“I think that the great part of creativity is overcoming fear. Fear is a given. When you sit down and have to begin something, don’t be afraid to be filled with fear, because it goes with the turf.” — Jerry Goldsmith
By Scott Ross
One of the abiding sorrows of my life is that, while I am intensely musical I play no instrument and, although I would rather sing than do almost anything else, cannot read music, or in any case can do so only in the most rudimentary fashion. (As in: I see the notes rise and fall on the staff, so know they’re either higher, or lower. Higher or lower than what, though, is another matter.) I enjoy a fairly eclectic blend of music, a variety which takes in concert works (I loathe the catch-all term “Classical” except when applied to the actual Classical era, which it seldom does), theatre scores (the odious, and largely ignorant, phrase “Show Tunes” will never pass either my lips or my typing fingers), some folk, a smattering of pop and funk (Paul Simon and Rufus Wainwright are idols and I am still partial to the Top 40 of my childhood and early adolescence), and a whole lot of jazz (Louis Armstrong is, for me, as close to a Supreme Deity as any pretend sky-god.) But what I tend to listen to most are film scores.
My personal Pantheon embraces Franz Waxman, whose early work, like The Bride of Frankenstein, did much to give us a grammar for movie scoring (Max Steiner got there slightly earlier, but, as with Eric Wolfgang Korngold, his scores tend to the stolid, the sentimental and the over-emphatic, with nothing like the compositional daring or the harmonic complexity that were Waxman’s stocks-in-trade); Alfred Newman and Dmitri Tiomkin, both capable of indifferent work but whose masterpieces are as fine as anyone’s; Miklós Rózsa, the supreme classicist of the so-called Golden Age, without whom both Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder would have been the poorer; Bernard Herrmann, the first great genius of the form, and a giant on whose shoulders virtually everyone who followed has stood; Carl Stalling, whose Warner Bros. cartoon scores took animation spotting to heights of playful, antic sublimity and whose best compositions are as far from simple “Mickey Mousing” as it is possible to get; David Raksin, a
minor deity but an important one, whose best work, such as The Bad and the Beautiful and What’s the Matter with Helen? exhibit a stylistic range and a tonal flexibility that are considerable; Alex North, the first great modernist of the American film score, whose Spartacus is one of the glories of the moving-picture age; Nino Rota, who, even if hadn’t composed the score for The Godfather would be a giant, if only for his work with
Fellini; Jerome Moross, who despite some redundancy of style was a bracing composer of Americana; Laurence Rosenthal, whose lyricism is beyond reproach and whose score for The Miracle Worker is as close to transcendent as movie music gets; Henry Mancini, whose sound virtually defined his era but who, due to his penchant for producing easy-listening albums rather than soundtrack LPs, is still not taken as seriously as he had every right to be; John Barry, another era-definer, whose James Bond scores are infinitely richer than the series deserved and whose best work elsewhere (The Lion in Winter, Robin and Marian, Dances with Wolves) need apologize for nothing; Jerry Fielding, a fiercely idiosyncratic composer who, after years of blacklist, pushed himself to an early grave; Vic Mizzy, whose Don Knotts music, particularly The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, are among the best comedy scores in movies; Ennio Morricone, who is sometimes repetitious, and occasionally absolutely dreadful, but whose work for Sergio Leone (not to mention later masterworks like The Untouchables and The Mission) transcend their movies, and their genres; John Williams, whose more syrupy and/or emphatic excesses can be forgiven for any number of masterworks, from The Reivers to Schindler’s List (and including, of course, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the Star Wars series); Lalo Schifrin, so splendid at “cool,” jazzy atmosphere that it’s impossible to imagine McQueen’s Frank Bullitt or Eastwood’s Dirty Harry without him;
and David Shire, whose limited output is in no way indicative of his gifts and whose incomparably rich score for Return to Oz is among the finest composed for any movie in the last 70 years.
A pair of masters, however, share my top spot: Elmer Bernstein and Jerry Goldsmith. When these twin giants took their appallingly untimely leave within a month of each other in the summer of 2004, the art and craft of movie scoring received a blow to its very soul, one from which I doubt it will ever fully recover.
