Enlarging the scope: Jerry Goldsmith in the 1970s

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By Scott Ross

Jerry+Goldsmith+jerry01At the dawn of a new decade and after several years scoring for television and film, Jerry Goldsmith was more than ready for the challenges ahead. He hit 1970 running, and pretty much never stopped. Right out of the gate, Goldsmith composed one of the most iconic themes of the era: His bold, classical, yet forward-looking martial motif for Patton.

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On its face, Goldsmith’s Patton theme follows the parameters of a long line of military marches, particularly those for movies. Yet those ghostly horn fanfares at the beginning, their reverberating effects achieved by Goldsmith’s use of the Echoplex tape-delay system, and the similarly eerie organ chords that seem to emanate from a distant past, are what the theme is really about: George S. Patton’s sense of himself, as an invincible force not merely of his own time but of history itself, reincarnated from the shades of the ancients in his beloved historical war-texts. As bound up in the past as this is (the march’s cadences are distinctly Celtic) the use here by Goldsmith of recent musical reproduction technology points to his increasing fascination with what synthesized sound can do for his craft. Incredibly (but all too believably) while the score was nominated for that year’s Academy Award, Goldsmith lost once again, this time to… Francis Lai(!) and his saccharine Love Story for which only the theme, endlessly iterated on pop recordings, is remembered.

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No matter. Goldsmith goes onward, composing a remarkable East-West score for Tota! Tora! Tora! that is better than the movie deserved, and a fine late Western score, Rio Lobo, for Howard Hawks. In 1971 Goldsmith moves further into electronica than anyone could have anticipated with his truly unnerving music for the horror thriller The Mephisto Waltz, in which he incorporates such other-worldly strings and Hell-tormented moans that listening to the score on its own with the lights off would constitute an act of true courage.

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That same year Goldsmith composed a vivid, exciting and appropriately melancholy score for Blake Edwards’ sad, elegiac Western Wild Rovers, the movie itself later butchered by the loathsome James Aubrey at MGM. At Christmas of 1971, home viewers could hear Goldsmith’s music for The Homecoming, that loveliest of holiday movies, out of Earl Hamner, Jr’s semi-autobiography. When the special spawned a series, The Waltons, Goldsmith was tapped to write the theme, resulting in a piece of music that, in just over a minute, conjures Depression rural America, Hamner’s slightly fictionalized family, the splendid Richard Thomas, and the warmth that eventually became a comedic by-word but which, at least in the early years, was genuine without falling into manipulation and bathos. All that from six well-chosen notes.

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For 1973’s escape epic Papillon, Goldsmith composed a lilting, Gallic waltz on which he rang dramatic variations. For the first television miniseries (a concept much discussed at the time) based on the inexplicably popular Leon Uris novel QBVII* Goldsmith drew overtly on his own Jewishness for the first time, in music that keens as though with the voices of the six million dead.

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Many Goldsmith aficionados cite 1982 and the one-two punch of Poltergeist, The Secret of NIMH and First Blood as the Anno Principium of the composer’s great period. To be comprehensive, one could as easily point to 1966 and The Sand Pebbles, which begins his career-long ascendancy. If you don’t wish to extend things quite that far back, I would respectfully suggest 1974 as the year from which there is no looking back, only forward. And the score that affixes Goldsmith’s place in the filmmusic firmament is the masterly Chinatown. Taking its cue from the Roman Polanksi/Robert Towne classic’s pace, milieu, look, period and understated, doomed romanticism, the score has moments of languid eerieness, unnerving tension and bittersweet, minor key melodiousness whose key component is a jazzy, slightly foreboding trumpet line. Goldsmith’s score replaced that of Phillip Lambro, who was only recently allowed to release his version on disc, and even then providing there was no mention of Chinatown in either the title or the description. Listening to Los Angeles 1937: The Unused Score of a Film by Roman Polanksi (fuck you, Paramount) one can see that Polanski led Goldsmith down very similar symphonic paths indeed. I’m not suggesting Goldsmith lifted from Lambro, but it is interesting to note how not dissimilar (to use a deliberate double-negative) the two scores are. Lambro’s does not have a similarly (and insistently) memorable trumpet theme, and that may have been the dark/romantic sound the movie’s producer, Robert Evans, was after.**

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For the 1975 Charles Bronson prison-escape thriller Breakout, Goldsmith provided a score of tremendous velocity, anchored by a Latin underpinning appropriate to the movie’s Mexican setting. Later that year he wrote one of his most accomplished scores for The Wind and the Lion, the right-wing fantasist (I nearly typed “fascist”… by mistake?) John Milius’ epic fantasia on the so-called “Perdicaris Incident” of 1904. The movie, which, in Wikipedia’s apt phrase, “blends historic facts into a violent fictional adventure,” commanded from Goldsmith a magnificent score filled to overflowing with “exotic” strains, muscular adventure writing, and unabashed romanticism. “The function of a score,” Goldsmith once noted, “is to enlarge the scope of a film. I try for emotional penetration — not for complementing the action. For me, the important thing about music is statement. I can’t describe how I arrive at the decision to make a statement, I simply feel it and react to it.” Seldom has such reaction yielded a more sublime response.

