Home > Reviews > TOTAL RECALL – Jerry Goldsmith

TOTAL RECALL – Jerry Goldsmith


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Total Recall is one of my all-time favorite sci-fi action films, and is one of the best movies Arnold Schwarzenegger ever made. Adapted from the short story ‘We Can Remember It For You Wholesale’ by Philip K. Dick, it was the third English-language film from Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, following Flesh + Blood in 1985 and Robocop in 1987, and continued his explorations of American consumerism and capitalism through thinly-veiled satire, dressed up with large-scale action sequences. The film is set in a future time period where humans have colonized other planets, and have invented technology that allows ‘false memories’ to be implanted into the mind. Schwarzenegger plays Doug Quaid, a regular blue collar worker who has vivid recurring dreams of visiting Mars. One day Quaid decides to visit Rekall, a company which implants memories of vacations in people who have never been on them. However, the process goes wrong, and Quaid learns that he has already had his memory wiped; he is, in fact, a deep-cover elite secret agent with ties to Vilos Cohaagen, the corrupt and ruthless governor of the Mars Colony. Before long Quaid is knee deep in an inter-planetary adventure involving shady secret organizations and underground resistance movements seeking to overthrow the Martian government. The film co-stars Rachel Ticotin, Ronny Cox, Michael Ironside, and a pre-Basic Instinct Sharon Stone, and was a massive hit with both critics and audiences, who praised its clever story, vivid action sequences, impressive (if occasionally gory) special effects, and mind-bending distortions of what is real and what isn’t.

Total Recall also marks the first collaboration between Verhoeven and composer Jerry Goldsmith. Both of Verhoeven’s previous American films were scored by Basil Poledouris, but the reins were handed over to the veteran here; I’m paraphrasing here, but there’s a fairly famous quote from Verhoeven that says something like “when I want brawn I hire Poledouris, and when I want brains I hire Goldsmith,” and yet ironically on Total Recall Goldsmith gave him both. Goldsmith, of course, was an old hand at science fiction action-adventures, with scores like Logan’s Run, Outland, Capricorn One, Alien, and two Star Trek movies under his belt, but despite this Total Recall has since established itself as one of the best efforts in that genre in his entire career. It’s massive blend of a large orchestra (the National Philharmonic, recorded in London) with a great deal of electronics to capture the futuristic space-travel aspect of the story. It’s cleverly constructed, with several recurring themes weaving in and out of the score, and regularly erupts into some of the most detailed, complicated, and impressively thunderous action music of his entire career. In fact, the music Goldsmith penned for the film was so technically difficult that the original recording sessions had to be scrapped and moved to London when the original ensemble, based in Munich, was found to be not good enough to cope with Goldsmith’s fiendish writing.

The score begins with “The Dream,” which introduces the score’s powerful, percussive main title. Ironically, this piece was clearly temped with the main title of Poledouris’s score from Conan the Barbarian, and Goldsmith’s version of it is close enough to not get sued. It’s still impressive stuff, full of beefy brass chords underpinning an elegant string melody, pulsating electronic percussion ideas, and containing a sense of masculinity and heroism that perfectly encapsulates Schwarzenegger’s overall persona. The switch to more new-age synth textures and softer, more lyrical orchestral writing at 2:30 offers a brief foreshadowing of the mystical elements explored much later in the parts of the film dealing with Mars’s hidden secrets, and allows Goldsmith to inform the listener that this score has more to offer than simply balls-to-the-wall action.

