Monday, August 18, 2014

Movie Music Musings: Total Recall

Like just about everything else in the movie industry, film music goes through different phases and styles. What is really popular is rarely heard a decade later. Sometimes a sound that was popular in the Golden Age of film music is nearly forgotten in the push to modernize, and then will spring back with vengeance and dominate for another decade or two. Ask John Williams about that phenomena.

One of the big shifts occurred in action music. When it came to the 1970s and 1980s there was a undisputed king of action music: Jerry Goldsmith. His ability to write propulsive cues that featured strong themes and counterpoint made him the go to guy for movies like Rambo: First Blood Part 2 and The Wind the Lion. Goldsmith scored a lot of second tier action and western flicks like Extreme Prejudice and Breakheart Pass in between his bigger hits. But perhaps the biggest showcase of his action style was in the film Total Recall

While the movie can be considered a science fiction film, Goldsmith found himself with a movie that is packed with intense action scenes. The score follows suite, driving forward with an intensity that is impressive. Unlike Goldsmith's adventure scores of the same era, such as LegendMedicine Man, or First Knight, there are few moments of wonder, and there is no love theme. In fact the score is pretty mono-thematic, presenting a theme for Quaid that appears throughout the score. You first hear it in the opening track The Dream.

I love this opening titles track. First off, Goldsmith provides a bit of his typical musical sense of humor. The opening drums are nearly note for note identical to Basil Polidouris' score to Conan the Barbarian. In fact, the first 40 seconds sound like Goldsmith is providing us with a not so veiled homage. This has to be intentional, because Goldsmith often added little moments like this in his scores. He would reference his own work, like when he uses his march for Patton for a military moment in the comedy The Burbs. Sometimes he drops in something from another composer, such as when John Williams march from Superman is heard in Supergirl when we see a poster of Superman in the background. 

For Total Recall Goldsmith has some fun with Arnold being in the film, and gives us this brief Conan moment. But at the 40 second mark the actual theme for Quaid kicks in. This theme is surprisingly versatile, as Goldsmith will use pieces of it in nearly every track on the score. Sometimes he uses the beat, sometimes he will only use the first few notes. He slows it down, speeds it up and deconstructs in many ways. Goldsmith was one of the few composers who could take one theme and create a score that runs 70 minutes and never gets boring.

Now there are some motifs that pop up in the score. Nothing so developed that I would call in a theme, but musical elements that work in counterpoint to the main theme. You get a set of four notes, to ascending followed by two descending. It occurs frequently during moments of tension, when Quaid attempts to escape his pursuers. It creates a sense that the listener can't quite get away, always climbing, but coming back down. You can hear this phrase in the first four notes of the track Clever Girl.

One of the constant elements of the score is the frequent use of electronic percussion and electronic pulses. These sounds punctuate the score, providing a rhythm that seems to always drive the music forward. The electronic nature obviously ties back to the technological aspects of the film. In Total Recall Goldsmith sticks to his usual application of electronic sounds. He never attempts to replicate any of the orchestra with these sounds, but only uses them to create sounds that could never be replicated by an orchestra. What is impressive about his application here is that they are literally spiked through out the score, place with great precision, never sounding random or just added for effect. Instead, the electronic portions of the score are vital to the whole thing working as well as it does. 

A great example of this is the penultimate track End of a Dream. Here the orchestra provides the driving motion, rising higher and higher in a relentless fashion. At key moments Goldsmith's brand of controlled chaos ensues with the orchestra becoming dissonant, seemingly rising and falling, percussion running wild. Through all of this, electronics punctuate the sequence as it starts adding another layer of color to the track. Once it crosses the halfway mark, the track goes pretty much full orchestral with snare drums kicking in and the horns just blasting away. It's a really amazing bit of tension scoring, increasing the pacing and pressure musically and using such a varied application of the orchestra, the motifs and even elements of the main theme.

A few moments of musical beauty stand out. Tracks like The Mutant and the opening of The Hologram provide us with brief snatches of wonder, as Quaid encounters the leader of mutants or the Martian ruins. But mostly this score is relentless. Goldsmith's talents for complex but engaging writing are on full display, and his ability to coordinate electronics and orchestra are pretty much as their high point. Total Recall is often considered the best example of his action writing, and is certainly one of his most exciting science fiction scores.

As I mentioned at the start of this blog, Goldsmith was pretty much the king of action scoring for nearly three decades. His style was often mimicked and provided an intense counterpoint to John Williams more classical style of action music. Goldsmith was also one of the few mainstream composers in the 70s and 80s who really embraced electronics and used them in such effective ways with the orchestra. Usually you had either an electronic score or a orchestral one. Few could merge the two so well.

But that was going to change. One year after Total Recall came out, a new composer unleashed a more pop sounding merging of electronics and orchestra. His style was just starting out, but by the mid 1990s Hans Zimmer was going to perfect his action film sound, and that would evolve into the mainstream blockbuster sound that would dominate the 00s and 10s. So it is interesting to listen to Total Recall and Backdraft and see this turning point, from a composer at the top of his game, to the composer just starting his.


  1. Good stuff. I can't compare it musically to the 2012 remake since I haven't been able to force myself to sit through more than than 15 minutes of that one yet.

    1. Wow, is it really that weak? I haven't seen it because most of the reviews were not kind, and I'm not a big fan of Colin Farrell. But hey, Kate Beckinsale as Lori sounded intriguing.

      As for the score, Harry Gregson-Williams did it. He's a fine composer, but he has a certain action/suspense style that I actually find a bit bland. It is usually functional in the film, but doesn't work at all as a stand alone listen. It is very much rooted in the modern Zimmer sound, which focuses on giving orchestra an electronic filter to make them sound more synthetic (not sure why they just don't use electronic samples in the first place). I gave HGW's score a spin, and honestly didn't remember much of it a few minutes later.

      I can understand whey he decided to go a whole different direction from Goldsmith, especially since "Total Recall" is considered one of Goldsmith's high points. But sadly the score to the new flick just sounds like pretty much every other action/suspense score from the last ten years or so.