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The 1976 Logan’s Run, a rare science fiction picture at a time when the genre was considered a sure-fire loser — Hollywood needed to wait only one year longer to learn how wrong the thinking was, at least regarding space-fantasy — elicited from Goldsmith a score based on an sonic notion that complimented the movie’s theme: The highly artificial, hermetically-sealed world of the future, with its pleasure-games and enclosed reality (represented by electronica) contrasted with the world that’s been left behind, verdant, lush and full of possibilities (full, rich orchestral arrangements.) The central theme, which builds rhapsodically, is exquisite. Much more notable, and remunerative, was The Omen, which, shockingly, is Goldsmith’s sole Academy Award winner. That’s not a slam. It’s a superb horror-movie score, anchored to the sinister Latin (if ungrammatical) choral anthem “Ave Satani” (itself up that year, for Best Song!) but, alas, largely in the service of the filmmakers’ blood-lust for progressively grander and ever more ingenious means of graphically killing off its cardboard characters. Screw Friday the 14th — The Omen is the true progenitor of ’80s slasher-porn.

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The same year as The Omen Goldsmith composed what he often said he regarded as his own favorite among his scores. Islands in the Stream accounts in a way as the anti-Omen; personal where the previous movie is impersonal, character-driven as opposed to effect-driven, elegiac where The Omen is deeply foreboding. One of Goldsmith’s not-infrequent collaborations with Franklin J. Schaffner, the director of Patton, and based on a posthumously-published, semi-autobiographical (and incomplete) Hemingway novel, Islands is one of the composer’s most ingratiating, and most melancholy, scores. Yet it is suffused with emotional highs, filled with wonder. The long (nearly 12-minute) cue “The Marlin,” depicting the George C. Scott character’s younger son battling to land a gigantic fish from his father’s boat is, at least in Goldsmith’s hands, as stark, exciting and intensely memorable as Hemingway’s description of it. I don’t know why the composer felt so strongly about this material, or why it moved him so, and, really, we don’t need to. This is film music that, alone, and without choral accompaniment, sings.

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Contract on Cherry Street, a 1977 television thriller starring Frank Sinatra, drew from Goldsmith a score that, unique for its time (or even now) was full-bodied, completely orchestral, one that would have enhanced any theatrical film of its type, then or today. The writing is muscular, exciting, subtle and crackling with energy, yet with moments of haunting emotionalism. No one but Goldsmith could have composed it.

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Peter Hyams’ 1977 paranoia thriller Capricorn One, about a faked Mars landing, drew on post-Watergate cynicism about the government (and our concomitant elevation of dogged reporters to hero status) for a far-fetched, but entertaining, yarn, heightened by Sam Waterson’s wise-racking and ultimately moving performance as one of the doomed astronauts (O.J. Simpson was the other; only James Brolin came out of it alive. Well, of course.) Goldsmith’s score compliments the material handily, from its ominous, heraldic, opening chords to its uplifting finale, although a comparison with Contract on Cherry Street does indicate some discrete borrowing of arrangement and motif.

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For the inevitable Omen sequel, in 1978, starring William Holden and Lee Grant this time out, Goldsmith used his “Ave Satani” theme more sparingly, supplementing it with new choral material that occasionally apes the croaking sound of ravens. As with its predecessor, the composer piles on the action cues with aplomb. It’s better writing than pap of this sort really deserves.

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William Goldman’s Magic was essentially unfilmable, relying as it did on a literary device that must, necessarily, fall by the wayside in a visual transliteration: In the book we’re unaware that Corky Withers’ comedy partner, Fats, is a ventriloquist’s dummy until well into the story; in the movie, we know immediately. Still, Magic was creepy fun, inspired by the Michael Redgrave sequence in Dead of Night, and a chance to enjoy one of my then-favorite actors, Anthony Hopkins, in a starring role. Goldsmith’s accordion motif is appropriately unnerving, in the Bernard Herrmann manner, and the score as a whole is dandy.

