In the early hours of September 19th 1985, a huge earthquake hit the outskirts of Mexico City. Over 5,000 people are thought to have died as a result, and catastrophic damage was done to the Greater Mexico City area. As a result, it was at one point highly doubtful that Mexico – itself a replacement for original hosts Colombia – would be able to stage the 1986 world cup. However, none of the tournament stadiums were damaged, and Mexico went on to hold a glorious tournament full of colour, fantastic football, controversy and eponymous waves.
The official FIFA film of the 1986 World Cup, Hero, did not seek to shy away from the tragic events of 1985. Having watched Hero approximately 863 times (at one point realising I had accrued a second copy – I had no idea how it came into my possession, but it felt right owning more than one regardless) I remember clearly the scenes of utter devastation. What I remember even clearer, however, are the panpipes. Now I am not suggesting that the film’s soundtrack composer Rick Wakeman was actively glad that several thousand people died in tragic circumstances, but there can be little doubt that the sombre tone required suited his prog stylings perfectly.
Of course, Wakeman is best known for his session work on the likes of David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ and ‘Get it On’ by T. Rex as well as the tens of millions of records he sold with prog behemoths Yes!. He has made hugely successful instrumental concept albums centred around wives of Tudor monarchs, and boasts an exceptional cape collection. He was also a semi-regular panellist on Through the Keyhole in the 1990s. In short, you might know him for many, many reasons. And yet for me, his work on Hero surpasses any other achievement before or since, and is due a critical reappraisal. Or appraisal, if it turns out I am the first to give it the in-depth analysis it so richly deserves.
Hero begins with soft, sparkling keyboards. It is a gentle, uplifting start to proceedings. Wakeman is merely lulling us in order to ensure that the first of his drum fills, so 1980s that it probably took up the option to buy its own council house, has the desired effect. As a 9 year old child watching the film for the first time, it worked. I was hooked. As a 37 year old adult watching the film for the 864th time, it still worked. What excitement lies ahead?! Oh, an uncomfortable segue into Valeria Lynch’s power ballad ‘Me Das Cada Dia Mas’. Until my cursory research into this article I had always assumed that Valerie was British, and was perhaps best known for singing Shirley Bassey covers in working men’s clubs before stumbling into the unlikely gig of singing one of the centre-piece songs of the official film of the 1986 world cup in Spanish. I now realise that her name is Valeria rather than Valerie, and that she is actually an extremely famous Argentinian singer and actress. Overall, this makes a lot more sense, but does not make the song any less awful.
After the aforementioned footage of the earthquake’s aftermath, it is time for the football to start. Naturally, Hero begins with the host nation. Here Rick utilises those clean, overwrought guitar solos so beloved of musos, the kind that usually sees the guitarist close their eyes and slowly look up to the heavens as they play so that we know that they really do actually mean ‘it’. The narrator – a quite superbly dispassionate Michael Caine, explains that Hugo Sanchez earns over £1m per year in Spain, and returns to Mexico with the expectations of a nation on his shoulders. The music does not change when Mexico score their first goal. When Sanchez scores their second though, the crowd goes crazy. Which is also a fair description of Wakeman’s state of mind as he decides the perfect musical accompaniment to this moment is what can only be described as an instrumental Tiffany album track.
The most iconic moment of the whole film follows soon after. Uruguay’s superstar Enzo Francescoli is introduced, the beautiful slow motion footage (a distinctive feature of the film) backed by a two-note stabbing bass riff which bristles with tension. It recalls Jaws, and it is clear that Enzo’s gonna need a bigger shin pad. I know I said earlier that Wakeman does not seem like the kind of person to wish thousands of people dead just to help him shoehorn some panpipes into a football film. I stand by that. I do, however, accuse him of being absolutely delighted at the rough treatment meted out to Francescoli by West Germany, as it allows him to really flex his musical muscles; each scything challenge on Francescoli augmented by a keyboard riff which suggests Wakeman is having a whale of a time even if Enzo isn’t.
Denmark are up next. The director Tony Maylam has clearly decided that their story warrants extended coverage, and who am I to argue? That side, featuring the ridiculous talents of Laudrup, Elkjaer et al, was a joy to watch. Wakeman obviously thinks so too; the tempo of the music going up several notches with each Denmark goal, though Caine narrating with all the excitement of reading a shopping list containing 37 different types of gravel negates the effect somewhat. After looking like potential tournament winners following the group stage, Denmark subsequently get thrashed by Spain. This is soundtracked by the same music used for Francescoli getting maimed, so we know it’s bad news.
