The Annotated Battleship Pretension: Notes on Episode 380, by West Anthony
Due to circumstances beyond my control, I was unable to participate in this episode on the career of film composer Jerry Goldsmith; I felt (and feel) terrible about it, and those of you who were upset by my absence can take solace in the fact that I have never forgiven myself for anything I’ve done wrong throughout my entire life and will be beating myself up over this and many other transgressions on my deathbed. After listening to the episode, I felt that I should not just leave David and Tyler hanging, and should say what I wanted to say about this music in some way so that listeners would have a better understanding of what one should appreciate about this music. So this is the best I could do.
1. The Absence Of Patton
I don’t know why Tyler didn’t pick any music from Patton to play on this episode, but I know that I didn’t because it has become so ubiquitous that Goldsmith himself has parodied it (in his score for Joe Dante’s The Burbs), and I thought it best to stick to pieces that listeners may not be nearly so familiar with…
2. Escape From The Planet Of The Apes
…Like this one. Goldsmith composed the music for the first Planet Of The Apes film in 1968, then skipped the first sequel and came back for Escape, the third film in the original series that continued into the mid-70’s. And while his music for the first film is fantastic, I did want to focus on this film’s music because, as Tyler correctly quoted me, it is batshit crazy. To start with, this is as good an example as any of Goldsmith’s facility with unique time signatures; most music in general is going to be in a standard 4/4 time, and with a waltz the music will be in 3/4 time, but some music types try to get crafty by sticking more beats in a bar, which makes the music more complex and a lot tougher to dance to. The handiest example I like to point to is the Canadian hard rock trio Rush, who have been goofing around with tricky time signatures since before many of you were born. Listen to “Tom Sawyer”, their most famous song: it begins in 4/4 time (you can count along with it – 1, 2, 3, 4 – and it will make sense to you), but when it gets to the middle part with the synthesizer and guitar solos, the rhythm suddenly shifts to 7/4 time (at which point if you continue simply counting 1, 2, 3, 4 you will get muddled, but if you start counting 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7… well, frankly you may still get lost, but if you hang in there, you’ll see what I mean), before switching back to 4/4 time coming out of the guitar solo and remaining in 4/4 until the coda after the final lyric where it reverts to 7/4.
Confused? Well, now you’re in REAL trouble because as near as this armchair musicologist can make out, the opening theme music for Escape From The Planet Of The Apes is in 13/8 time. You heard me. To be fair, none of this is actually necessary to listen to and appreciate this music, and you don’t have to count to thirteen while listening if you don’t want to – I’m just trying to illustrate what I love about this piece. Part of it is that, anyway. One of the other things I love is the way it reverts to straight 4/4 time in a middle bit, which you can distinguish from the rest of the piece because it has a different melody; the first time the middle bit is played on electric guitar, the second time on an electric organ AND electric sitar. Also, Goldsmith throws in a steel drum halfway through, just for extra texture.
And yet, for all this seemingly outrageous complexity, it’s kinda funky. Which I attribute entirely to the expert bass playing of Carol Kaye, one of the legendary members of the formidable group of crack Los Angeles studio musicians known as the Wrecking Crew. (This is the second time they’ve come up in our musical discussions: you may recall that Michel Rubini, whom David highlighted with his music for the 1986 film Manhunter, was also a member of the Crew.) It may well be no exaggeration to say that Ms. Kaye has played on more records than you’ve had hot dinners – Simon & Garfunkel, The Monkees, Paul Revere & The Raiders, The Righteous Brothers, Frank Zappa, Neil Young, Love, Dusty Springfield and plenty of others, not to mention many immortal Beach Boys records including their seminal Pet Sounds. She has also worked with another film composer: Lalo Schifrin, for whom she played on the soundtracks of Bullitt and Dirty Harry, as well as the theme from the Mission: Impossible TV show. It is Carol Kaye’s bass you hear holding down the rhythm as the music begins, and listen to her stretch out during the aforementioned middle bits where she really swings.
