a strange history for a soundtrack. The only winning move is to press “play”.