Jerry Goldsmith - Film Composer Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Jerry Goldsmith - Film Composer

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Jerry Goldsmith is another of Hollywood's great, veteran composers, and like John Williams, he is prolific as well as talented, producing as many as five or six scores a year at his peak. Goldsmith is in fact one of the very few composers working today who could challenge Williams' position as the Godfather of the modern movie score, having a career as long, and almost as prestigious.


A genuine child of Hollywood, Jerry Goldsmith was born in Los Angeles in February 1929. Like most of his contemporaries in the field of film composing, Goldsmith is a formally trained composer: studying piano with Jacob Gimpel; composition, theory and counterpoint with Mario Castelnuovo; and attending classes in composition with the famous composer Miklos Rozsa at the University of Southern California. Also like his contemporaries, Goldsmith began his scoring career in radio and TV, working for CBS and turning out weekly scores for series like Gunsmoke and The Twilight Zone.

He made his break into film scoring when he was hired by the legendary Alfred Newman, then the musical director with 20th Century Fox. His first major score with Newman and Fox was Lonely Are The Brave in 1962. He has since scored close to 200 movies, and while he is now over seventy years old, he still composes and conducts. Goldsmith's son, Joel - one of seven children - is also a cinematic composer, and worked with his father on the film Star Trek: First Contact in 1996.

The Goldsmith Canon

Goldsmith's impressive filmography includes a dizzying range of films, from science fiction offerings such as The Planet of the Apes (1967) and Alien (1979), to horror films like The Omen (1976) and Gremlins (1984), to thrillers including the infamous Basic Instinct (1992). He is at his best however scoring suspense or action, in which vein many a Goldsmith offering has lifted - or on occasion carried - an otherwise mediocre film.

Unlike John Williams or Danny Elfman, Jerry Goldsmith does not have a particularly prolific relationship with any one director - although he does frequently work with fellow composer Alexander Courage as his orchestrator - but he does challenge Williams as king of the sequel. He scored the first three Omen films (Omen, Damien (1978) and The Final Conflict (1981)), Gremlins and its sequel, and having written the score for Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), his main theme for that film was reused for the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation, and he has returned to the franchise to write scores for Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) and Star Trek: Insurrection (1998), to co-score Star Trek: First Contact with his son, Joel, and to compose the series theme for Star Trek: Voyager.

Goldsmith continues to produce high quality scores, these days predominantly for action films, such as Small Soldiers in 1998 and The Mummy in 1999 or thrillers, like 2001's Along Came a Spider. His work has also influenced younger composers such as James Horner, whose brassy title theme to the fantasy adventure Krull had a very Goldsmith feel to it; Alan Silvestri, whose work on the two Predator films made use of 'hooting' vocals reminiscent of Goldsmith's Apes; and James Newton Howard.

Goldsmith has been nominated for seventeen Academy Awards, but to date has only one gold statuette to his name. He won his Oscar in 1977 for The Omen.

More information on Goldsmith's work, including a complete filmography, can be found at his page on the Internet Movie Database.


Goldsmith is a prolific and varied artist, and his style is less easy to categorise than that of many other composers. He is an experimentalist, making full use of both orchestral and electronic instruments, and like Ennio Morricone he is not afraid to create a cacophony when such is called for by the project in hand. One of his most famous works is the radical score for the 1967 film, Planet of the Apes, an all but indescribable blaring, hooting clamour. The Apes score uses such bizarre techniques as horns blown without mouthpieces and a bass clarinet part that is fingered, but not blown. The result is quite extraordinary, and is considered a ground-breaking piece of music. On the other hand, it is nigh impossible to listen to - almost painful in fact - when isolated from the film.

While some of his other work resembles Apes, including his hoot-fest score for Ridley Scott's Legend, eventually abandoned for the US release - although retained in some European versions - in favour of a Tangerine Dream confection, he is better known for his more orthodox work. In particular, he has created many superb pieces of underscore in march tempo for various action and adventure movies. Also typical of the Goldsmith style is an up-tempo title theme, making good use of both strings and horns, as exemplified by his famous them for the later Star Trek projects.

Outstanding Works

'Ave Satani', from The Omen (1976)

Ave Satani Sanguis bibimus corpus edimus tolle corpus satani ave versus cristus ave satani
- 'Ave Satani', Jerry Goldsmith

Goldsmith's only Oscar-winning score is often - regrettably - mistaken for Carmina Burana: Many people think that The Omen's menacing chorale is 'O Fortuna', the first movement of Carl Orff's most famous work1, but in fact the piece in question is Goldsmith's 'Ave Satani', a powerful, bassy hymn to the overwhelming power of The Adversary. In those days the American Film Academy must have been less concerned with political correctness.

'Main Title' and 'Klingon Attack' from Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

Spock, this 'child' is about to wipe out every living thing on Earth! Now what do you suggest we do? Spank it?
Dr Leonard 'Bones' McCoy - Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Overall, the score for the first Star Trek film was not one of Goldsmith's stronger efforts, consisting of a great deal of rather bizarre and experimental electronic music intended to represent the machine intelligence V'ger, including the first use of the 'blaster beam'. Designed by electronics expert Craig Huxley, the beam is a fifteen-foot long instrument, composed of metal tubes, strings and motorised magnets, bowed with another tube, which creates an extraordinary booming sound. Used alone, the beam is a good sound effect, but unless supported by more conventional instruments, does not make for great music.

The 'Klingon Attack' theme however, makes good use of the beam, by inter-cutting V'Ger's beam theme with the hard, militaristic brass of the Klingon march, which became a staple of the later Trek movies. Similarly, Goldsmith's main theme for this film has been reused on each of the Trek movies he has scored, and became the series theme for Star Trek: The Next Generation, both pieces becoming an intrinsic part of the Star Trek universe.

The Mummy (1999)

I only gamble with my life, never my money
Rick O'Connell - The Mummy

The value of a good score is well-displayed by Stephen Sommers' 1999 blockbuster, and thrown into sharp relief in comparison with the 2001 follow-up, The Mummy Returns. In making the multi-million dollar sequel, Sommers performed the not inconsiderable task of reassembling his entire cast, but he did not get Goldsmith. Instead, the score was composed by Alan Silvestri, who proved not equal to the task.

Goldsmith's score for The Mummy displayed the composer at the top of his game. It was a relentless driving force, that powered the movie through its less coherent moments without leaving the audience time to draw breath and think too hard about what they were seeing. Although perfectly competent, Silvestri's offering for the sequel failed to sweep the watcher up in this way, leaving altogether too much opportunity to appreciate the movie's many other flaws. The two compared are an object lesson in the power and responsibility of the celluloid composer.

Further Reading

1Carmina Burana was used in the film Excalibur and the Old Spice advert.

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