EMPIRE OF THE SUN:
BRINGING BACK A LOST BOY
by Mike Matessino
Producing the “Expanded Archival Collection” of Empire of the Sun for La-La Land Records and Warner Bros. has been a privilege and a delight of the highest order. As much as I had already admired the work of composer John Williams and director Steven Spielberg prior to 1987, I knew when I first experienced Empire of the Sun that this was a very ambitious and profound work of art, one which inspired me personally as well as professionally.
The sense that both director and composer were stretching new creative muscles seemed palpable at the packed 70 mm 6-track engagements I attended in New York City, but as awards season began in early 1988 it became apparent that the picture was not capturing the public’s imagination the way I, and, no doubt, its creators, had hoped it would. Even then, when a giant banner with the poster art was strung across East 34th Street, I predicted that one day Empire of the Sun would be reappraised by audiences and critics and recognized as one of the most epic, complex films of the 1980s.
When internet discussions about the film have popped up over the years I have always been struck by the candor with which fans share their personal feelings and explore the movie’s psychological depths. The music by John Williams is often mentioned in these conversations. Therefore I can only assume that the release of an expanded soundtrack will come as good news indeed—especially since it’s a movie for which there have never been any tie-in products to buy.
As I point out in the essay that accompanies the new release, all available evidence indicates that Empire of the Sun is now considered Steven Spielberg’s “forgotten masterpiece.” I direct skeptics and interested advocates to that corner of cyberspace where viewers and movie industry folk alike turn (in true Ballardian fashion) to gauge a picture’s general level of acceptance: www.rottentomatoes.com. As of this writing Empire of the Sun holds a “top critics” rating of 57% (slightly into the “rotten” zone, which, fairly, is reflective of the film’s mixed critical reception in 1987) but an overall rating of 82% and a phenomenal “audience” rating of 90%. Apart from the highly unusual disproportion, it is even more remarkable that only three of the top 100 box office earners for 1987 tie or exceed the latter number.¹ Among the director’s own work the audience rating ties Empire of the Sun with Jaws and Jurassic Park and is bested only by Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Color Purple, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan.² All of these were financially successful, yet Empire of the Sun, considered to be Steven Spielberg’s biggest box office failure, gets a grade of 90% “liked” from today’s audiences. That can only be attributed to the glowing reviews it has received from a new generation of critics and viewers spanning the time of the DVD release in 2001 to its debut on Blu-Ray in 2012. Take the time to read these reviews and one finds a wealth of admiration and nary a shred of the negativity of 1987. There are still detractors, to be sure, as there are and always will be for even the greatest movies, but there is simply no denying that Empire of the Sun has been embraced as a Spielberg favorite.
La-La Land Records very graciously offered Empire of the Sun to me to produce as well as handle the mastering and write the booklet notes. As was the case with their expanded reissue of Hook, it would be done in cooperation with John Williams and Steven Spielberg, both of whom were very supportive of my efforts to present the music in a suitable and satisfying way. Co-producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall also offered their guidance and much encouragement. I could sense that this team had worked incredibly hard on Empire of the Sun and had taken a gamble in doing something so completely different from their prior projects. When I got around to the booklet essay, I would try to address this.
First, of course, came the music.
In the late summer of 2013 Warner Bros. Archives called in the 1/2” analog masters for Empire of the Sun containing the original 3-track mixes as recorded by Shawn Murphy. Notably this was the engineer’s first project with Williams. Warner Bros. Sound Transfer digitized the tapes at 96k 24bit and provided them to me on a hard drive. As usual, work began with matching the performances to the film and comparing everything to the original album.
One always hopes for a surprise nugget or two. On Empire of the Sun it was a joy to discover some unused passages of score along with several early alternate versions of a number of cues. Once all the candidates for release were selected, I put together a proposed assembly. The full score presentation nearly filled one CD, which meant the alternates would have to be relegated to a second disc. Happily, John Williams and Steven Spielberg enjoyed hearing these recordings again and approved the suggested configuration with a few sonic tweaks and a couple of minor changes in the program: swapping the film and album versions of “Exsultate Justi” and moving a piano source excerpt of Chopin’s Mazurka to disc 2. The early alternates, while sometimes compositionally similar to the revised versions, are indeed a treat, and I leave their delights for the listener to discover.
The cues selected for the 1987 album had been remixed by Armin Steiner, and after careful comparison to the original recordings the composer elected to carry over the Steiner remixes for the new release. Warner Bros. Records provided the 1630 digital master for the original CD release along with 1630 production masters containing the separate cues. Some slight adjustments of levels and equalization were implemented in order to bring the complete listening experience into alignment while fundamentally retaining the character of the original release. All together the running time of the 2-CD set generously doubles that of the original album.
It is worth noting that two tracks on the original album which presented combined versions of truncated cues are not repeated on La-La Land’s reissue. The second half of the original release’s track 9, “Toy Planes, Home and Hearth,” is actually the latter part of the first Williams cue in the film, “Home and Hearth.” It is now presented separately and in its entirety. The first part of the original album track is now given its original cue title “The Plane.” The presence of the alternate version of “The Plane” and the unused cue “Chopin Again” on disc 2 would have made it redundant to include the album edit of “Toy Planes, Home and Hearth,” so it was decided to let that assembly remain unique to the original 1987 soundtrack. The other track combined on the original release, “No Road Home / Seeing the Bomb,” is now also split into its individual cues and presented in sequence. The first cue is given its original title, “Trip Through the Crowd,” while the “Seeing the Bomb” segment restores a portion of the cue that had been edited out on the original album.
