Six Damn Fine Degrees #5: Jerry Goldsmith – Hollywood’s golden composer

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness.

Following up on Eric’s deep space exploration of the not-so-beloved Star Trek – The Motion Picture, I was reminded of how much of what we are supposed to believe and feel about the film’s improbable plot and presumed depth is achieved by its soundtrack: the grandeur of the USS Enterprise, the viciousness of Klingon aggression or the prolonged mystery surrounding V’ger are all greatly heightened and intensified by that one composer who more than once saved Star Trek (and Hollywood!) with his music: Jerry Goldsmith (1929-2004).

Inheriting the unenviable task of adapting Star Trek’s music for the big screen at a time when John Williams had just forever redefined science fiction soundtracks with both Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Goldsmith acted as bravely as the Enterprise crew itself: he not only abandoned most of Alexander Courage’s original TV score but instead created a full blown orchestral tour de force with a myriad of new themes for the ages.

Most notably, his Main Title became an instant classic, almost outshining Williams’ unforgettable Star Wars theme in its endurance on television and future Star Trek movies. Its sense of adventure – harking back to the great themes of Korngold, Steiner and Rózsa – and its heroic energy propels the movie forward in moments when its lacking energy. Most notably, the theme takes centre stage in Captain Kirk’s lengthy docking sequence with the Enterprise. Thanks to Goldsmith, we believe that Kirk would be marvelling and gasping for a full six minutes!

However, Goldsmith doesn’t stop at a perfect main theme. He also created a perfectly strange theme for the Klingon’s evil schemes, a magically disturbing theme for V’ger’s approaching cloud and mesmerizing suspense music for Spock’s and the crew’s eventual encounter with V’ger. Most stunningly of all, “Ilia’s Theme” brings lyricism and romance to a character that clearly lacks emotions. The theme has since become a staple of any Best of Goldsmith anthology, even inspiring a justly forgotten pop song by Hardy Boy Shaun Cassidy (“A Star Beyond Time, definitely (not) worth putting on any shmaltzy 70s playlist!).

Goldsmith saved the day for Star Trek – The Motion Picture, in my mind, and even though James Horner and Leonard Rosenmann would equally shine in the next few Star Trek cinematic outings, Goldsmith would pen another four entries into the series. His Main Title and Klingon soundscapes would return, and he would add soaring new themes to them (First Contact and Insurrection stand out).

Most successfully for him, however, was the decision to bring his Main Title in the second Star Trek series for television, The Next Generation (1987-1994), as well as include a new, equally wonderful theme for Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001). Even though other composers like Dennis McCarthy, Cliff Eidelman and especially Michael Giacchino would contribute greatly to later incarnations of Star Trek on the big and small screens, Goldsmith’s themes have proven to be among the most popular.

Back in 1979, when Star Trek – The Motion Picture hit the screens, Goldsmith was in the middle of one of his most productive phases of his long career. Amazingly, he scored yet another sci-fi classic the same year: Ridley Scott’s Alien, opting for something much less lyrical but nonetheless ingenious. Even more incredibly, by that point, Goldsmith had already repeatedly pushed the envelope of science fiction scores, most notably the experimental glory that is Planet of the Apes (1968) and the strange soundscapes of Logan’s Run (1976).

His career had taken him from 1950s television themes (Dr. Kildare, Thriller) to 1960s atonal scores (Freud, which earned him his first Academy Award nomination in 1962). His collaboration with Franklin J. Schaffner got him into adventure, thrillers and science fiction (Planet of the Apes, The Blue Max, Papillon). A Patch of Blue and Tora! Tora! Tora! gained him even more critical acclaim, but it was his gloriously vicious score for The Omen (1976) that finally won him an Oscar – the weird satanic chant that is Ave Satani even getting him a Best Song nomination!

After the exhilarating Star Trek – The Motion Picture, Goldsmith changed his avantgarde approach more and more to his trademark mix of stringy lyricism, brassy power and synth weirdness. The 1980s saw him inventively score sequels for The Omen, fantasy adventures (Secret of NIMH, The Twilight Zone movie, Legend and Lionheart), action thrillers (First Blood) and horror (Gremlins, Poltergeist), drama (Night Crossing, Hoosiers) and comedy (The ‘Burbs).

Goldsmith did not let up in the 90s, and some of my favourite scores of his (The Russia House, Medicine Man, Basic Instinct) come from another enormously productive decade, which saw him also score sequels to Gremlins and aforementioned Star Trek entries. Hollywood could always rely on him, turning out glorious themes for even the most questionable hit or miss (The Mummy, The Edge, The Haunting, Air Force One) and sometimes one overlooks the fact that Goldsmith still managed to be bold and experimental, as in L.A. Confidential, harking back to his stunning Chinatown score.

Goldsmith kept on going until his death in 2004, turning out scores for yet another Star Trek movie (Nemesis) and ending his over 50 year run in the world of soundtracks with Looney Tunes – The Movie. The golden boy of scoring has since been missed greatly and besides Maestro Williams, there is no one left to equal the unparalleled glory and endurance of his science fiction themes – Star Trek – The Motion Picture being just one among many unforgettable compositions!

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