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Gremlins: how composer Jerry Goldsmith broke the rules of the monster movie soundtrack


Anarchic Christmas classic Gremlins is re-released in Cineworld this December to celebrate its 35th anniversary. Director Joe Dante's mischievous monster satire gleefully sets fire to tinsel as it depicts an onslaught of monsters in the sleepy American town of Kingston Falls.

Executive produced by Steven Spielberg and written by Harry Potter's Chris Columbus, the movie was an enormous hit upon its original release in 1984. In the ensuing decades, it has weathered brilliantly as a festive staple, one that veers between the sweet and the shocking – and a large part of that is down to the memorable score from late composer Jerry Goldsmith.

To celebrate the return of Gremlins to the big screen, we're taking a closer look at Goldsmith's music, and how it adds to the memorably deranged texture of the movie.

Born in 1929 in Los Angeles, Goldsmith rose through the ranks of radio, television and low-budget movies throughout the 1950s, cementing a reputation as a progressive and experimental musician.

From his early days of electronic work on The Twilight Zone to his remarkable, atonal score for 1968's Planet of the Apes, Goldsmith wasn't afraid to mess around with specialty instrumentation, or to mix synthesisers with the sound of the symphony orchestral. Although the sound of Apes was predominantly organic, it sealed Goldsmith's capacity for creativity, deploying ram's horns, tribal percussion and wind instruments played without mouthpieces to conjure an atmosphere of savagery.

Goldsmith's penchant for lush themes and offbeat soundscapes continued throughout the 1970s. He won his only Oscar for The Omen, with its terrifying Satanic chants anchored by main theme 'Ave Satani' (nominated for an Oscar, but unsuccessful). His work on 1974's Chinatown was built around an arrestingly melancholy noirish trumpet theme, which speaks of the ennui felt by Jack Nicholson's character Jake Gittes.

Goldsmith's ability to craft entirely new languages for film reached its peak in 1979, when he unleashed the remarkable double-whammy of Alien and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The former, although badly tampered with in the final edit, presents a lonely trumpet theme for space before deconstructing and infecting it with a host of odd instrumentation, including the 16th-century serpent.

When it came to his debut Star Trek score (he would score another four movies in the franchise), Goldsmith came up with the now-iconic fanfare, carrying us along on the Enterprise's spirit of adventure. This melds with the eerie sound of the blaster beam instrument, used to depict the all-consuming force of space cloud V'Ger.

The composer's astonishing run of groundbreaking scores meant he was well-placed to deliver the music for Gremlins in 1984. Goldsmith had first collaborated with Joe Dante a year earlier on Twilight Zone: The Movie – Dante was handling post-production, and encouraged Goldsmith to deploy a host of different soundscapes for each of the anthology stories (one of which Dante directed) contained within the movie.

Dante's wicked sense of humour was effectively matched with Goldsmith's desire to continually push himself. Although best known as a sci-fi, action and horror pioneer, the composer had a famously dry sense of humour, which when coupled with his escalating exploration of 1980s synth effects, invested the Gremlins score with a twisted sense of personality.

Listening back to Gremlins now, it's perhaps startling to hear just how much emphasis Goldsmith places on the synthesisers. Few composers of the period were so willing to integrate non-organic sounds with the mass of the symphony orchestra, and fewer still were capable of pulling it off so effectively.

Herein lies the success of the Gremlins score. The abrasive and comical electronics are intentionally alien, imposing on the soundscape to suggest that the spawning of the gremlins is the monstrous antithesis to everything that's natural about the warm friendship between Billy (Zach Galligan) and adorable adopted Mogwai Gizmo. The latter is depicted by a harmonious blend between the strings and the electronics, hinting at Gizmo's nature but crafting an endearing and tear-jerking union between human and non-human, organic and mechanic.

The score's continual flip-flopping between these two positions makes it a comical, moving, odd and often scary experience. Goldsmith also breaks one of the rules of comedy movie soundtracks: that such films are made funnier when the composer plays it straight. In direct opposition to Elmer Bernstein's riotously po-faced score for classic 1980 spoof Airplane!, Goldsmith accentuates the madness and zaniness at every tone. Miraculously, however, it works like a charm.

The success of the Gremlins score largely owes itself to Goldsmith's ability to craft wonderful themes. The score never descends into random noise, but is built upon memorable and recognisable building blocks that are developed piecemeal throughout the course of the movie.

Like his friend and contemporary John Williams, Goldsmith showcased an astonishing ability to convey character information through music – he once told a group of film students that if they were faced with a scene involving a man being chased on horseback, they shouldn't score the chase, but the fear of the rider. Goldsmith's emotional acuity subsequently elevates the music for Gremlins into the realms of the greatest comedy scores.

Everything starts with the theme for the monsters themselves, the 'Gremlin Rag'. In sharp contrast with the arrangement in the 1990 sequel, which strikes an entertaining blend between orchestra and synths, the theme in the original movie is entirely synthetic and highly amusing, rising in tones and semi-tones to mirror the chatter and maniacal laughter of the gremlins themselves.

