Saturday, 13 June 2009

Seminal Scores: Basic Instinct (Jerry Goldsmith, 1992)

A few days ago I was carping about the death of the film score. Well, as a riposte of sorts to my own meanderings, here's a reminder of one of the all time greats....


In July 2004, the world of film music lost one of its great pioneers and innovators. In a career spanning over 40 years, Jerry Goldsmith scored for every conceivable genre, from war movies to comedy, drama to sci-fi, horror to sports flicks. Renowned for his invigorating incorporation of electronic rhythms and unusual instruments into his work, famed musician Henry Mancini (The Pink Panther) openly admitted, ' scare the hell out of us'.

His key, almost elemental ability to burrow inside the core of a film and amplify its very meaning in musical form is perhaps his most valued skill, and one that has secured his work as some of the most important ever to appear in cinema. As opposed to the 'surface' scoring of John Williams, who accentuates what is already obvious in a film, Goldsmith has been quoted as saying 'It [film music] isn't about what you're's about what you're not seeing'. Not that I'm daring to slight Williams in any way; he's a marvellous composer and brilliantly effective in his more emotionally direct way. But Goldsmith is, for want of a better word, more cerebral, more innovative, all the while still maintaining that valuable connection with the listener.

A case in point is his Oscar-nominated work for Paul Verhoeven's 1992 erotic thriller Basic Instinct. Goldsmith scored a lot of bad films in his career and this was another, yet it was inexplicably successful on release, no doubt due to the sleazy, gratuitous undertones and the frenzy surrounding the film's allegations of homophobia. Making a megastar out of a knickerless Sharon Stone, she stars as a bisexual novelist whose lover is murdered with an icepick. Assigned to the case is a troubled detective Michael Douglas, who instantly falls for the alluring prime suspect. She has an alibi - the same murder is described in one of her books - but are things that simple?

Goldsmith's genius notion with the score lies with the main theme itself, a malevolently attractive one for smooth strings and woodwind that both beckons the listener to come closer while also warning them of imminent danger around the corner. It's a brilliant duality, and sums up Stone's character perfectly. Also fascinating is his scoring of the endless sex scenes in the film: rather than take the obvious route and have blaring, sensual saxophones ringing out all over the place, he realises sex, as seen in the film, as a dangerous act that could lead to murder (and indeed it does in the films nasty opening scene), with stabbing strings leading to a suitably orgasmic climax.

Even the quieter moments, where electronics feature more prominently, offer a palpable game of musical cat and mouse, reflecting the edgy relationship between suspect and detective. Then there are of course the dynamite action cues that Goldsmith has become famous for throughout his career. These are the moments when the mystery of the murder case, and its inherent menace, are amplified tenfold with blaring drum machines and superb frantic orchestral writing.

Indeed, the score proved to be so successful and influential, it was to crop up in barely altered forms in many of Goldsmith's subsequent thriller scores (especially Malice, the following year). Once again, he got to the heart of the film (although not without difficulty - he almost walked when his initial work kept getting rejected by director Verhoven), namely the realisation of sex and murder as two sides of the same coin. Once again, his unsettlingly intuitive knack stepped in and elevated the film it accompanied. Making an erotic thriller seem classy and accomplished? No mean feat!

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