In animation-mainly in animated movies-it’s commonplace to expect a score that is more or less orchestrated, or at least semi-orchestrated. Probably with some sing-along songs to go with it, and not much else.
But then in 1986 an animated film came out with filmmaking choices that not only defied conventions for an animated film, but a score that truly set itself apart from what had been done before.
Fresh off of the success of Rocky 4 composer Vince DiCola was approached by the producers of “The Transformers” series (now known as G1). It turned out that the producers had heard DiCola’s score for Rocky 4 and felt that the composer’s style would fit perfectly with the animated film they were working on. DiCola wasn’t all that familiar with Transformers other than being vaguely aware of the toy line, but nevertheless he went ahead and did an audition piece called “Legacy”. The producers heard it, liked it and immediately hired DiCola despite not using the song.
What was interesting about the collaboration was that the producers allowed DiCola total freedom to do what he wanted, which the composer more than appreciated. Since the film was animated Vince was given storyboards which had been a first for DiCola since he had been used to dealing with film, but the composer went with it and with the help of a talented team of people began his composition in earnest, and the end result is a score that more than stands out.
For starters the audience is introduced to music that is not an orchestration, like previous animated films, or even the symphonic scores heard from the classic Star Wars trilogy. Instead we are introduced to a score that has that signature 80s sound,yet it still has the ability to tell the story and convey the emotion of the scenes like any other orchestral score. For example, the opening scene introduces you to the main villain of this film Unicron and immediately the score gives you this feeling that this is a villain that is more or less the arbiter of death and if he shows up in your neck of the woods you are pretty much done for.
But even with that tense theme you then get reintroduced to some familiar faces and the score then gives a bit of a hero vibe but with a sense of purpose and urgency.
Then when the scene switches to Hotrod and Daniel fishing the score conveys a more carefree feel which reflects our two new heroes.
But even with that, you cannot get a chance to relax completely, for the hijacked shuttle shows up near Autobot City and immediately the action kicks in and doesn’t stop as the score reflects it. Sadly many familiar Autobots from the first two seasons of G1 are seen dead and the score continues to push that sense of dread and high-stakes. Help does arrive for the new Autobots but at a tragic cost, and here is where yet again DiCola manages to strike a chord with the audience in the most emotional way possible: The Death of Optimus Prime. And in no way does the score hold back at all in that scene. From Optimus’s last words to his actual death in conjunction with the score and immediately the film no longer feels like a simple fun animated movie but something more.
And then comes the scene with Megatron and and Unicron where the score reiterates the Unicron theme but with a much more sinister tone, especially once Megatron gets reformatted into Galvatron, with the other fallen Decepticons being reformatted as well.
Then the score shifts to the Autobots escaping the ruins of Autobot City as well as the crash-landing on the planet of Junk which brings back the more adventurous feel but still keeping that urgency intact.
And then for a long while the score stays on an even level until Unicron arrives to Cybertron, transforms into his robot form and attacks, leading to an all out fight which DiCola then goes all out once again and even with the cuts between scenes the score still flows, keeping the pace of the action where it should be from start to finish.
And then finally, the “final” track itself, which is none other than “Legacy”, which as mentioned before was never used in the film yet upon hearing it you can easily imagine it being in the end credits, for it conveys much of the heroic aspects of the Transformers, as well as the conflict between the Autobots and Decepticons, and then finally with a sense of finality, but a hopeful one.
In a nutshell, this is a score that should be preserved alongside many classic film scores, and not just in the realm of animation. While the movie itself took some bold risks, the score also elevated it to something more than what one would expect for a movie about alien robots that could disguise themselves as vehicles. And instead of going for the more traditional scoring via orchestra, the filmmakers went against that grain and went in a different direction, and with somebody who already made a name for himself from another beloved franchise. And while Vince DiCola’s composing was different from what one would expect from traditional composers, that only made the film and his contribution to it more meaningful, for like the film, the score did things never really heard before in a soundtrack for an animated film and pushed the envelope. And while it might not have been fully appreciated in its time, people eventually discovered the film and DiCola’s score (myself being one of them) and helped bring it to a level much higher than that of a cult classic, as DiCola himself has realized.
So if you are a fan of Transformers, you owe it to yourself to have this soundtrack. Like the best orchestral scores, DiCola’s compositions also convey the story of the movie on a deep emotional level, which is always important. It may be fictional, but the best films always connect with the audience on that level, regardless of it being live-action or animated.
Not only that, but in these modern times where TV/Movie scores have taken on different forms beyond the usual orchestrations, it is very humbling to know that this score was in some ways one of the first ones to push the envelope of film scoring and what could be done musically to tell a story in animation. For us fans new and old, and even the curious ones, this score from beginning to finish truly is one that is “…beyond your wildest imagination!”