Forbidden Planet is a fantastic film and is available on iTunes.
So I recently listened to Louis and Bebe Barron’s avant garde and experimental score to the 1956 sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet. This soundtrack was one of the handful of Records That Time Forgot columns that I wrote in a previous life. I reprint it here for your reading enjoyment.
In 1956, science fiction as we know it scarcely existed as a genre. Adventures in space were mostly centered around action and heroics rather than depth, plot or characters. That changed with “Forbidden Planet,” which despite its fantastic setting, gave some credit to the intelligence of its audience. So influential was this film, that programs from “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” to “2001” (and all that has followed them) are in its debt.
Adapted from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” the story concerns Commander John J. Adams’ (Leslie Nielsen) rescue of a doomed colonization vessel bound for Altair-4. He arrives on the planet to find two lone survivors, Dr. Morbius and his daughter, who have mysteriously built a paradise on a barren rock.
It turns out that an ancient powerful race had mastered “mind-over-matter” technology, allowing thoughts to become reality, and Morbius has mastered it as well. Or so he thought. He hadn’t counted on a striking young Commander making his daughter’s acquaintance. Induced by jealousy, the doctor’s uncontrollable id creates an indomitable monster that threatens to destroy them all.
Created by husband-and-wife team Louis and Bebe Barron, the score to "Forbidden Planet" is less music and more sculpted noise, appropriately and perfectly crafted to fit the alien landscape presented in the film. Composed completely by electronic means (using many circuits created by the duo specifically for this project), this soundtrack consists of wails and groans interspersed with beeps, boops, and wobbles, as if a washing machine and a 1950’s flying saucer had a shotgun wedding in Vegas and produced some sort of bastard child.
Forbidden Planet’s “music” goes beyond the traditional role of underscoring the film’s action on screen, creating a sub text for character motivations and off-screen actions. Standing in for the long-dead ancient race, the soundscape becomes a character itself, giving a voice to the beings who live on through their machines, while constantly reminding the viewer of the complete otherworldliness of the situation.
The lack of traditional styling, instrumentation, and structure make the album difficult to listen to, but those same qualities make it perfect to put on and not listen to. In proper settings and situations, the effects produced can become peaceful and serene background noise. Dwell on it too long though, or listen to it in the dark, and the intended creepiness and disturbing inhumanity can summon dark nightmares, providing them with a soundtrack for a total freak-out.
It is fitting that a film that proved to be ground breaking has a soundtrack that is equally so. The experimentation shown here was a great success, especially in regards to modern electronic music, which might not exist had it not been for these pioneers.