For the music of Poltergeist, producer Steven Spielberg turned to composer Jerry Goldsmith. While Spielberg's friendship with composer John Williams was well-known, Williams had already been signed to score the director's E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, which was also scheduled for release in the summer of 1982; and Spielberg, a film-music aficionado, had long been an admirer of Goldsmith's work.
In fact, Goldsmith was the ideal choice to create music designed to bridge this world and the next. Early in his career, he had been a mainstay of television's foremost fantasy series, The Twilight Zone (1959), and he received the first of his seven Emmy nominations for writing the eerie music for many episodes of Boris Karloff's Thriller (1960).
The composer had also scored many fantasy, horror, and science-fiction films in his then-25-year career in feature films. He won an Academy Award for his unsettling, choral-and-orchestral score for The Omen (1976) and won additional Oscar® nominations for Planet Of The Apes (1968) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). He wrote equally original scores for such fantastic tales as The Mephisto Waltz (1971), The Other (1972), The Reincarnation Of Peter Proud (1975), Damian: Omen II (1978), Magic (1978), Alien (1979), and The Final Conflict (1981).
Born in 1929 in Los Angeles, he attended Los Angeles City College and studied with pianist Jakob Gimpel and composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. He landed a job at CBS in 1950 and began writing scores for radio and live TV. By the early 1960s he was much in demand, eventaully composing the themes for such now-classic series as Dr. Kildare, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Room 222, The Waltons, Barnaby Jones, and Police Story.
Goldsmith scored his first feature in 1957, but it was his gentle Western score for Lonely Are The Brave (1962) that marked the beginning of his success as a composer for the big screen. His first Oscar nomination as for John Huston's Freud that same year, and he received 15 additional nominations since then for such diverse films as A Patch Of Blue (1965), The Sand Pebbles (1966), Patton (1970), Chinatown (1974), The Boys From Brazil (1978), Under Fire (1983), Hoosiers (1986), Basic Instinct (1992) – and Poltergeist.
A key to Goldsmith's success is his ability to get inside the fabric of a film, discern what its essential sound should be, and translate that creative impulse into music that will meet its dramatic needs.
Sometimes his approach is sophisticated, sometimes it is simple; occasionally, as in Poltergeist, it is both.
Spielberg contacted Goldsmith about five months before the film went into production, the composer told CinemaScore in 1982. "I said I'd be very interested, so he sent me a script and I loved it," he recalled. Since director Tobe Hooper was not involved with postproduction, decisions about a musical approach to the material fell solely to Spielberg and Goldsmith.
"With Spielberg, probably more than any other director, there's a tremendous amount of discussion," the composer said. "He's very articulate about music, and one can discuss for hours about approaches. Anything I did was not of my own volition; it was a joint effort in that we both agreed what we were trying to do with the music for the picture. We wanted a childlike theme for the little girl. Steven felt that much of the action in the closet should have a quasi-religious atmosphere to it."
The composer described the thematic elements of the score as "very diverse. A very simplistic, childlike lullaby theme was one. Another theme was almost atonal in nature, another is very impressionistic in quality. It's diverse styles that all seem to mesh together very well.
"The dramatic content dictates the nature of the music," he explained. "I've done a lot of horror and supernatural pictures, but I don't consider Poltergeist a horror story at all. It's an old-fashioned ghost story, and there's only one horrifying moment in it, which is very brief."
The special effects posed a particular problem: the sequence involving the ghost descending the stairs, for example, was originally blocked out to be twice as long as it appeared in the film. So Goldsmith's music – already scored for the picture, without his having seen the footage – was trimmed during the dubbing process.
"Of course, you'd like to have it all there, visually," he said, "but Steven's very articulate and gave me very accurate interpretations of what it would look like visually. No one really knew what the monster was going to look like," he added. "There were various versions of it, and a lot of things that were supposed to be [in the film] were cut out. Some were lightened, some changed position. It was much later, after the music had been recorded, that the special effects started coming in, but that's what you're dealing with when you have special effects."
Goldsmith even drew an ancient musical sources for one moment in the score. He used a snippet of the plainchant "Dies Irae," from the traditional Mass For The Dead, in the climatic finale. "I thought I'd throw in a little inside joke there," he admitted, "since every composer from time immemorial has quoted that."
Films that indulge in fantastic imagery rely to an extraordinary degree on their music not only to involve the viewer, but also to lend an aura of credibility to the otherwise incredible events unfolding onscreen. In the case of Poltergeist, Goldsmith's score was crucial in establishing the quiet suburban locale, the innocence of the abducted child, the malevolence of the forces on the other side, and the ultimate triumph of good over evil.
Goldsmith wrote the music for Poltergeist – more than an hour in all – in December 1981 and January 1982. His longtime orchestrator, Arthur Morton, translated the composer's detailed, nineline sketches into fully orchestrated pages for performance by a 76-piece orchestra and 16-voice choir. The first half of the score was recorded in two sessions on January 25 and 26, 1982; the second half on February 8 and 9, 1982, at M-G-M Studios in Culver City, California.
Several themes are intertwined in the score. The most familiar, and accessible, is "Carol Anne's Theme," a beautiful lullaby for the five-year-old at the heart of the story. Introduced when the child begins talking to the TV set, it is heard in its entirety only twice (during the main and end titles) but appears in abbreviated form throughout the film.
"The lullaby is quite effective in counterbalancing the harsh supernatural horror of the film's more energetic moments, contrasting an innocent children's tune with the roaring horror motifs," points out film-music scholar Randall D. Larson in his Musique Fantastique: A Survey Of Film Music In The Fantastic Cinema. (Goldsmith reprised Carol Anne's theme, but otherwise created an entirely new score for the 1986 sequel that featured most of the original cast.)
Secondary themes include a religious motif that emerges most audibly when Dr. Lesh explains the nature of "the light" in crossing over to the other side; a more jagged musical representation of the ghostly intruders, especially apparent during the "Night Visitor" cue; and others that range from an impressionistic view of the gnarled tree near the Freeling house to dark, grim sounds for The Beast during the most intense sequences of the film. Unlike many of his scores of the past 20 years, which have been liberally flavored with synthesized sounds, this one relies almost exclusively on the sounds of the traditional symphonic ensemble.
Complex and compelling, Jerry Goldsmith's music for Poltergeist not only served the film for which it was written – it remains a powerful listening experience apart from the images.
– Jon Burlingame
John Burlingame writes about film and TV music for The Hollywood Reporter. He teaches film-music history at the University of Southern California and is the author of TV's Biggest Hits/A History Of Television Scoring published by Schirmer Books.
[From Rhino's re-release of Poltergeist soundtrack]
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