Apart from offering Williams’s score in expanded form, another goal for this release was to present the full three-verse version of the Welsh hymn “Suo Gân.” On the original album the middle verse of this opening track had been eliminated in order to bring the overall running time to a suitable length for the LP format (which, at 54 minutes, was “long play” indeed!). The piece reoccurs at two other points in the picture, but the full piece is never presented in its entirety.
Locating the recording was a challenge. Since the main character needed to sing the piece on screen, it was recorded prior to the start of production. It was produced separately from the Williams score, and without the composer’s direct involvement, and therefore the master tape had been inventoried separately. Careful examination of the database at Warner Bros. finally led to the original 2-inch master. It indeed contained the full recording, but with no date or engineering information on the box, just an Abbey Road Studios label. The voice slate simply identified the title of the piece.
What we know is that John McCarthy, the famous English choirmaster and director of The Ambrosian Singers, was contracted to supervise the recording. He recruited the boy choristers (as he’d done years earlier for Goodbye, Mr. Chips) and chose the noted English treble James Rainbird as soloist. The ensemble was billed as “The Ambrosian Junior Choir,” although this is the only project on which they were ever credited. The vocals were recorded at Abbey Road with the boys listening to a piano guide track on headphones. Rainbird’s solo line was recorded separately from the other choristers and the pipe organ was recorded at a London church.
Challenged by the lack of documentation, I attempted to track down definitive information about this recording, but with no success. When John McCarthy passed away in 2009, The Ambrosian Singers disbanded. Calls and emails to contacts all over England yielded no results. Simultaneously, all efforts to track down James Rainbird turned up nothing. So with an unknown recording date, no indication of what organ was used, and no trail to follow on the singers, it seemed as if this indelible recording just fell from the sky like one of the relief canisters at the end of the picture. Perhaps that’s as it should be.
The most challenging part of the project for me was the booklet essay. The task I faced was to articulate my views about the role of music in the film without undermining the power of either. In other words, I did not want to dissect every measure of the score nor did I want to interpret or even fully describe the film’s many powerful visual moments. My feeling was that doing so would take away the intended experience for the viewer. Instead I wanted to facilitate a deeper appreciation for the film by focusing on the overall design and function of its music, which I believe to be wholly unique. I presented this idea to John Williams and Steven Spielberg along with a request for interviews which, I assumed, would guide me in a direction that was consistent with their intentions. I pointed out that neither had ever discussed the score in any detail, and that even the original album was the first to not offer a brief note from the director. The response was an unexpected directive: I should proceed with exploring my own ideas about the score and present a draft. They would take a look at it and advise.
Needless to say, this was a challenging position for a soundtrack album producer to find oneself in. Ultimately I decided I had to do exactly what the filmmakers did when they made the picture: take a gamble and do something completely different than I had for any prior project. In so doing I would also hopefully demonstrate to these gentlemen that what was, in 1987, perceived as a failure is, in fact, one of their greatest artistic successes. I shared my first draft with Frank Marshall, who gave me a few notes and encouraged me to have total confidence in what I’d written. It was submitted, and the response came back within a couple of weeks: Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Williams approved the essay and had decided that the addition of quotes was not necessary. Consulting with Mr. Marshall once again, I was advised to accept at face value the fact that the director and composer agreed to have my writing attached to their work. One cannot dispute that logic.
I therefore leave the essay itself and the thesis presented therein, along with Williams’s music, to the faithful and discerning buyers of classic soundtracks. Now, as before, it is up to the fans to keep the torches burning for Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun. I am hopeful that the expanded soundtrack release, with which I am proud to be connected, will help point the way to a bright future for what is, and has always been, a masterpiece. And by no means a forgotten one.
¹ None of 1987’s five Best Picture Oscar nominees hold an audience rating higher than 88, with the biggest hit among them, Fatal Attraction, earning a 71. The enduring Lethal Weapon, The Untouchables, Robocop, Predator, Wall Street, The Lost Boys, Raising Arizona and Some Kind of Wonderful all score in the 80’s, while the moneymakers Stakeout, Beverly Hills Cop II, The Secret of My Success, The Witches of Eastwick and the year’s #1 hit Three Men and a Baby all range between 47 and 63, the latter title notably being the lowest of all. Good Morning, Vietnam is a standout with an 81, but the 90+ audience ratings for 1987 go only to The Princess Bride and Full Metal Jacket, while Dirty Dancing ties Empire of the Sun with a 90.
² The audience rating for E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial was not accidentally overlooked. I look forward to addressing this at another time.
Author’s Acknowledgment: I would like to thank everyone at Warner Bros. Studios, Warner Bros. Records, Amblin Entertainment/Dreamworks Studios, The Kennedy/Marshall Company, Jo Ann Kane Music Service and The Gorfaine/Schwartz Agency who helped make Empire of the Sun a truly special soundtrack release. Thanks also to choral contractor Jeannine Wagner (we’re now spelling your name right!) and Sally Stevens for recollections and great assistance. I’d also like to express admiration to art director Jim Titus for his outstanding package design and a promotional image that made me gasp when I saw it. You really get this film, Jim, and it shows! And finally, a debt of gratitude to my friends and colleagues within the film score soundtrack community for their constant support, especially to executive producers Michael Gerhard and Matt Verboys at La-La Land Records for their confidence, patience and trust. Thanks, guys. You made this happen!
- ‘Empire of the Sun’: Complete Cue List and Additional Notes, by Mike Matessino