Sylvester Levay (b. 1945) may not be a familiar name to most people, but the Serbian-born Hungarian composer has had a long and successful career, penning songs for the likes of Elton John, conceiving musicals and scoring a host of film and TV shows – often in an electronic idiom.
What follows is an overview of his career in film and TV, either as composer, arranger or songwriter, with my comments about how his music sounded in the film, plus other bits of information about co-composers, directors, record releases and so on.
Buster Ladd (1969)
Levay (as Levy) was only 24 when he apparently worked on this US comedy directed by John Carr. Composers Syd Dale and Ambros Seelos are also credited on IMDB. Levay was a member of the Ambros Seelos Show Band at the time. I have not seen the film or heard the music.
Cat People (1982)
Fastforward 13 years and Levay (now as Levai) had enjoyed five years of success with disco group Silver Convention from 1974-1979 and had started working with Giorgio Moroder in Hollywood. On Cat People, he is credited as keyboard player and arranger, and is an important factor in the success of the soundtrack album, which flows well from the David Bowie theme song through all the different and moody score tracks.
His third film, and a third spelling (Sylvestor). One of the biggest film (and soundtrack) hits ever, Levay once again helped Moroder out as arranger and conductor. He also wrote the song «Romeo» performed by Donna Summer, which appears on the soundtrack album.
The hits just kept coming from Giorgio Moroder at this time, and on Scarface, Sylvester Levay once more worked as music arranger. He is not credited as writer or producer on any of the songs, as this is clearly Moroder’s own project from start to finish.
Superman III (1983)
For the third entry in the Christopher Reeve Superman series, Levay again worked as arranger for Giorgio Moroder. Moroder handled the songs, in addition to the love theme and an (unused) electronic version of the main title march. Ken Thorne composed the orchestral score – adapting John Williams’ original themes when necessary.
The final film where Levay worked as arranger for Moroder. The album features two score cuts by Moroder, «The Legend Of Babel» and «Machines», plus several pop/rock numbers by the likes of Freddie Mercury and Jon Anderson.
Levay started his own composing career in Hollywood with a bang.The military action series Airwolf became a big hit, and Levay scored the pilot plus 37 episodes of the show. The main theme is still his most well-known composition. In 1999 and 2014, Mark Cairns released two brilliant double-albums with re-recorded Airwolf music. On the ’99 version, Levay himself recorded several of his best themes especially for the CD release. Other composers scoring Airwolf included Udi Harpaz, who succeeded in mirroring the Levay style.
Time Bomb (1984)
There is a lot of exciting music by Levay in this TV movie directed by Paul Krasny. It’s an electronic score with some orchestral elements incorporated. Levay himself said in an interview that the music had to focus on the bomb and that he felt like he was scoring a theatrical feature film.
Where the Boys Are (1984)
This is a remake of a 1960 film. Another electronic score with a few orchestral colorings. Sadly, no score material appeared on the soundtrack album, but the song «All Fired Up» written by Levay and performed by Rick Derringer did.
Invitation to Hell (1984)
The pretty and melodic main theme is wonderful; actually the first piece of Levay music I ever heard back in the early 90s. This includes the orchestral bits, but not until the last bars of the end credits theme. The Wes Craven film is an underrated horror/sci-fi flick for TV that later attained cult status.
Body Rock (1984)
Levay wrote several nice themes for this film, including a love theme, some sequencer-based material and something for electric guitar. He also co-wrote and co-produced the title tune, which became quite a big hit for Maria Vidal, as well as the ballad «Fools Like Us» performed by Lorenzo Lamas, which is not on the soundtrack. Interestingly, the enjoyable score track «Chilli D’s Theme» did not appear on the score-less album, but rather on the B-side of the 7″ vinyl single «Why You Wanna Break My Heart» by Dwight Twilley.
A Touch of Scandal (1984)
Levay scored this quite decent TV movie directed by Ivan Nagy and starring Tom Skerritt. The opening main theme is a moody and slow melodic electronic piece which gets a somewhat sped-up and shorter reprise in the end credits. Another fine effort from the composer.
