Saluting the Film Scores of Paul Verhoeven Movies
From Total Recall and RoboCop through to Turkish Delight and Flesh+Blood, we look at the musical scores of Paul Verhoeven films...
This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
The Netherlands’ arch-provocateur and filmmaker extraordinaire Paul Verhoeven recently returned with Elle. A characteristically confrontational and provocative thriller, it spins a rape-revenge storyline into a mordantly funny, blackly comic and off-kilter odyssey, and has garnered an Oscar nomination for extraordinary lead Isabelle Huppert in the process.
It’s exactly what we’ve come to expect from a veteran director who’s done it all, having made jaws drop in both Europe and Hollywood – but beneath Verhoeven’s love of excess and shock tactics lurks real artistry, and nowhere is this more evident than in the remarkable run of film scores he’s elicited from his composers over the years.
Few filmmakers understand the power of a film score better – and here’s the list proving why.
Dutch enfant terrible Verhoeven isn’t backwards in coming forwards when it comes to shocking the audience. His second feature, 1973’s Turkish Delight, immediately nailed his colors to mast with its onslaught of bad behavior, graphic sex and a memorably mad performance from Rutger Hauer (with whom he would collaborate several more times). It also marked one of several collaborations with noted Dutch jazz artist and multiple Eurovision winner Rogier van Otterloo, a score featuring the whistled contributions of the noted Toots Thielemans.
The score is in many ways a product of its time, but it demonstrates the level of creative freedom and wit that Verhoeven was to further encourage in his later Hollywood movies.
Soldier Of Orange
Verhoeven’s European filmmaking career was dogged by as much controversy and outrage as his eventual American one (the appalled reaction to his hotly debated dirt-biking drama Spetters caused eventual funding problems and led him to look towards the USA for the first time), but it’s all-too-easy to let the headlines overshadow the craft on display.
This Golden Globe-nominated look at the Dutch resistance during World War II is galvanized by a rich, emboldening score from the returning Rogier van Otterloo, one that calls to mind British militaristic masters like Malcolm Arnold and Ron Goodwin. Already it was becoming clear that Verhoeven was a filmmaker unafraid of prioritizing music as a means of emotional expression, never failing to encourage his composers to go the extra mile.
The final European movie made by Verhoeven until 2006 (funded by soon-to-be-defunct American company Orion) was far from subtle, manifesting in the down and dirty, gory historical fantasy Flesh+Blood that saw him shake up the traditional epic with a good old dose of pestilent grunginess. The movie was something of a flop but it did lead to the first of his incredibly fruitful collaborations with the brilliant composer Basil Poledouris.
If nothing else, Flesh+Blood demonstrates how closely Verhoeven works with his composers to establish a musical dialogue for his movies, in this instance encouraging Poledouris to draw on his Conan The Barbarian wellspring while also pushing the music into ever-darker, more melancholy territory at times. It’s one of the richest, most underrated fantasy scores ever composed.
Verhoeven’s American debut remains one of his finest films, and one of the greatest sci-fi movies of all time. Fusing the filmmaker’s characteristically sly satire with the kind of explosively graphic violence designed to snap an audience out of apathy, it’s both a dark comment on futurism and a dramatic story of man fused with machine. He also elicits a perfectly pitched score from Basil Poledouris through which the movie’s dark humor becomes even more pronounced, the composer’s muscular horn arrangements ramping up Robo’s sense of heroism even as we’re forced to question the moral ethics of its existence.
Yet with its surprising array of poignant moments, the score also makes us care about the compromised position in which RoboCop finds himself: it’s a score capable of both winking at the listener while engaging us dramatically.
It takes a special kind of director to extract from the legendary Jerry Goldsmith one of his self-described “greatest scores.” Verhoeven’s terrifically fast-moving and unapologetically nasty take on Phillip K. Dick’s memory wipe story masterfully throws us off-balance by casting superstar Arnie who is neither convincing as an ordinary Joe or a secret agent. So which is he?
Compounding the story’s surreal atmosphere and dizzying twists is Goldsmith’s thunderously exciting score, one crammed with more relentless energy than 10 other action soundtracks combined. Resplendent in Goldsmith’s trendsetting blend of orchestral theatrics and subtly integrated electronics, it signalled the onset of one of the shortest-lived but most dynamic director-composer pairings in Hollywood history.
