Making it Rock: The Mission: Impossible Theme

An Interview with Larry Mullen and Adam Clayton of U2 by Rudy Koppl
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.19/No.74/2000
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Rudy Koppl

larry-mullen-adam-claytonLalo Schifrin will always be the inventor of the famous MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE theme, but as the motion pictures were released, new musicians came on board to rearrange Lalo’s music into a song for the masses. In the first motion picture, directed by Brian De Palma, Larry Mullen and Adam Clayton, the drummer and bass player for the Irish rock band U2, were hired for the reinterpretation. Both musicians were anxious to talk about their work for the film and the details of creating it.

How did you get involved in reinterpreting Lalo’s ‘Main Title’?
Larry Mullen: The initial request came for U2 to do a version of it and we couldn’t because we were in the middle of recording ‘Pop’. Adam and I thought it might be worthwhile having a bash at it (alone). There was no reference to U2, so it took the pressure off of us on one level and the expectations that this was going to be some rock track, basically giving us the license to do whatever we wanted.

What is the key to scoring the ‘Main Title’ of a film?
Adam Clayton: I think you’ve really got to nail the emotion. Different films have a different dynamic, but MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, whether or not it relates to the television series, it’s got to have that slightly exotic feeling of going to a foreign place and being in danger. It’s got to get your heartbeat going. Certainly the music that Lalo wrote fitted that bill. Even when I was a kid I’ve always been able to remember it.

Should the ‘Main Title’ or theme define the basis for the whole film score?
Larry Mullen: No. One of the biggest problems I had with the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE soundtrack was that there was talk of doing several different versions of ‘Mission: Impossible’ and putting them all on a CD and then it would be like ‘Music Inspired By’. By and large it was a good record, but I think this is where Hollywood and the music business clash. For them it’s a purely commercial thing. It doesn’t matter what’s on it, but just it get out there, sell it, and put a picture of Tom Cruise on the front of it or whoever. I always thought that a movie soundtrack should tell its own story; it should have the feel of a movie as opposed to a collection of songs, a collection of ideas.
Adam Clayton: If you can come up with a melodic hook that in some way becomes a repeated motif, I think you’re on to a winner. That’s John Williams’ trick. It also depends on the collaborative nature of the project, back in the fifties and sixties you had Miles Davis or Quincy Jones performing live to picture and that was the soundtrack. It’s moved on a bit where the atmosphere isn’t necessarily as important as it used to be and excitement is everything.

What did you think of Limp Bizkit’s version of the ‘Main Title for MI:2’?
Adam Clayton: It’s great for them to be involved. I like Limp Bizkit. That’s what rock and roll is these days in America, it’s hard. In a way it was very clever of Tom Cruise and the production company to go, “They’re the kind of guys we need on this soundtrack.” I salute the braveness of making that decision.

What about Lalo’s version?
Larry Mullen: When I heard it I knew it was an amazing piece of music. When you hear it on the record you start to realize how complex it is.
Adam Clayton: His music is fantastic. Everything he’s done has such vitality in life. They’ve been running the original MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE shows on cable television here in Europe. I actually watched it the other night. Hearing it cut to the picture with the match and the fuse wire going through it, it just struck me how appropriate his original composition was. To be able to do that, to churn that out, no matter how quickly the deadlines come, put an orchestra together, and orchestrate something like that, is a real talent. That time signature was an amazing work of genius to come up with, yet the whole thing is totally hummable.

What was your key to scoring the ‘Main Title’ of M:I?
Larry Mullen: We started out with the classic MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE Theme from the television series that was in 4/5. I started working in New York, while Adam started working in Dublin. We took the time out to do these demos. Half way through the process I rang Adam and said, “I’m having some terrible problems here; I can’t get this thing to groove,” because I was working with this type of time sequence. He said, “I’m having a similar problem here. I’ve decided to take a serious electronic approach, even if it doesn’t make it on the soundtrack, maybe it will be something that we could use on a B side.” He played me what he’d done, but I wasn’t sure this would be appropriate as the main theme. Later he played it for me on the phone and there was one section in what he’d done that sounded like it was in 4/4. I thought, “Maybe I should try to do this in 4/4? I wonder if it would work?”
I got together with David Beal, a session drummer friend of mine who got involved in electronics, and got a 4/4 groove, just a kick drum and snare. As soon as that happened, the whole thing just turned around. We knew then that we could actually make a groove and create something that people could dance to. I called Adam about it and then he came to New York. We went into the studio and he stuck his bass onto it, I put on the real drums, and we were going to use real strings and redo them, but we ran out of time, so we took samples from Lalo Schifrin’s original version. We stuck those on, came back to London, mixed it, and sent it to them basically finished.

Did you create your ‘Main Title’ piece to what you saw on film?
Larry Mullen: I asked to see the movie and I spoke with Tom Cruise. He said, “I can’t give you that. I can send you a trailer, I’ll send you a script, but they really don’t want me to do this.” He was helpful and sent me a script and trailer, so I was able to get an idea of what it was going to be like. It was set in modern day Prague, so having that hip groove would work; it wasn’t going to conflict with the time of the movie. I would like to have seen the movie, in fact would’ve liked to have done more music for the film if I’d seen it. I was aware that Danny had scored the film and I was very conscious of walking on his shoes, because he had already done a great version of the theme and scored the film. We came slightly later on in the project, he was pushed to one side a little, and I felt a little bad about that. Although I would have loved to have done music more music for the film, it would have been politically incorrect.

What did you and Adam contribute to Lalo’s theme that was new?
Larry Mullen: What we were able to offer and give to that track is a European perspective.
Adam Clayton: We saw it as a piece of music that could have a very powerful rhythmic contemporary sound, but was appropriate to the sound that people hear on their radio, which is also heard in night clubs as they move around, whether they’re in Brazil, New York, Los Angeles, Paris, or even in Dublin.

Did you accomplish what you set out to do on this?
Larry Mullen: Yes. One of the main reasons we were able to do that is because of Tom Cruise. He was incredibly helpful and gave us a lot of license. Under normal circumstances you’re dealing with somebody in a record company or someone in an office. Without Cruise it would have been very difficult, with him we basically got everything that we needed to go forward.
Adam Clayton: Yes, “I’m really proud of it. When it first came our way it was a new thing for Larry and myself to do, to do something a rhythm section. I was kind of scared that we were going to fuck up, but my vision of what it could be really ended up being that. Larry worked very hard to get it to that point, where I wasn’t so decisive or critical, he was. It was great to work with him and be a part of the team.

What is your view about using pop songs in marketing film?
Adam Clayton: It doesn’t necessarily always serve the project in an appropriate or a sympathetic way, but I have to accept that modern Hollywood is driven by market forces. Hollywood’s big; you can’t really take it on. We have a lot of control over art, we have a lot of control of what people get to hear, how long it takes, and what it costs. You get into a movie project and it’s out of control. You need a tough ringmaster cracking the whip. That’s the way these movies get made now.

What is your future in writing for film?
Larry Mullen: My dream is to get involved in film scoring, not necessarily in big Hollywood movies. I’d love to work with some young directors and put together some soundtracks for small experimental movies.
Adam Clayton: If it’s appropriate, if the project is exciting, and if it fits into my schedule, I think it would be a great thing to do. Sometimes these things fall out of the sky and land on your plate and they’re the right thing to do. That’s what happened with Mission: Impossible.

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