Wet Gold (1984)
Levay’s mystical, sequencer-based main theme for this Dick Lowry TV movie starring Brooke Shields is very nice, but perhaps somewhat overused in all its different variations. Other than that, there is some rather abstract underwater music that we haven’t heard much from the composer elsewhere. Levay actually replaced John Scott on this score, and he wrote the replacement score in a matter of hours!
Barrow Gang BC (1985)
For this Japanese film, Levay co-wrote the song «Steal the Night», performed by Karen Kamon.
I Had Three Wives (1985)
According to IMDB, Levay wrote the theme music for one episode of this TV series. Other composers writing music for the show were Bill Conti, Dennis McCarthy and Udi Harpaz.
Sins of the Father (1985)
Peter Werner directed this legal drama for TV, starring James Coburn. Levay’s opening theme is an electronic adaptation of Mozart’s «Eine Kleine Nachtmusik»; not, perhaps, my favourite type of Levay.
Double Dare (1985)
Levay scored two episodes of this TV drama series starring Billy Dee Williams (who had also appeared in Time Bomb) and Ken Wahl. I have not seen the show or heard the music.
Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1985)
Levay scored the 22-minute episode «Final Escape». An effective and quite creepy score by the composer, he probably felt inspired by a rare foray into the crime/horror genre by a well-known master.
The Look (1985)
An 83-minute documentary directed by Robert Guralnick and scored by Levay. Plot unknown. I have not seen the show or heard the music.
My Man Adam (1985)
Sylvester Levay provided a fine score for this feature film, consisting of both romantic, action/chase and suspense material. He also wrote no less than 5 songs for the film, hiring singers he had worked with on films like Flashdance, Scarface and Body Rock, but sadly, no soundtrack album ever materialized, perhaps because the film was not a success. I could absolutely see an album for this, consisting of 6 songs plus 4 score tracks. Would have made for a splendid 35 minute album or so.
This film didn’t feature any songs, so this (replacement) score was really an important part of the film. Very nice theme(s) in a classical, melodic vein (performed on synths, of course), but I would have wanted more variation. Creator is possibly one of the “nicest” Levay scores – no sequencers and electric guitars, mostly love themes all the way through. A pity that the score is unreleased; it could have made a perfect 30-minute Varese album at the time of the film’s release.
Levay scored 6 episodes of this series. The main theme is exciting and propulsive, and the underscore is also in the tried and true Levay electronic style, some of it similar to Tangerine Dream. Interestingly, Thomas Newman also wrote a fine score for an episode, and the final episode was scored by a certain Jim Roberts, delivering a dynamite electronic score. Would indeed have been interesting with a soundtrack album for this TV series.
Howard the Duck (1986)
Levay wrote additional music for this illfated cult film which featured a score by John Barry and songs by Thomas Dolby. The soundtrack album from 1986 did not feature any of Levay’s orchestral/electronic tracks, but that was finally redeemed 33(!) years later, in 2019, when Intrada Records released a 3CD set with all the music from the film, including the Levay material.
Intimate Encounters (1986)
Once more Levay worked with the director of A Touch of Scandal, his Hungarian countryman Ivan Nagy, for this TV movie. The score is really good, he must have written at least 45 minutes of music for the film. A very melodic and “sensual” electronic score, with even some sax thrown in. Could absolutely see a release of this music.
Levay scored this unsold pilot together with his Airwolf colleague Udi Harpaz. Of particular interest is the 3-minute end theme reminiscent of Giorgio Moroder, segueing into the end credits where the score is allowed to shine without dialogue and sound effects. Hints of Tangerine Dream are also present in the music.
Choke Canyon (1986)
Also known as On Dangerous Ground, Levay wrote one of his most orchestral-sounding and strident main themes in his career for this film. Another interesting part is a very enjoyable theme similar to Harold Faltermeyer’s «Axel F» for several of the suspense scenes. Prominent guitars and a funny hillbilly theme also appear.
