The 30 greatest film scores of Jerry Goldsmith

From The Mummy and Gremlins to Star Trek and Total Recall, we salute the work of the late, great Jerry Goldsmith...

Upon presenting a lifetime achievement award to famed composer Jerry Goldsmith, his equally esteemed contemporary Henry Mancini addressed the assorted Hollywood crowd, claiming “he keeps everyone honest… and frankly he scares the hell out of us.” It was a humorous observation but one laced with truth, for few film composers were as mercurial, dynamic or thrilling as Goldsmith.

Responsible for innumerable classic works, from Chinatown to Total Recall, and a pioneer in the integration of ethnic sounds and electronic samples with a full symphony orchestra, Goldsmith stakes a strong claim to being the greatest film composer who ever lived. Although he sadly passed away in 2004 his formidable legacy lives on, so here are his 30 greatest works that continue to inspire the soul and get the blood pumping.

30. The Mummy (1999)

Composed towards the very end of Goldsmith’s career, this richly engrossing adventure score proved the master of such things still had the magic touch, although Goldsmith himself reportedly hated working on the film. No matter: the intoxicating blend of typically thunderous action music, Egyptian instrumentation, creepy horror material and heartwarming romance made for one of Goldsmith’s late-career masterpieces, one that not only threw back to his earlier classics like The Wind And The Lion but a lost, lamented golden age of film scoring in general.

29. The ‘Burbs (1989)

Every so often, a usually serious film composer is obliged to let their hair down. Goldsmith’s partnership with mischievous director Joe Dante was one of the most unexpectedly fruitful of his career, the two men bouncing riotously silly and inventive musical ideas off one another that helped emphasise the satire of the movies in question; yet they didn’t come sillier than the score for The ‘Burbs. Here, Goldsmith throws out every trick in the book from sly spoofing of his own celebrated Patton score to blaring organ horror and utterly ridiculous electronic effects including breaking glass and wailing cats. It’s unashamedly daft but works brilliantly for the movie, heightening its sense of satirical fun no end.

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28. The Boys From Brazil (1978)

Another of Goldsmith’s great abilities was his ability to contort and manipulate pre-existing musical forms, thereby coming up with something truly twisted and unsettling. Franklin J Schaffner’s adaptation of Ira Levin’s novel, detailing the notorious Josef Mengele’s attempts to rekindle the Third Reich, sees Goldsmith brilliantly weaving Wagnerian and Straussian waltz movements around one another, a grandiose, decadent distillation of the Nazi regime’s lust for power that is at once both alluring and terrifying. However, much of the score is occupied by Goldsmith’s signature rumbling suspense material, off-kilter piano and terse strings reinforcing the dire threat of Mengele’s plan; truly one of the composer’s most innovative works.

27. The Edge (1997)

Goldsmith’s second animal attack movie in as many years, this gripping story of a millionaire and a fashion photographer stalked through the Alaskan wilderness by a monstrous bear is visceral entertainment. Complimenting the strong performances of Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin, not to mention the sharp script by David Mamet, is Goldsmith’s full-blooded music that, like the earlier The Ghost And The Darkness, both celebrates the beauty of the wild and also chills the blood with its depiction of animal savagery, the gloriously inspiring main theme giving host to memorably creepy textures for the aforementioned bear. Unusually devoid of any electronic sampling, it’s pure orchestral Goldsmith – and all the better for it.

26. The Shadow (1994)

Goldsmith only ever made two forays into the superhero genre, once with Supergirl and the other with this utterly rip-roaring slice of pulp action. The great success of Goldsmith’s score for The Shadow is its self-awareness: taking a cue from Danny Elfman’s trendsetting Batman (whose influence is immediately apparent), the composer wastes no time in establishing a soundscape that is both broodingly atmospheric yet irreverently tongue-in-cheek, a score that’s robustly dramatic yet never pompous enough to take itself too seriously. That was one of Goldsmith’s many gifts: the ability to look at a movie and extract its soul, giving the picture exactly what it needed yet also elevating it beyond its flaws. Few of his nineties works were as straightforwardly entertaining as The Shadow.

