Mission: Impossible has one of the most recognisable themes in film. Used in the original 1966 TV series, the reboot 1988 series, and all 6 feature films, the evolving style of the theme tune has helped define a franchise. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to read along as I explore how both the theme tune and the music of the franchise has been adapted over time, and see how those changes reflect each of the films.
The Mission: Impossible theme was original composed by Lalo Schifrin, and was written in 5/4, a rarely used time signature that creates a jolting, jazzy rhythm. It’s believed this rhythmic pattern was created by using the Morse Code for M:I – dash dash dot dot – giving one and a half beats to each dash and one beat to each dot. The Grammy Award-winning theme tune was composed in 1966, and opened every episode of the original and reboot 1988 TV series.
It’s notable that Adolfo Valdes is perhaps one of the most important musicians to have worked on recording the song. He played the bongos on the original album, and if it wasn’t for him, perhaps the bongos wouldn’t be quite so extensively used within the franchise.
When it came to scoring for the first film in 1996, there was no doubt that the original theme would continue to be used, and since then the iconic tune has gone onto become arguably the most iconic theme tune of all time.
Our first score actually begins with a score that doesn’t properly exist. That score belonged to Back to the Future’s composer, Alan Silvestri. He was the original composer hired to composer for Mission: Impossible. His score was written, partly recorded, and then rejected by Tom Cruise. He felt it didn’t quite fit the tone of the film, and thanks to a couple of leaked tracks available on YouTube…he might be right. It’s a beautiful score, but it’s far too symphonic, though perhaps that means it would fit the later movies very well. However, for M:I 1 it simply didn’t work, so a new guy was brought in.
When Danny Elfman was asked to compose for 1996’s ‘Mission: Impossible’, he only had around a month to write and record the score. It is remarkable that with such a short amount of time, he managed to pull out such a stunning score that set precedents for the entire series. Firstly, he used not only the original Mission: Impossible theme, but also another secondary theme from the show, titled “The Plot”. It’s a theme that has also been used in every score since bar M:I2, and is often used while setting up the planning sequences.
The score for ‘Mission: Impossible’ is beautifully stripped down. Scenes like Jim’s betrayal could have had huge sweeping string sections telling the audience to feel sad for Ethan Hunt over his mentors betrayal, but Elfman is smarter than that. His piece, simply titled “Betrayal”, uses a couple of strings, a choir, a few french horns, a drum and a prominent bass. The atmospheric effect is hauntingly tragic, giving a far deeper look into the horror of Jim’s betrayal and its effect on Ethan. Another key scene, in which Ethan meets with Kittridge, is beautifully underscored by “Mole Hunt”. This track is also greatly stripped back, offering slowly rising strings and tense horns which create drama that is accompanied on screen by some classic Brian De Palma dutch angles.
Most importantly, using his track “Zoom B”, Danny Elfman established the Mission: Impossible Theme as ‘Ethan Hunt’s heroic theme‘. When things are going his way and he is completing a task with incredible gusto, the theme will kick in and give that extra boost of excitement to any scene. This genius move meant the tune was no longer just the opening titles, it was the DNA of an evolving franchise, and has come to define Tom Cruise as an action star.
Danny Elfman’s one month score is a truly remarkable one. Using broken chord sequences, jilted rhythms and funky drums, it honours the original 1960’s score in a contemporary way, while also reflecting the broken nature of Ethan Hunt and his relationships with his (ex) team mates.
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE II
Following Danny Elfman’s incredible achievement was an unenviable task, but thankfully that job fell to Hans Zimmer, who by this point was already established as one of the main players in film composing. Just as John Wu made a massively different film, so too did Hans Zimmer make a completely different score, using rock instruments and electronics to echo the rock and roll nature of the second instalment.