This iconic action movie starring Sylvester Stallone and directed by George Pan Cosmatos is probably the biggest film Levay worked on in his career. Three tracks of score showed up on the soundtrack: «Cobra», «Chase» and «Skyline», the last one written specially for the album. Levay also produced and co-wrote the song «Two Into One» performed by Bill Medley and Carmen Twillie. The mostly electronic score is a mixture of metallic/industrial soundscapes and more melodic material.
Touch and Go (1986)
Another replacement score. On this film starring Michael Keaton, Levay replaced French veteran composer Georges Delerue. Levay’s music is sadly unreleased, but the wonderful electronic main theme may be the most melodic piece of music he ever wrote, it really needs to be heard to be believed. The beautiful theme is used for what it’s worth, and there are also a few other nice themes in the film. Probably not enough variation for a soundtrack release, although there were a couple of songs there too which could have been added to an album.
Where are the Children? (1986)
Drama/mystery feature film starring Jill Clayburgh and directed by Bruce Malmuth. I have not seen the film or heard the music.
Fatal Beauty (1987)
For this Tom Holland movie, Levay wrote the song «Criminal» with lyrics by Tom Whitlock and performed by Shannon. The song appeared on the soundtrack album. Levay’s old buddy from the Moroder days, Harold Faltermeyer, scored the film.
Three O’Clock High (1987)
Tangerine Dream scored this film directed by Phil Joanou. Sylvester Levay wrote additional music, mirroring the TD sound while at the same time keeping his own style intact. Varese Sarabande released a soundtrack album featuring both Tangerine Dream and Levay’s music. Even the instrumental track «Arrival» composed by David Tickle and Rick Marotta was included, which can only be called “additional additional music”. The five Levay tracks totalled about 12 minutes of playing time.
Levay scored the pilot and the whole season of this series. The music is very effective, and the pilot features lots of strong material for synths and electric guitars, similar to the «Skyline» track from Cobra. It’s surely the same guitarist, probably Duane Sciacqua, who was Levay’s go-to guitar player on many scores.
Top Kids (1987)
Bizarre children’s movie about computer hackers and time travel. Levay and co-composer Vincenzo Tempera wrote a score very inspired by the synth pop of the time. Also of interest is an original classical piece which Levay re-arranged decades later for the Medicopter 117 series.
Levay wrote a pleasant little score for this comedy/fantasy movie, not too unlike his Creator music. The score is available on a bootleg CD, along with the songs from the film. The Starship song «Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now» became a big hit at the time. A sequel movie appeared in 1991, featuring a score by David McHugh.
This crime comedy starring Whoopi Goldberg featured a score based on hard-hitting drum machines and not much melodic material. The soundtrack album did not include any score, but mostly songs produced by Bernard Edwards of Chic fame. Levay also wrote the unreleased song «Making Love» with lyrics by Kathy Wakefield.
The music for this TV movie is brilliant, and would have made a great soundtrack album had a label taken the chance. The 7-minute opening sequence is a good example of Levay’s melodic electronic style. He also experimented with some Dobro slide guitar effects to great effect.
Drama film directed by James Darren, who also worked with Levay on Werewolf and Something is Out There. The score is based on the saxophone, and is not among the composer’s most memorable efforts.
Something is Out There (1988-1989)
Sci-fi/horror production consisting of a 3-hour pilot in two parts, and an 8-episode series, all of it scored by Levay. An effective and brooding main theme for the pilot developed into a more poppy and uptempo theme for the series, for some reason. Once more, the Tangerine Dream feel is evident in the music.
Shortlived series. Levay’s main theme is a faux-classical tune for synthesizers which is best forgotten, but the underscore had several nice moments, some of it similar to what Levay had just done for Three O’Clock High, including his beloved electric guitar.
