Imagine a world where crime becomes a means of survival and bad news is the status quo. Large corporations with larger coffers privatize and gentrify under the guise of societal advancement. Law enforcement agencies struggle to cope with increasing demand and insufficient resources. Sound familiar? This is also the version of Detroit we get in Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 film RoboCop. It’s a film with a dystopic outlook on the future of mankind that remains realistic enough to unsettle. And, of course, drastic advancements in robotic technology.
At first blush, RoboCop can easily be mistaken for just another 80s comic book style sci-fi action thriller with hyper-masculine overtones and little to no substance. However, to assume as much would be a disservice to not just the film, but oneself as well. With RoboCop, Verhoeven and writers Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner chose to explore issues of capitalism, corporate greed, consumer culture and society’s reliance on technology. Underscoring this thinly veiled social commentary came deeper, philosophical conversations regarding humanity, identity and independent thought. Verhoeven was walking a fine line with RoboCop and a strong, sonic foundation was crucial to supporting this heavy blend of action, violence and emotional examination. Luckily, Verhoeven knew exactly which composer to call; Basil Poledouris.
In a dystopic and crime-ridden Detroit, terminally wounded cop Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) returns to the force as a powerful cyborg haunted by submerged memories.
While many directors establish ongoing and frequent collaborations with composers, Verhoeven approaches his composer choices a little differently. Each and every film is an independent entity and requires a composer whose style best highlights the project. Sometimes that composer is a familiar face, sometimes its not. In 1985, Verhoeven began his creative relationship with Poledouris while working on the medieval epic, Flesh + Blood. Although this was still rather early in Poledouris’ professional composing career, he had quickly made a name for himself with stunning work on films like The Blue Lagoon (1980) and Conan the Barbarian (1982).
Poledouris’ had an affinity for composing pieces that utilized traditional symphonic instrumentation, but in a way that highlighted strong brass and percussion sections. Driving rhythms were often up front-and-center, leading his pieces from one epic scene to the next. Even when opting to showcase string and woodwind sections, a combination of stylistic factors tended to give Poledouris’ pieces a very strong masculine feel. Because of his natural tendency to compose in such a fashion, it makes sense that Verhoeven would be attracted to Poledouris’ when it came to scoring the emotional support system for his futuristic cyber cop.
“Everything about RoboCop‘s theme is epic. Expertly, Poledouris created a wall of sound built on layers of strategically placed emotional triggers.”
Perhaps best encapsulating this idea is the track ‘Rock Shop‘ when RoboCop busts in on a cocaine warehouse and completely wipes out the entire operation. For the recording of the score, Poledouris called upon the Sinfonia of London as well as an array of synth elements. Though smaller than a full symphonic orchestra, each and every player in this session orchestra is felt with its full weight. Large bursts of sounds introduce us, and RoboCop, to the dramatic scene. Quickly, these bursts are followed by low foreboding hums and surreal high pitched synths. Next, slow and deliberate horns play in unison dominating the background woodwinds. These methodical note progressions emotionally guide the audience, building to the pinnacle of engagement and support for our hero. Ultimately, this comes in the form of the infamous RoboCop theme. And when it finally hits, oh boy does it hit.
Everything about RoboCop‘s theme is epic. Expertly, Poledouris created a wall of sound built on layers of strategically placed emotional triggers. The resonating, full-bodied percussion supports the bold, syncopated brass sections fearlessly leading the charge. Though simple in its melody, note progressions are skillfully executed in ways that maximize human emotional response. Countering this formidable, physical presence of brass sit the woodwinds, mirroring and supporting the swelling emotions. There is absolutely nothing timid about RoboCop‘s recurring theme and that emotion becomes inextricable from the character itself. Time and time again we hear it, but not always in the same shape or form. Utilizing slight modulations, rhythmic alterations or variations in instrumentation, Poledouris is able to recycle RoboCop‘s theme while still capitalizing on its undeniable power.
Even though RoboCop as a machine is undeniably badass, the true heart of the film lies with Alex Murphy. It is through his story that RoboCop transcends simple categorization and becomes a much more emotionally heartfelt film. Therefore, it makes sense that Murphy‘s journey as an independent character required his own theme. Although we first become familiar with Murphy‘s three-note theme during his death, it truly blossoms in the track ‘Home.’ (You can also catch glimpses of the theme when various people recognize RoboCop as Murphy) Here, we see Robocop begin to remember. Memories of Murphy‘s past begin to come back in bits and pieces as he visits what was once his family’s home. While learning more and more about his former life (and death), RoboCop struggles to navigate his growing emotions as Murphy becomes more and more present.