25. Explorers (1985)

One of Goldsmith’s most jubilant and joyous works, this charming score for director Joe Dante’s adventure distils childhood innocence to a truly wondrous degree. It’s the story of three pre-teen boys (one played by a very young Ethan Hawke) who build a spaceship out of a tilt-a-whirl, and like the characters themselves, Goldsmith revels in a wide-eyed sense of adventure, his triumphant central Construction theme one of his most infectiously upbeat creations. Augmented as ever by a host of swirling electronic effects, the Explorers score finds Goldsmith in a particularly giving mood, a nostalgic celebration of what it’s like to be young and free.

24. The Russia House (1990)

One of the side-effects of Goldsmith’s wide-ranging career is that many smaller scores risk getting lost in the shuffle. One of his most affecting was this stylish jazzy offering for the John Le Carre drama starring Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer. Composed for an achingly cool jazz trio of Branford Marsalis on saxophone, Michael Lang on piano and John Patitucci on double bass, backed the requisite string/electronic mixture capturing the story’s espionage elements, it’s an exquisite musical depiction of love in a cold climate, a sense of human warmth piercing through the wall of Cold War paranoia. It’s one of Goldsmith’s most underrated scores, and almost certainly one of his best.

23. First Knight (1995)

Undeniably scuppered by the peculiar casting of Richard Gere as the Yankee in King Arthur’s court, First Knight really isn’t as bad as its reputation suggests; at the very least it looks grand, and sounds it too courtesy of Goldsmith’s rollicking score, reportedly his favourite project to have worked on during the twilight years of his career. The gallantry of Arthurian knights has always been a godsend for film composers but in the hands of Goldsmith it’s especially dynamic, a feast of brass fanfares, tender love themes and explosive choral moments that further cements the composer as the greatest adventure scorer who ever lived. Noble and majestic, it’s yet another Goldsmith work that rises high above the quality of the film in question.

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22. Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)

Goldsmith was the champion at scoring craptacular movies; far too many shoddy offerings were blessed with his talent (which, in Goldsmith’s own words, owed itself to a sense of restlessness, and a desire to continually push himself experimentally no matter the quality of the film itself). There’s no denying that the cartoonish Rambo sequel, no matter how enjoyable, was a considerable step down from the gritty, intelligent original, but it did allow Goldsmith to let rip. Whereas the First Blood score juxtaposed Rambo’s melancholy central theme with a host of dark and toiling textures, Part II is unashamedly heroic and exciting, a beefy blend of full-on fanfare material with the composer’s customary electronics. It almost veers into self-parody at times but Goldsmith’s musical integrity saves the day.

21. Islands In The Stream (1977)

Goldsmith loved nothing more than to score intimate, human drama but he found frustratingly few opportunities to do so, especially towards the end of his career. It’s therefore little surprise that this lovely and tender little gem was regarded by the composer himself as his personal favourite, absent of orchestral histrionics but with a devastating emotional impact. The movie itself, adapted by Goldsmith regular Franklin J Schaffner from Ernest Hemingway’s novel of the same name, has slipped into obscurity; Goldsmith’s score however remains one of his most beautiful and deserves to be remembered as such, a profoundly human symphony proving there was more to him than bombastic action.

20. Medicine Man (1992)

Throughout the late 1980s Goldsmith’s experimentation with electronics yielded mixed results, his all-synth efforts such as Alien Nation and Criminal Law leaving the orchestra behind and subsequently lacking the impact of his finest works. However, one score that beautifully fused the organic with the synthetic was his work on Sean Connery eco-drama Medicine Man, quite possibly the pinnacle of Goldsmith’s work in the area. With dreamy strings and woodwinds mixing effortlessly with an expansive synth backdrop, there’s no denying that Goldsmith captured the mystery and the majesty of the movie’s rainforest location in a manner that is really quite dazzling. It proves that Goldsmith’s synthetics, abrasive on their own, really do work better when they compliment his orchestral writing. Fun fact: Connery’s on-screen hair was in fact modelled on Goldsmith’s.

