The Cult of Jerry

I don’t know how it is in other countries, but in the U.S. hero worship often goes overboard. And in this country, “hero” is a very loose term. Why “celebrities” like Kim Kardashian and someone/thing called “The Situation” garner so much airtime and print is beyond me. (In the sheltered world of my cave, I actually have no idea who these people are, what they look like, or what their claim to fame is.)

I would like to think that educated, intelligent adults wouldn’t get caught up in the mindless drivel that constitutes much of pop culture beyond what slim amount of entertainment value it may have. But I’m continually surprised at the time and energy, and the countless amount of Facebook postings, tweets, and message board threads that are wasted on what I consider to be freakish venerations of the famous and the not-so-famous. (American Idol anyone?)

Film music is generally far removed from the world of pop culture (the occasionally blockbuster score like TITANIC notwithstanding). But even in our sheltered little niche, we apparently have our gods and demi-gods. And no other figure garners such cult-like devotion as Jerry Goldsmith. Not even John Williams inspires such bowing and kowtowing.

Now, in no way do I rank Jerry with the questionable names above. His talent and craftsmanship are undeniable and his status as one of the giants of film music is richly deserved. His music was my initial entry into film music and he will forever hold a special place in my heart. But I am amazed at the idolatry that surrounds Goldsmith’s work these days.

The release of a Goldsmith score, even for the most wretched of films (let’s face it, Jerry, like most composers, got stuck composing for some real cinematic junk), is nearly always guaranteed to sell out. And depending on the amount of the limited edition, usually overnight.

If someone polled the entire film music community for the Top 10 composers, I’d bet money that Goldsmith would land on top. So what is it about his music that generates such devoted interest from so many fans?

  • Is there something particular in his compositional style that speaks to more fans? If so, what are the specifics that make his music stand out above his contemporaries and predecessors?
  • Is it the films themselves? Then what’s the explanation for the popularity of lesser titles like LINK, INCHON and THE SWARM? Or is it his ability to write music that rises above such drivel on screen?
  • Is it a perceived “underdog” status? A lot of message board threads question why Jerry won only one Oscar. Considering most people’s disdain of the awards themselves, I don’t see why winning more of them would have given him the “proper” credit due (not that the Oscars are the pinnacle of someone’s “success” by any stretch of the imagination).
  • Or is it simply inexplicable emotional reactions to the music itself? If so, what are those reactions?

Given my Oscar obsession, it’s probably no surprise that from my earliest days of discovering film music, my approach to a particular score is usually through the project itself, rather than through the composer. Even when I’m a fan (for lack of a better word) of a particular composer (think Alexandre Desplat in today’s terms), I’m not necessarily interested in hearing everything they compose. If the film interests me, then I’m likely interested in what they did with the music.

I personally don’t trust any single-minded devotion to a particular entity, whether it’s a composer, a sports team, actors, a religious figure, or what have you. I don’t want to give anyone or anything that kind of power in my life, much less my energy. Maybe that’s a defect on my part.

This post is not meant as an attempt to slam Jerry (not that he would have cared anyway), denigrate anyone’s beliefs, or call into question someone’s entertainment choices. Can I compose music like Jerry? Not even close. Can I throw a baseball like Andy Petit? I think we all know the answer to that one. (I hope you appreciate that I actually knew that name but still had to look it up to confirm the sport and other particulars.)

By all means, let’s admire and be inspired by the talents of others, whether it’s a stranger or a close friend. For me, that’s a celebration of what makes each of us unique. But I get a little freaked out by blind devotion to anyone or anything.

And the “cult of Jerry” freaks me out.

Is the “cult of Jerry” a figment of my imagination? If not, I’d love to hear your thoughts on his influence on you personally and what you think of the whole Goldsmith phenomenon.

14 comments

  1. I agree that the monomaniacal, almost religious devotion to any one composer is a bit disconcerting. There’s a mysterious, magnetic aura surrounding Jerry these days that makes objective discussion about him and his work difficult, to say the least.

    Of course, I say all this as someone for whom Jerry sits atop Mt. Olympus next to John Williams (I do try to keep my idolatry in check!). For me, his was simply a master’s hand. Whatever cinematic garbage he scored (and he scored a ton of it), he almost always brought something special—in the form of a catchy theme, a rousing set piece, or some infectiously unique orchestration. I’m definitely someone who will buy a new Jerry release these days simply because it is Jerry. His music is consistently multi-layered, and always offers rewarding exploration. His themes are among the best ever written, and that list includes plenty of stinker films. And he was one of those film composers who would take tiny little moments in the film and bless them with these powerful little musical events. I have favorite “moments” in every Jerry score I own, no matter how the score ranks as a whole. That encourages me to keep buying each new release of his, regardless of the film or my familiarity with the music; I know there will be something great in it.

    1. But why the “mysterious, magnetic aura” that doesn’t surround other composers? And are great moments reason enough to justify the devotion and/or purchase price? I’m not judging, just asking. :)

  2. There are maybe a handful of film composers whose work I think inspire collectors to be completists when it comes to their recorded output, and Goldsmith is definitely one of them. I simply don’t let anything by Jerry get past me if at all possible; the same goes for Elmer Bernstein. The jury is still out on who is the greatest of the two, so I must continue to obtain everything by each until I can make a final decision.
    I have a certain sarcastic saying when it comes to my devotion for guys like Goldsmith or Bernstein: The most mediocre works by Elmer and Jerry are always better than the very best of Horner, Zimmer, Elfman and their ilk.

      1. I think Jerry-mania is justified because he (and a handful of others – particularly Elmer Bernstein) literally created the original-sountrack-album cult when stereo LP playback became deriguer on the American scene. Record collectors definitely tend to harbor strange devotions – cult obsessions were inevitable. Films were a powerful venue for delivering music to the masses, and once that music could be had on it’s own, Goldsmith managed to gain a cult status. Why? I think because he did have a special gift – one that made his music transcend it’s original venue with record collectors. Simply put, his music was exceptionally exciting – enough to warrant a purchase on name alone for experienced movie music fans . I’ll also add that critics and writers like yourself contibuted to the cult of Jerry simply by promoting him within the ranks of great film composers and musicians.
        Finally, I must say that so far there is no danger of the cult of Jerry going away no matter how many scores you have obtained by being a Goldsmith fanatic.

  3. Personally, I’ve never idolized anyone. I’m missing that gene, I guess. ;-) So, I look at Jerry Goldsmith’s work objectively, and I find the amount of quality writing to be the highest of any film composer I know of, when compared to the total amount of music which each composer wrote. I find that I learn something new with every Goldsmith score I listen to. There is only one score of his which I don’t like at all: Criminal Law, but even there I respect the guts it must have taken to do something radically different, and almost intentionally annoying or boring. For every other beloved composer, I can name at least 3 or 4 scores which I personally don’t like at all, or just don’t care for. With Goldsmith, it’s only one. And as we know, he has written a LOT of scores.

  4. What’s creepier than the blind cult following, is that many of the members share way too many traits to be normal. Given, these are gross generalizations, but have some degree of truth in my experience, but these generalizations are all in good fun.

    Hans Zimmer–Nolan fanboys, who think Inception is the greatest thing since Citizen Kane, and who invariably are just as creepily devoted to Nolan’s works–the same who are vehemently insisting that five huge villains in Dark Knight Rising are not overkill.

    Danny Elfman–Any pimply teenage goth kid who jumped on the Tim Burton bandwagon after he sold his soul to Hot Topic. When I was a teenager I was absolutely guilty.

    Ennio Morricone–When I was in college, every insanely annoying film major was a huge Ennio fan. I’m not talking about “they just like cameras”, but the people who sit up all night analyzing the Freudian messages in Eraserhead–or refuse to go see movies that aren’t independent. This was so off-putting because spaghetti westerns were pretty much testosterone movies, who, if they were people, would bristle at the pretension of these kids. Also Tarantino superfans–equally annoying.

    Most of the other composers seem to have pretty normal followings–even with the superfans, scientifically I can’t find any variables (that I have observed) that tend to repeat themselves in any group. These aren’t true of every Zimmer, Elfman or Morricone fan, of course–just meant to be my humorous observations.

  5. To me, Jerry Goldsmith’s music is uniquely original and exciting, maybe because he seemed to like taking risks and trying new things musically. Even though I discovered him much later, he’s the composer who rose the quickest amongst my favorites, namely Ennio Morricone (my intro to film music was my father’s LP of Once Upon a Time in the West) and John Williams (like many others, Star Wars had a huge impact on me). I also own more soundtracks for movies I haven’t seen that were composed by Jerry Goldsmith than any other composers. It’s not systematic, but I guess I trust that I won’t be disappointed somehow. I don’t really know about the overall “cult of Jerry” phenomenon, but that’s my personal take.

  6. Goldsmith’s sheer abilities as a composer, with a mastery & understanding of composition that has few peers in film music, is just the whole package. That he uses his gifts in such innovative, varied and soundly dramatic ways (stylistically always recognizable as his own) serves to define what I consider to be quantifiable elements of his greatness.

    There is also something unquantifiable for me about his work. Something just “clicks” with me in his music in a way that no other film composer does, even a favorite master like Herrmann. There is a complexity to his writing that appeals to my intellect as well as an emotional resonance borne out of his rhythmic and orchestrational prowess, etc. It all combines somehow to be just something special to me.

    I could go on and on about other reasons why and in greater detail, but I’ll just stop right here!

  7. I’m a little late to this party, but I’m going to take a stab at saying something insightful.

    I would say John William’s music is tuneful and impressive from a technical sense, but Jerry’s music is just so much more emotional and VISCERAL.

    In middle school when I saw Star Wars for the first time, I remember hating the music. For me, it was cartoon-y, meandering, and seemed to even undermine the drama on screen. Bear in mind, I was just a little orch-dork who played violin, but didn’t really understand anything about the great classical music tradition much less film music.

    Then just a couple of years later in high school, I watched the incredibly awful Star Trek Nemesis but distinctly remembered that the music nearly made me shit my pants. Jerry understands drama and visceral emotion and can communicate it musically in a way most composers, Williams included, can’t. Many years and a music degree later, and after really getting into film music and listening to scores after scores from every composer I could find, I decided to go back and give Star Wars another chance, figuring that being a more sophisticated film score listener, I’d be able to appreciate it better. It’s still an un-listenable experience for me. Cartoon-y and full of what I’d call note-diarrhea.

    In listening to Jerry’s scores and studying them (yes, actual in depth study of conductor’s scores), I’ve come to realize that he only needs 1 or 2 notes to express what would take other composers 10 to 20. There’s a potency to his music, to his understanding of drama, and how to translate it into music, and for me that’s always been the special sauce that’s made his scores so meaningful to me.

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