OK, it’s time to start answering the queries from the most recent iteration of Ask Me Anything! (Speaking of which, I’m not closing out for queries yet, so feel free to ask, at the afore-linked post.) I’m going to start with a query that was actually not posed in connection with Ask Me Anything!, because I’m tricksy that way, folks. But the question came up a couple weeks ago on Twitter, and I promised to answer it as a blog post because that would be a better place to go into things in a bit more depth. As the question came when it did, I’m counting it as an Ask Me Anything! submission. The question was:
I don’t currently have any Jerry Goldsmith in my music collection. What should I get?
Ahhh, Jerry Goldsmith. He was one of the giants of film music, producing a huge body of work: I’m guessing well over 300 scores over a career that lasted more than 40 years. Some of his scores are outright classics of the genre, and a great many more are fine works that provide hours of good listening. And yes, in my opinion, he did write a few duds…as would anyone as prolific as he was. But if you haven’t heard any Goldsmith in detail, where should one start? Here is a short list of possible ‘gateway’ Goldsmith scores.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture
I lead off with this one because this is how I discovered Jerry Goldsmith. It was one of the very first film music records I bought, and I listened the hell out of it, eventually wearing it out and doing a lot of mental comparison of it to John Williams’s two Star Wars scores at the time. (Yes, ST:TMP came out before The Empire Strikes Back, but I didn’t get the record until a year later, after I’d already bought TESB.)
The Trek score starts off bold and brassy, in a way that suggested Star Wars, but it was a quicker theme, more militaristic in nature, and then there’s a pretty amazing cue that accompanies the Klingon investigation of this strange cloud that ends up destroying them. The score is very different from Star Wars, and it was my first foray into science fiction that was more about a ‘sense of wonder at the unknown’ than the swashbuckling adventure that was more the thing with Star Wars. Goldsmith’s work here is full of wonderful tone-painting as he takes us musically into the heart of the V’Ger cloud.
And frankly, only Goldsmith’s music is what saves the first Enterprise fly-by from being a self-indulgent mess.
For me, this might be the last truly great score of Goldsmith’s career. It stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from his ST:TMP score, being for a more adventurously bold SF movie than the one from eleven years prior. And it’s a muscular pulse-pounder of a score that nevertheless includes some real moments of Sfnal wonder.
The Wind and the Lion
Goldsmith was more than an SF or action composer; he also scored quite a few films like this period adventure piece featuring Sean Connery and Candice Bergen. (As well as Brian Keith as Teddy Roosevelt, and a young, pre-Dallas Steve Kanaly as an Army officer.) This score became one of my favorites the very first time I heard it, with its gorgeous, sumptuous melodies that were evocative of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and its stunning action writing. This is Jerry Goldsmtih at his very, very best. I’m not sure, but I might well consider this to be his masterpiece.
And then there is the score for which Goldsmith won his only Oscar. (This is something that eternally vexes his fans, and one does wish that Goldsmith had received more such honor in his life, but in general, he tended to fall victim to the fact that there were only so many Oscars to go around.) If you want to hear some really deliciously creepy Biblical horror music, complete with a main title called “Ave Satani”, this score is your huckleberry. It’s amazing. (And if you like this, I’d also recommend the other two scores in the Omen trilogy. For the most part, the Goldsmith scores are the best things in this trilogy, and a quick scan of his filmography reveals that Goldsmith may have scored more crappy movies than any other composer, ever.)
When I say that I might consider The Wind and the Lion to be Goldsmith’s masterpiece, I am mainly given pause by his score to Chinatown. This score is one of the legends of film music. Goldsmith wasn’t the first choice to write the film’s music, and was brought in under a severe deadline crunch after the original score was deemed lackluster. (This happens far more often in film music than you might suspect.) The result was that Goldsmith had just ten days to rescore the film. So what he did was to write a noir score, essentially in a theme-and-variations approach (which turned out to be his usual calling card), for a very small ensemble, including some modern sounds like a prepared piano.
What came from his pen was a chamber work that only scores about 25 of the movie’s more than 120 minutes, but with astonishing clarity and purpose, starting right from the mournful main theme. I can’t get over the level of genius and skill behind Goldsmith’s Chinatown score, and it’s probably only my general taste for big and lush orchestral music that compels me to give the nod to The Wind and the Lion.
The Secret of NIMH
I once castigated a film music writer for stating that the music Goldsmith wrote for the late-90s Disney flick Mulan constituted the ‘best score for an animated film, ever’, and I stand by that. Just off the top of my head I can name a dozen animated films with more memorable music than Mulan, and setting that argument aside, I put The Secret of NIMH forward as Exhibit A in my argument that Mulan not only isn’t the ‘finest score ever for an animated film’, it’s not even the finest score written by Jerry Goldsmith for an animated film.
The Secret of NIMH is Goldsmith at his impressionistic best. His compositional influences don’t tend to be as obvious as John Williams’s, but you can definitely sometimes hear Maurice Ravel inside Goldsmith, trying to get out, and NIMH is one of the scores where you can hear it the most. This is just amazing music.
Here’s an odd case. Legend had a wonderful score by Jerry Goldsmith, until the film was altered severely for release in the United States, all the way to replacing Goldsmith’s music with an electronic score by Tangerine Dream. I don’t recall that I’ve ever seen the movie, so I can’t speak to the quality of that decision, but I do know that the Goldsmith score is mostly wonderful.
Goldsmith fans tend to regard this is a towering masterwork of his, but I have a hard time going quite that far, even as chock full of more of the Ravelian impressionism and tone-painting that typifies The Secret of NIMH. My problem is with the use of synthesizers. Goldsmith has always been willing to employ electronics in his scores, and most of the time, he gets it just right, often managing to incorporate the electronics into the orchestral tapestry in such a way that it just seems to belong there. In Legend, however, the synths tend to stand out like a sore thumb, and there are times when the sounds produced are downright unpleasant to the point of being distracting. The good parts of the Legend score are so good, though!
In all honesty, I didn’t like this movie, and also in all honesty, Goldsmith’s output after Total Recall tends to leave me awfully cold. Powder is one of the rare post-1990 scores of his that connects with me. I don’t have anything terribly analytical to say about it, except to note that it’s a very moving and sad score.
Now, there are other Goldsmith scores that might serve as exploratory scores: Stagecoach, perhaps. Lots of people love Rudy (although not me — Rudy is ground zero of Goldsmith’s post-1990 tendency to just take a single melody and drive it into the ground to the point that I’m sick of it). There’s good stuff in The 13th Warrior, although I do think that score is awfully repetitive as well. After TMP, Goldsmith would return to Star Trek to do the scores for V: The Final Frontier, First Contact, Insurrection, and Nemesis. Of these, the first two are worth exploring (TFF is actually very good, while First Contact boasts one of Goldsmith’s very finest melodies in the stately theme that signifies the maturing of the human species that results from the first contact with an alien species), while the others are…well, not. (Especially avoid Nemesis, which I consider to be Goldsmith’s worst score.) Some film music fans used to kvetch, back when I regularly interacted with such, that it was just damned bad that Goldsmith didn’t get a crack at the Lord of the Rings films, but frankly, if First Knight was indicative of what an epic fantasy Goldsmith score would have been like…I’m fine with that. I’ve never liked that score. But despite my complaining above, Mulan is really a solid work. It’s just not as good as NIMH, which is genius.
So there you have it. I’m omitting a ton of scores, but how could I do otherwise? The man wrote so much, and a lot of it is great, great music!
More answers to come!