19. Under Fire (1983)

Famously – and brilliantly – used by Quentin Tarantino during his blood-soaked epic Django Unchained, this thoughtful drama score marks one of the relatively few occasions in Goldsmith’s career where his talent matched the potential of the movie. A political thriller set in Nicaragua starring Gene Hackman and Nick Nolte, it offered Goldsmith a plum chance to not only launch into the location-specific textures he loved so much, but also build some of his most intelligent and stirring character themes. Working with noted guitarist Pat Metheny, Goldsmith crafts a slow-burner of a score that inexorably builds to the aforementioned Django track, Niicaragua, one of the most rousing and cathartic musical statements in the composer’s entire career.

18. Magic (1978)

Richard Attenborough’s under-appreciated psychological thriller is one of the creepiest doll movies ever made, featuring a terrific performance from a young Anthony Hopkins as the ventriloquist whose dummy may or may not be alive. It’s fertile ground for Goldsmith whose music wobbles uneasily between string-led compassion and starkly jabbing harmonica, a perfect crystallation of the turbulence occurring within Hopkins’ mind. As ever, Goldsmith’s use of particular musical signatures and textures to create an emotional link with the viewing audience is quite breathtaking; even when the dreaded dummy in question, Fats, isn’t moving, the composer’s eerie music invests him with genuinely terrifying life.

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17. Gremlins (1984)

So robust are Goldsmith’s more adventurous scores that his comedy offerings can’t help but come off a bit fluffy and insubstantial as a result. One of the exceptions was this devious and hilarious score for Joe Dante’s tale of mischievous monsters running amok in suburbia, Goldsmith’s first score for the filmmaker who would become one of his longest-running collaborators. Anchored by the riotously catchy, all-electronic Gremlin Rag, this is a deliberately eclectic, intentionally silly comedy score that throws around a host of ideas and processed sound effects in a bid to match the movie’s offbeat tone, contravening the oft-held idea that comedy music needs to be played as straight as possible in order to be funny. As ever, Goldsmith was the one to prove everybody wrong.

16. Capricorn One (1977)

A score of pure brute force and relentless suspense, the chopping rhythms of Goldsmith’s Capricorn One acted as a massive influence on all of the composer’s subsequent action material. In fact, just listen to James Horner’s Futile Escape cue from Aliens to get a measure of how important the Capricorn One theme is. Director Peter Hyams’ conspiracy thriller regularly courts implausibility but the incessantly thrilling nature of Goldsmith’s score keeps us glued to our seats, the menace of the central theme intentionally matching the faceless threat posed by the villains’ black helicopters. If ever there was proof that Goldsmith was a master of musical tension, this is it.

15. The Blue Max (1966)

One of several 1960s scores that announced Goldsmith as a musical force to be reckoned with, this enormously stirring celebration of World War I heroism (from a German perspective, no less) remains one of his best. Honouring the master of such things, Ron Goodwin (who was originally asked to score the movie), Goldsmith utilises the 100-piece National Philharmonic Orchestra to construct one of the most robust and thrilling wartime scores in movie history; the use of the high strings and trilling woodwinds to convey the spirit of the airborne dog fights was to prove hugely influential on the likes of John Williams’ Star Wars and James Horner’s The Rocketeer. Yet underpinning it all is a refreshing sense of musical maturity that captures the darkness inherent in George Peppard’s central character, another sign of Goldsmith’s knack for capturing character as well as action.

14. Papillon (1973)

Given his reputation as a pioneer in the realms of action, horror and science fiction, it’s perhaps easy to forget that Goldsmith was also capable of turning out some of cinema’s most tender and beautiful melodies. Case in point: this sumptuously lovely score for the movie based on the story of Henri Charriere, a Frenchman imprisoned in French Guiana. Reuniting with regular collaborator Franklin J. Schaffner, Goldsmith extracts grace notes of compassion and warmth from Charriere’s heartrending story, gently teasing out his French nationality and brilliantly complimenting Steve McQueen’s terrific central performance. Goldsmith’s feather-light interactions of strings, accordion and woodwind are some of the most perfectly wrought in his entire career.

13. Alien (1979)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iNxiCQ-GHAE

One of Goldsmith’s most chillingly effective horror scores suffered from a controversial post-production situation, as director Ridley Scott and editor Terry Rawlings saw fit to chop the composer’s music into bits, as well as replacing it with Goldsmith cues from other scores and a classical staple by Howard Hanson. However badly Goldsmith was treated, however, the score as heard in the film is brilliantly terrifying, although it took the 2007 deluxe album release to really appreciate Goldsmith’s towering achievement, his eerily lonely trumpet theme (butchered in the movie) representing the coldness of space gradually giving way to a host of slithery, spine-tingling textures for the titular xenomorph, including a 16th century instrument called the Serpent. Aside from its traumatic creation, Alien encapsulates Goldsmith’s remarkable ability to juxtapose glacial beauty with bone-chilling terror.