For me, Bernstein’s loss hurt in a way that Goldsmith’s did not. Aside from his having been, by all accounts, a courtly and rather lovely man, the sheer emotional heft of his greatest work revealed a heart as expansive as any that ever beat. If I had to pick a single cut, by any composer, as my favorite the choice would be, without question, the one labeled “End Title” in Bernstein’s To Kill a Mockingbird (but which is actually the music accompanying the final scene, end titles in those days seldom lasting more than 30 seconds.) Those final, elegiac, annealing chords, rising impossibly high before, finally, resolving themselves, gently yet decisively, never fail first to send chills of rapture up my spine and then to move me to shameless tears. It isn’t merely the perfect climax to that movie’s story. It is, on its own, as close to perfection in emotional response, and release, as anything I’ve ever heard. It’s the music I’d want to be the last thing I ever hear in this life. Barring that, they can play it at my wake.
Jerry Goldsmith’s scores seldom move me in quite that way, although he wrote as astounding number of peerlessly lovely themes and there are quite a few whose emotional qualities, beautifully controlled and never allowed to slip into bathos, are exemplars of the scorer’s art. Almost without exception — I’ll come to a few achingly singular examples by and by — these are from his scores for smaller movies, of the type Hollywood seldom makes now, and was making fewer and fewer of as Goldsmith’s life came to its close.
One is struck by the composer’s remarks on that subject, inasmuch as the bulk of Goldsmith’s best work was in the action or thriller genre, and he really excelled at Westerns. “I like the variety,” he was quoted as saying. “But basically my choice of films [sic] is a small intimate film. Quiet film, no action, just people in relationships. That’s what I like the most.” It’s telling how relatively few of these he actually scored. Did, as I suspect, the opportunities simply vanish? “When I get a fantasy film job,” he noted, “the first thing I look for is the non-fantasy element to build the music upon. The human side of the film is what’s important, not the hardware. My work on Poltergeist is a perfect example. Most people saw it as a ghost story and a horror story. I saw it as a love story and wrote the music with that emotion in mind. There is no formula to finding what musically fits a science fiction film. I just look for the emotion. When I don’t find those, it makes things more difficult.” Judging from his later output, it must have been difficult indeed, much (if not most) of the time.
While Goldsmith had television credits as early as 1954, his composing career only really began to build, and blossom, in the early 1960s. The familiar, glorious Dr. Kildare opening is his, but his first important credit for movies was for one of those “small intimate films,” the melancholy Lonely Are the Brave, which its star Kirk Douglas has often called his favorite from among his own work. That same year (1962) Goldsmith was engaged by John Huston for Freud (aka, Freud: The Secret Passion) and for which he composed an enormously effective, somewhat atonal, score, which earned him the first of far too many Academy Award nominations he would ultimately lose. (Does anyone really think The Omen is his best score? Possibly only the same people who would so likewise rate Bernstein’s incidental music for Thoroughly Modern Millie, his only Oscar-winner.) The following year, and in a complete change of pace, Goldsmith wrote a deliciously sly, playful, Kurt Weillian score for Huston’s tongue-in-cheek Phillip MacDonald whodunnit The List of Adrian Messenger which has, thankfully, recently been issued on a limited edition CD by Varèse Sarabande, one of several cottage outfits of varying sizes specializing in preserving American film scores, many of which also emphasize Goldsmithiana.
Somewhat surprisingly, Goldsmith did not receive an Academy nod for the much-nominated Lilies of the Field, a small, heartfelt work, although he was nominated for the subsequent Sidney Poitier drama A Patch of Blue. The composer received 18 nominations in all (Bernstein got 14) winning only once, for The Omen — a fine, if derivative, horror score, leaning heavily on faux-Stravinsky via Gregorian vocalese, but nowhere close to his best work.* Could Goldsmith’s peers have seriously imagined this was his only award-worthy score, or that it was in some way superior to The Sand Pebbles, Chinatown, Islands in the Stream, The Wind and the Lion, Lionheart, Poltergeist or even The Secret of NIMH? Granting that those are highly personal choices, I submit that any one of them displays greater emotionality and more daring, even wit, than the highly popular, and influential, Omen.