Enter Diego. There must have been huge pressure on Wakeman to come up with original music befitting of the player that arguably defined a tournament more than anyone else in history. I absolutely bloody love the fact that he went with a tune reminiscent of a prog- Twin Peaks. Given that Hero pre-dates Twin Peaks by several years, I can only assume that David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti were big fans of FIFA official world cup films.
An aside at this point – I am unsure how much Michael Caine actually likes football. I realise that he is supposedly a Chelsea supporter (insert joke here). But would anyone who truly liked football agree to read out the following: “Maradona sets up a solo run”? How do you set up a solo run? Did he run forward without the ball, shove everyone out of his intended path, run back to get the ball and then SET OFF on his solo run? Later, during the final, he describes what is clearly a cross as “a shot across the box”. Anyway …
Next the fil focuses on France. Oooh la la, this music is ever so slightly saucy. It’s louche, but through an 80s prog filter. Which, in truth, diminishes the loucheness significantly. It also segues into a hugely irritating song entitled ‘Viva Les Bleus’, which I assume was France’s official world cup song. It is execrable, and it has stuck in my head at random points of the last 29 years. When France play Italy, a suitable song seems to prove beyond Rick – instead he just throws as many vaguely continental sounds as he can muster at the wall to see what happens. The result is messy rather than an important bridging of cultural gaps.
My expectations are high for Wakeman’s take on South American rhythms as Brazil take on France in the quarter-final. I often think that this is my favourite international match of all time, even though I have only ever watched the ten minutes of highlights in this film. Disappointingly, there is no Wakeman Franco-Brazilian hybrid music; instead we get that bullshit ‘Viva Les Bleus’ whenever France have possession and stock samba rhythms whenever Brazil have the ball. I have always been gutted that Brazil lost this game. I now realise it’s because of ‘Viva Les Sodding Bleus’. Rick is back in action to soundtrack the penalty shootout, writing a riff specifically for the multiple replays of the French keeper saving a penalty (one thud for each replay). It’s attention to detail like this that saw him sell 50 million records, and got him the Keyhole gig. At one point Michel Platini misses a penalty, yet I have always felt it to be the best penalty of time; Platini strolling up and stroking it like a freekick, the ball curling up towards the top corner before clearing the bar at the last. Super slow motion + Platini = impossible levels of gracefulness. Even though he missed.
Hero plays fast and loose with conventional narrative structures. The France versus West Germany semi-final features next, even though several countries (namely England) have yet to appear at all. But wait, here they are! Oddly, given that we are perhaps the least funky of nations, England’s arrival is heralded with a rolling bass line. It’s hardly Prince, but it is a definite and deliberate change of tone, and one which jars somewhat with the footage of Steve Hodge and Peter Reid.
The infamous quarter-final against Argentina sees the return of the Twin Peaks-y atmospherics, though wisely Maradona’s second goal is left to stand on its own, as not even Wakeman could come up with something grandiose enough.
For the final, we are given a new song, and rather lovely it is too; a swooning, shimmering affair which matches all the pre-final footage of random women dancing. Oh god, it’s back to Valeria Lynch again. I suppose at least it’s not ‘Viva Les Bleus’.
I greatly admire the way Hero is put together. It doesn’t attempt to feature every goal, every match or even every country over the course of its 86 (woah) minutes. Instead it focuses on the great sides (Denmark, France), great players (Francescoli, Sanchez, Maradona, Laudrup and Lineker) and great matches (Brazil versus France), with the beautiful, colourful, super slow-motion footage as its visual star.
I must say though, I hoped for something a little more euphoric to accompany Burruchaga’s world cup winning goal. Instead we get a single incongruous drum fill. Rick was definitely more euphoric when that git raked his studs on Francescoli’s thigh.
As the end credits roll Stephanie Lawrence’s ‘A Special Kind of Hero’ plays. You know what a special kind of hero is? Someone who makes a football soundtrack which veers from prog panpipes to slap bass, with often little regard for the action they are soundtracking, and with the odd national stereotype thrown in for good measure. Your work gave me an irrational fear of Uruguyans, a love of Denmark, and confused feelings towards France and Italy. Most of all, you soundtracked the exact point where I became a football obsessive. Mr Wakeman, I salute you.