The beautiful trumpet playing in this piece is by Uan Rasey, who was first trumpet player in the MGM Studio Orchestra from the late 40’s to the early 70’s; he played on many legendary MGM musicals (Singin’ In The Rain, An American in Paris, Gigi) as well as musicals for other studios (West Side Story for United Artists, My Fair Lady for Warner Brothers, Bye Bye Birdie for Columbia) and a mess o’ Tom & Jerry cartoons.
4. Breakheart Pass
Yup, Goldsmith is not necessarily known for his Western film scores because there weren’t a whole lot of them, but this one is far and away his best. It almost feels like Goldsmith was trying to outdo his colleague Elmer Bernstein’s iconic theme for The Magnificent Sevenwith this theme’s chugging acoustic guitars, heroic brass and little clanky bits that sound like dinner bells being rung for hungry cowboys on some distant plain… and he comes pretty close. I would go so far as to say that it is, in fact, a bit misleading, in that it is probably the best Western theme ever written for a Western movie that is just pretty good. If the theme from Breakheart Pass gets you all het up to see the picture, you should know that it’s good but not great, and that’s coming from someone for whom this film has special sentimental value: it’s the first Western I ever saw on the big screen. But it’s mostly a murder mystery set on a train in the Old West – sure, Charles Bronson is good, as are John Ford stalwart Ben Johnson and others, but it’s just some dudes on a train trying to figure out what the heck’s going on, so if you’re hoping for duels in the street or cattle stampedes or even guys sitting round a campfire farting, you’d do best to look elsewhere.
5. The Omen
The film for which Goldsmith won his sole Oscar, which seems like a travesty, especially when you consider that John Williams won three of those things in the 70’s alone. In winning the award, Goldsmith beat out Bernard Herrmann not once, but twice (Herrmann was nominated for both Taxi Driver and Obsession); he was also nominated for Best Song for the piece played on the podcast, “Ave Satani”, but lost out to Paul Williams and Barbra Streisand for “Evergreen”, their song from the remake of A Star Is Born. (Personally, I think they both shoulda lost to Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now” from Rocky, and so do you if you know what’s good for you.) Sadly, this ended the brief but memorable trend of songs composed for horror films, such as the “Night Of The Living Dead Cha-Cha” by Hugo Montenegro, and “Love Theme From The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” by Eric Carmen. Look it up if you don’t believe me.
No, don’t look it up. I was fibbing.
6. Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Tyler is dead on: this music kicks copious amounts of ass. Goldsmith’s score for Star Trek is a prime example of music partially (but not entirely) saving a film. Trek fans may be well aware that this film went into production with a release date set in stone and a screenplay that existed more in theory than in fact, and everyone is aware that when you go into production with this volatile set of circumstances, your picture’s in trouble. ST:TMP was not altogether satisfying, but what really helped out was Goldsmith’s music: there are several stretches of what would otherwise be a bunch of people boringly staring slack-jawed at a screen were it not for his atmospheric score providing tension, mystery and awe where there otherwise would have been merely an assemblage of hastily-completed visual effects. (To give you an idea how under the gun everyone involved with this picture was, the score was locked only FIVE DAYS before the premiere. Yikes.) In its initial release, some theaters played the film with an overture, which was discarded until the release of the Director’s Cut DVD some years ago; as it happens, this is one of two films from 1979 with overtures, and both of them were science fiction, the other one being The Black Hole. There would supposedly be no overture in a film until Dancer In The Dark over twenty years later.
Goldsmith’s work on Alien is legendary among film music goofballs like me because it is one of his most tampered-with scores. To begin with, although there is a bit of music from his earlier score for a film about Freud, that isn’t his fault: Ridley Scott liked it better than what Goldsmith had written for the film and so he put it in over Goldsmith’s objections. Furthermore, the music you will hear in this episode, while written for the opening title sequence of Alien, is NOT the music you hear during that sequence if you watch the film. Once again, Scott didn’t care for it for some reason, and had Goldsmith go back and write the music you now hear in the finished film, which is incredibly spooky and atmospheric and full of dread, but does not contain the theme he had originally written. Indeed, the theme he wrote for Alien is almost nowhere to be heard in the picture, certainly not at the end, at which point Scott dispenses with Goldsmith entirely and uses instead a piece of Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2. Which sounds nothing like any of the music that preceded it in the film. Other bits of the score were rearranged and placed in scenes for which they were not written.