So difficult was Basic Instinct to score that Jerry Goldsmith almost walked off the project, the meticulous and exacting Verhoeven adamant in honing the perfect theme that would embody the sultry spirit of his movie. Upon discovering said theme in the midst of an underscore cue it all fell into place, the end result likely the best erotic thriller score ever composed.
Garnering Goldsmith one of his final Oscar nominations, it’s a pioneering blend of the alluring and the terrifying, the composer riffing, just as Verhoeven does in his visuals, on the spirit of Hitchcock and Herrmann, but with a far more gleefully nasty edge. In terms of embodying the contradictions of Sharon Stone’s intoxicating lead performance, the score is a masterpiece.
Describing this as Verhoeven’s most controversial film is much of a muchness, but it’s true that few of his American projects were as widely castigated as Showgirls. An unrepentantly sleazy and sordid dive into a world of exploitation, it’s debatable whether the film’s satirical overtones come across as intended (Verhoeven became the first nominee to turn up in person at the Razzies to collect his awards for Worst Picture and Director). Nevertheless it’s intriguing to note that the heavily processed, inescapably nineties-sounding score came from none other than noted guitarist David A. Stewart of Eurythmics fame, whose down and dirty emphasis on synths, electric guitar and sax couldn’t be more appropriate for the film in question.
Reputedly it was a miscommunication between Jerry Goldsmith’s agent and the makers of Starship Troopers that lost him this plum assignment. Regardless, it allowed Verhoeven and Basil Poledouris to rekindle the partnership that had been on ice since 1987’s RoboCop, and once again the composer’s signature, rousing symphonic approach meshes perfectly with the director’s vision.
As Verhoeven looked to turn Robert A. Heinlein’s militaristic novel on its head, transforming its fascistic undertones into ironically violent action, so does Poledouris’ thunderous score slyly ramp up the sense of jingoism, lending a triumphant yet satirical air to our marauding troopers who are just as expendable as the giant bugs they’re battling.
Very much the lesser of the Verhoeven/Goldsmith collaborations, this gory updating of the classic Invisible Man story still has much to recommend it, musically speaking. By this stage in the twilight years of his scoring career, Goldsmith was increasingly returning to the tightly wound, turbulent sound that earmarked his 1970s classics like Chinatown and The Boys From Brazil. It’s this approach that lends a sense of brooding danger to Verhoeven’s flawed film, ramping up the sense of danger while garlanded with thrumming electronics, rumbling piano and an icy main theme reminiscent of their earlier Basic Instinct.
It isn’t their best score together but is a commendably intelligent one, rounding off their creative, forward-thinking partnership (Goldsmith died in 2004) in fine style.
Six years after Hollow Man Verhoeven resurfaced in his native Europe, revitalised with one of his best films in a very long time, and a striking new composer partnership. The filmmaker’s acclaimed World War II thriller features a standout performance from Carice van Houten as a Jewish singer infiltrating the highest ranks of the Gestapo for the Dutch resistance, and benefits hugely from the sensitive touch of esteemed British composer/conductor/arranger Anne Dudley. A veteran of projects as diverse as The Full Monty and TV’s Poldark, Dudley’s sophisticated orchestral command lends a melancholy splendour to Verhoeven’s movie, a lament for a dark period in history where Europe was tearing itself apart.
After more than 40 years in the business, Verhoeven’s ability to elicit outstanding musical scores for his movies shows no signs of abating. He reunites with Anne Dudley for his most acclaimed movie in years, the story of a rape victim who turns the tables on her attacker in shocking and unexpected ways.
With Isabelle Huppert delivering a career-best in the central role, the final piece of the jigsaw is provided by Dudley herself. Her intimate score, one with the feel of a chamber orchestra, places emphasis on strings, harp and woodwinds to convey both a sense of fragility and yet also icy ambivalence, beautifully encapsulating the complexities of Huppert’s astonishing central turn. In what is presumably an intentional move it also honors the chilly spirit of Verhoeven and Jerry Goldsmith’s Basic Instinct, reinforcing the legacy of a singular director who has never failed to underestimate the power of a thought-provoking film score.