Home > Reviews > THE BURBS – Jerry Goldsmith

THE BURBS – Jerry Goldsmith

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Director Joe Dante has made a career of peeking behind the white picket fences of suburban America and making films about the mysteries and horrors he finds there. In The Howling in 1978 he found werewolves. In Gremlins in 1984 he found an entire species of murderous little monsters. In 1989’s The Burbs, however, what Dante found was that, sometimes, the monsters are us. It’s a comedy-horror that explores the concept of the ‘nosy neighbor,’ and stars Tom Hanks as Ray Peterson, who lives on a quiet Norman Rockwell cul-de-sac with his wife Carol (Carrie Fisher), and spends time goofing off with his best friends Art (Rick Ducommun), who lives next door, and Mark (Bruce Dern), a slightly eccentric military veteran. Ray becomes obsessed with the sinister-seeming Klopek family when they move into a recently-vacated home on their block; convinced that the Klopeks are murderers, Ray and his buddies begin to stalk the family, determined to uncover the truth. The Burbs is a clever, subversive film that blends broad comedy hi-jinks with some more meaningful satire, something which also translated into Jerry Goldsmith’s original score.

The Burbs was the fifth collaboration between Dante and Goldsmith, following on from Twilight Zone: The Movie, Gremlins, Explorers, and Innerspace. For some reason, Dante always inspired Goldsmith to embrace his wacky side, which resulted in such memorable moments as the synthesized cat meows in Gremlins, and the offbeat alien electronica in Explorers. The Burbs is no exception. In many ways, the score is a parody of a Goldsmith score, written by Jerry Goldsmith, which when you think about it is both genius and ludicrous. It’s a score which blends orchestral suburban idyll with a healthy dose of mock-portentous Gothic horror, electronics programmed to sound like a barking dog, and a comedic variation on the march from Patton which Goldsmith re-purposes as a leitmotif for Bruce Dern’s old warhorse. If all this sounds crazy… well, it is. This is one of those love-them-or-loathe–them works which is as likely to annoy as it is to entertain.

The thing about it, though, is that you can’t help admiring Goldsmith’s audacity at writing a score like this. In the 1980s the prevailing wisdom when scoring comedy was to play it absolutely straight, and barely acknowledge the laughs at all. This was how Elmer Bernstein approached scores like Airplane and Stripes and Animal House, and it worked for virtually all the other successful 1980s comedies too. But on The Burbs Goldsmith went in entirely the opposite direction, writing a score which is at times so ridiculous you can’t believe that the studio signed off on it. But, against all odds, it works, and this is almost entirely down to the musical sophistication he brings to his projects, even ones as patently preposterous as this one.

The first cue, “Night Work (Main Title),” introduces the first of the score’s recurring ideas, which appears to represent the creepy Klopek family that so unnerves Ray and his cohorts. Goldsmith uses unusual clattering percussion ideas that recall Planet of the Apes, and twangy synth effects similar to those heard in Gremlins and even further back in Damien: Omen II, and even a Gothic church organ, all surrounded by brooding orchestral textures that eventually begin to reveal themselves as a recognizable thematic presence.

The second cue, “The Window/Home Delivery,” introduces the second of the score’s recurring ideas, which represents the neighborhood itself where Ray and his paranoid pals live. It’s a beautiful theme, possibly intended to have a sound similar to Carol Anne’s theme from Poltergeist, a representation of cheerful suburban bliss rendered with pizzicato strings, pianos, synthesized whistles, and the first of the score’s moments of weirdness – electronic barking dog noises – to accompany the ‘home delivery’ of doggy doo on one of the neighborhood’s immaculately manicured lawns.

