Teen comedies have rarely been fertile ground for film composers, with directors prioritising needle-dropped songs when it comes to pivotal moments. Luckily for David Newman, the 1988 black comedy Heathers was not really interested in playing by the rules of the genre, racking up laughs while dealing with taboo topics such as murder and suicide. This disregard for norms extended to its music choices, with Newman given the chance to write a relatively lengthy score that has gained a cult following in its own right.
Of course, Newman could not avoid all of the genre’s staples and the resulting score is completely synthetic in its rendering and saturated with the sound of its era. For many, “80s electronic-pop score” is all one needs to hear before running to the hills. For those who enjoy their funky retro synth-pop, Newman provides plenty of peppy keyboarded ideas to keep you entertained throughout the album’s brief 41-minute runtime.
One of the knocks against the synth-pop scores of the period was that they acted like sonic wallpaper, never really commenting on what happened on screen or bringing much emotion to the fore. Newman seems to have understood this, and utilises themes and unexpected sound palettes to create a sense of cohesion to pull the album together.
The main theme heard at the outset of “Strip Croquet” is a keyboarded idea comprised of four phrases of three notes. It is in no way evocative (perhaps a missed opportunity to comment on the state of our protagonist), but its simple construct allows Newman to weave it and out of many subsequent tracks. The standout “Dorm Party” in particular has some fun cycling through variations of it against electronic drum and bass.
A harmonica idea for J.D. first pops up in “Strip Croquet,” evoking a sense of cowboy rebellion and is paid off in the penultimate track “J.D.’s Bomb” and in his last scene in the film “J.D.’s Final Stand” to decent emotional effect. An organ is also brought in for each of the funeral scenes, although without a consistent melodic construct to tie them together. Both of these ideas add some diversity to the scores sound, and help to keep things from getting monotonous.
Also helping is Newman’s composing skill. Never content to take the easy route, Newman tries admirably to provide interesting and engaging ideas throughout, many of which are quite catchy. A descending idea first heard in “J.D. Blows Up” and again in Forest Chase” is one such example, as is the midsection of “You’re Beautiful” that features synthetic guitar ideas against drum pads and keyboard. It is clear that Newman understood the limitations of the genre, but was not going to let that keep him from writing with some level of complexity and intelligence.
While all of this works very well in the film, the album presentation does come with limitations. Synth-pop scores have frequently struggled from working less like film music and more like a collection of pop instrumentals, and Heathers only occasionally overcomes this. For the most part, each track explores a single idea or emotion, with little variation throughout in terms of emotion or action. While the themes can add some narrative, the non-chronological ordering of tracks makes their job more difficult that it may have otherwise been. For fans of this genre, this will likely not be a dealbreaker, but for the uninitiated this may prove another hurdle to enjoying what this score can offer.
For lovers of the film or 80s synth-pop, this re-release of Heathers should be a no-brainer after almost 30 years out of print. Newcomers should give the samples a few listens and give this score a shot if they are intrigued. Just be prepared for its catchy ideas to be stuck in your head for hours on end.