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Michael Crichton adapted and directed his own, fact-based, historical novel, in 1978, and The Great Train Robbery is good, juicy Victorian amusement from beginning to improbable end, especially with such seasoned pros as Sean Connery and Donald Sutherland along for the ride. Goldsmith’s waltzing train motif is a prime asset, adding a major dramatic thrust to the narrative. If ever a movie score can be called “fun,” it’s this one.

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The 1979 Alien was easily one of the most intensely memorable experiences of my movie-going life. Knowing virtually nothing about it before buying my ticket, I was wholly unprepared for the genuine shock awaiting me; when that damn thing burst out of John Hurt’s chest, I had a five-minute attack of hyperventilation in the theatre. Goldsmith was famously unhappy with the final mix as heard in the movie, where music from his score for “Freud” was tracked in to replace his original main title, some Howard Hanson appeared instead of his own end credits music, and his elaborate, driving theme for the alien was removed from the final print. For Goldsmith aficionados, the best solution is the 2007 Intrada release, which couples the complete score and the 1979 soundtrack LP tracks with alternate cues and bonus items. Goldsmith’s score sets the tone, for the movie itself and for the entire coming cinematic franchise: Dark, moody, expressionistic. Harrowing.

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Goldsmith ended the decade as he’d begun it, with one of his most iconic scores. Few fans, or critics, were best-pleased with the long-awaited Star Trek movie, but there were no similar complaints about Goldsmith’s majestic score; indeed, his theme for The Enterprise quickly supplanted Alexander Courage’s original television title, and is the immediately identifiable “sound” of the subsequent Star Trek universe. (Courage, interestingly, became one of Goldsmith’s most frequent orchestrators, and his own sound is intimately bound up in that of Courage.) It took many years for the full soundtrack of Star Trek: The Motion Picture to be released, but it belongs in the collection of any Goldsmith aficionado. Or, indeed, that of any serious student of the form. Although the electronics for this space epic are kept to a minimum, there’s a Blaster Beam effect that is superbly integrated into the score, and the whole is as good, in its way, as John Williams’ for the first Star Wars movie. The 3-disc La-La-Land release brings it all together, eked out by alternate cues and a reproduction of the original 1979 soundtrack re-recording. Essential.

Three years after the release of Star Trek, Goldsmith would have his unofficial Annus Mirabilis. But I daresay he’d been giving us years of wonder all along.

*It goes without saying the Holocaust is one of the most important, and appalling, events of the 20th century, and one can well understand the emotional involvement of Uris’ readers in QBVII. But the book, based on the author’s own legal experience with a man he named as a Nazi doctor in his novel Exodus, is written (“hacked” would be a better word) with no finesse whatsoever. Worse, it exhibits an appalling misogyny and evokes a masculine world in which women are willing pussy, or nothing.

**In addition to the Los Angeles 1937 CD, you can also hear Lambro’s music under the movie’s original trailer. See YouTube et al.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Overcoming Fear: Jerry Goldsmith in the 1960s

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“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.

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Miklós Rózsa

Miklós Rózsa

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Bernard Herrmann conducting in "The Man Who Knew Too Much."

Bernard Herrmann conducting in “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”

 

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 of whom were 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 sublimnity and whose best compositions are as far from simple “Mickey Mousing” as it is possible to get; David Raksin, a

Alex North with his "Honorary" Academy Award. Your compromise statuette when they won't give you an actual award for your best work.

Alex North with his “Honorary” Academy Award. Your compromise statuette when they won’t give you an actual award for your best work.

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

Vic Mizzy, surrounded by some of the creatures for whom he wrote his memorable scores.

Vic Mizzy, surrounded by some of the creatures for whom he wrote his memorable scores.

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 music comes; 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;

John Williams and friend.

John Williams and friend.

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.

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A pair of masters, however, share the 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.

Elmer Bernstein in 1967. He never won for any of his great scores, only for "Thoroughly Modern Millie," which contained very little of HIS music.

Elmer Bernstein in 1967. He never won for any of his great scores, only for “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” which contained very little of HIS music.

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.) 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.

A young, and very handsome, Jerry Goldsmith in the mid-1960s. He had reason to smile.

A young, and very handsome, Jerry Goldsmith in the mid-1960s. He had reason to smile.

Jerry Goldsmith’s scores seldom move me in quite that way, although 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. “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.

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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 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. 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 specialize in 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, 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 “Your Zowie Face” (lyric by Leslie Bricusse.) 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.