The rest of the score does indeed oscillate between intense action and more abstract electronic ideas, the latter of which tend to relate to the more fantastical, spiritual aspects of the story that are revealed as the plot progresses. If you are like me, however, then you will likely gravitate most towards the action sequences, all of which are absolutely brilliant. Two of them underscore major fight and chase sequences; “The Big Jump” accompanies Quaid and Melina as they attempt to escape from a hotel on Mars while avoiding Cohaagen’s goons, while “Clever Girl” accompanies the fight and subsequent chase between Quaid and his wife Lori, who is absolutely not the woman he thought she was! In these cues Goldsmith blends furious brass writing, agitated strings, a rich bed of percussion ideas – including xylophones, pianos, and many drums – with copious amounts of electronics, while frequently alluding to the score’s thematic nuggets. The depth and intricacy of the action writing here is just out-of-this world; listen to the interplay of the brass section at 1:41 in “The Big Jump,” and how he passes the same motif to the percussion section later in the same cue. Listen to how the woodwinds integrate seamlessly into the action of “Clever Girl,” and how the lithe, dance-like rhythmic idea for Lori weaves its way through the entire cue, especially the pulsating brass/string sequences beginning at 2:31 and again at 3:43. Anyone who enjoys the most bold and flamboyant Goldsmith action material – I’m talking The Wind and the Lion, the Omen scores, Poltergeist, all those 1970s westerns and cop thrillers – will find this to be of equal, if not greater, standard.

When Goldsmith calms things down, the music is no less impressive. “First Meeting” underscores Doug’s initial visit to Rekall, when everything was still about a fun vacation on Mars, and is a moody piece of light electronica blended with pretty strings and woodwinds. Cleverly, Goldsmith foreshadows the Martian Motif in the strings again, but the quirky synth writing, which is similar in tone to Legend, makes sure that the hat isn’t tipped too soon. “Where Am I?” sees Doug at his most vulnerable, trying to decide whether his life is reality or fantasy during a visit from one of Rekall’s scientists and his duplicitous soon-to-be ex-wife. Quirky synths combine with shimmering, iridescent string writing, and echoes of both the Mars motif and the Opening Title theme from fluttering woodwinds and cool electronic tones. Best of all is “The Mutant,” which underscores Doug’s encounter with the Martian separatist leader Kuato; the electronic abrasiveness of the initial moments slowly fade away, and is replaced by music which slowly reaches revelatory heights of orchestral grandeur by its conclusion. This is the thematic culmination of the Mars motif in all its glory, as Kuato telepathically reveals the secrets of the planet by asking Quaid to ‘open his mind’ to the possibilities within. Goldsmith takes his time to build the sense of anticipation, and when he finally brings his brass section fully to bear on the piece, just before the 3:00 mark, the effect is film music gold.

The film’s action finale actually comprises three cues – “The Treatment,” “The Hologram,” and “End of a Dream” – all of which build further on the sensational action textures heard elsewhere in the score. The thematic statements in these cues are much more pronounced than the others – notably the main title theme, the Mars motif and its associated textures, and several of the recurring action rhythms – and Goldsmith references them frequently as Doug and Melina fight their way out of the Rekall mind-altering chamber, through a small army of Cohaagen’s men, and eventually have a final confrontation with Cohaagen himself. The dense and intricate orchestral writing is just as striking here; I especially like the interpolation of the Main Theme ostinato at 3:38 into “The Treatment,” the fabulous flutter-tongue motif that gets passed around the brass section at 4:29 of the same cue, and the nervous tick-tock percussion at the beginning of “The Hologram”. “End of a Dream” might be the best of the lot; Goldsmith’s use of a rumbling piano motif to underpin the rest of the orchestra during the opening sequence is superb, the pace and sense of forward motion throughout the cue is breathlessly exciting, the prominent use of xylophones adds a whole new dimension to the percussion section, and some of the things he makes his brass section do border on the obscene.

Everything comes to a head in the staggeringly beautiful “A New Life,” which resolves all the tension from the rest of the score and explodes with a series of soaring, majestic, spine-tingling statements of the Mars theme, which fans of Goldsmith’s 1995 score First Knight are sure to appreciate (as it is orchestrated similarly). The nature of Goldsmith’s filmography was such that he wasn’t often afforded the opportunity to entirely throw off the shackles of self-restraint and engage in unashamed orchestral beauty, which is a massive shame, because cues like “A New Life” prove that he was sensationally good at it.

