Saturday, February 10, 2007

JERRY GOLDSMITH: a highly personal musical journey

It was with no small degree of surprise and delight that I discovered, upon visiting IMDB today, that two of our greatest filmmusic composers (John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith) shared birthdays within a couple days of each other. Though I will admit Williams has had more of an effect on me personally, it would be foolish to deny the fact that Goldsmith was one of the most beloved and talented filmmusic composers of all time. It has been estimated that at any given moment of the day, somewhere in the world, someone is listening to a piece of music written by Jerry Goldsmith. Indeed, with a career that spanned over sixty years, and with more than a hundred films to his name, Goldsmith was without a doubt one of the most active composers who ever lived. The truly remarkable thing, though, is the level of quality he was able to bring to such an abundant body of work. Each and every one of his scores is interesting and worthwhile, some of them are experimental and eclectic, many are memorable and melodic, a few are subtle and introspective, several are bold and exhilarating, but none of them, absolutely none of them, are boring. Listening to a Goldsmith score is guaranteed to be a satisfying experience, even if watching the film that the score accompanies is not. A shame we won’t be treated to any more of his work as Goldsmith, like Elmer Bernstein and Michael Kamen, recently passed on. Still, as a friend of mine said, “Maybe he’s making Heavenly music now.”

Although I will admit to always having found the idea of celebrating the birthday of someone who is no longer with us rather odd, I so enjoyed going on a personal musical journey with John Williams that I thought I might do the same today with Jerry Goldsmith (this will also provide me with yet another opportunity to shamelessly plug the Filmmusic Blog-a-thon that Windmills of My Mind will be hosting this June 22-25). So, without further ado, here are a few of my favorite scores from this extremely gifted composer:

ALIEN –It is interesting to note that that Goldsmith was frequently called upon to score sci-fi films (Outland, Logan’s Run, Total Recall, etc) far more than most of his contemporaries. In Alien he not only set the tone for the entire series that followed but developed a style that would be often mimicked throughout the genre. In fact, Goldsmith is probably more responsible for creating the “sound” of modern sci-fi more than any other composer (even John Williams). He could be quite majestic and soaring (as in Star Trek: the Motion Picture, more on that later) or he could be extremely abstract and unsettling (as in Planet of the Apes). For the most part Alien tends to fall into the latter category but it also employs many of the elements of a “horror” score as well and even ventures occasionally into the bizarrely romantic territory. Tense and terrifying, the score is also peppered with various shrill and innovative percussion effects that (very much like the titular creature) can jump our of nowhere and scare the piss out of the audience/listener. Since the alien spends most of the film off-screen (like the shark in Jaws), Goldsmith’s music is extremely important in keeping the creature real and threatening. This task he accomplishes with great aplomb.

CHINATOWN – Before he accomplished a similar feat for L.A. Confidential, Goldsmith perfectly captured the dark and mysterious atmosphere of Roman Polanski’s neo-noir masterpiece Chinatown. The justly famous solo trumpet theme that opens the film wonderfully sets the mood for the intriguing tale that is about to follow (and even surfaces again in cues like “Jake and Evelyn” and “The Wrong Clue”) while most of the rest of the score is led almost entirely with piano. What is truly incredible about Goldsmith’s work here is that this entire score (a last-minute replacement for Phillip Lambro who was discarded by the film's producer Robert Evans) was written and recorded in an astounding 11 days demonstrating, once again, that sometimes an artist can produce his best work when under heavy pressure.

DENNIS THE MENACE – There is such a fierce, boundless energy to this score that I couldn’t help but be totally won over it. The furiously fast main theme (which utilizes an entire orchestra but prominently features a single harmonica) brilliantly encapsulates the exuberant spirit of its title character. There is also a rather sinister theme for the film’s one truly horrendous villain (“Switchblade Sam,” deliciously played by Christopher Lloyd). There is certainly an awful lot of “mickey-mousing” done in the score as Goldsmith is required to acknowledge a barrage of pratfalls, sight gags and other various childish slapstick moments, but there is also a surprising amount of emotion in the score’s latter half. Overall, this one is a lot of fun.

FIRST BLOOD – Although it is clearly an action movie, Goldsmith’s score for First Blood, the first big screen adventure of Vietnam-vet John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone), is surprisingly sad and lyrical. Choosing instead to focus on Rambo’s disillusionment, disorientation and isolation rather than on the enormous collection of car crashes, explosions, gun shots and personal injuries, Goldsmith creates a real depth, humanity and sense of reluctant heroism to the film. Goldsmith’s score is the heart and soul of Rambo. Of course, Goldsmith doesn’t sell the action short either. His score is just as exciting and bombastic as anything out there. Like its central character, the music can turn on a dime, launching from pleasant little refrain into a flurry of brass. By the time the sequels rolled around, and Rambo was elevated from social outcast to mythic hero, the action and violence became even more plentiful and Goldsmith was called upon to write scores that were even more “exciting” and “grandiose,” but some of the drama and emotion was lost. Still, here it is in its simpler, purer form, one of Goldsmith’s best efforts.