In this track, Poledouris implemented a more traditional approach. As this particular scene is more reliant on emotion and less on action, Poledouris allows the woodwinds to take the lead. Something about these instruments pull on our heart strings in different ways than horns and better convey feelings of loss, sadness and deep emotion. Here, we can also feel the synthetic sound elements in a really interesting way. Although present throughout the score, here they stand as an important plot device used to symbolize Murphy‘s struggle within his robotic framework. Through three simple notes, Murphy‘s identity makes his presence known within the cybernetic framework of RoboCop‘s programming. These three notes are haunting in both execution as well as tone. The sonic progression doesn’t resolve and leaves a surreal air of mystery floating around both screen and audience alike. Poledouris plays with Murphy‘s theme in beautiful, heartfelt ways that shift and transform along with his evolving emotional presence. It’s an extremely emotional and pivotal scene in the film as Murphy not only comes to grips with what he has physically lost, but emotionally lost as well. Murphy has been violated and taken advantage of in supremely personal ways and this realization not only needs a proper sonic support system, but requires it.
“Murphy has been violated and taken advantage of in supremely personal ways and this realization not only needs a proper sonic support system, but requires it.”
On top of Murphy‘s own struggle between man and machine, there is also the sub-story of RoboCop versus rival robot, ED-209. Near the end of the film we get a fabulous showdown between the two mechanical foes and a equally fabulous track to accompany it. In ‘Robo vs. ED-209‘ Poledouris really plays up the mechanical nature of both characters showcasing clanging metal sounds, synths and other electronic contributions. It’s also interesting to note the literal one note melody for ED-209. As a robot, ED-209 is large, domineering, but rather ineffective. He is, a one-note robot. Another interesting feature is the way in which the filmmakers created ED-209‘s movements. While they could have created a working robot or stuck a man inside the robot, they chose to utilize stop motion animation. This technique further emphasizes the inhuman nature of ED-209 and further separates him from RoboCop. After all, RoboCop is more man than machine.
Finally, in ‘Showdown‘ all the pieces come together as RoboCop confronts the men who killed him as Murphy. What’s so fascinating about this final big piece is how expertly Poledouris integrates former melodies into a new, emotional piece. Horns, percussion, synths and woodwinds are now equally present as Murphy and RoboCop become one unified being. Though equally as epic as earlier tracks like ‘Rock Shop‘ the emotional weight is noticeably different. While the early version of RoboCop was driven by duty and programming, this later version of RoboCop is now motivated by revenge and emotion. This shift in character motivation requires an evolved sonic accompaniment to match and ‘Showdown‘ rises to the task. It’s truly remarkable how alterations in instrumentation, rhythms and balance can alter a scene or a character, but Poledouris navigates these complexities with masterful skill.
It’s no surprise that RoboCop was an absolute blockbuster when it was first released. Hitting theaters a mere three years after Terminator exploded on the scene, audiences were ravenous and ready for more robotic cyber-humans. And while it could have easily fallen apart on the landing, everything from story, direction, special effects, performances and of course, the music were all absolute perfection. RoboCop even became one of the rare genre films to get nominated for multiple Oscars and winning one for best Sound Effects Editing! It’s rare to find an action film (especially in the 80s) that effectively embraces trends while simultaneously transcending them. Luckily, Verhoeven had a true vision for Alex Murphy and knew that a strong sonic backbone was a prerequisite to success. Basil Poledouris was the perfect composer choice for RoboCop and its legacy still stands as one of the best sci-fi scores of all time.
There have been various incarnations of RoboCop‘s score throughout the years. In 1987, Varese Sarabande initially released the music on both LP, CD and cassette. While semi-regular reissues of the CD would happen throughout the early 2000’s, it would take until 2015 to get another LP pressing of this classic score. Thankfully, Milan Records came to the rescue and released a stunning, 2xLP set with new original artwork by Jay Shaw. Another interesting note about this release is that it’s Executive Producer and Art Director was none other than Nicholas Winding Refn. Despite the score’s popularity, copies of most versions are highly reasonable in terms of price and rather prolific. Whether crate digging or internet hunting is your thing, I cannot recommend this score highly enough and it is an absolute necessity in any collection.
“Verhoeven had a true vision for Alex Murphy and knew that a strong sonic backbone was a prerequisite to success. Basil Poledouris was the perfect composer choice for RoboCop and its legacy still stands as one of the best sci-fi scores of all time.”
What are some of your favorite tracks from the RoboCop score? Any thoughts on the remake? Let us know over on Twitter, our subreddit, or at The Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook! And if you’re looking for more of horror’s best scores, make sure and check out my other installments of Terror on the Turntable!