Given its status as the first real superhero movie of the modern era, Superman: The Movie celebrated its 40th anniversary in December of 2018 with surprisingly understated fanfare, including a low-key series of repertory screenings and an Ultra-HD home video release of the original theatrical cut. But earlier this year, top-shelf soundtrack purveyors La-La Land Records decided not only to re-release John Williams’ iconic score from the film, but remaster and repackage it in what amounts to the most elaborate, detailed, and best-sounding set ever produced.
Superman: The Movie 40th Anniversary Remastered Edition is a beautiful three-disc CD set featuring new cues and expanded tracks never heard before, effectively replacing not just the presentation but the sound of virtually all previous releases.
The news surely comes as a surprise to longtime collectors who purchased earlier editions, especially Film Score Monthly’s encyclopedic 2008 8-CD set which included not just Superman: The Movie, but music from all four of the Christopher Reeve films. According to Mike Matessino, La-La’s restoration expert, their plan started as a single-serving rerelease for the ’78 score until Warner Brothers handed him recordings that he didn’t know still existed. “For Film Score Monthly, the data that I was given for Superman: The Movie had actually been transferred in 2000 when they did the remix of the picture,” Matessino explained. “When the 40th anniversary came along, what I wanted to do is go back and do a fresh transfer of that same material. But when I got there, the guy at archival mastering called it up on his computer screen and I noticed that there was all of these two-inch multitrack elements that I didn’t know existed.”
“I realized that there was the first-generation masters of the recording, the actual tapes that turned through the machine and recorded the orchestra rather than mix-downs and dubs and whatever, so the quality leap we got from that was exponential,” Matessino said. “But it meant a lot more work.”
Matessino has hundreds of credits as a mixer and editor, not just preparing or remastering scores for digital or CD release, but also helping create isolated scores for home video releases. Finding a healthy balance that maximized the sound quality of the original recordings while maintaining a feel that evoked the experiences moviegoers and listeners have had for decades was a tremendous challenge, but Matessino said that notes from the original recording sessions supplied a blueprint for him to recreate the right sound. “In the late 2000s, the music library at Warner brothers had a loose leaf binder of the music editor’s original notes, which explains in detail down to tenths of a second of exactly what’s happening in the film so that the composer knows exactly how to time out what he’s writing and all the recording logs. But when we were dealing with the previous element, we were basically left with finalized music cues that were actually used in the picture. So the multitrack allowed for really going in and listening to what’s going on and cleaning up problems and addressing things at a more microscopic level.”
But the big surprise for Matessino came when he found a handful of cues that Williams had discarded after recording them, including one from a pivotal moment in the film. “There was some question about whether early versions of certain cues had been recorded or not, even though we had paperwork to suggest that they were,” he recalled. “So when we got the first generation tapes in, there it was, and one of the first ones we got had music for Clark first traveling to the Fortress of Solitude, which I knew exactly what the music was from having read the sheet music, but we didn’t know that it was recorded.”
“It’s completely different from what he later went back and revised,” Matessino marveled. “And it was an almost surreal moment to actually play this tape that had been in the vault for 40 years. Nobody had ever heard this John Williams piece from 1978, and there it was, suddenly we have something brand new to put on this release this time.” Additionally, they found an extra fragment of music composed for the flying sequence that they previously thought was created for Superman IV; an easter egg, if you will, that further showcases Williams’ work. “We had thought that it had been done by Alexander Courage when he adapted the original score for that picture, but it turns out to have been something that Williams had done originally. So looking at the track list, it’s not going to seem any different, but when you listen to it there’s that one little added bit.”
In spite of the technological advancements that make it possible for these 40-year-old cues to sound better than ever before, Matessino said he often approaches the process emotionally, ensuring that the end result doesn’t sound too mechanical. “I try to push the technical aside once it can do all the magic that it can bring to something and then just go with how the music makes me feel,” he said. “And in something like this where I have very strong personal childhood memories of Superman, I want to make the music sound the way that I felt hearing it when I first saw it.” That said, his considerable experience working on the music of luminaries like Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, and others gives him a remarkable baseline for knowing where and how the original records were made, merging the technical and emotional into one intuitive process.
“When you work so much on the things, you get to know the rooms and the techniques that the various engineers bring to it. And you want to not mess with it too much, but just sort of bring it out, and go for the emotional component, which is often connected to our memory of the films themselves,” Matessino said. “If you remember some big moment that had an emotional impact, like say the ending of ‘The Fortress of Solitude’ where we first actually see Christopher Reeve as Superman, musically, you want to feel the same emotional response that you got when you first saw the film. So it’s just a total combination of a purely instinctive, emotional approach with purely technical scientific applications of ingenious computer software designed by people who for me are the real geniuses.”
Although he’s proud of the earlier releases he worked on, Matessino said that he considers this to be the definitive version of the score, at least in terms of having the opportunity to utilize the original elements for the very first time to create a new standard with the most advanced technology available. “There’s nowhere really to go from here beyond hiring the London Symphony Orchestra and having them go play door to door,” he joked. He also credits La-La Land for their dedication, not just to this project, but to preserving a rich and important musical legacy for future generations. “When this came up, there was no reason they had to go to the expense of doing it this way,” Matessino observed. “But they went the second mile when I told them about this and said, ‘Yes, go for it.’”
“It’s months of extra work on my part to do it this way, but these things are precious. They’re part of cultural history on organic material that will degrade over time. So if you have the opportunity to rescue it and preserve it and get it out there to people again, then you have to go for it,” Matessino said. “My goal was to put something together that is done properly so we don’t have to go back to it again, and so that after we’re all gone, it stands.”[/nerdist_section]