The guitars and drums are heavy in this score, and blend in well with the promotional track “Take A Look Around” that Limp Bizkit recorded to accompany the film. Zimmer’s soundtrack has become quite iconic as one that completely stands out from the rest of the scores for having a completely different musical sound. The use of rock instruments are a big step away from the 60’s feel of the original score, but they also prove the power of Lalo Schifrin’s theme. Even by the second edition, we have heard the theme in a variety of ways, and yet it always manages to work. In tracks like “Bare Island” and “The Bait”, we can hear just how hard the guitar riffs kick in as the action starts to unfold during the climax chase scene of the film. Another unique musical choice was Zimmer’s decision to use Spanish guitar and flamenco foot stomping through the score. It reminded us of Nyah and Ethan’s first meeting, but also reflected Ethan and Ambrose’s dangerous dance of Good VS Evil.
One important choice that Hans made was calling in his Gladiator collaborator, singer Lisa Gerrard. Her mezzo soprano voice can be heard on tracks like “Nyah and Ethan” and “Injection”, and the haunting solos she sings are a perfect match for the film. They show the beauty in the love story, and her voice reflects the singular character of Ethan Hunt, standing out above the chaos of the ensuing action. I was lucky enough to see both tracks performed live by Gerrard at a recent Hans Zimmer tour in Birmingham, and seeing it performed in front of me made the emotion even more palpable.
No matter your opinions on the film, the score for Mission: Impossible II is just as successful as Elfman’s, with exciting new themes and new takes on old ones making for a compelling listen.
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III
Michael Giacchino had been a longtime collaborator of J. J. Abrams throughout his whole TV career on Alias and Lost, so when Abrams was brought on to direct Mission: Impossible III, it was inevitable that Giacchino would follow. He was a great fit for Mission Impossible, and further continued to prove that changing the musical style of each movie would work, so long as the style was confident and bold.
It was inevitable that Giacchino would one day score a Mission: Impossible film. His jazzy style and joyful bounce match perfectly with the 1960’s heritage, and inject a major lightheartedness into the franchise that echo’s Lalo Schifrin’s score from 40 years earlier. He further developed the use of the main theme as Ethan’s triumphant track in tracks like “Humpty Dumpty Sat On A Wall” and “See You In The Sewer”, as well as writing a beautiful new theme for Julia and Ethan’s relationship, best heard in “Reparations”.
It’s also notable that while Giacchino knows that sawing strings can create a great rhythm, there is often nothing better than a drum kit to add some dynamic excitement, and this is a key method he used in both his scores. Kick Drums, Snares and Hi-Hat’s add the required energy that makes the score so exciting to accompany the action. This also calls back to the drum kits in the original series score, as well as those used in both Elfman’s and Zimmer’s scores. We can see common trends weaving their way into the various scores, and this is what makes the different musical styles work in tandem with one another.
The large orchestral sound was also something new for the franchise. Using a 112-piece orchestra, Giacchino was able to make a much more classical score, but with keyboards and a small amount of electronics to keep the score contemporary. A fun additional note is that the theme for this film was conducted by Tom Cruise, who visited the orchestra on the day of recording.
MISSION IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL
With a successful score under his belt, Michael Giacchino was asked back to score another film, thus far making him the only composer to score for two Mission movies. For Ghost Protocol, he stepped up and actually improved on his brilliant first entry, continuing his quirky bouncy style, but with an even larger symphonic orchestra sound. His use of jazz keyboards and guitars continued, but this time there was an added element of native instrumentation, such as using a Russian Choir to accompany the plot theme (“Kremlin with Anticipation”), or weaving Indian instruments into the score for those sequences (“Mood India”). If you’ve ever wanted to hear the M:I theme played on a sitar, this is your chance!
However, Giacchino also did something else different this time. He finally realised that the Mission: Impossible theme has many different elements, from the iconic 5/4-time signature, the theme itself and its funky bass rhythms. This meant he could use the theme plenty more times by blending it’s different elements with new musical ideas. Ghost Protocol’s score album boasts that 14 of the 22 tracks contain interpolations of Schifrin’s Mission: Impossible Theme, and this means that the entire film has a much more unified approach. Previous Mission scores had utilised the theme four times at most, but this score proved that elements of the theme could be used throughout, helping to tie the music together into one singular vision.
