RIP Arthur B. Rubinstein
April 24, 2018
Remembering composer Arthur B. Rubinstein– 3/31/1938 – 4/23/2018
Word has come in that film and TV composer Arthur B. Rubinstein (WAR GAMES, BLUE THUNDER) passed away April 23rd, at the age of 80. An enormously gifted composer, Rubinstein emerged in 1971, scoring TV-movies and series such as FLYING HIGH (1978-79), HARPER VALLEY P.T.A. (1981-82) and the science fiction adventure series THE PHOENIX (1981-82), but it was his scores for the BLUE THUNDER and WARGAMES (1983, both for John Badham, for whom he’d score seven further movies) that really put him on the feature film scoring map
.With the release of BLUE THUNDER and WARGAMES, Rubinstein for a time became a force to be reckoned with in the film music world. Both movies were action-packed, high-technology thrillers with cynical political overtones. Using a skillful combination of symphonic and electronic musical modes, Rubinstein accentuated both the heroic and human aspects of the films as well as their technological aspects. The effectiveness of the scores and the success of the films led to the composer’s acclaim as well as more lucrative scoring assignments.
Rubinstein had been providing an electronic score for the television series THE PHOENIX (1981) when he got wind of BLUE THUNDER, a film about a futuristic police helicopter with hidden, sinister capabilities. “I heard from my agent that Columbia was now talking to Tangerine Dream about doing BLUE THUNDER,” said Rubinstein in a 1983 interview with this author. “I thought, ‘this is very silly, what they need is a composer!’ I gave John Badham a tape of the stuff I had done for THE PHOENIX and I said ‘I think you should listen to this, either today or tomorrow or next week or next year, but you should listen to it.’ Well, he did and he realized, I think to his credit, that BLUE THUNDER, although it seemed to call for some use of synthesis, also did require the compositional know-how that went beyond what Giorgio Moroder or Tangerine Dream and those people do.”
When he came in to spot BLUE THUNDER, he found to his surprise that it had been temp-scored not with electronica, but with music from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK! “When I commented about RAIDERS (which by this point had become the thing that everybody was temp-tracking), they said ‘Oh no, we don’t really want that, we just put that in for fun!’” Rubinstein recalled. “Now, you know when somebody does that, there is some sort of a desire to have something like that in there. Nobody puts a piece of temp music in for ‘fun.’ The heads of the studio and whoever is going to be seeing that, so somebody was serious about that element being in the score.”
Looking at the film’s rough cut, Rubinstein also recognized that, despite the hard-hitting technological aspects of the film and its hero helicopter, music needed to emphasize the scope of the human drama being enacted within that futuristic environment. “I sensed that John Badham, even though he has developed quite a proficiency and a brilliance in the handling of… technical elements, really is a quiet romantic. It seemed to me that what the music required was, somehow or another, to bring size to the dramatic elements, an almost romantic size to the character of Murphy (Roy Scheider). So the first bit of business for me was to write a theme that had heroics to it, but yet was not RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK; something that had a contemporary sensibility to it, and one that could also make musical and dramatic sense when played on synthesizers. It had to have that setting and yet would also make sense if played by brasses.”
Rubinstein concocted an effectively heroic, if somewhat bluesy, theme for the protagonist, Murphy, which constantly played off a deeper, four-note theme representing the malevolency inherent within the Blue Thunder helicopter itself. At the end, when Murphy takes control of the helicopter to bring an end to the bad guys, the two themes merge in a powerful cry of triumphal heroism. “I recognized that this was not a film that could take a simple, romantic score,” Rubinstein said. “There had to be a stranger kind of cohesion to the music, it had to almost have a documentary feeling to it. The thematic material is absolutely simple. What is complicated is the moment-to-moment working-out of rhythms and tempos and sounds that would almost feel at one with the helicopters.”
One of the score’s most effective elements is how the bass line of the synthesizers picks up the droning whirr of the helicopter rotor. “The whole score was really conceived that way,” Rubinstein said. “There is, for instance, the moment when Cochrane [Malcolm McDowell] is first testing Murphy, and the copter starts to go down; there is a rhythmic meter in the helicopter rotor that I slowed down to find out what kind rhythm it really was. So in the music, there’s a pulse going along as the helicopter goes down that is timed to that meter. It’s a very subliminal thing – you’re talking about a musical tempo that may be five times slower but is in sync with an overall tempo. It’s all very subliminal. I was confronted with a lot of noise to deal with, so I tried consciously to break down what that noise was, and to fit in with it.”
The BLUE THUNDER score enhanced its synth base with an orchestra of 35-40 players, embellished by some unusual recording techniques, such as recording a piano with the microphone placed in a five-gallon water bottle beneath it. “When the piano is mixed this way, you can put it with brasses, or a moog synthesizer, or anything, and all of the sudden it just fattens up everything that’s going on,” said Rubinstein.
