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Four Composers, One (Nearly) Impossible Mission To Reinvent A Classic Theme

Lalo Schifrin composed the soundtrack to the original <em>Mission: Impossible</em> TV series in 1966.
Lalo Schifrin composed the soundtrack to the original Mission: Impossible TV series in 1966.

When Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation hits theaters Friday, it'll be the fifth time its iconic theme music reverberates in theaters. Composer Joe Kraemer will have become the fourth to take up the mantle of translating that music, a 1960s TV theme song that's stayed permanently young, to a theatrical score.

The Mission: Impossible theme everyone knows was written in 1966 by Argentinian jazz pianist Lalo Schifrin, who had come to the U.S. a few years earlier with Dizzy Gillespie's band. He'd just started getting gigs as a film and TV composer when Mission: Impossible creator Bruce Geller called and changed his life.

"He said to me, 'I want you to write a theme that's exciting, promising, but not too heavy. Make some fun out of it,'" Schifrin says. "'But at the same time, make it like a promise that there's going to be a little bit of action. When people go to the kitchen and get a Coca-Cola, I want them to hear the theme and say, 'Oh, this is Mission: Impossible.'"

As iconic as that music has become, it's easy to forget there was another major motif in the show.

"While they are going through problems — you know, suspense, tension — I have another theme," Schifrin says. "That's really the theme of Mission: Impossible. Things are really impossible for them. The other one, the one that everybody knows and that became popular, is actually 'Mission Accomplished.' Because by that time, they win. They made it."

Schifrin's main theme heralded the show for all seven seasons. When director Brian De Palma took the Impossible Missions Force to the big screen 30 years after the TV show's premiere, he wanted to bring the theme along with him. That led to a creative conflict with composer John Williams, who wanted to work with a new theme of his own. So De Palma turned to Danny Elfman, who treated Schifrin's classic tune like an old friend.

Hans Zimmer scored the second film in the series, and Michael Giacchino scored part three for director J.J. Abrams. Giacchino says he was a little hesitant, because Schifrin's music was one of his favorite themes of all time.

"I remember calling Lalo and asking if we could meet for lunch," Giacchino says. "And I was very nervous — I felt like someone asking a father if I could marry their daughter or something. And he said, 'Just have fun with it.' And I did."

Giacchino, now a veteran with a string of successful scores, came back for part four. But the newest film in the Mission: Impossible series, Rogue Nation, was composed by relative newcomer Joe Kraemer.

"It's been such a dream come true to do this kind of music, in this kind of setting, with these musicians, at Abbey Road — you know, for a Mission: Impossible movie," Kraemer says.

Kraemer moved to Hollywood from a small town near Albany, N.Y., in 1993, with the dream of being a film composer like his idol, John Williams. He worked as a sound editor for years and wrote some music for TV. He got his first big film assignment in 2000 with The Way Of The Gun, directed by his old college friend, Christopher McQuarrie. Then, it was back to television for another decade until McQuarrie directed the 2012 thriller Jack Reacher and hired Kraemer again. When McQuarrie was tapped to direct the newest Mission: Impossible film, Kraemer got the chance of a lifetime.

"You know, it's that feeling that all of us creative people have, which is that I'm capable of greatness, and I just need a chance at the plate," Kraemer says. "I can hit a home run if you get me to the plate. And this was definitely like I was playing on the Yankees now, you know. I was out of the farm league and into the majors."

But Kraemer and McQuarrie were still playing with a well-worn ball — and, the director says, they had to come to terms with that theme.

"For Joe and I, it was a very simple course of saying, well, if we're going to do something different from all the other films, let's lean into it," McQuarrie says. "Let's really embrace the theme, and let's embrace the theme going all the way back to the TV show."

McQuarrie says it was Kraemer's idea to limit his music to the orchestral palette of 1966, forgoing the synthesizers and electronics that have become so dominant in film scores. But Kraemer even went a step further, constructing his entire score around Schifrin's themes.

"For me, it was actually a really cool challenge," Kraemer says. "And so we ended up sort of breaking the theme down into its constituent parts and then rebuilding it in our own image. I've been waiting for an opportunity to do something like that as a composer."

McQuarrie expands on what Kraemer means by "breaking the theme down."

"It's really interesting, because Joe and I broke it down measure for measure, and recognized fully that there were elements of it that are campy," McQuarrie says. "We had such a shorthand, and had compartmentalized the different beats of the theme song, [so] that we could avoid ever becoming too heightened."

Kraemer says it was nothing but fun to play around with someone else's hit during his first real at-bat in the major leagues.

"It's the closest thing, I think, we have in America to Bond," he says. "And it's iconic and legendary, and the music that Lalo wrote will always be remembered. And so to be associated with that, for me, was really awesome."

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