Another key change Giacchino made was how the main theme was composed. In M:I 3 he had done a fairly standard rendition, sounding musically similar to the original ’66 version. This time however he went for a different approach. The tune plays at half the speed of the bass, and this gives it a more lingering and maniacal approach. The stings, which normally play the bass notes in a ‘Bom, Bom, Bom-Bom’ rhythm now play a more energetic ‘Pa-Pa-Pa, Pa-Pa-Pa, Pa Pa’. The grander and more enduring theme acknowledges that bigger things are coming, and that the consequences will be worse.
Ghost Protocol was a turning point in the Mission franchise, because it showed how huge the series could be, with massive stunts occurring on a giant world stage. Giacchino’s score helped to define that with huge orchestral sound. His genius stroke of playing the Mission theme throughout his compositions gave the film, and the franchise, an unforgettable score that changed the game.
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION
With this new scale precedent set, Christopher McQuarrie was brought in to direct MI:5. Immediately, he and Cruise (already long-time collaborators) set about creating a far more classical approach to the filmmaking. They wanted to make a ‘Hitchcockian’ spy thriller, and this is made obvious right from the start, given the fact that the suit Cruise wears while hanging off the A400 is taken straight from Cary Grant in ‘North By Northwest’.
With this classical filmmaking approach, Joe Kraemer, a long time collaborator with McQuarrie, chose to take a classical approach to the composing. His score is the only score in the entire franchise to feature no electronic instruments or drum loops, instead focusing only on the instruments found in a classic Philharmonic Orchestra. In the sleeve notes of the CD release, he addresses this, mentioning that he wanted the retro feel to come from the fact that he would only use instruments that would have been available to Lalo in 1966. By setting himself this challenge, he could write whatever unusual orchestrations he wanted, and the retro part would take care of itself. He says he “thinks he was right” to do this. And he was right. The classic violin themes, the percussive bongo drumming, the powerful horn swells that can be heard in tracks like “Solomon Lane” and “Meet the IMF”; the retro style of film scoring is obvious, and it makes for gorgeous listening.
A key theme Kraemer used was “Nessun Dorma”, the key track of Turandot, the Opera being performed during the Vienna sequence. The haunting melody becomes Ilsa’s theme throughout the film, being heard when she and Ethan first meet, when he sees her at the opera, and most notably at the very end when she leaves Ethan. The Italian lyrics to Nessun Dorma are translated to phrases like “watch the stars that tremble with love and with hope”, “But my secret is hidden within me; no one will know my name!” and “I will win!”. These lyrics have such a clear relevance to Ilsa. She is assured in her ability, she is hopeful she will be able to leave this life of espionage, and there are clear love themes between her and Ethan that are never fully established. She is by far the strongest female character in the franchise, with strength and complexities that continue through the films.
Notably, 15 of the 19 tracks on the released album contain the Mission: Impossible Theme, and 5 of them feature the plot theme. It’s clear that Giacchino’s genius stroke of using the Mission theme throughout didn’t go unnoticed, and this is a trend that has continued since. Kraemer achieved his mission of composing a score that felt classically retro. It creates a sweeping landscape for the film to play to, and offers some truly stunning uses of orchestral sound.
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT
When Christopher McQuarrie agreed to direct another Mission: Impossible film, he did it on the condition that it feel like a different film. To achieve this, he created a much darker and more intense tone, and decided to move away from his collaborator Joe Kraemer and instead hire Lorne Balfe. Balfe’s score is therefore another step in a different direction for the franchise, offering a much more epic sound that utilises electronic elements. However, Balfe still continues to use the iconic themes, the 5/4-time signature, as well as bongos as a key form of percussion. This means that the overall tone, while massively more imposing than any score before it, still fits well into the franchise. The huge dark sound and intense drums promised from the off that Fallout would be a darker and bigger film, with massive action and a bleaker story.
