A Look Back at the Music of ‘Mission: Impossible’

Composers probably count themselves lucky if, within their lifetime, they can come up with a single piece of music that becomes ingrained enough in popular culture that it is instantly recognizable after only a few notes. Lalo Schifrin is one such composer. While Schifrin’s work spans decades, one of his most well-known pieces is the theme to the Mission: Impossible television series.

With today’s limited IMAX release of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (see Germain’s review here), I thought it might be fun to take a look back at some of the music from this series. Hit the jump and share your favorite pieces of music from the Mission: Impossible series after the jump.

First, here’s the theme that started it all:

Despite the fact that this came out in the 60s, there’s something that feels timeless to me about this piece. The instrumentation, with its unique percussion, driving keyboard, and bombastic brass, along with Schifrin’s use of the unconventional 5/4 time signature, gives it a propulsive energy that’s still irresistible today.

The opening theme song for Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible in 1996 hewed closely to Schifrin’s original theme (music this time by Danny Elfman). It’s the first piece you hear in the following video:

One significant change that Elfman makes is occasionally placing the emphasis of each measure on the second beat as opposed to the first (you can hear what I’m describing at this point in the above video). This helps to give the piece an “edge” and a modern sensibility. Such a sensibility was furthered in the first film’s techno remix (WTF?), which was done by U2 band members Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr.:

This piece reverts to a 4/4 time signature, which is why it sounds so, well, conventional. Not too crazy about this one, although I do recall hearing it on the radio a bunch back in the 1990s. Elfman/Clayton/Mullen Jr.’s take on the theme certainly brought it back into the popular consciousness without butchering it too badly.

The same can’t be said for the music of Mission: Impossible 2 which brought the series’ acoustic identity crashing into the present day. The opening electric-guitar heavy sound indicated that THIS ISN’T YOUR FATHER’S MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE in a way that was a bit too ham-fisted for my tastes:

Let’s also not forget that Mission: Impossible 2 inflicted the following on the world:

Am I the only one who wants to forget the time when Limp Bizkit was a) popular, and b) allowed to repurpose the Mission: Impossible theme for his own personal gain?

Ironically, despite its crimes, Hans Zimmer’s score for Mission: Impossible 2 contained what is arguably the series’ best piece of music, period: his flamenco-inspired theme for Nyah:

Beautifully written. Amazingly orchestrated. This is still a piece I return to time and time again. It’s just gorgeous.

Master film composer Michael Giacchino took over for JJ Abrams’ Mission: Impossible 3. In my opinion, he has been the best steward of the series’ sound. While paying homage to the original Schifrin theme, he still manages to make it sound current and exciting. It’s the perfect marriage between the old and the new:

For the opening credits of the film, Giacchino opted to open with the match-lighting and some bold percussion, dragging out the entrance of the theme for a few precious seconds. Interesting choice (forgive the mangled audio in this video; it’s the only version I could find):

For Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol, Giacchino returns again. While most of the soundtrack has a Russia-inspired feel, he still manages to update the theme in a way that I found exhilarating. This time, he branches out from Schifrin’s original even further, combining some subtle electric guitar with a slower version of the main melody and a separate overlapping, jazz theme layered on top of it all. Still, you gotta love the way he brings it all back at the end:

It’s been absolutely fascinating to see how each composer has put his original spin on the theme, with varying degrees of success. So, what are your favorite versions of the Mission: Impossible theme song?

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