Jerry Goldsmith: Patron Saint of Great Music for Bad Movies

Recently I decided to listen to the score for Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s a terrific score for what is, in all honesty, not a very good movie. It’s got nostalgic pull, and it may have predicted at least one aspect of the future, but the only truly great thing about it is the score.

That, of course, has everything to do with the late, great Jerry Goldsmith.

Goldsmith had a legendary career, and he composed terrific music as a rule. His scores are attached to landmark films that arguably changed the course of movie history and tastes.

While names like John Williams or Hans Zimmer, or the late James Horner, are more memorable to the general public, Goldsmith was a quiet pioneer in a lot of ways. He made indelible themes – especially for science fiction movies.

He was always willing to experiment with new instruments and grow his sound. His theme for Planet of the Apes remains a discordant minimalist masterpiece. His theme for The Omen remains an uncomfortable chiller.

You could take just his work on the Star Trek films and hear someone who never stopped exploring. From the bombastic brass of his theme for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, later appropriated by the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation and then Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, to the more electronic and experimental sound of Star Trek: Nemesis, you can hear a composer adapting and molding his concepts to a sound that works for each entry.

However, what’s also true is that his great work appeared in a fair number of stinkers.

Maybe he just wasn’t “choosy” about what work he accepted. Maybe his willingness to work in science fiction and fantasy made him susceptible to helming projects that were destined for diminished reputation.

Whether it’s the virile themes for Total Recall, the bravado of his Rambo III score, the silly Silver Age majesty of Supergirl, the lilting mystery of Basic Instinct, or the grandiose heroism of the music of Star Trek: First Contact, Goldsmith’s scores exceed the source material by an immeasurable factor.

I struggle to think of another composer who’s done work that, despite being attached to an underwhelming movie, rises to the level that Goldsmith’s does. Heck, Star Trek: The Motion Picture really isn’t all that great but the score for it is insanely good. The same holds true for Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, which is arguably one of the best scores of the last 35 years.

I guess Goldsmith’s career, then, is a lesson in how we should all approach our work.

No matter how everything else turns out, give every task your best effort. Even if things fall apart, you may create something worth remembering and emulating.

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