Friday, December 20, 2013

Movie Music Musings: Favorite Composers - Jerry Goldsmith

In my previous installment of my Favorite Composers series I covered the work of Michael Giacchino. Of the composers currently working in the field today, he is my favorite. I try to pick up nearly every score he works on, and I have yet to be disappointed in his work, even on something as silly as Land of the Lost. But Giacchino is not my favorite film composer. That title goes to Jerry Goldsmith.

Goldsmith started composing scores for television and film in the 1960s and kept right on working until his death in 2004. He's created a score for nearly any genre you can imagine. He could adapt his style to create disturbing atonal works, wonderful melodious romance themes, bombastic action music and even jazzy noire styles. He is one of the most prolific American film composers and his body of work is impressive. And for all that his name is not mentioned very often by the general public. Certainly John Williams and Hans Zimmer are more recognized names than Goldsmith. But his music and styles live on, and will continue to do so, because he did provide some wonderful scores to movies with enduring legacies.

One of his earliest triumphs was the disturbing and atonal score to Planet of the Apes. Goldsmith relies on rhythm and percussion to drive the action. He uses unique instrumentation to create an alien atmosphere to the film. One of his best and most impressive action cues comes from this film during The Hunt. But maybe his best choice was to leave the final minutes of the film unscored, as the final revelation unfolds. The silence is more devastating than anything that could be written for that moment. 

In the 1970s Goldsmith scored several films that would leave an impact. His march for the film Patton has been imitated countless times, and is recognizable to anyone who has seen the film. His use of choir in nearly every track of The Omen created it's own musical cliche. He used dissonance in human voices to add unease to the film, and horror film composers have followed suit ever since. For Chinatown he created a jazzy noir score that fits the film like a glove. It also influenced neo-noire soundtracks to many movies that followed (and even video games like L.A. Noire). Finally he wrote the score to Star Trek: The Motion Picture. I've already written an entire blog about that work, so check it out for my thoughts on what I consider his masterpiece.

Goldsmith embraced electronic music. As early as the 1960s he found ways to use synthesizers in his scores to maximum effect. Goldsmith rarely replaced the orchestra with electronics, instead he treated the electronics as a separate piece of the orchestra, used to create sounds that normal instruments could not achieve. His amazing score to Logan's Run uses pure electronic music for scenes in the futuristic city, and then shifts to orchestral as the protagonist gets further and further from the computer control. The use of the harsh synthesizers fits perfectly for the oppressive society, and contrasts with the beauty of the full orchestra when the protagonists leave the bubble and see the world outside. This rhythmic piece is used when the Sandmen hunt and kill a runner. It's an exciting cue, but cold, efficient and sterile. 

In the 1980s as synths become more common in film music (with folks like Vangelis winning Oscars for their pure electronic scores) Goldsmith experimented with a wide variety of electronic sounds and styles. Sometimes they would create other worlds, like in his score to Legend (which got replaced by a full electronic score by Tangerine Dream). Other times he would fuse the electronics in an unexpected but completely workable way, like in his surprisingly entertaining score for the Latin American thriller Under Fire.

Of course I've got to be honest here and say that when it comes to action music, few composers handled it as effectively as Jerry Goldsmith. His style evolved over time, but he always knew how to keep everything moving in a musical way and yet drive and accent the action. These days, action music often sounds like a bunch of loud noise, rarely feeling connected or fluid in a musical way. Goldsmith rarely let that happen. He would often use percussion as his focal point, and then layered two themes working in counterpoint to each other. This would create a drama in the cue that would rise, fall and tell a story musically. One of my favorite examples of this action style is from the Disney film Mulan, Avalanche is one of his best action cues of the 1990s.

The sad thing is, as good as Goldsmith was, he often got saddled with scoring horrible films. In many cases his music is the best thing about the movie and often elevates the weak or silly visuals much higher than you thought possible. So even if he scored duds like Congo, The Shadow, Star Trek V: The Final FrontierKing Solomon's Mines, and Supergirl, you get the feeling that he put his best foot forward. Some of these scores turned out to be a lot of fun. And in some cases they are some of his best and most entertaining works. 