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12. The Ghost And The Darkness (1996)

Only Goldsmith could have fused English, Irish and African sensibilities seamlessly together in one score; The Ghost And The Darkness is the glorious end result, by turns a triumphant depiction of the sweeping Tsavo landscape and a terrifying representation of the man-eating lions contained within. The composer was a keen studier of world music and ethnic textures, yet rarely did he pull it off as effectively as here. The score’s gripping movement from beauty to horror to thunderous action and back again is terrifically well wrought and unsurprisingly carries echoes of Goldsmith’s 1975 masterpiece The Wind And The Lion. The music even helps viewers overlook star Val Kilmer’s attempt at an Irish accent; it’s that good.

11. The Final Conflict (1981)

If The Omen introduced us to the antichrist and Damien: Omen Part II took us through his adolescence, then the third and final movie is where the final battle between good and evil takes place. That means only one thing: an opportunity for Goldsmith to paint musically with some of the most majestic textures of his entire career. Typically, he ignores the shoddy qualities of the film itself to conjure a musical depiction of the end of days, wider in scope than his Oscar-winning score for the original and possessed of stronger ideas than that for the sequel. It’s little wonder, given the sheer beauty and terror on offer, that many of The Final Conflict’s tonal ideas were carried over into Poltergeist the following year.

10. The Secret Of NIMH (1982)

Goldsmith only ever made two forays into animation scoring (the other being the wonderful Mulan in 1998) but as ever, he redefined how the genre was scored. Don Bluth’s fantastical and often scary story of Mrs Brisby and the genetically engineered rats of NIMH required a much more sophisticated and robust score than this genre usually allows for, and Goldsmith duly responded. Defying the approach taken by his contemporaries, Goldsmith never mickey-mouses the action or attempts to make it overly cutesy, instead creating a gripping dramatic undercurrent that plays to the story’s themes of family, magic and betrayal. There are no songs, bar one lullaby; just some of the most soaringly dramatic material of Goldsmith’s entire career, the National Philharmonic Orchestra (plus choir) performing some of their greatest work.

9. Total Recall (1990)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u1g5iO50VAU

Although Goldsmith was the king of the action score Total Recall remains pretty special, even by his own high standards. Working for the first time with Paul Verhoeven, who clearly deserves much credit for eliciting outstanding music from his composers (he also worked with the terrific Basil Poledouris), Goldsmith’s blisteringly complex, seamless fusion of dizzying orchestral writing with otherwordly electronics remains a high watermark in sci-fi/action scoring: intuitive, innovative and relentlessly exciting. His music zipping around as quickly as Arnie dodges on-screen bullets, Goldsmith himself marvelled at the sheer number of notes he’d composed for the project. Easily a candidate for the greatest action score of all time.

8. Patton (1970)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mu11QRO9BrQ

Another fine example of Goldsmith’s ability to get inside a movie’s emotional landscape (he once told a group of film score students that scoring a horseback chase should be about capturing the fear of the rider, not the chase itself), Patton zeroes in not on the obvious World War II trappings but the more elusive characteristics of Patton himself. Utilising trumpet triplets filtered through an echoplex to give a hauntingly spiritual sound, Goldsmith through his music reinforces Patton’s unyielding belief in reincarnation, a key theme in the movie made all the more so by Goldsmith’s incisive techniques. Patton was later brilliantly spoofed by the composer in his own scores for The ‘Burbs and Small Soldiers.

7. The Wind And The Lion (1975)

John Milius’ rousing period adventure features a Scottish-accented Raisuli played by Sean Connery and one of Goldsmith’s most thunderously adventurous accompaniments. Always a composer goosed by exotic landscapes and exciting set-pieces, Goldsmith here unleashes the full might of the brass and percussion section, sweeping audiences into the movie’s Moroccan landscapes whilst also capturing the noble gallantry of Connery’s central character. It was a score that proved enormously influential on Goldsmith’s later output, particularly the likes of The Ghost And The Darkness and The Mummy.