With WARGAMES, about a military computer that accidentally starts World War III, Rubinstein’s score likewise compared the human and electronic elements inherent in its story with in a pair of themes for harmonica and synthesizer, respectively. A third motif, for brass and percussion, represents the military forces involved. At the end, after the computerized crisis has ended through young David’s ingenuity, the human and electronic themes merge for a final recapitulation under the end titles, effectively resolving both story and music. This thematic approach worked itself out as Rubinstein composed the score. What he had initially felt was most important was to determine how he felt about the WOPR, the huge war computer. “I felt that there was something very Faustian about that whole element,” said Rubinstein. “Something larger than life, somewhat evil, somewhat cynical, but also somewhat sardonic. I decided that the computer is a malevolent character, and throughout the score whenever the computer is shown, there is this sardonic treatment. There is a devilish quality to the whole thing, because that’s how I perceived both David and the WOPR. They’re both impudent and impish in their own way. I didn’t see David as a charming, misunderstood kid at all. I saw him as being very much involved with this impudence.” The themes for David and for the WOPR embody this sense of sardonic insolence, although David’s theme does remain somewhat more playful and magical.
The music for WARGAMES was recorded with an orchestra of up to 78-players. Initially, Rubinstein had planned to put words to the melody that represents David, and have it sung during the end credits. “That was supposed to be a song, called ‘Edge of the World,’ by inference an anti-nuclear song, which is on the soundtrack album,” he explained. “At one point there was going to be a song by Crosby Stills & Nash and there was going to be one by Men At Work. But [production executive] Frank Yablans found out and said ‘there are no songs with words in my picture!’ When we knew we weren’t going to use the lyrics, I decided to have that theme played on the harmonica. I wouldn’t have originally done that, but in trying to find some way to separate that musical element from everything else in the score and in trying to find a sound that instantaneously described a human feeling, I decided on the harmonica.”
His work on those two John Badham films attracted William Friedkin, who hired him to compose the music for 1983’s crime comedy DEAL OF THE CENTURY. Aware of Friedkin’s notorious reputation for treating film scores poorly in his films, Rubinstein found him comfortable to work with at the time. “He’s very precise,” Rubinstein said. “Friedkin had temp-tracked the film with Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird Suite,’ but said that wasn’t quite what he wanted.” Unable to describe verbally just what he did want, Friedkin listened to some records of Rubinstein’s until finally hitting upon something he suggested would work, which then gave Rubinstein a reasonable idea of what direction to proceed.”
Rubinstein worked with Badham on seven more films, including WHOSE LIFE IS IT ANYWAY (1981), STAKEOUT (1987) and its sequel ANOTHER STAKEOUT (1993), THE HARD WAY (1991) and NICK OF TIME (1995), and two television movies, FLOATING AWAY (1998) and THE LAST DEBATE (2000). He also composed Albert Brooks’ LOST IN AMERICA (1985) and Roger Spottiswoode’s THE BEST OF TIMES (1986). He scored episodes of AMAZING STORIES (1985) and SLEDGE HAMMER (1986) and composing the theme for and most episodes of SCARECROW AND MRS. KING (1983-87). He scored three episodes of the Steven Spielberg-produced animated TV series TINY TOON ADVENTURES, and two episodes (“Bart Gets an F” and “Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish” – both 1990) for THE SIMPSONS’ second season during its transition between Richard Gibbs (Season 1) and Alf Clausen (Seasons 2-28). He also scored several HART TO HART TV-movies (1993-95) based on the earlier television series. HYPERSAPIEN: PEOPLE FROM ANOTHER STAR (1986), an ET-ish story about a trio of aliens who land on Earth and befriend a Wyoming rancher’s son, contained a lively and emotive score that contrasted an expansive approach for the story’s modern-day Western setting, featuring strings, fiddles, and harmonica that built into a surging, Elmer Bernstein-esque energy, with a poignant melody for its developing love story. He also scored the made-for-cable sci-fi murder mystery, MURDER IN SPACE (1985).
In recent years Rubinstein concentrated on jazz and classical music, as both composer and conductor, and in theater.
Rubinstein was especially proud of serving as music director for “Symphony in the Glen,” an ongoing series of symphonic concerts held at Los Angeles’ Griffith Park that Rubinstein had founded in 1993. Especially notable was the October 2009 presentation at Griffith Observatory that launched the world-famous observatory’s “Cosmic Conjunctions” program and highlighted the world premiere of Rubinstein’s own spectacular and evocative “Observations,” a lengthy 21-minute concert piece for orchestra and narrator, with Leonard Nimoy as guest narrator (the concert was recorded and released by Intrada in 2011).
His last feature film score was the 2001 thriller FACE VALUE, followed by the Richard Schickel’s TV documentary THE MEN WHO MADE THE MOVIES: SAMUEL FULLER (2002) and, in 2013, the crime short THE DEATH OF [SALVATORE] MARANZANO.
Rubinstein won an Emmy for Outstanding Achievement in Music Composition for a Series (Dramatic Underscore) for the 1985 episode “We’re Off to See the Wizard” from TV’s SCARECROW AND MRS. KING (1983-86), and won a BMI Film Music Award in 1988 for scoring the police thriller STAKEOUT (1987).
Rubinstein was awarded a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for Recording, located at 1737 Vine Street in Hollywood.
– expanded from the author’s obituary posted at buysoundtrax