The Washington, D.C.-based political thriller Seven Days in May (1964) elicited from Goldsmith an appropriately spare, brief, martial score and the same year’s Western Rio Conchos one of the composer’s most insistent melodic ear-worms of a theme. For Our Man Flint, a cheerfully ridiculous Bond spoof starring a relaxed and genial James Coburn, Goldsmith offered up some delicious, tongue-in-cheek spy-pop that includes the riotously and deliberately inane theme-song (lyric by Leslie Bricusse) “Your Zowie Face” Z.O.W.I.E. is the organization Flint works for.) Von Ryan’s Express (1965) has some splendid things in it as well, as does The Blue Max of 1966 with its soaring main theme, although one can point here to Waxman’s superb The Spirit of St. Louis as an obvious point of sonic reference.
No such niggling comparisons obtain for Goldsmith’s magnum opus, The Sand Pebbles (also 1966.) While the movie itself, for all its seriousness of purpose and remarkably epic qualities, is a lamentable diminution of the magnificent Richard McKenna novel, its thinness exacerbated by the disastrous miscasting of the intolerably unresponsive Candice Bergen and the almost incredibly overrated, and terminally blank, Steve McQueen in the central roles. But that score… ah, that score! Along with two lovely, and ultimately heart-wrenching supporting performances by Mako and Richard Attenborough, it is left largely to Goldsmith to provide the unsettling dramatic thrust, the aching melancholy and the almost unbearable emotional underpinning the story needs to convey the results of the tragic alliance of imperialist misadventure and explosive social upheaval. The cue “Death of a Thousand Cuts,” for Mako, is one of the most plangent things of its kind in the composer’s oeuvre, a track that continues to move the listener as much on the dozenth play-through as on the first. The Sand Pebbles is Goldsmith’s first undeniably great work for the movies, a score so intriguing, so layered, and so fraught with aching humanity that it has been released numerous times, in incrementally superior editions the last of which, on Intrada — and which contains the score as heard in the movie as well as the contents of the re-recorded “soundtrack” of the period — belongs in the library of every serious aficionado of film music.
For Hour of the Gun, a rather good 1967 variation on the Wyatt Earp legend starring James Garner, Jason Robards and the great Robert Ryan, Goldsmith composed a terrific genre score. (Choice cuts: The propulsive main theme and the curiously un-punctuated “Whose Cattle.”) 1968 saw another iconic Goldsmith score, for Planet of the Apes. The composer had flirted before with electronica, but had not fully explored its possibilities for appropriately other-worldly sounds until this one, although the best cues (“The Hunt” and “No Escape”) are largely more traditional in composition and orchestration. Goldsmith would, in future, lean too heavily on augmented instrumentation for my taste; I admit to a decided prejudice against synthesizers and related musical hardware over sounds produced by human players — the only really good synthesized film score I’ve ever encountered is Arthur B. Rubinstein’s for Blue Thunder — but I defy anyone to seriously defend the “superiority” of Hoosiers over even such minor achievements as, say, Rudy or The 13th Warrior.
In 1969 Goldsmith returned to television, composing the gentle, memorably optimistic theme, and some of the early scores, for the excellent, laugh-trackless comedy-drama (as they used to be called in those antediluvian days before the hideous neologism “dramedy” was incessantly heard, like the voice of the turtle, throughout the land) Room 222. He also scored the absurd but exciting Gregory Peck thriller The Chairman, and the Cukor-directed misfire Justine. For this transliteration of one-fourth of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, Goldsmith contributed a vivid, enticing, spirited score in which sitar, auto harp and recorder, added to the already rich orchestral palette, evoke eroticism, exoticism and terror equally, and equally well.
At the very beginning of the next decade Jerry Goldsmith would not necessarily become a household name, but he would compose a single theme that, like Herrmann’s shower murder and Williams’ shark music, very quickly achieved nearly universal identification and in Goldsmith’s case, instantly reminding listeners of that film, its star, and the movie’s towering, contradictory real-life subject…
*Most so-called film critics, who know as little about music as they do about acting, direction, cinematography, plays, literature, history or any of the other, myriad aspects that go into making the art, seldom single Goldsmith out for praise. Or, if they do (as did John Simon in his review of the 1974 Chinatown) may be capable (as Simon was a scant two years later in a critique of The Omen) of referring to “that pretentious hack Jerry Goldsmith.” He’s done this sort of thing repeatedly in his criticism, to the point where I wonder if Simon, whom I often admire in spite of his frequent ugliness, has a peculiarly selective memory. Goldsmith cannot be an artist one year, a hack the next. Which is it, Simon?
Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross