Discover more from The Honest Broker
Here's My Mission Impossible Article—But I Refuse to Talk About the Movie
I just care about the theme song
The Mission Impossible film is opening today in more than 4,000 theaters, and already pundits predict it will be the biggest box office hit of the year. A story like this should be my bread-and-butter—because I’m a member of the entertainment media.
But it doesn’t feel that way.
The only time I visited Cannes was to sell $100 million in junk bonds. I spent that trip trying to work my way into the inner sanctum of the heavy rollers in junk—the way a card shark maneuvers into a high stakes poker game.
The long and the short of it was: I stayed several days on the beach in Cannes and never saw a single movie star. I didn’t even pack a bathing suit. Unless Tom Cruise was interested in the risky business of high yield securities, he wasn’t going to cross my path.
That’s pretty much the story of my media career—which has consistently delivered more junk than junkets. The only time I visit a movie studio is to take a tour with out-of-town rubes or visit the theme park.
And even now, when I write about hit movies, I feel out of my depth. What do I know about Hollywood? For me it’s just a sign on a distant hill.
So while others are reviewing the new Mission Impossible movie, I’m sticking to subjects I actually know and understand.
That’s why I plan to tell you instead about the Mission Impossible theme song.
The Honest Broker is a reader-supported guide to music, books, media & culture. Both free and paid subscriptions are available. If you want to support my work, the best way is by taking out a paid subscription.
I love this music—I enjoy all those action theme songs, but this is one of my absolute favorites. It’s right up there with Hawaii Five-0 and Secret Agent Man. I’ll buy a ticket to the movie just to hear the song. And while other fans dig the action scenes and car chases because of the excitement, I eagerly await those same moments because that’s when the theme song kicks in.
They don’t waste this adrenaline-pumping music on the boring scenes. As soon as you hear that 5/4 groove start up, you know cars will crash and bombs will burst. Whatever happens over the next couple minutes took at least $10 million to film and a week to clean up. The song is your signal to stay in your seat—forget about popcorn or a trip to the loo—and enjoy the fireworks.
But even if I love the song, I didn’t cut composer Lalo Schifrin much slack. I always assumed he was just imitating Dave Brubeck and (composer) Paul Desmond’s hit song “Take 5”—which had introduced 5/4 rhythms into popular music a few years before Schifrin wrote this theme for the Mission Impossible TV show (1966-1973).
In the aftermath, 5/4 rhythms started showing up in commercial songs. You heard it everywhere from Jethro Tull’s “Living in the Past” to Cream’s “White Room” (just the intro) to Nick Drake’s “River Man.” The theme from Mission Impossible was part of this Brubeck-inspired trend.
Argentine pianist and composer Schifrin is a jazz musician by background. That’s where I first encountered his work. So he clearly knew all about “Take Five.” Of course, back then everybody who owned a radio heard that song. Schifrin even uses the same subdivision of the bar into a lilting three beat phrase followed by heavy accents on beats 4 and 5.
The composer, however, had an air tight alibi.
He wasn’t imitating Brubeck—not at all. Instead he learned this rhythm from Morse Code.
Schifrin merely took the initials of the title—which for Mission Impossible were M and I. Then he converted them to Morse Code.
The Morse Code for M is two dashes (— —) and the Morse Code for I is two dots (· ·). This gave him:
Now all you need to do is assign a beat-and-a-half to a dash, and a single beat to a dot.
You add this up, and it creates a five-beat pattern of _ _ .. or ♩. ♩. ♩ ♩
Or to be more precise:
Voilà—we have a Mission Impossible vamp, and no Brubeck or Desmond required. But in one interview, Schifrin admitted to a possible linkage back to his Time Out predecessor. “I suppose the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s ‘Take Five’ was in my heart,” the composer told Marc Myers, “but the 5/4 tempo just came naturally. It’s forceful, and the listener never feels comfortable.”
Here’s what it looked like on TV back in the 1960s.
Schifrin didn’t have much to work from. He didn’t have any footage to watch or scripts to read. He was simply told that the credit sequence opened with the lighting of a bomb’s fuse, and that he should write “something exciting.”
This composer was a specialist in precisely this kind of music. His score to Bullitt (1968) made my list of all time favorite film scores. And his soundtracks grace a host of other action films and franchises, from Dirty Harry to Rush Hour.
If anybody new the rules of exciting cinematic music it was Schifrin.
Even so, his first attempt at a Mission Impossible theme, composed in march rhythm, got rejected. That was unexpected—usually whatever Lalo wants, Lalo gets. But not in this case.
Time was running out—the TV series needed a song, and fast. So Schifrin sat down at his desk (not a piano), and composed the now classic song—it took about 90 seconds.
The vamp is the hook. But Schifrin added some nice touches—for example the bongo beat played by Emil Richards, and the unexpected flute part (probably performed by Bud Shank).
Actor Martin Landau, who starred in the series as Rollin Hand—the forerunner of Cruise’s Ethan Hunt—showed up at the studio the day the music was recorded. “I was stunned,” he later recalled. “It was so perfect. I came out humming that tune.”
The song was released as a single, but never cracked the top 40—peaking at number 41. Yet it has enjoyed tremendous staying power over the years. The movie reboot of Mission Impossible would have been unthinkable without that theme song. It’s almost 60 years old, but still feels young and spry.
I will soon be publishing a relevant chapter here from my book-in-progress Music to Raise the Dead. The chapter is called “Why Do Heroes Always Have Theme Songs?” And it’s true, they do. That was the rule in ancient times—the most famous lyric poet of the classical world, Pindar, specialized in songs for heroes—and it’s still true today. In fact, songs of heroes seem to outlast other kinds of music.
Just consider the defining literary works of antiquity—such as Gilgamesh, the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, and other towering works of this sort. They, too, are very much songs of heroes, and have survived for thousands of years.
Hollywood can’t match that long lineage. But in its own way, the movie themes of heroes are surprisingly durable.
In this (not yet published) chapter on why heroes always have theme songs, I write:
Every screen hero has a theme song, and these possess remarkable staying power. The iconic theme song composed for superspy James Bond in his first film appearance in 1962 is still propelling the franchise forward more than sixty year later. The multibillion dollar Mission Impossible franchise absolutely requires the incantatory appearance of the familiar 5/4 theme song launched with the original TV show back in 1966, which hasn’t lost its mojo despite a half-century of changing musical trends and tastes. Indiana Jones and Harry Potter enjoy endless reboots in movies, games, and TV shows—but the audience would refuse to accept these brand extensions without these heroes’ special songs.
Strange as it may seem, the songs have actually proven more enduring than the actors, plots, directors, or settings in these films. This runs against everything we’re told about the music business, where an instrumental track from 1962 would have very little significance in any other sphere of pop culture. But when it comes to heroes, different rules apply. These larger-than-life figures need their special songs and—as in the traditional quest stories—the melodies that have proven their magic in the past are the most potent of all.
That’s why I expect the Mission Impossible theme song to stay around for many more decades. It has cross-generational appeal.
That’s already been demonstrated. Consider the premiere of the first Mission Impossible film in 1996. The studio invited theme composer Lalo Schifrin to the event, which took place a few days before his 64th birthday. Not many people recognized him at the premiere, especially among the younger Hollywood crowd.
But one person did.
“When Tom Cruise saw me, he hugged me twice,” Lalo Schifrin later recalled. “He said he grew up with the television series and the music was one of the biggest elements that convinced him to get involved in the movie project, not only as an actor but as the co-producer. So he made my day.”
Schifrin is still with us at age 91. He had an illustrious career outside of Hollywood, collaborating with everyone from Dizzy Gillespie to Astor Piazzolla. But this popular theme song, composed in a couple of minutes to meet a tight deadline, will be his most lasting mark on the culture. It will obviously survive him, but it will also outlive Tom Cruise and all the other current stars.
That’s because Hollywood stardom is fleeting, but heroes and their songs live forever.