When we think about the music for science fiction on the screen, big, sweeping scores usually come to mind. Thus Spake Zarathustra and Strauss waltzes behind spinning space stations in 2001: A Space Odyssey; bass drums and brass heralding the arrival of Darth Vader in Star Wars; a wordless soprano over a soaring orchestra in the early Star Trek.
But there are other, more subtle uses of music in SF films and television that are no less unforgettable. Take the 1951 classic alien invasion film The Day the Earth Stood Still, starring Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal (and the robot, Gort). The film was directed by the Hollywood heavyweight Robert Wise (The Sound of Music; Star Trek: The Motion Picture) and featured, for the first time, a weird instrument called the theremin as part of the soundtrack written by Bernard Hermann. The sound was so distinctive it has defined SF ever since, even entering the common vernacular as a descriptor for something far out, as in “Oh, yeah, UFOs and all that ‘woo-woo’ stuff.”
A similar shiver up the spine was achieved by playing two notes over and over again on the guitar with a little echo effect overdubbed on them to create theTwilight Zone television show theme. I was only six years old when Rod Serling’s brainchild first hit the airwaves—too young to be allowed to watch. But, believe me, I could hear the theme song from my bedroom, and it scared the bejeezus out of me! My youngest daughter tells me the music had the same effect on her when I watched the reruns with others in the family.
The intro to The X-Files—starting with six high, electronic notes—had a similar evocative effect. Weirdness is coming, the truth is out there, and get ready to hide under the covers.
But sometimes the music chosen for an SF film has more to do with the everyday lives of its characters than the strange things they must encounter (or overcome) through the course of the story. One of my favorite scenes in a great little SF film called Super 8, written and directed by J.J. Abrams (Star Trek, Star Wars, Lost, Fringe, etc., etc.) is one where the geeky young heroes gather on a hill overlooking town and sing along to the radio: “M-m-m-my Sharona!” I was way past my young teen years in 1979 when The Knack did that song, but I could still relate to those kids (whose cinematic adventure involves inadvertently filming an escaped alien while making a movie.)
Occasionally, though, the attempt to use cool music in the SF background goes wrong. This is the case with Project Blue Book, now showing on the History Channel. The show is a fairly decent fictionalization of the U.S. Air Force investigations of UFO sightings in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, most of which were conducted by a physicist named Dr. J. Allen Hynek and his Air Force “keeper” Captain Michael Quinn. Hynek, of course, has since earned a reputation as a true believer, having written several books on aliens and UFOs and the like, despite the government’s attempts to discredit him.
The show is a little slow, but interesting enough, given that episodes are based on the real incidents of Project Blue Book (pictures of which are shown at the end of each episode). The problem I’m having is that, to spice things up, the music director has old blues or rhythm and blues music playing on car radios or in bars.
Not that anybody below a certain age would know this, but in the late Forties, you wouldn’t have heard that kind of music played on mainstream radio, or in white bars or restaurants. Blues or R&B was called “race music,” and you would only have heard it in rural juke joints, city establishments catering to African-Americans, or perhaps on urban, limited-range radio stations. Mainstream pop radio was still playing Big Band music, or maybe “hillbilly” or “Western swing” music in the South or West. By the mid-to-late 1950s, things had changed. Radio had come to be dominated by a new mash-up of R&B and hillbilly music, something that would later be known as "rock and roll."
Most people wouldn’t care, but this is my jam. I collect music from the early 50s to the 60s. So, the show getting it wrong bothers me and takes me out of the story. You all know how that is. Whether it’s the physics of your starship's propulsion or the music on the radio in the background, details are important. Best the author--and the show runners--get them right.