If I had to recommend a Goldsmith score to start with, hands down it would be Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It has nearly all the elements I love about his work in one package and done with amazing skill. But if sci-fi isn't your thing, than I can also recommend his score to the 1990s wanna-be Arthurian epic First Knight. The theme for Arthur and Camelot is one of his best, the love theme for Guinevere is beautiful, the action music is top notch and the finale has one hell of a choral powerhouse to it. 

Well that concludes my series on my favorite composers. There are some other composers I'm quite fond of, but I didn't have enough of their work to feel comfortable writing a entire blog about them (Christopher Young, Joe Hisaishi, Miklos Rosza and Patrick Doyle all spring to mind). But I'll continue to spotlight some of my favorite tracks and even tackle an complete score in future blogs. Thanks for reading and listening!


  1. I'm not sure who would be my favorite film composer. I'd probably have to have John Williams. I was surprised he'd done the soundtrack for Home Alone, but many others like Jurassic Park, which I like a lot. Of course there's Star Wars too.

    Another composer I enjoy is Bernard Herrmann who scored some Hitchcock films and later Ray Harryhausen. Plus the movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still. Some other soundtracks I enjoy: Glory, the Civil War movie, Harry Potter, some of the James Bond scores, The Shining, 2001, A Clockwork Orange, and I'm sure there are many others.

    1. Wiliams and Herrmann are a couple of my favorites too. I wrote a couple blogs about them. They've created some iconic music in their own right, some of the most popular styles in film music actually.

      Glory is a gorgeous score, one of my favorites from James Horner. His older stuff is great. His newer work is kind of hit or miss with me. But in the 80s and 90s he was great. James Bond scores are always a lot of fun. Even the lesser ones are good for summer listening.

  2. An impressive repertoire. Yes, with The Shadow, probably the best thing to do is to close your eyes and listen to the music. Supergirl, though, has young Helen Slater. I'll keep my eyes open.

    1. Oh, I'm right with you there, Slater looks particularly fetching in her outfit. Goldsmith's score is a real hoot. Big main theme, with a very silly sounding syth whooshing effect. But the movie is so silly, it just fits. I kind of got the feeling that Goldsmith watched the film, shrugged and said, "you know what, no matter what I do this whole thing is going to look ridiculous. So I'll just embrace the overt ridiculousness of the whole thing." Still he couldn't help but give the movie some serious action music. :)

  3. Enjoyed these blogs about scores. I'd forgotten about Tangerine Dream scoring so many films, and they had some good ones. One of the first films and soundtracks I'd picked up by them was the to the movie, Sorcerer by William Friedkin starring Roy Scheider. The film is a real hoot of an adventure, and the soundtrack hits all the notes (sorry) to fit the suspenseful atmosphere. They also did the soundtrack to Firestarter by Stephen King. I didn't care much for the movie, but the soundtrack is nice.

    You are right about the original Planet of the Apes soundtrack, it fits the movie so well with the abstract atonal nature of it. And I'd forgotten about the synth work in Logan's Run. Great stuff.

    1. Yeah the 80s was really a heyday for synth scores, and performers of electronic music getting film score assignments. Tangerine Dream got quite a few, Vangelis of course, and Wendy Carlos (love her score for "Tron"). In some ways that synth sound dates the films immediately, but at the same time they were doing some creative work. Even something like "Transformers: The Movie" had a really great score with big themes, lots of action and all done on synths.

      Yeah Goldsmith did some great stuff with synths. His score to "Legend" is really impressive, and I like it a little more than the Tangerine Dream score (which is the one I grew up with). Goldsmith's score is pretty complex, lot of themes and motifs he weaves throughout the film, they build and mix. Its one of those scores that you don't pick up all the ingredients the first time you hear it, but the more you listen to it, the more you hear all the details and work he put into it. A great blend of synths, orchestra and textures. But not for everyone. Orchestral purists will find the synth parts too harsh.