Although the piece only gets a full airing during the end credits, it's steadily doled out over the course of the movie, building tension as Gizmo's initially endearing spawn eat food after midnight and transform into something much nastier.

As the narrative develops, Goldsmith employs the odd but highly effective device of a yowling cat to represent emergent gremlin leader Stripe, who is also treated to a fragmentary version of the gremlin theme on a cracked-sounding solo violin. Like everything else in the score, it takes something relatively conventional and turns our expectations on their head.

The unveiling of the gremlin theme is preceded by a delightful representation of suburbia in 'Late for Work'. This is a largely orchestral piece for plucked strings and brass, representing the outwardly innocent facade of Kingston Falls that's about to get the rudest possible awakening. (Also listen out for a statement of Gizmo's theme, which doubles as a romantic piece for Billy and girlfriend Kate, played by Phoebe Cates.) Goldsmith's bright depiction of unsuspecting small-town America would be used in later Joe Dante films The 'burbs, Matinee and Small Soldiers.

The nastier, more obnoxious side of suburbia emerges in the theme for Mrs Deagle (Polly Holliday), the reviled town busybody who threatens to torture Billy's dog Barney. Goldsmith's terrifically off-putting theme is a waltz shared by squelchy electronics and double bass, which practically screams pompousness.

The piece is later reprised in 'High Flier', anticipating Deagle's unforgettable death by stairlift at the hands of the gremlins. (In the same scene, the gremlin Christmas carollers are heard performing their own theme.)

The score's most beautiful theme is reserved for Gizmo, a tender and gorgeous piece carried on high register strings and gentle synth effects. Gizmo's music is the antithesis to the more chaotic music elsewhere, making several heartfelt renditions throughout the score, including 'The Gift' and the lovely 'First Aid'.

In the scene where Gizmo is heard singing along to Billy's keyboard, the vocals come from a young girl selected by Goldsmith – she meshes superbly with actor Howie Mandel's endearing vocalisation for Gizmo himself.

Alongside these three primary themes, Goldsmith treats the film's major set-pieces to some alarmingly violent yet darkly comic onslaughts. 'Kitchen Fight' accompanies the film's most notorious scene, in which Mrs Peltzer (Frances Lee McCain) kills three of the gremlins in ingenious ways, unleashing the brass and strings in a ferocious manner.

The climactic battle between Billy, Gizmo and Stripe, heard in 'The Fountain/Stripe's Death', is a masterclass in orchestral/synthesised mayhem. Musically, Goldsmith pits the various good mogwai and bad mogwai against each other, unleashing a thunderously exciting brass symphony for Gizmo as he races to the rescue in a toy car.

Meanwhile, the cat noises and synthesisers reach their creepy peak as Stripe attempts to spawn more gremlins in a fountain – eventually, the orchestra and the electronics converge as Gizmo figures out how to use sunlight to destroy Stripe once and for all. The track embodies Goldsmith's musical philosophy in a nutshell, mixing a host of different sounds in a manner that's brilliantly coherent and entertaining.

Yet for all its enjoyable scenes of Americana under siege, Gremlins is ultimately a bittersweet and moving film about friends who must ultimately part ways. It's clear by the end that Billy and Gizmo cannot remain together, lest the gremlins emerge again to wreak more chaos, and Gizmo's theme reaches tear-jerking heights prior to the comedy gremlin theme taking over during the end credits.

Goldsmith's sensitive writing helps invest a deliberately contradictory movie with a huge amount of heart and compassion – it works perfectly in conjunction with the two words that make up the track 'Bye Billy' (one must also credit Howie Mandel for reducing us to tears so easily).

Still, in hindsight we know it's a happy ending, as Billy and Gizmo are reunited (and, most importantly, stay together) in 1990's Gremlins 2: The New Batch. That movie marked an even more sophisticated blend of Goldsmith's disparate influences, but for freshness and innovation, the original Gremlins score cannot be beaten. It established the longest-running directorial partnership of Goldsmith's later career, spanning all the way to 2003's Looney Tunes: Back in Action.

As with so much of Goldsmith's extraordinary work, it flaunts the rules. It features upfront experimentation from what was, at the time, rudimentary electronic equipment. It also firmly reinforces the silly tone of the movie, inviting us to revel in the chaos – a bold move that could have proved irritating but, thanks to Goldsmith's skill, instead becomes loveable and humorous.

And finally, it gets us to care about the central buddy relationship between human and mogwai better than any other composer could. To this day, Gremlins remains a high watermark of Hollywood comedy scores, and one of the main reasons why the film is still so beloved by moviegoers around the world.

Click here to book your tickets for Gremlins. The movie will be shown in standard widescreen and 4DX formats from the 6th of December. Let us know what you think of both the movie and score @Cineworld.