As the score develops, these two cues come to dominate the proceedings; the Klopek theme is heard whenever the family does something out of the ordinary that attracts the attention of Ray and the neighbors (which is a lot), but to his credit Goldsmith keeps the music interesting by playing around with instrumental combinations. The church organ returns in “Good Neighbors” and “The Garage” alongside sneaky-sounding pizzicato strings and wryly amusing bassoons, occasionally rising to quite imposing heights. In “This is Walter” the theme is transferred to low, brooding cellos, while in the consecutive trio of “No Beer,” “Home Furnace,” and “No Lights,” he augments the motif with electric guitars, but also juxtaposes it against more mischievous sounding jauntiness that keeps the mood light.

To keep it company, the Neighborhood Theme often appears alongside it, as Ray and Art’s obsession with the Klopeks begins to dominate their lives. Again, Goldsmith’s instrumental choices keep the theme fresh, and often give it a significantly different sound from the summery pleasantness of the first rendition. In “My Neighborhood,” for example, it appears with dance macabre-style strings, playful woodwinds, and what sounds like a child’s squeaky toy. Later, in “Spare Key,” Goldsmith returns to the curious pizzicato textures accompanied by more electronic boings, while in “The Note” the theme is once more transferred over to the dance macabre violins.

As mentioned above, the theme for Bruce Dern’s character Mark is clearly inspired by the march Goldsmith wrote for the movie Patton in 1970, and it’s great fun to hear the composer referencing his own work in comedic ways like this. Mark’s March crops up regularly whenever the character is on screen doing something – there are guest appearances at the end of cues like “Night Work (Main Title)” and “My Neighborhood,” before it receives more fulsome and prominent statements in subsequent cues like “Bad Karma,” “Snooping Around,” “Hot Wires” (where it is underpinned with more traditionally heroic brass), and “Red Rover, Red Rover”.

The final recurring idea is a heroic theme for Ray, which is heard whenever he plucks up the courage to do something brave, or stupid, or both. Ray’s Theme is clearly modeled on the many western-style themes Goldsmith wrote for a slew of cowboy movies throughout his career; it first appears in “Let’s Go” arranged for solo trumpet and orchestra, sleigh bells, and gunshot sound effects, and blends with the Klopek theme as it builds to a frantic finish. Subsequently statements of Ray’s Theme appear in “The Wig” which is distorted with odd-sounding synths, and later in “Something Is Moving,” where Ray truly does become a hero. Interestingly, in the final cut of the film, the “Let’s Go” cue is excised in favor of a temp-track needle-drop from Ennio Morricone’s score Il Mio Nome è Nessuno.

In addition to these themes, there are a couple of standalone moments worth mentioning. “The Sentinel” underscores a scene where Corey Feldman’s character relays the plot of a 1979 horror movie in order to spook Ray. Once more playing against type, Goldsmith underscores this scene with a truly lovely theme for strings that has no place being in a film like this. Later, in “Devil’s Worship” and “The Dream,” Goldsmith engages in some over-the-top Gothic horror scoring for whooping brass, tribal percussion, solo violin, and a wordless female soprano; it’s quite superb, and could very easily have been something someone like James Bernard might have written for one of those classic Hammer horror films from the 1960s and 70s. There are also a couple of frenetic action cues, notably “What’s In The Cellar?” and “My Skull/The Gurney,” which adopt many of Goldsmith’s action stylistics, including the use of xylophones in the percussion section which is a recognizable trademark. The score wraps up with “Pack Your Bags,” which offers concluding statements of the pretty Neighborhood theme accompanied by whizz-zoom sound FX and a resounding burst of Ray’s theme, and a superb end credits piece called “Square One” which offers fabulous final statements of Ray’s theme and Mark’s march.

The score for The Burbs was not released when the film came out, and finally surfaced three years later in 1992 as one of the first issues from the Varese Sarabande CD Club; due to American Federation of Musicians union rules it contained just 13 cues, ran for a touch over half an hour, and was limited to just 2,500 copies. Naturally, it sold out almost immediately, and throughout the 1990s and early 2000s it was one of the most highly-prized and expensive Goldsmith albums in the world. Eventually, in 2007, with the AFM re-use fee structure having been re-negotiated, producer Robert Townson released the hour-long complete score, using Goldsmith’s original cue titles, which finally allowed the score to be heard in all its comedic glory.