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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 incredibly overrated, and terminally blank, Steve McQueen in the central roles. But that score… ah, that score! Along with the 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 arguably the most moving thing 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 plangent 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.

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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 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.

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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 effective 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 very quickly achieved nearly universal identification, 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, 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 admire in spite of his more than occasional ugliness, has a peculiarly selective memory.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

 

 

Looking Back in Anger

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By Scott Ross

For the past two days I have been listening to Quartet Records’ meticulous reconstruction of Miklós Rózsa’s exquisite score for the Billy Wilder/I.A.L. Diamond masterwork The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes in, if not exactly a state of rage, at least fits of reasonably manageable pique.

A note on the Quartet website explains, to a large degree, the reason for my fury: The company’s producers and engineers, it tells us, “spent almost three years searching for the best possible sources, but the original masters are, unfortunately, forever lost […]  We have used three different monaural music-only stems from the MGM vaults for this release — none of which was in ideal condition.”

This is, sadly, an old story, all too often replicated. It is an especially cruel irony that, while the loss of priceless soundtrack masters is not unheard of within the vaults of the major Hollywood studios, this deplorable state of affairs holds true with much more depressing regularity on movies produced outside the system — in those very places where the filmmakers and their collaborators had more freedom than anywhere else. Time after depressing time, we who love film scores are told that the soundtrack for X movie, the cherished LPs of which we’ve worn to hockey pucks over the years, is simply gone.

For older studio scores, the major problem is often that effects and music (and, occasionally, some dialogue) were stored on the same tracks. Nothing to be done about that… at least for now; who knows what digital magician of the future may arrive to perform some as-yet unknown feat of prestidigitation that will ameliorate that fissure? Fortunately, later scores were isolated, often with their stereo components intact, or their composers kept master tapes in their own collections, so many of the glories of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s can come to us more or less in full, sometimes with astounding aural feshness (Kritzerland’s release of the Les Baxter Black Sunday is a good example.)

In the case of an entity such as United Artists, however, home-from-home for so many gifted screenwriters, directors, actors and composers during that time, the elements were sometimes scattered to the four winds when not destroyed outright. (Often, the LP masters, which can differ markedly from what’s heard in the movies, are all that remains.) Varèse Sarabande just barely caught Elmer Bernstein’s magnificent Hawaii in time, after nearly giving up hope, and Quartet recently performed a miracle resuscitation on Burt Bacharach’s Casino Royale. Jose Luis Crespo has done a remarkable job with The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, and deserves the praise and thanks of so many who love Rózsa, and revere this movie, and its score. But the facts behind this release are intolerable. The London studio where the score was recorded in 1970 was since demolished. Fair enough. These things happen. But much of its holdings were destroyed in the process. That is damn near unforgivable. It’s very much akin to Warner Bros. quite literally bulldozing decades’ worth of its animation department’s irreplaceable history just to make more room for its publicity department.

Wilder and Diamond envisioned, and shot, Holmes as a three-hour “roadshow” presentation, with four distinct segments. By the time the picture was edited the Mirisch Brothers of U.A., leery of the shellacking Hollywood studios had been taking on so many big-budget flops, demanded Wilder cut the picture by an hour. Not that it mattered; the movie, a comic/melancholy exercise of rare beauty and rue, died anyway. Of the two trimmed episodes, one is extant only without sound while the other exists solely as soundtrack, the filmed footage having disappeared decades ago. If what exists were not, like Welles’ Magnificent Ambersons and Stroheim’s Greed, so exceptional, it might not hurt so much to know that the possibility of a true restoration is, in all likelihood, nothing more than a pretty but ultimately foolish dream. And so the loss of Rózsa’s achingly beautiful score in its optimal presentation somehow just feels like the perfect capper to the entire, doomed project.

Wilder asked Rózsa to base the score on his alternately plaintive and exhilarating Violin Concerto, cannily equating both its moods and its primary instrument with Holmes. The result is one of the finest scores, not merely of the composer’s own impressive oeuvre, but in the annals of movie scoring. It should be said that Crespo & Co. have done wizard’s work, given what they had to work with, and that their sheer determination to present The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes in anything like Rózsa original earns them a special seat in Paradise.

Still. The losses to music history, and to its future, are incalculable. So you’ll forgive me if I’m still angry.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

Post-Script: If you didn’t order this one fast, I’m afraid it’s already too late; as with so many limited edition soundtrack releases, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is already sold out. But you can at least sample some of the music on the Quartet website.

http://www.quartetrecords.com/the-private-life-of-sherlock-holmes.html