37 Years Later, One Weird Rock Opera Album Made An Animated Sci-Fi Movie Into A Classic
One movie still has the touch, thanks to the rock music that fueled it.
Those robots in disguise, the Transformers, have returned to movie theaters, and will soon be hitting home video, too. If you’re a child of the eighties or nineties, the latest live-action epic, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, will remind you of your childhood in one specific way. Not only does Optimus Prime look boxy and trucky the way he’s supposed to look, but the movie also features the live-action debut of the planet-destroying Transformer, Unicron.
Sound familiar? If you’re pushing 40, it should! Back in 1986, Unicron first appeared in the beloved Transformers: The Movie, and at that time, he was voiced by the late great, Orson Welles. It was one of Welles's last movies ever, but the rest of the voice cast was just as impressive. Eric Idle of Monty Python fame appears late in the movie as a junk robot named Wreck-Gar, the legendary Robert Stack plays Ultra Magnus, Leonard Nimoy plays the other villain, Galvatron, and ‘80s Brat Pack star Judd Nelson leads the cast as Hot Rod, the Autobot who would be king. But, these famous names are likely not the reasons you remember this movie as a kid. You remember Unicron devouring a peaceful robot planet in the opening scenes, and you remember, crucially, Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), dying in the first 20 minutes. The brazen decision from Hasbro and the Transformers powers-that-be in the ‘80s was brilliant and probably helped more kids understand grief than any other movie released in that decade.
Although Rise of the Beasts has plenty of charm and feels like the perfect summer movie for a parent and their 7+ kids, it’s still hard for any Transformers movie to top the 1986 accidental masterpiece. Of all the movies that have been spun out of the Michael Bay Transformers films, Rise of the Beasts (along with, maybe Bumblebee) feels the closest to the kind of movies we’d all hope for from this franchise. Still, the 1986 animated movie holds up better than any Transformers artifact, ever. But why? There are many theories, but the most compelling reason why the ‘86 Transformers is still so great is both simple and unique: Its rock soundtrack is amazing, and, gives that famous Tom Cruise airplane movie soundtrack (released the same year!) a run for its money.
The big song we’re talking about here is the Stan Bush hit “The Touch,” in which the lyrics You’ve got the touch/you’ve got the power/yeaaah! were burned into the brains of various kids, forever. This is the hero theme for Transformers the movie, and though it was famously (infamously?) rerecorded by Mark Wahlberg for Boogie Nights, and remixed and recorded by Bush himself in 2007 and 2010, the original version, written and recorded for the Transformers soundtrack album remains a fist-pumping rock anthem, which can really only be described as a song Kenny Loggins probably wishes he’d written.
Both “The Touch” and “Dare,” are the kinds of ‘80s rock earworms that could also have easily appeared in some kind of Rocky spin-off. There’s an “Eye of the Tiger” quality to both tracks, encouraging a hero to get things done, with a silly mix of metaphors that barely makes sense in the context of the song, but somehow crystallizes when the song plays in the movie — twice. Most people reading this sentence probably remember the first time the song plays in the movie slightly more: Optimus Prime says “Megatron must be stopped, no matter the cost,” then transforms from robot to truck mode, and gets down to business. But, the second use of “The Touch” in the film, when Hot Rod becomes Rodimus Prime, and says “This is the end of the road, Galvatron,” is equally awesome. Name another ‘80s movie, made for kids, that had rock opera moments like this. Seriously, is there?
The Transformers: The Movie soundtrack is brazen and singular, it would be like if Queen had written songs for Masters of the Universe instead of Highlander. The two Stan Bush songs are the most famous, but the hair-metal version of the actual Transformer’s main theme, performed by the band Lion, is pretty amazing. On top of that, you’ve got two tracks from Spectre General, “Nothin’s Gonna Stand In Our Way,” and “Hunger,” both of which sound a bit like an opening band for Black Sabbath really giving it their all. This heavy metal band was only called “Spectre General” for the Transformers soundtrack, and outside of this album was called “Kick Axe.” Kinda gives you ‘80s Conan vibes, right?
And then there’s the standout Weird Al song, “Dare to Be Stupid.” This song shows up late in the film and serves as the theme for the pop culture-obsessed Junkions. Weird Al didn’t write this song for Transformers. Instead, it’s a pseudo-Devo parody, and in the video for the song, Weird Al is clearly channeling that band and their intentionally surreal vibe. (He sometimes even adopted a faux-Devo outfit when he performed the song live. Check out the top image of this story!)
The sarcastic and intentionally mocking nature of “Dare to Be Stupid” is probably the only track on the Transformers album that is self-aware, which makes it beautifully subversive among the other tracks, which are all earnest, and sometimes, like the entire career of the band Survivor, sometimes slip into self-parody. In other words, Weird Al’s “Dare to Be Stupid” balances out Stan Bush’s “Dare.” And the fact that there are two songs with the word “dare” in the title feels either like a mistake, or a brilliant kind of artistic reflection.
The new Rise of the Beasts soundtrack has several great classic hip-hop tracks that ground the movie in its ‘90s setting. But, the mosaic of those tracks is nothing compared to the strange effect that the rock score for Transformers had in 1986. Essentially, the Transformers soundtrack is a rock opera album, that gives the entire story much more gravitas than perhaps, it deserves. Each time one of the new songs plays, you’re dealing with a crucial action scene in which the outcome of the scene changes the entire story. (Again, name another movie where a Weird Al song plays while a helicopter robot pulls a sword out of nowhere.) The juxtaposition of the music and the images isn’t discordant or forced. For whatever reason, it all fits perfectly, making it hard to imagine one aspect without the other.
The era of the soundtrack album in which several songs were included specifically for the movie (like Batman Forever) is mostly over today. Nearly four decades later, Transformers stands apart because virtually nobody other than Weird Al is still well known today. This doesn’t make the Transformers album bad or embarrassing. The lack of modern notoriety for Stan Bush or Lion or Kick Axe only makes this collection of songs more interesting. The album is cool because it’s weird, and in retrospect, feels like some kind of indie version of heavy metal. These songs still have the touch. They still have the power, and you gotta dare to keep your dreams alive.
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is in theaters now. Transformers: The Movie is streaming to rent on YouTube, iTunes, and elsewhere.
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