The Tracker (1988)
An enjoyable TV western starring Kris Kristofferson. Levay’s score is very nice. An electronic score for a western may sound strange, but it really worked. The brooding main theme is used a bit throughout, along with other sequencer-based themes and also some more atmospheric parts. Could indeed have worked on a 30-35 minute soundtrack.
Case Closed (1988)
Another TV movie, starring Charles Durning, but Levay scored it as a theatrical feature film, with many different parts and themes, including a lengthy opening guitar-based chase theme and an enjoyable and funky end title.
Levay scored this single-season cop show starring John Ashton and Richard Tyson, even writing the theme song «Roll Over It» performed and co-written by Eddie Money. I have not seen the show or heard the music.
Beauty and Denise (1989)
Also known as The Cover Girl and the Cop, this TV film directed by Neal Israel features an exciting and cool electronic opening theme. For the end title, Levay goes all funky with saxophone and drum machine rhythms. A fine score typical for Levay in the late 80s.
This is a rough and energetic melodic score for electronics, uptempo drum machines and rocking guitar performed by Duane Sciacqua. The TV film is directed by Bruce Seth Green, who continued working with Levay on Laker Girls the following year.
Courage Mountain (1990)
This is the most symphonic/orchestral score Levay ever wrote. The music is performed by the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by the composer. Even if the music is orchestral, it’s quite easy to detect the Levay style in the soundscape. Unfortunately, the music is unreleased, so one has to see the film to listen to how Sylvester Levay handles a full orchestra.
Navy Seals (1990)
Levay got this gig through film editor Don Zimmerman, with whom he had been working on Cobra and My Man Adam. One of Levay’s best and most developed scores, he once more conducts the Munich Philharmonic, but he also includes lots of electronics and an electric guitar in the music. The soundtrack album was a disappointing all-rock-songs affair, and Levay fans had to wait 20 years for Intrada Records to release a splendid CD version of the score in 2010, limited to 1200 copies and now a collector’s item.
Snow Kill (1990)
Action movie made for TV, this was directed by Thomas J. Wright, who had worked with Levay on Otherworld in 1985. I have not seen the film, but the end credits theme is a hard-hitting and intense piece of electronic film score music.
Dark Avenger (1990)
Another propulsive electronic score for this TV movie directed by Egyptian Guy Magar, who had been working with Levay on Werewolf and Hardball. The short end credits is a moody piece for electric guitar.
Laker Girls (1990)
Levay’s second collaboration with director Bruce Seth Green was this TV drama film about cheerleading. The special thing about the composer’s involvement in this film is that he mostly wrote “source” music for the cheerleading scenes and dances, not too much dramatic underscore. A project out of the box for Levay, but probably not too interesting for his fans.
Hot Shots! (1991)
Director Jim Abrahams hired Levay for Hot Shots! after hearing his score for Navy Seals. Levay delivered a highly listenable and enjoyable score for orchestra, synths and the electric guitar of Duane Sciacqua. The main title is a real spoof of Faltermeyer’s Top Gun, by the way. For the first time, Levay received the honour of getting his full score on a soundtrack album, when Varese Sarabande released this on CD, LP and cassette in 1991.
Stone Cold (1991)
This action movie was the film debut of American football star Brian Bosworth. The score by Levay is probably his most guitar-heavy and rock-based contribution to the world of film music. The director Craig R. Baxley usually works with composer Gary Chang, but has also hired studio wizards like Jan Hammer and Christopher Franke in addition to Levay.
The Heroes of Desert Storm (1991)
Levay scored this TV film directed by Don Ohlmeyer about the American soldiers involved in the Iraq war of 1991. A particularly strong musical moment is the end sequence where the returning soldiers are being welcomed by their loved ones upon arrival in the US.
False Arrest (1991)
For this TV drama directed by Bill Norton, Levay wrote a very pretty main theme somewhat reminiscent of Vangelis’ Chariots of Fire theme. This was originally a 3-hour production which got whittled down to 100 minutes for the video release.