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6. Poltergeist (1982)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ESXXGJNrK0w

Goldsmith once said that the role of a film composer was to score the emotion, not the visuals, and this Oscar-nominated horror masterwork demonstrates that philosophy perfectly. Although the ghostly Tobe Hooper/Steven Spielberg brings the scares, Goldsmith looked beyond to score the underlying love between the Freeling family that comes under threat from the supernatural scourge. The result is a powerful score that mixes tender lyricism in the form of Carol Anne’s Theme with some of the most brutally terrifying and compelling material of Goldsmith’s career, a score that brilliantly pinballs between shock and awe.

5. Basic Instinct (1992)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xwdAXiJGXHA

Director Paul Verhoeven’s provocative and sleazy riffing on Alfred Hitchcock deserves to be remembered for more than just Sharon Stone sans grundies; in fact it demands more recognition for its sly visual style and playful storytelling, aided beautifully by Goldsmith’s supple and sultry score. The composer deemed it one of his hardest scores to compose, Verhoeven encouraging him to go the extra mile and compose a wonderfully icy score that brilliantly embodies the contradictions of Stone’s alluring character Catherine Tramell; it is at once deeply attractive yet utterly malevolent. Of course, Goldsmith being Goldsmith the contradictions seem effortless, and it single-handedly defined the rest of his thrillers throughout the rest of the nineties.

4. Planet Of The Apes (1968)

Although Goldsmith had been scoring movies since the late 1950s, it was this revolutionary, avant-garde work (bearing the influence of his great mentor, Alex North) that truly established him as a force to be reckoned with. Eschewing the more traditional theme and melody approach for an uncompromising array of instrumental experimentation, including rams horns, bowls and woodwind instruments used without mouthpieces, it sounds as fresh today as it did back then, and got the composer his fourth Oscar nomination, the perfect embodiment of the movie’s inverted primate landscape. So into the project was Goldsmith that he conducted part of it wearing an ape mask.

3. Chinatown (1974)

Amazingly, Goldsmith had only 10 days to compose his score (replacing a rejected work by Philip Lambro) for Roman Polanski’s classic neo-noir starring Jack Nicholson. Yet the impossible time constraints yielded one of his most haunting works: anchored by that haunting trumpet solo by Uan Rasey anticipating the doomed trajectory of the story’s central romance (reportedly scored to sound like “bad sex”), the majority of the score centres around Goldsmith’s avant-garde textures heard in Planet Of The Apes, designed to reflect the aridity of the movie’s water-parched Los Angeles landscape whilst bringing the noir genre into the modern age. There’s only 25 minutes worth of music in the movie, yet every single second counts.

2. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

Despite the many glorious highs of the Star Trek movie franchise, its inception came with this somewhat muddled and slow-moving, though visually majestic, debut feature, one that fails to yield the warm responses afforded to later entries in the series. Nevertheless, its extraordinary effects allowed Goldsmith to paint an astonishing tapestry that defined the sound of Star Trek like no other. Utilising Alexander Courage’s series fanfare as a jumping-off point, Goldsmith’s immediately iconic brassy theme (later used for The Next Generation TV series) is complemented by a host of fascinating, ethereal textures including the unsettling noise of the blaster beam. It’s perhaps best to leave the movie entirely and just appreciate Goldsmith’s richly fascinating symphony on its own terms.

1. The Omen (1976)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CrhlIBz8yg4

The greatest horror score ever composed, bar none, this is a textbook example of what a soundtrack can do for its respective movie, elevating it from schlock into grippingly portentous Satanic art. Although Richard Donner’s story of the antichrist’s adoption by the American ambassador is a classy affair, aided no end by strong performances from Gregory Peck, Lee Remick and Billie Whitelaw, it’s Goldsmith’s cutting-edge and utterly terrifying Gregorian chants that cue us into the devilish maelstrom circling around our unsuspecting central characters. Almost certainly Goldsmith’s most dramatically effective and intuitive work, it got him his only Oscar and was to lay the groundwork for the next generation of film composers, including the likes of Hellraiser’s Christopher Young.

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