The instrumentation is insane on this score. Balfe has stated that over 230 musicians were used in composing it, including a string section of 92, 12 bongo drummers, 14 snare drummers, 12 French Horns, 12 Trombones, 4 Trumpets, 2 Saxophones, 2 Tuba’s, a Choir of 60, a Children’s Choir of 20, a Piano, and, confirmed to me on Twitter, 6 Flutes. This all contributes to creating a huge sound with wildly percussive elements. Balfe keeps teasing on Twitter that there will be a Live Orchestral version of the Fallout score, and if this happens, I HAVE TO be there, if nothing else, just to see how they fit that many musicians onto one stage!
The tracks on this album are so exciting to listen to, and if I was to ever compete in a marathon (IF being the key word), this would be my inspirational album of choice. Tracks like “Stairs and Rooftops”, which underscores the London foot chase, perhaps best demonstrates the orchestrally percussive sound that Balfe manages to muster up. If the excitement of the track wasn’t enough to begin with, he adds a final bit of grandeur at the end of the track. As Ethan climbs onto the top of the Tate Modern, the score builds to a huge crescendo of the M:I theme, offering an epic cadence that closes the second act of the film. Other tracks like “And The Warrior Whispers Back” also show how intense his score can be, with horns blasting out the plot theme, but “The Exchange” also demonstrates his great ability to soften, stretch and adapt the Mission theme until it’s only just recognisable.
During an interview with the ‘Light The Fuse’ podcast (which I’m a proud sponsor of) he stated that he felt incredibly out of his league to be composing for Mission: Impossible, given the amazing pedigree that had come before him. In the feature length commentary track he gives for Fallout, he talks about how, similar to Giacchino and Kraemer, he used all the different sections of the Mission theme, taking apart the bass, the theme and the rhythm, and scattering them throughout the film. The end result is so pleasing, and once again demonstrates the versatility of Lalo’s original theme. In another interview he did with ‘Men VS Movies’, Lorne speaks about his love of the franchise, and actually brings up the Elfman track “Zoom B” I mentioned earlier. He too speaks about the impact it creates, and clearly he too brought that amazing impact to the franchise.
Though his score received almost universal acclaim, a small majority of critics accused the score of sounding too “Nolan-esque”, referring to the loud scores Christopher Nolan often uses, curtsey of Mission alum Hans Zimmer. I think this is a major insult, both to Zimmer and also to the complexity of Balfe’s score. Having collaborated with Zimmer for over 10 years, it’s inevitable that some similarities would form, but both Zimmer and Balfe understand that loud doesn’t mean noisy. Not only this, but Lorne also created several beautifully quieter themes, most notably a theme called “Love Reduced” which can be heard tracks like “Should You Choose To Accept…” and “We Are Never Free”. Another softer aspect is the beautiful piano motif played by Andy Richards which echoes throughout the score and adds an uncertainty to the proceedings.
Lorne Balfe’s score for Fallout really did achieve the impossible. It had seemed the scores for M:I couldn’t get any huger, but Balfe managed it. Another unique take on the franchise’s musical escapades, his score is a stunning example of how electronics and live instruments can work hand in hand, and it makes for something truly special.
So, I know what you’re thinking; “Dan, that’s all well and good, but what I really want to do now is actually listen to some of these amazing tracks!” WELL, have no fear, because I have created this playlist with some of the key tracks from each score which you can listen to at your leisure (I must add though that unfortunately Hans Zimmer’s M:I2 score isn’t fully on Spotify, so you’ll have to make do with only a couple of tracks for that one. Or better still, buy the score).
All six scores have contributed incredible excitement and emotion to the films, and are, at least in part, why the series is the best one around. By constantly re-inventing the style of music with every film, the Mission: Impossible franchise has given unique composers the opportunity to have their fun adapting that incredible 5/4 rhythm. With two more back to back films coming in 2021 and 2022, it can be assumed that the same composer will work on both. The big question now is, who should that be?! Should one of the five return? Should Alan Silvestri get his time? Or should someone new compose? Whoever is chosen, they certainly have some huge shoes to fill!
Thanks for reading, and for following my blog. Most of all, thanks to all six composers, as well as everyone else involved in the creation of these inspirational scores. Keep coming back for regular reviews and film discussions. This Post will Self-Destruct in Five Seconds…