GREMLINS – Walking that fine line between cute and nasty, between cuddly and ugly, between sweet and scary (much like the film itself), Goldsmith wrote a wonderfully inventive and decidedly original score for this 1984 Spielberg-produced fantasy (directed by Joe Dante who would use Goldsmith on all of his films) about an adorable little creature found in Chinatown and brought to the small town of Kingston Falls as a pet, but who subsequently spawns a race of vicious little green monsters who wreak havoc. The entire score is an utter joy to listen to but there are two particular pieces that stand out as being among Goldsmith’s best. The first is “Gizmo’s theme,” a marvelous little melody that is almost as sad as it is beautiful (especially when it’s sung by Gizmo himself; in reality a very young girl provided the singing voice of the creature). The other is, of course, the outstanding (and highly memorable) “Gremlins Rag,” which is playfully wicked and eminently enjoyable.

MEDICINE MAN – The film may have been a dud but the score is a real winner. Medicine Man deals with a disenfranchised scientist (played by Sean Connery) who discovers a cure for cancer in the rainforests of South America and becomes involved in conservation issues. To further enhance the splendor of the film’s gorgeous jungle photography, Goldsmith creates an evocative tapestry of orchestral color, vibrantly splashed with expert strokes and subtle undercurrents, for his musical canvas. The soundtrack starts with a bouncy, Latin America-styled motif (“Rae’s Arrival”) with flutes, marimba and percussion embellished by synth. Violins foreshadow the film’s main theme (“The Trees”), a graceful melody which elegantly captures the beauty and mystery of the tropical rain forest in which the action takes place. Listening to this soundtrack, one can almost see the sparkling waterfalls, hear the soft wind blowing through the lush, green trees and feel bright, warm sunlight striking the skin. There is also a bitter, despairing theme (“Mocara”) that represents the main character’s desire to drown out his horrible memories with drink. Simply superb.

THE MUMMY – One thing that can be said for Goldsmith was that he never condescended to the movies he was composing. Whether he wrote for deep, profound stories or just mindless trash, Goldsmith always committed 100% to the material. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the score to Stephen Sommers’ dumb, but nonetheless immensely entertaining, remake of the 1932 classic The Mummy. In “Ihmotep”(the piece accompanying the film’s opening prologue showing the fate of the Egyptian priest who dared to fall in love with the Pharoah’s wife) Goldsmith introduces a main theme that is about as brassy as they come. The film’s adventurous aspects are wonderfully emphasized (as are the humor and the horror aspects) in cues like “Tauger Attack” and “The Camel Race,” which are exotic as well as exciting. Egyptian folk instruments are used, a wordless choir of voices provide just the right amount of sinister mood for the mummy’s antics and every piece of music has an energy about it that keeps even the more subtle and spooky moments interesting for the listener. A great score.

THE OMEN - It feels weird to call this one a favorite as I hardly ever listen to it. I can’t because, to be perfectly honest, I’m afraid to. The music is just THAT strong and powerful. Quite simply, it freaks me out (unlike the scary music in Jaws, Psycho and Alien which are still somewhat fun and enjoyable). Goldsmith received a well-deserved Oscar (his one and only win) for this dark and terrifying accompaniment to the Richard Donner horror film about the Anti-Christ. The Latin-chanting choir of voices that characterize the main theme (“Ave Satani,” which means literally “Hail, Satan!”) and which permeate throughout the entire score really penetrate the listener’s defenses and create a real aura of fear and discomfort, almost as if a sacrifice were about to be performed in the middle of a black mass or something. Intensely frightening and disturbing, it is interesting that Goldsmith manages to squeeze a surprisingly lyrical piano-voiced love theme (for the tragic Gregory peck-Lee Remick relationship) into the mix. This lends an air of humanity and sadness to all of the hangings, beheadings, stabbings and skewerings that go on.

