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Sphere of Influence

Elliot Goldenthal's Score to the Latest Michael Crichton Stinker, and a few comments about Goldenthal from Our Readers

by Jeff Bond

Sphere ***1/2


Varese Sarabande VSD-5913. 14 tracks - 35:36

It's about time Elliot Goldenthal scored a science fiction film. You say Goldenthal has already scored a few science fiction films? Well, that depends on how hard-and-fast your definitions go. Goldenthal's first major film was Alien3, but this was certainly more a gothic horror film than a science fiction movie, and Goldenthal's score was a cacophonous choral elegy that highlighted the film's quasi-religious underpinnings. At the opposite end of that pretentious spectrum was the satirical dystopian thriller Demolition Man, a warm-up for Goldenthal's Batman efforts with its snappy and vivid comic book stylings.

Sphere, based on Michael Crichton's fat techno-thriller novel, is a science fiction film through and through. It begins with the tired movie concept of an alien spacecraft discovered beneath the ocean depths that appears to house a malevolent extraterrestrial presence, then tweaks the mystery until the scientific investigators themselves prove to be the root of the danger. Goldenthal's scores can often be either off-puttingly over-the-top (as in A Time to Kill) or lost amid an explosion of garish production design and sound effects (Batman & Robin), but here the music is a perfect fit with a film that manages to maintain interest up until a disastrously ill-conceived finale.

Varese sprung for a relatively generous 35 and a half minutes of music for their album, which Goldenthal opens with "Pandora's Fanfare" an evocative solo brass line whose vaulting intervals almost suggest that it's Goldenthal's ironic reply to the famous Strauss Also Sprach Zarathustra fanfare. Sphere's actual main titles are more minimalistic, with murmuring string figures and a melancholy reed sketching out the beauty of the undersea terrain while burbling low woodwinds and bells hint at the menace to come. Even "Entry 6-21-43" brings forth a heavy bombast more akin to Goldenthal's Alien3, with its swirling glissandos which eventually develop into a John Adams-style brass sound (think Nixon in China)."The Gift" offers up a somewhat more conventional (and moving) melodic approach before its great sci fi brass climax. "Visit to aWreckage" appropriately echoes Goldsmith's Alien with its very subtle rustling, percussive effects (including col legno, striking the strings with the back of the bow), randomness of pizzicato and low woodwinds suggest furtive, hiding animals, while the brief presence of harps put me in mind of Williams's Jaws.

"Terror Adagio," with its harps and winding mid-range string line demonstrates the kind of smooth, unsettling menace that John Frizzell tried to achieve in Alien Resurrection. But Goldenthal's ensuing brass chord fanfare, metallic percussion and staccato piano line (with some clanging percussion of a type often used by James Horner), wailing strings and woodwinds goes into an agitated, erratic march (reminiscent of Demolition Man) that has a manic structure leagues beyond the monotonous pounding of Frizzell's effort. Goldenthal's easy intelligence is also on display in "Andante," with a moody piano line that moves between a semi-serial melody and more accessible classical lyricism, balancing sympathy and confusion to keep the audience off balance even during the film's more reflective moments. The climactic cues ("Manifest Fire" and "Manifest 3") again hearken back to the swirling glissandi and muted brass effects of Alien3, but there's a cannier, more driving action feel here as opposed to the wall-of-sound approach that emphasized the feelings of hopelessness in the Alien film. Goldenthal's finale is equally clever: the mock-triumphant "Their Beast Within" which, in keeping with the movie's shaggy dog storyline, meanders off into nothingness rather than ending the score with a showy orchestral flourish.


Brent Bowles' recent piece on taking the big leap into the world of Elliot Goldenthal produced these three letters, which I will expound upon at length in order to fill up this column:

From: K Dick,

    I have read a lot about Goldenthal but am not that familiar with his music. I know when I bought the Alien Trilogy on Varese and heard his contribution, it stuck out like a sore thumb compared to Goldsmith and Horner. But I have always been a fan of orchestral color in film music (Herrmann was the master) as opposed to thematic development. So what do you recommend as a good place to start for listening to Mr. Goldenthal's music?

Apparently the "what the hell is this?" reaction to Goldenthal's Alien3 is a fairly universal one unless you're some kind of mutated genius like Lukas, who immediately perceived its brilliance. For me, the Rosetta Stone for my appreciation of Goldenthal was his action score for the Sly Stallone dysfunctional future pic Demolition Man. Goldenthal's action cues for this surprisingly entertaining time-waster were appropriately supercharged (particularly "Action, Guns, Fun"), and featured some of Goldenthal's best funny track titles ("Obligatory Car Chase" and "Subterranean Slugfest" being my personal favorites). But what really sucked me in was Goldenthal's hilarious take-off of Philip Glass's Koyaanisquatsi score, particularly for a scene in which Stallone, in his neo-fascist future police gear, goes marching off in a dander to the tune of a bellicose rendition of one of Glass's ethereal ostinatos. Equally effective in tuning me in to the Goldenthal groove was Interview With the Vampire, with its melancholy title theme and spiky, agitated horror sequences: ironically, this is one of the few films I've seen where Goldenthal's score played a major role in pushing the film's agenda (in particularly bringing tremendous weight and urgency to the concept of blood-drinking): often his scores seem more interesting than effective in the context of the film. I would also recommend the lively and very strange Cobb.


    I absolutely agree with your article regarding Elliot Goldenthal. I find his music extremely interesting, dramatic, and skillfully developed. It is unfortunate that the music is the best part for many of the films he scored -- I actually see films that he has scored even if I have no interest in the film -- the music is just that impressive.

    I was wondering if you know anything about his classical compositions that he is working on, if there is a fan club (or web site) devoted to him, and how I can get in contact with him (or his representative)?

1) We're not exactly sure what he's working on now non-film wise, having finished his Juan Darian theater piece. 2) See our links section here at FSM! 3) Write him c/o Gorfaine-Schwartz Agency, 13245 Riverside Dr Suite 450, Sherman Oaks CA 91423.

George Oldziey <> offers this tantalizing glimpse into Goldenthal's past:

    I have to agree with Brent Bowles clear assessment of Elliot Goldenthal's film scores in terms of his reliance on orchestration rather than thematic ideas to tell his story. Elliot uses some of the most daring orchestration around today. But, I have to tell you, he's been pushing the threshold on this for over 20 years.

    Back when we were both trumpet players at Manhattan School of Music (1970's) Elliot was already experimenting with unusual compositional and orchestrational techniques. He once approached me about playing a solo trumpet piece of his where I had to not only buzz into the "wrong" end of the mouthpiece but sing into the instrument as well. I thought he was nuts at the time, but looking back at that and seeing the wonderful work he is doing now I know that he was just way ahead of the rest of us.

    George Oldziey, Senior Composer/Origin Systems, Austin TX

Wow... composers are real people! Thanks for your letters; back tomorrow.

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