Artist Spotlight: Jerry Goldsmith

Jerry Goldsmith was, in my mind, the quintessential film composer. He might not have been The Best Ever, and feel free to rage about that question in the comments, but he was certainly among the most dependable. His scores often pushed the envelope and started new trends in film music, but they also stayed out of the way, complementing the action on screen rather than overpowering it. He had only a couple scores that became iconic in the public imagination, and only one Oscar win, but this Spotlight will show that his influence was wider than you’d think.

Goldsmith was already an eleven-time Oscar nominee by the time he was tapped for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Fun fact: his original score was rejected—apparently he took the “trek” theme too far, and his work sounded too reminiscent of ships at sea. Rather than hire someone new, which is what usually happens in this situation, the producers let Goldsmith take a second crack at it, and he came up with the music we all know.

Traditional symphonic film scores typically use multiple leitmotifs throughout, and movies that are spinoffs, sequels, or reboots have the added challenge of combining existing motifs, often by a previous composer, with something new. In the video above, the first nine seconds feature Alexander Courage’s fanfare from the original Star Trek TV show theme, as a nod to the series’ history, and them Goldsmith’s new work follows. In Star Trek: The Next Generation, composer Dennis McCarthy kept both Courage and Goldsmith’s contributions in that series’ theme music.

But let’s back up. Goldsmith started out in television, doing incidental music (i.e., not the theme song) for shows like The Twilight Zone and Perry Mason. His first major TV theme was for the soap Dr. Kildare, and his first Oscar nod came in 1962, for his jarring, atonal score to Freud. Make note of that, it will be mentioned again.

Goldsmith’s score for The Planet of the Apes broke new ground in movie music. Eschewing a strictly musical score per se, Goldsmith combined atonal note clusters with odd percussion effects, like sticks hitting rocks and steel mixing bowls. Listening to the score now, it doesn’t sound too weird, and that’s because this style has been aped (Get it?!) many times over the last 48 years. But at the time, it was strange, new and different.

In one sense, this music is the natural outgrowth of the Twilight Zone theme, which is actually two different pieces of library music by avant garde French composer Marius Constant that were stitched together to make a single theme. Goldsmith had experience writing unsettling music for that series, and if you think about it, Planet of the Apes is just a two-hour-long Twilight Zone episode, in color. More importantly, the Planet music invented the combination of quick piano pattern, short drum sound, and eerie strings that we’ve come to expect from suspenseful chase scenes:

Goldsmith’s next major score was for 1974’s Chinatown. This is my favorite movie, so I won’t offer any spoilers on the off-chance you haven’t seen it. I will tell you that Goldsmith completed the lush, haunting score in just ten days after an extremely acrimonious split between Roman Polanski, producer Robert Evans and the original composer, Philip Lambro. Trumpeter Uan Rasey, who was featured heavily in the score, later said Goldsmith told him to play the music sexy — “but not like it’s good sex.”

If you’re interested for some reason, Lambro’s more experimental music cues can still be heard in the original trailer for Chinatown, where I think they work well, given the choppy editing and disjointed feeling of 1970s movie trailers in general. You can probably guess Lambro’s feelings on the whole thing: his memoir about life as a composer is titled Close Encounters of the Worst Kind.

1976 brought Goldsmith his Oscar, for the score to The Omen. Instead of posting the main theme, I’ve included a full scene here, to look at how the score works in action. While best known for the choir singing “Hail, Satan” in Latin, The Omen’s music uses off-kilter movement to build and release tension throughout. At the beginning of this scene, the different musical voices all seem to be moving in different directions and at different speeds. Combined with the sound of wind and thunder, this reinforces the unpredictability of the approaching threat. It’s only when the musical voices align that we realize it’s too late for the priest, and death is imminent.

Star Trek wasn’t Goldsmith’s only sci-fi hit from 1979. Let’s talk Alien. Goldsmith, Ridley Scott, and editor Terry Rawlings clashed legendarily on this film. Goldsmith’s first theme has been described as lyrical and romantic, probably influenced by the success of John Williams’ symphonic Star Wars score. I can’t say for sure, because Scott rejected it and had Goldsmith try again. He then gave them what he derided as “the obvious thing,” which was a spare, haunting series of flute cues over a low, ominous tremolo. Everyone loved it, except for him.

When films are made, editors typically stick in what’s called a temp track during the editing process. This is an existing piece of music that they use to capture the mood they want before the composer’s final score is complete. Every working film composer has a story of being told to write something that sounds almost exactly like the temp track, which they had no influence over. For Alien, Scott and Rawlings created a temp track made mostly of old Jerry Goldsmith recordings. But Goldsmith didn’t give them a score that sounded like the temp track. He gave them creepy but mostly symphonic music, while the temp tracks were much more experimental in their musical style. So, in a few spots, they kept the temp tracks.

That’s the theme from Freud, which Goldsmith composed in 1962. Seems to work pretty well in that scene, I have to admit. Did I mention Scott and Rawlings didn’t tell Goldsmith about this decision? He only found out when he watched the final movie. He wasn’t happy about it, and the fact that people were constantly telling him that Alien was his best score didn’t help matters.

I’m not going to post any of Jerry’s 1980s themes; many are good, but they don’t stand out in my mind. See my comment below for the almost full list of films he composed for. Now, let’s start the ’90s off right.

Damn, what a fine theme that is. Easily an improvement on the original, which is slightly slower and has less of that full orchestral bombast (even though both were recorded on synths). I’m fairly certain that this score is what made me a Jerry Goldsmith fan.

Goldsmith wrote the score to 1992’s Medicine Man, but what I really want to tell you is that Sean Connery modeled his hairstyle in the film after Goldsmith’s trademark white-haired ponytail.


The only other score of Goldsmith’s you might consider iconic is for 1993’s Rudy. It’s a maudlin score for a maudlin movie, but it hits all the right notes, you might say, since it’s been re-used in a dozen other films and trailers since then, which to me is a good thing. The music gives you exactly the mood you’re looking for. That’s quintessential Goldsmith.