Home > Reviews > LEVIATHAN – Jerry Goldsmith

LEVIATHAN – Jerry Goldsmith


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Hollywood has long had a history where multiple studios release films about the same general subject at around the same time, in an effort to one-up each other. In 1989, the hot topic was ‘people who live and/or work underwater being attacked by monsters,’ a somewhat niche genre if ever there was one. Sandwiched between the schlocky low-budget Deep Star Six and the more respectable and ultimately Oscar-winning The Abyss was this film: Leviathan, directed by George P. Cosmatos for MGM. It’s odd that Leviathan has been somewhat forgotten these days, considering that it starred Peter Weller hot-foot from his success as Robocop, and has a supporting cast of reliable character actors including Richard Crenna, Daniel Stern, Ernie Hudson, and Lisa Eilbacher. Weller plays Steven Beck, the head engineer working on an underwater mining rig, whose team discovers the wreck of a Soviet submarine called the ‘Leviathan’. Of course, this discovery leads to terrible things happening to Beck and his crew, as the mystery of what happened to the Leviathan is revealed. Unfortunately the film was not especially financially successful and, like I said, is virtually forgotten now, despite the fact that it boasted a respectable crew including the writers of Die Hard and Blade Runner, as well as special effects wizard Stan Winston.

One of the other respectable members of the crew was composer Jerry Goldsmith, who had previously worked with director Cosmatos on The Cassandra Crossing in 1976, and Rambo: First Blood Part II in 1985. Goldsmith had been experimenting with electronics for much of the 1980s, and the other-worldly setting of Leviathan gave the composer the opportunity to do something especially unusual and creative with them. In order to capture the isolation of the protagonists, as they battle beasties from beneath the sea, Goldsmith sampled the sound of humpback whales, and used that in conjunction with some more familiar-sounding synths, plus a fairly large orchestra – the Orchestra di Santa Cecilia, recorded in Rome. The end result is a score which has, over the years, become somewhat polarizing, with some appreciating the experimental nature of Goldsmith’s ideas, while others felt it was much too peculiar for its own good.

“Underwater Camp” opens the album in somewhat subdued fashion, with sinister string chords and abstract electronica that open up into the first rendition of the main theme on a solo trumpet starting at 0:19. The whale song comes in during the cue’s second half, adding an appropriately eerie vibe to the whole thing. The orchestra slowly becomes more majestic as the track develops, culminating with a stately second rendition of the main theme towards its climax.

The theme re-appears fairly regularly throughout the score. “Escape Bubbles” features two of the most outstanding refrains of it, with the second of them (beginning at 4:37) also offering the first performance of the recurring ‘heroic rhythm’ for strings and xylophones, which is most often heard underneath the bold horn performance of the melody. Later, “Situation Under Control” presents a more elegant version of the theme for strings playing contrapuntally with the whale song electronics.

As one would expect, action plays a significant part in the score. Cues like “Decompression,” the first half of “The Body Within,” the aforementioned “Escape Bubbles,” the second half of “Can We Fix It,” and the aggressive “Too Hot” are typical of Goldsmith’s 1980s action style, where highly rhythmic beats are interrupted by stabbing brass chords, swirling string figures, electronic pulses, and the familiar sound of clattering xylophones in the percussion section. Long-time Goldsmith aficionados will recognize similarities between this score and Goldsmith’s action writing for scores like The Swarm, Outland, Capricorn One, Innerspace, and his various Rambo efforts, and it’s quite excellent, familiar in all the best ways.

These moments of broad action are counterbalanced by suspense sequences like “Discovery,” the second half of “The Body Within,” the first half of “Can We Fix It,” and “It’s Growing” These cues are slower and more careful, make use of elongated string lines, more electronics, and restrained use of the whale song idea, and add a level of lurking mystery to the whole thing. Every now and again these cues erupt into some more conventional horror music tropes, usually typified by the increased use of brass, as something nasty emerges from the damp shadows to rip someone’s face off.

An unexpectedly pretty, hesitantly romantic theme for piano, strings, harp, and synths emerges in “One of Us,” briefly allowing the camaraderie between the crewmembers to come to the fore. The finale cue, “A Lot Better,” offers a broad and exciting final statement of the main theme, its associated heroic rhythm, and even an interlude for the ‘romantic’ theme, all performed with major-key brightness and a satisfying sweep – perfect music for when you want to punch an evil corporate executive right in the kisser. Many people will gravitate towards this cue as being the highlight of the album, and they would be correct to do so. The final flurry of strings and horns towards the end is quite wonderful.

When I first started listening to soundtracks, and began exploring the dusty corners of Jerry Goldsmith’s filmography, I dismissed Leviathan quite quickly as one of his lesser efforts. Years later, I now realize how wrong I was to have had this opinion. Even when he was asked to write music for movies as terrible as Leviathan, his music always went the extra mile. The orchestral rhythms are consistently creative, exciting and propulsive, and make use of the ensemble in interesting ways, especially in the way he arranged the brass. The electronics – which many consider to be some of the worst examples of Goldsmith’s career – actually give the whole thing a unique tone, and the sampled whale song is especially creative. And the main theme, which for a while I considered much too upbeat and frivolous for a film like this, has much more adaptability and dramatic application than it initially appears to have.

Leviathan was one of the earliest soundtrack CDs released by Varese Sarabande, when Richard Kraft and Tom Null were overseeing productions, and as such it has since become quite hard to obtain physical copies of it. It is also perhaps a prime candidate for a re-mastered expansion, considering that the existing album runs just under 40 minutes. Nevertheless, if you get a chance, I would absolutely recommend checking this one out – despite my initial misgivings, it’s absolutely not just for Goldsmith completists, and has more than enough highlights to stand on its own two tentacles… erm, I mean feet. Yes, feet.

Buy the Leviathan soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Underwater Camp (3:23)
  • Decompression (3:16)
  • Discovery (5:24)
  • One of Us (1:41)
  • The Body Within (4:33)
  • Escape Bubbles (5:37)
  • Can We Fix It (3:25)
  • Situation Under Control (1:49)
  • It’s Growing (3:10)
  • Too Hot (3:27)
  • A Lot Better (3:31)

Running Time: 39 minutes 16 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD-5226 (1989)

Music composed and conducted by Jerry Goldsmith. Performed by Orchestra di Santa Cecilia di Roma. Orchestrations by Arthur Morton and Nancy Beach. Recorded and mixed by Alan Snelling. Edited by Ken Hall. Album produced by Jerry Goldsmith.

  1. Christopher Ellis Sherbanuk
    August 16, 2019 at 7:03 pm

    One of my guilty pleasures has always been Jerry’s score to “Leviathan.” I always loved it to be honest, glad you made a point of re-visiting it. I enjoyed reading your review.

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