THE SECRET OF N.I.M.H. – In this his first foray into animation, Goldsmith creates an unusually dark and serious, but still quite beautiful, score much more sophisticated than the average Disney fare. One of his finest effort of the 1980’s, written during an especially fertile period, Goldsmith punctuates his score with thrilling pieces (“The Tractor”) and mysterious cues (“Step Inside My House”) that sound more like parts of an action score or a suspense thriller than a children’s fantasy. Yet, Goldsmith still manages to find the humor, such as in the theme for the comically inept crow Jeremy (voiced by Dom Deluise), and the tenderness, such as in the lovely original song “Flying Dreams” which is, more or less, the main theme of the story's central protagonist (a widowed mouse named Mrs. Brisby) and is incorporated into most of the orchestral passages. Of course, the theme soars to its full glory in the climactic “House Raising” which places the perfect cap on this superior effort by Goldsmith all around.

THE SHADOW – Again, in a fairly forgettable film, Goldsmith produces an unforgettable, heroic theme that remains one of his finest creations. The immensely hummable main title (“Poppy Fields”) is a rhythmic, ascending figure for brass over horns, reeds and thundering percussion, with a weaving surge of violins underneath; it sounds ominous and resolute and lends an effective air of mystery (the strings) and power (the horns) to its shadowy crime-fighter (played by Alec Baldwin). There is also a lively Eastern-sounding theme for the villainous descendant of Genghis Kahn (John Lone) and, as always, the action cues are nothing less than thrilling. A worthy effort for a sub-par, but still amusing, film.

STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE – Whatever else Jerry Goldsmith did in his life, I think that the primary achievement he will be remembered for is creating the definitive Star Trek theme (arguably his most famous composition). Though the merits of the film (the first big-screen adventure of Captain Kirk and the crew of his starship Enterprise) continue to be debated, one thing that cannot be denied is the majesty and grandeur of Goldsmith’s score which provides the film with an epic, evocative and almost mystical spirit that actually aids (rather than simply complementing) the film’s massive special effects. Highlighted by the now legendary main theme (reprised for the Next Generation TV show) and the lovingly sad “Ilia Theme,” Star Trek is an outstanding score and earned Goldsmith another well-deserved Oscar nomination.

THE WIND AND THE LION – Regarded by many as Goldsmith’s finest adventure score, written for John Millius’ “historical” epic about an Arabian desert warrior (Sean Connery) who kidnaps an American woman during the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt, this thunderously sweeping collection of exhilaratingly heroic cues creates a musical experience of amazing passion and scope. Utilizing Moroccan rhythms and instruments, this score evokes an exciting but dangerous world of sand and scimitars. The powerful Main Title, the exciting “Raisuli Attacks” (one of the most highly charged and insanely satisfying action blow-outs ever composed for film), and the gorgeously romantic love theme are all excellent pieces in this rousing score written in the grand Hollywood tradition. Nominated for an Oscar as well as a Grammy, this soundtrack is a bona fide classic.

Again, like Williams, I barely scratched the surface of great scores written by Goldsmith. There are, of course, many others that are just as good, if not better, than what I have listed here (Planet of the Apes, Basic Instinct, The Russia House, The Great Train Robbery, The Boys From Brazil, Air Force One, First Knight, The Edge, Matinee, Poltergeist and Mulan to name just a few), but these are the ones that I, personally, happen to love.


That Little Round-Headed Boy said...

Patton. Other than Chinatown, that is Goldsmith's finest score. For me, anyway.

Damian said...

Confession time:

Oustide of the opening sequence where George C. Scott addresses his troops while standing before the large American flag.... I've actually never seen Patton (GASP!) I have, however, heard the famous "Patton theme" though and I think it's great. :)

Bogart Fan said...

All of your choices are excellent examples of the beauty, majesty, and economy of Jerry Goldsmith's work. Personal faves would have to be ST:TMP (which contains my all-time favorite Goldsmith piece "The Enterprise", which still gives me goosebumps to this day), The Omen, and Planet of the Apes (need to clear a room of partygoers who've overstayed their welcome? It works better than showtunes).

Consider as well....Capricorn One, The Haunting, U.S. Marshals (above par action score), L.A. Confidential (great period flavor), Mr. Baseball (fun and frothy), Hoosiers (small yet inspired), Outland, Logan's Run (okay, it's REALLY dated, but still fun), and finally, his return to the Star Trek fold with First Contact, Insurrection, and Nemesis (his best Trek since the first one).

Great post and look forward to reading more....and damian....haven't seen PATTON?! For shame...

Damian said...

Thanks, BG! I also happen to love the cue "The Enterprise" from Star Trek. It's one of my favorite sequences in the film.

All of the other scores you mentioned are all excellent. I almost chose L.A. Confidential but went with Chinatown instead. Can't believe I forgot about The Haunting (I actually own that soundtrack too).

And rest assured I will see Patton... eventually. :)

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