With all this, it must seem pretty strange that Goldsmith ever agreed to work with Ridley Scott again. And it was not only strange, but it turned out to be a ghastly mistake, because his score for Scott’s 1986 film Legend was stripped away completely for the American release and replaced with a score by Tangerine Dream. (The only reason Europe got to hear Goldsmith’s music in the film is because there wasn’t enough time to replace it over there.) Someone thought that the film would be more appealing to the youth market if it had more modern music, which seems perfectly reasonable when you consider how many kids thought Star Wars was a big ol’ piece of shit.
There was no third Goldsmith/Scott collaboration.
Goldsmith’s score for Poltergeist is loaded with creepy and sometimes outright violent music. However, I didn’t pick any of it. I went with a piece called “The Light” specifically because it sounds unlike the rest of the score, and never fails to elicit a surprising response from me. The scene in which this music appears is the one in which Dr. Lesh (played by Beatrice Straight) tries to explain to Carol Anne’s brother what poltergeists are all about – namely, dead folks who aren’t ready to go to whatever’s next and have doomed themselves to a futile attempt to co-exist with the living, and the attendant frustrations that would naturally arise when your every successful interaction with live people invariably ends with them saying “a g-g-g-g-g-g-GHOST!!” and running through a wall leaving a perfect running-person-shaped hole behind them.
All joking aside, let’s think about this for realsies a moment. We have all, at one time or another, felt like nobody in the room was paying the slightest attention to us. (Some of us have gone our whole lives feeling that way.) And we have all experienced rejection by someone from whom we may desperately have wanted acknowledgement. Well, now imagine that kind of rejection on a sort of cosmic scale: an entire world of people who have no idea you’re there, and when you CAN somehow force their attention by making a door slam or a chair move, the only response you get is confusion or terror. Worse than that, there’s an ENTIRE UNIVERSE RIGHT BEHIND YOU, every mystery solved, every secret revealed, the length and depth and breadth of the universe waiting for you to merge your consciousness with it… and YOU DON’T WANT IT because you’re obsessed with our comparatively measly existences, with our smartphones and our therapy bills and our yogurt cups. The grandeur of the cosmos is yours for the taking, but you’re rejecting it in a desperate bid for our useless attention… the ultimate troll.
It is this – the monumental tragedy of those unwilling or unable to go into the light, as well as the awe and eternal mystery that the light itself represents – that Goldsmith captures so perfectly in this piece. It doesn’t matter whether or not you believe in any kind of afterlife, because the music believes it for you. It is the most unexpectedly emotional musical moment in Poltergeist, and one of the most emotionally effective pieces in all of his work that I’ve heard. And I’ve heard a lot. I thought it was important to pass that along.
9. Fierce Creatures
A pop song in search of a lyricist. And I don’t say that disparagingly – if someone had taken the time to slap some words on this lovely tune and hand it to, I don’t know, Anita Baker perhaps, Jerry Goldsmith could have had one of the biggest lite-pop hits of the 90’s. Someone out there should try to cook up some lyrics and get back to us with this. I’ll bet Zooey Deschanel would sing it.
10. Hollow Man
The third collaboration between Goldsmith and filmmaker Paul Verhoeven, Hollow Man is probably the least-known of the three (the other two being Total Recall and Basic Instinct), which is why it was a good idea for Tyler to pick this one. This music has been lying in relative obscurity just because the picture is substandard and people don’t want to see it, but that’s not Goldsmith’s fault. It’s always a shame when good work is done for bad movies; a great example of this is David Mansfield’s excellent music for Heaven’s Gate, a film that even the imprimatur of the Criterion Collection can’t save from its well-deserved reputation as a howling mess. So when you’re listening to this piece, don’t think about Verhoeven’s invisible-jerk movie… just enjoy it on its own considerable merits.
Well, that’s about it. If David and Tyler ever let me back in, I promise to show up no matter what. For those of you who have already listened to this episode, I apologize if you’ve now decided to take the time to go back and listen again. For those of you who haven’t listened yet, enjoy.