The first of three early 90s TV movies directed by Charles Correll which Levay scored. For this drama film starring David Morse set in rural Pennsylvania, Levay wrote a heart-warming and highly melodic main theme which gets a reprise during the end credits.
The Owl (1991)
This is one of Levay’s best efforts. The score for this Tom Holland film (under the pseudonym Alan Smithee) is used extensively throughout the whole film, with long extended scenes without dialogue, just music. The “flashback/love theme” is brilliant, it could almost have been a hit single like Jan Hammer’s «Crockett’s Theme», and the rest of the score is very powerful with lots of electric guitars, synths and even a great-sounding, sampled shakuhachi flute. Some of the action music has clear elements of Hot Shots!. A soundtrack album for this would have really worked.
Condition: Critical (1992)
In the Deep Woods (1992)
This TV movie is Psycho actor Anthony Perkins’ final role. The main theme by Levay is particularly effective in the 50-second end title. It’s melodic and melancholic in a minor key, featuring pounding drums – showing the composer’s gift for telling a story through music while also being so memorable, it sticks in your mind long after you’ve seen the movie.
Dead Before Dawn (1993)
The first of three TV films Levay did in 1993, this is a touching drama/thriller about domestic abuse, starring Cheryl Ladd. Of particular interest is an idyllic opening theme playing underneath scenes of the family on their bikes singing «Old McDonald Had A Farm», the neccessary sad piano theme, and a fateful end title cue.
Donato and Daughter (1993)
Charles Bronson starred in this action/crime movie directed by Rod Holcomb. Levay’s opening theme is clearly inspired by Mike Oldfield’s «Tubular Bells». There is also a rare appearance of a trumpet (not an instrument used much by the composer) just before the end credits, before a rocking saxophone takes center stage as the credits roll.
Stalking Laura (1993)
Michael Switzer directed this TV movie starring Brooke Shields, also known as I Can Make You Love Me. The lenghty opening theme is a highly pleasant melody with saxophone as lead instrument, while the end theme is another of Levay’s effective and to-the-point melodic compositions for synths and electronic drums.
Tales from the Crypt (1993)
Levay scored the episode «Food For Thought» of this classic horror series. His score does not sound like anything else he did in his career. The main theme can just be called a piece of crazy carousel music with sax as the main instrument. At least different and interesting, showing that the composer could take some musical u-turns when it was needed.
Veteran director Elliot Silverstein’s final movie, this Billy Zane/Louis Gossett Jr. action film also became Sylvester Levay’s final score in American cinema. And he went out with a bang, as this is a really guitar-heavy and propulsive score, where the composer was even allowed to score a several minutes long end credits sequence. And then, Sylvester Levay left Hollywood for good after 12 years of intensive work in Tinseltown.
Der Todesbus (1998)
Back in Europe, Levay scored this German thriller (also known as Bus 152) directed by Richard Huber. This was the only film (not counting the Medicopter series) that Levay scored after he returned to Europe in the mid 90s, and once more he delivered the goods. Lots of good themes, melodic suspense material and even some fine 90s rhythm programming. More than enough material for a soundtrack release.
Medicopter 117: Jedes Leben zählt (1998-2007)
Sylvester Levay wasn’t quite done yet, however. Over a period of almost 10 years (just stopping for breath in 2004-05) he scored 58 episodes of this German/Austrian drama series about two helicopter rescue teams. Clearly reminded by his years scoring Airwolf, Levay wrote many hours of intriguing music for Medicopter 117, mixing electronics with orchestra. Thankfully, a large selection of this music has been released as download files through record label i2i Musikverlag. Other composers scoring the show were Lothar Scherpe, Carsten Rocker and Paul Vincent Gunia.
At this point, Sylvester Levay’s career in film and TV music had come to an end. There has been no new assignments in the last 14 years, and the now 75-year old composer has concentrated his efforts on highly successful musicals like Elisabeth (1992-) and Mozart! (1999-2001) instead. Thanks for the music…so far!