July 11, 2017
Doing Whatever A Spider Can!
Enduring popularity of classic Spider-Man cartoon theme reinforced in new movie by Jon Burlingame
Fifty years ago, songwriters Bob Harris and Paul Francis Webster knocked out a theme for a Saturday-morning cartoon show. Neither could have predicted how popular it would become, nor how lucrative it would turn out to be for the songwriters.
Case in point: the opening of the new Spider-Man: Homecoming movie, which reprises the 1967 theme under the Marvel Studios logo. This marks the fifth time the 'toon tune has appeared in a big-screen Spider-Man movie – and it probably won't be the last.
Incorporating the classic theme was the brainstorm of both composer Michael Giacchino, who scored the new Spider-Man movie, and Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige. It all started a year ago, prior to Giacchino's recording of the music for his first Marvel movie, Doctor Strange.
"Kevin and I, after a meeting last year for Doctor Strange, walked out to the Disney parking lot together and we started talking about what we could do that would be fun for their Spider-Man panel in Hall H [at the San Diego Comic-Con]," Giacchino reports. "He asked if I was a fan of the old cartoon theme and of course I was, and still am!
"He wondered if there was somethjing we could do with it. Neither of us had heard of it done in a big way before. We both talked about how fun it would be to do a huge orchestral version as a way of psyching up the audience before they showed clips from Spider-Man. And that's what we did.
"When it came time to do the film," Giacchino says, "it just felt like the right thing to do was to replace my new Marvel logo music with the old theme from Spider-Man as a way of getting everyone excited for what was to come. That theme has the ability to reach deep inside our collective cultural nerd psyche and rev us up like nothing else."
The original song was written for the first filmed version of the web-slinger, ABC's Spider-Man cartoon produced by Grantray-Lawrence Animation, which debuted in September 1967. Composer J. Robert "Bob" Harris was not well known, although he wrote the theme for the movie Lolita in 1962; Webster was a three-time Academy Award winner for such famous movie songs as "Secret Love," "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing" and "The Shadow of Your Smile."
Webster's son Guy, who handled his father's business deals at the time, recalls the production company calling and asking: "What would it cost to have your dad write a theme song for Spider-Man?"
Although Webster had penned the lyrics for such earlier TV series as Maverick and Sugarfoot, he had never written a cartoon theme. And the younger Webster was skeptical because the offer was for only $5,000. But they agreed on condition that they would control the publication and synchronization rights to the song.
Harris (whose producer brother James B. Harris was an old friend of the younger Webster) wrote the tune. The elder Webster wrote the lyrics "in an hour," Guy Webster remembers. "It was so simple for him. He read the script about 'radioactive blood' and all that stuff. He had a great sense of humor. He used all that in the lyrics."
It turned out to have been a very smart deal, ultimately worth "millions," Webster says, because anyone wanting to use the theme must make a new deal with the Webster estate. "When the movies came along, I owned all that and they had to negotiate with me," he adds, "even for the toys, because some of the toys had the music for Spider-Man built in."
The elder Webster died in 1984; his papers are currently being preserved by The Film Music Society. Harris died in 2000. The song remains a favorite of baby-boomers who remember the series (or just the song) and its insertion into four previous Spider-Man movies has only reinforced its status as the most famous wall-crawler music ever written. The first Tobey Maguire movie (2002) used it in the end titles; the second (2004) featured a new jazz version by singer Michael Buble; it can be heard played by a marching band in the third (2007); and in the second Andrew Garfield film (2014) it's Peter Parker's ringtone.
For the new film, however, it's played by a 90-piece orchestra, the most lavish treatment to date. Says Giacchino: "Paul Francis Webster and Bob Harris had no idea what they were giving the world when they wrote that tune back in 1967."
©2017 Jon Burlingame