When Leith Stevens moved to television scoring during the sixties, it’s not an exaggeration to say film lost an important musical voice, especially in the realm of evocative science-fiction scoring. Stevens, with his roots in jazz and radio, was lucky to have scored George Pal’s family film The Great Rupert (1950), because that association ensured Stevens would become Pal’s main composer for the bulk of the producer’s science-fiction and fantasy projects.
When Stevens scored Pal’s next film, the ambitious Destination Moon, it was unlikely the composer knew the film would mark the beginning of a long wave of space exploration films, and never figured his score would almost become the gold standard for the genre. Stevens may not have written impressionistic, experimental music – Moon is filled with clean themes and variations – but there’s a longing quality that matches the various characters who aspire to conquer the far reaches of space, to reach the impossible target of a lunar landing, and their hunger to return home after enduring hardships on our orbiting moon.
Like the spacesuit costumes and effects footage, the music was also re-used and repurposed in subsequent B-level productions (the most egregious / amusing being The Phantom Planet [M], virtually tracked with Moon cues) because it possessed an unwavering ability to grab viewers and evoke the fears from confronting the blackness of space. Stevens’ sound wasn’t spacey per se: Moon’s central theme begins with an ethereal intro, but its main purpose is as a lead-in to several striking spin-offs.
In the “Main Title,” the sharp brass almost question Man’s egotism in attempting to push humanity beyond the Earth’s physical realm, whereas the theme itself seems to beckon the industrialist ‘hero’ to hold back on space exploration and conquest, foreshadowing the lengthy ship launch trials and the humans being nearly marooned in the finale. Stevens also evokes aspects of the gravitational pull and weightlessness without resorting to (or creating) musical clichés. The ship’s countdown, for example, isn’t a straight pulsing motif but a repeated, fast-rushing motif layered with dissonant strings.
“Let’s Start Again” (of which the first half re-emerges in “It Looks Hopeless”) is arguably the score’s most beautiful cue because it matches the direness of a failed launch, functioning as a dirge for technical blundering as well as dashed hopes. Like his music for War of the Worlds – his science-fiction masterwork – Stevens aims to extract an emotional reaction from audiences, and works with the same three-note launch motif which now functions almost like a Morse Code pulse, emphasizing the hardness of failure rather than a pulsing message for divine aide. The colours of the brass are particularly affecting in this cue: mid-range strings are contrasted by almost mournful tones, and the slowly rendered notes match the kind of shattered, disheartening sense of failure that comes from surveying a disastrous situation.
The cue is nevertheless imbued with hope, because the steadiness of the brass tones evokes Man’s ongoing determination to circumvent and conquer failure. The follow-up cue, “Barnes Inc.” underscores scenes of the manufacturing plant, but it’s structure is still rooted in the prior 3-note motif: Stevens’ brassy fanfare quickly segues into a syncopated variation with woody colours, giving the motif added reverberation as through functionally it represents a new stab at finding a solution to the mechanical problem, but emotionally raising the level of Man’s determination to keep hammering away at the problems until something finally emerges from all that industrial-strength obsessiveness. A slightly different coloration then reappears in “Building Montage,” with strings providing a circular, undulating motif (upgraded to 4 notes, to infer progress, and success) with xylophone hits and meandering brass. The cue then crests in a not-quite heroic statement, still inferring a sense of uncertainty in spite of the obvious elation as the ship’s components are integrated with success.
The use of contrast is perhaps the score’s most important element because it provides both commentary on the characters as well as scenes which can’t be drenched in clean moods of success and straight failure. On an emotional level, Moon is about human struggle, both in spirit and technological; it’s also the most unique among the space exploration films because its hero is an arrogant corporate CEO who bucks government regulations for personal, corporate, and financial gain. It’s also perhaps the lone film where the spirit of the unregulated industrialism is forcibly, if not reluctantly, celebrated and supported by governments and nations.
Stevens rarely repeats the same arrangement or motif in its original guise; even the second countdown cue is reworked into a more simplified version because due to the preceding musical and visual drama, there’s no need to add subtext from brass and strings; the audience gets the imperativeness of the blast-off, so musically it’s just a countdown with very minor colours from its scaled-down instrumentation.
It’s that kind of care which guaranteed the music’s effect on viewers. Stevens’ instincts recognized the needs of scenes as well as the aggregate of visual and verbal information - trusting the audience, and shaping the score to appear and evoke only when necessary. It is surprising, then, how much music Stevens did write – almost 50 minutes worth - given the film itself runs about 90 mins.
Also worked into the score are brief thematic bits which fleetingly inject some melody, if not harmonic warmness. It’s a balancing act that never becomes melodramatic or cloying, and perhaps Stevens’ most beautiful injection occurs in “Adrift in Space,” another step-like motif played by flutes and clarinets. The tones are warm and delicate, and the repetition brings in more traditional sounds of warmth from strings, but the flutes do shift to more unsteady notes.
Also worth mentioning is the classical sweeps within “The Rescue,” with its short gusts of Tchaikovskian strings; the full-gusto orchestral rendition of the 3-note motif in “On the Moon”; and the eerie, off-kilter variation of “Adrift in Space” in the cues “Fun on the Moon” and “Cargraves Takes a Picture,” both featuring brief humorous sections.
Original recordings of Stevens’ space scores have been a Holy Grail for his fans, as well as fans of George Pal’s sci-fi canon, and it’s strange how it’s taken decades for the music to finally appear both in its most complete surviving form, and on legit releases. Music from Moon appeared on a 7 ” Columbia LP and a storybook LP, and the major cues were re-recorded for a stereo LP in 1958 by Omega Records (which itself was bootlegged in seventies, and later reissued legitimately by Varese on LP, and later Citadel on CD).
The re-recording has been the score’s best-known and most widely available edition, and while different in several aspects, it’s still a pretty good version of Stevens’ music, especially in robust stereo. The most striking differences include tempo and performance style – the 1950 acetates used by Monstrous Movie Music have more urgency – and there’s a greater variety of cues which, happily, don’t make this longer presentation repetitive. MMM’s also included music from the Woody Woodpecker cartoons (composed by Clarence E. Wheeler) seen in Moon, although it’s been placed within the score according to its chronological appearance, which does break up the flow of Stevens’ moody score. MMM’s CD also includes one surviving bonus cue, an overdub titled “Harmonic Glissando” for the cue “On the Moon.”
Schecter’s liner notes provide a nice overview of the score, its release history and its re-use in B- and Z-grade films, and a portrait of the composer. Stevens’ peak period was during the fifties when he enjoyed plum Pal assignments, plus dramas (The Gene Krupa Story, The James Dean Story), musicals (The Five Pennies), and perhaps as important as his sci-fi work, social dramas for director Ida Lupino. With most of Stevens’ sci-fi material now making its way to CD (World Without End [M] being the last big holdout), the next goldmine of unreleased work are Lupino noir (The Hitch-Hiker) and social dramas (The Bigamist).
MMM’s CD is a must-have for genre and the composer’s fans, and is part of a bountiful wave of Stevens scores which appeared in 2012, including Intrada’s Pal-tribute featuring War of the Worlds (1953) and When Worlds Collide (1951), and Kritzerland’s The Atomic City (1952). Also reissued the same year are the jazz cues for Don Siegel’s 1954 noir Private Hell 36 (1954) in Moochin About’s 5-disc compendium Jazz on Film Noir.
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan