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GREMLINS – Jerry Goldsmith


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Gremlins was a monster movie with a big heart, one of the biggest box office successes of 1984. Directed by Joe Dante – his first mainstream movie following the success of his independent horror movie The Howling in 1981 – it starred Zach Galligan as Billy, an average college kid living in pleasant small town America, whose life becomes forever altered when his father Rand (country star Hoyt Axton) gives him a present for Christmas: a cute critter called a mogwai, which Rand purchased from a mysterious Chinese curiosity shop. The mogwai, which Billy names Gizmo, comes with three very strict rules: keep him out of the sunlight, don’t get him wet, and never, ever feed him after midnight. Of course, Billy inadvertently breaks all three rules, and before long his charming little town is overrun with a whole host of less than friendly gremlins, and Christmas will never be the same again… The film co-stars Phoebe Cates, Polly Holliday, Judge Reinhold, Corey Feldman, and Frances Lee McCain, features comedian Howie Mandel as the voice of Gizmo, and has an original score by Jerry Goldsmith, the first of his eight collaborations with director Dante.

Gremlins found Jerry Goldsmith in the middle of a creative purple patch; in the preceding year or so he had already written the scores for The Secret of NIMH, Poltergeist, First Blood, Twilight Zone: The Movie, and Under Fire, while Supergirl, Explorers, and Legend would follow on from this effort. As such, it should come as no surprise to find that Gremlins is a superb work, filled with outstanding themes, and interesting and unusual instrumental textures, as well as some of the most creative (and hilarious!) synthesizer sounds Goldsmith ever produced. It’s also interesting to note that Gremlins remains the biggest box office success of Goldsmith’s entire career, with an adjusted-for-inflation gross of almost $371 million.

The centerpiece of the score is a wonderful ragtime theme played on synthesizer – as the CD liner notes describe it, it’s “a raucous celebration of mayhem that harkens back to the early days of animation, yet gives the music a funky, contemporary twist”. With its bouncy, devil-may-care attitude, the Gremlins Rag is one of Goldsmith’s most enduring character themes, but when you actually examine the score in detail, it’s interesting to note how often Goldsmith uses it as a little heraldic leitmotif, hinting at the impending appearance of the nasty little gremlins. It bursts into life in cues such as “The Box”, “Kitchen Fight” and “The Plow/Special Delivery”, acting as an action motif under all manner of ostentatious orchestral effects, before really coming into its own in the ridiculously brilliant and riotous pair “High Flyer” and “Too Many Gremlins”, where it is performed on a keyboard mimicking the voices of the Gremlins themselves, often surrounded by synthesized cat meows. Yes, really.

The Rag is offset by a truly beautiful, lyrical theme for Gizmo, which also doubles as a romantic theme for the young lovers in the film, Billy and Kate . Gentle, tender, and usually performed on synths doubled with high-register strings and mysterious echoing bell effects, it appears hesitantly in the “Little One” section of the very first cue, and is briefly heard again during the closing moments of the pretty “Late for Work”, in “First Aid”, “Spilt Water” and “The Injection”, before getting its fullest and sweetest performances towards the end of the score in “Goodbye Billy” and the “End Title”. It’s also interesting to note that Gizmo’s theme is one of the few examples of diegetic music in Goldsmith’s career; in several scenes in the film Gizmo actually hums his own theme, and on one occasion actually plays it on a keyboard in Billy’s bedroom – meaning that Goldsmith must have written it prior to filming so it could be played by the actors on set.

Two other secondary themes round out the score; a bustling theme for pizzicato strings and muted trombones that provides a musical calling card for Billy’s snow-dusted suburban home in “Late for Work” and “Dirty Linen”, and a crazy waltz theme for Mrs. Deagle, the nightmarish town busybody whose malevolent presence looms over everything and everyone. For her scenes, Goldsmith combines a danse macabre-style solo fiddle with comical synthesizer effects, making her character buffoonish yet undeniably malevolent. Cues such as “Mrs. Deagle/That Dog” and especially “High Flyer” feature her theme prominently.

The more straightforward action music, heard in cues such as the aforementioned “Kitchen Fight”, as well as “No Santa Claus”, “Theatre Escape/Stripe is Loose/Toy Dept./No Gizmo” and the wonderful “The Fountain/Stripe’s Death”, is typical of Goldsmith’s action writing of the time, filled with colorful orchestrations, interesting rhythmic ideas, and a real sense of liveliness and movement. Descending brass phrases, energetic glockenspiel runs, thrusting string ostinatos, and various imaginative interpolations of the multitude of main themes are the order of the day, and it’s all excellent.

The complete score for Gremlins was a long sought-after collector’s item, having only been previously available as a short 20-minute suite combined with songs by Peter Gabriel, Michael Sembello and Quarterflash on the original 1984 Geffen Records vinyl LP release, and its subsequent CD edition. The complete score was finally released by Film Score Monthly in partnership with Retrograde Records in 2011, featuring the complete re-mastered original score, several alternate cues, bonus tracks, and an archival presentation of the contents of the 1984 LP, packaged with a 28-page booklet featuring detailed notes by Jeff Bond and Mike Matessino and excerpts from interviews with director Dante and recording engineer Bruce Botnick.

Interestingly, the one thing that I consider to be this score’s greatest strength may be the very thing that turns other listeners off: its sense of humor. Goldsmith very clearly tapped into the most irreverent part of his musical personality on Gremlins, which resulted in a score which contains some truly bizarre and unique synth sound effects, samples of Christmas carols, and a general sense of chaos and manic energy that are not often found in contemporary scores. Music that tries to be funny on its own terms is not usually successful in the context of the film, and while I personally feel that this is one of the few exceptions to that rule, I would certainly understand if those unfamiliar with this score wondered what the hell they were listening to the first time the meows crop up. However, for anyone like me, a child of the 1980s who loved this film growing up, this is an absolutely essential purchase, finally an appropriate showcase for one of Jerry Goldsmith’s most beloved scores.

Buy the Gremlins soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Fanfare in C/The Shop/The Little One (4:30)
  • Late for Work (1:46)
  • Mrs. Deagle/That Dog (2:22)
  • The Gift (1:45)
  • First Aid (2:17)
  • Spilt Water (3:02)
  • A New One (1:10)
  • The Lab/Old Times (2:35)
  • The Injection (2:56)
  • Snack Time/The Wrong Time (1:49)
  • The Box (1:24)
  • First Aid (1:39)
  • Disconnected/Hurry Home (1:03)
  • Kitchen Fight (4:06)
  • Dirty Linen (0:43)
  • The Pool (1:07)
  • The Plow/Special Delivery (1:16)
  • High Flyer (2:22)
  • Too Many Gremlins (2:06)
  • No Santa Claus (3:27)
  • After Theatre (1:39)
  • Theatre Escape/Stripe is Loose/Toy Dept./No Gizmo (4:36)
  • The Fountain/Stripe’s Death (5:42)
  • Goodbye, Billy (2:56)
  • End Title/The Gremlin Rag (4:10)
  • Blues [BONUS] (2:17)
  • Mrs. Deagle (Film Version) [BONUS] (1:27)
  • God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen (traditional, arranged by Alexander Courage) [BONUS] (1:12)
  • After Theatre (with “Silent Night”) [BONUS] (1:36)
  • After Theatre (without “Silent Night”) [BONUS] (1:36)
  • Rabbit Rampage (written by Milt Franklin) [BONUS] (0:47)
  • The Gremlin Rag (Full Version) [BONUS] (3:35)
  • Gizmo’s New Song [BONUS] (0:35)
  • Gizmo’s Trumpet [BONUS] (0:30)
  • Gremlins…Mega Madness (written by Michael Sembello, Mark Hudson and Don Freeman, performed by Michael Sembello) (3:52)
  • Make It Shine (written by Marv Ross, performed by Quarterflash) (4:11)
  • Out Out (written and performed by Peter Gabriel) (7:02)
  • The Gift (4:58)
  • Gizmo (4:14)
  • Mrs. Deagle (2:54)
  • The Gremlin Rag (4:13)

Running Time: 76 minutes 01 seconds — Retrograde
Running Time: 31 minutes 25 seconds — Geffen

Retrograde Records/Film Score Monthly FSM80130-2 (1984/2011)
Geffen Records 54685 (1984)

Music composed and conducted by Jerry Goldsmith. Orchestrations by Arthur Morton and Alexander Courage. “Fanfare in C” written by Max Steiner. Recorded and mixed by Bruce Botnick. Edited by Kenneth Hall. Score produced by Jerry Goldsmith. Album produced by Lukas Kendall.

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