June 21, 2004—Jerry Goldsmith, a prolific and versatile Oscar- and Emmy-winning composer of film and TV scores that deserve to rank with the classics of the studio system, died at age 75 after a protracted, arduous battle with cancer.
Chances are, you may have heard a Goldsmith score without realizing it: he did, after all, create around 250 soundtracks over nearly five decades in the business. The next time you find yourself humming the theme for the series The Waltons, for instance, you have Goldsmith to thank.
Surely you’ve guessed by now that the image accompanying this post is not of Goldsmith, but of a scene from one of his most prominent projects, The Omen, the 1977 horror film that earned him his only Academy Award. Director Richard Donner and producer Harvey Bernhard urged Twentieth Century Fox studio head Alan Ladd Jr. to increase the film's post-production budget so they could hire Goldsmith, whom they had come to believe, after seeing him live at the Hollywood Bowl, would be just right for the project. Ladd did so, and Donner subsequently became convinced that the film's eventual box-office success owed much to the mood Goldsmith was able to create with his score: his most avant-garde music to date, relying heavily on a chorus that, even with strange noises (barking, howling, grunts, whispering Latin phrases), were incorporated as if they were musical.
Yet The Omen was not Goldsmith's only great work onscreen. You also might recall his music from the Star Trek film series, Basic Instinct, The Planet of The Apes, The Blue Max, Patton, The Russia House and Chinatown.
After the success of Easy Rider and American Graffiti in the late Sixties and early Seventies, the wall-to-wall, symphonic motion-picture soundtrack became an increasingly lost art in Hollywood. Directors such as Martin Scorsese, Cameron Crowe and Lawrence Kasdan decided to buy the rights to hit (often rock ‘n’ roll) songs that seemed to fit perfectly a particular scene, rather than collaborate with a composer to create something completely new. It all fit with another trend: Hollywood’s attempt to find songs that, when released separately from the film, could not only drive traffic to the movie but also generate revenues in association with it. Goldsmith, James Horner and John Williams remained the master practitioners of a style that had nurtured some of Hollywood's finest music.
Goldsmith was something of a throwback to the golden age when classically trained European composers, fleeing the Nazis, found work in Hollywood. Max Steiner (Gone With the Wind), Bernard Herrmann (Citizen Kane and a decade of Hitchcock films), Franz Waxman (Sunset Boulevard), and Erich Maria Korngold (The Adventures of Robin Hood) contributed scores as integral and memorable to classic dramas and comedies as their scripts, cinematography and stars. Goldsmith learned this vibrant art from one of its best practitioners while studying film composition at the University of Southern California: Miklos Rosza, composer of the Ben-Hur soundtrack.
In the late Fifties and early Sixties, Goldsmith built his reputation and honed his working methods through such series as Dr. Kildare, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Twilight Zone and the Boris Karloff-hosted anthology series, Thriller. (See my prior post on the latter.)
Thriller may have been especially significant in providing him multiple and varied opportunities to work in different musical styles and in meeting relentless deadline pressure. Each story received its own especially composed musical accompaniment. Goldsmith ended up scoring 10 episodes in the first season alone, one-third of the entire roster that year. The complete series DVD allows listeners to hear these compositions not just within the contexts of the episodes, but as separate entities.
Eleven years ago, Film Comment magazine published an article titled "Soundtracks101 – Essential Movie Music: A Listener's Guide." Five of Goldsmith’s made this list of 101 classics.
Goldsmith, like many of his peers, was subject to an unfortunate aspect of his collaborative craft: often, his soundtracks were a good deal better than the films they were meant to accompany. He worked as a master of one medium that was meant to support another. In addition to those titles already listed here, readers (and film fans) might also want to listen to A Patch of Blue, The Wind and the Lion, Papillon, Lilies of the Field, The Sand Pebbles, and Total Recall.