Jerry Goldsmith’s music for comedy has always been somewhat overlooked. His action and sci-fi scores are lauded, his sweeping love themes adored, his powerful drama appreciated for its subtlety… but scores like this, or Mr. Baseball, or Mom and Dad Save the World, or SPYS… not so much. I think the reason for this is because, when he did do comedy, he tended to go for it in a big way, and in the process he tended to alienate fans of his more serious works who weren’t accustomed to the outright wackiness Goldsmith sometimes brought to the table. Even now, and even though I appreciate its thematic depth and undoubted creativity, I have to be in exactly the right mood to listen to The Burbs, because if I’m not I find it can be incredibly irritating. But, despite this, I still find myself giving The Burbs a hesitant thumbs-up. Even though he had a reputation for grumpiness, Jerry Goldsmith was a man with a sly, mischievous sense of humor, and it is in scores like The Burbs that that side of his personality comes out. Anyone with the self-awareness and lack of ego it takes to lampoon a score like Patton in a score like this deserves to be heard.

Buy the Burbs soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • ORIGINAL RELEASE
  • Main Title (2:23)
  • Welcome to Mayfield Pl. (2:20)
  • New Neighbors (2:06)
  • Klopek House (2:02)
  • Storytelling (3:20)
  • Neighbourhood Watch (2:01)
  • A Nightmare in the ‘Burbs (2:30)
  • Brownies? (0:47)
  • The Assault (2:36)
  • Ray Peterson, Neighbor from Hell (1:43)
  • Runaway Ambulance (2:24)
  • Vacation’s End (2:12)
  • End Titles (4:10)
  • EXPANDED EDITION
  • Night Work (Main Title) (2:38)
  • The Window/Home Delivery (2:22)
  • The Raven (0:51)
  • Nocturnal Feeders (0:27)
  • Good Neighbors (2:06)
  • Let’s Go (2:04)
  • Bad Karma (0:38)
  • The Sentinel (3:22)
  • My Neighborhood (2:04)
  • The Garage (4:24)
  • Spare Key (1:19)
  • The Note (1:00)
  • Devil Worship (1:12)
  • The Dream (2:34)
  • The Note #2 (1:28)
  • This Is Walter (2:00)
  • Snooping Around (0:50)
  • I’m O.K. (1:02)
  • Ask Him (1:24)
  • What’s In The Cellar? (1:00)
  • The Wig (2:23)
  • Hot Wires (2:39)
  • Red Rover, Red Rover (1:11)
  • No Beer (3:07)
  • Home Furnace (1:44)
  • No Lights (0:48)
  • Walter’s Home (1:58)
  • Something Is Moving (1:46)
  • There’s A Body (1:04)
  • My Skull/The Gurney (2:24)
  • The Trunk (1:41)
  • Pack Your Bags (2:15)
  • Square One (End Credits) (4:14)

Running Time: 30 minutes 34 seconds (Original)
Running Time: 61 minutes 59 seconds (Expanded)

Varese Sarabande CD Club VCL-920110 (1989/1992)
Varese Sarabande CD Club VCL-07071063 (1989/2007)

Music composed and conducted by Jerry Goldsmith. Orchestrations by Arthur Morton. Recorded and mixed by Bruce Botnick. Edited by Ken Hall. Score produced by Jerry Goldsmith. Expanded album produced by Robert Townson.

  1. Tom de Ruiter
    April 5, 2019 at 12:51 pm

    I’m fairly new here, but love all your reviews very much!

    I was wondering if you could do a review of Steven Price’s Our Planet? I absolutely love it and think it’s Price’s best work and I’m very curious what yoir opinion is

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