Unfortunately, the original soundtrack album released by Varese Sarabande was not presented in chronological order, and only ran for just a tad over 40 minutes, which meant that it was missing several of the most significant portions of the score. Thankfully, in 2000, Varese producer Robert Townson arranged for an expanded ‘Deluxe Edition’ of the score to be released, which increased the running time of the album to a much more generous 71 minutes, and presented it in correct film order. As good as the original album is, the Deluxe Edition really reveals the score’s depths, and confirms its masterpiece status. There are several terrific additional action cues (“For Old Times’ Sake,” “The Johnny Cab” which renders the main theme for electronic woodwinds, “The Nose Job,” “A New Face,” and the thrilling “The Massacre” being the best of them), and several evocative electronic and electro-acoustic combo cues which deepen the sense of techno-futurism and alien mystery (“Secret Agent,” “The Implant”, “Howdy Stranger,” the dour and ominous “Without Air”). There are also several further moments of outstanding majestic revelation, including “The Space Station” for the scene that accompanies Quaid’s spaceship arriving on Mars, and the moment on the Martian train when Quaid first sees “The Mountain” where the finale of the film eventually takes place.

Considering that the film opened just six months into the new decade, and allowing for all the outstanding music that would come later, Total Recall remains one of the best sci-fi action scores of the 1990s, and for my money is one of the most purely enjoyable genre efforts of Jerry Goldsmith’s entire career. Disregarding the director request to emulate Basil Poledouris in the main title, the rest of Total Recall sees Jerry Goldsmith at his most creative, and emotionally satisfying. The blend of orchestra and electronics is both sophisticated and appropriate, the thematic ideas are strong and memorable, and the majority of the action music is complicated, exciting, and intellectually stimulating from a compositional point of view. The original album is great despite its brevity, but the Deluxe Edition is a must-have for any serious Goldsmith aficionado. For the film score of a lifetime, rekall, rekall, rekall – and I’ll see you at the party, Richter!

Buy the Total Recall soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The Dream (3:33)
  • The Hologram (5:36)
  • The Big Jump (4:33)
  • The Mutant (3:16)
  • Clever Girl (4:31)
  • First Meeting (1:10)
  • The Treatment (5:30)
  • Where Am I? (3:56)
  • End of a Dream (5:45)
  • A New Life (2:23)
  • The Dream (3:32)
  • First Meeting (1:10)
  • Secret Agent (0:52)
  • The Implant (2:41)
  • The Aftermath (0:30)
  • For Old Times’ Sake (3:00)
  • Clever Girl (4:30)
  • The Johnny Cab (3:47)
  • Howdy Stranger (2:00)
  • The Nose Job (1:55)
  • The Space Station (0:47)
  • A New Face (1:29)
  • The Mountain (1:27)
  • Identification (1:02)
  • Lies (1:04)
  • Where Am I? (3:59)
  • Swallow It (3:07)
  • The Big Jump (4:33)
  • Without Air (1:15)
  • Remembering (1:50)
  • The Mutant (3:16)
  • The Massacre (2:34)
  • Friends (1:40)
  • The Treatment (5:36)
  • The Hologram (5:36)
  • End of a Dream (5:46)
  • A New Life (2:22)

Running Time: 40 minutes 13 seconds (Original)
Running Time: 71 minutes 20 seconds (Deluxe)

Varese Sarabande VSD-5267 (1990) – Original
Varese Sarabande VSD-6197 (1990/2000) – Deluxe

Music composed and conducted by Jerry Goldsmith. Performed by the National Philharmonic Orchestra. Orchestrations by Arthur Morton. Recorded and mixed by Bruce Botnick. Edited by Ken Hall. Score produced by Jerry Goldsmith. Deluxe album produced by Robert Townson.

  1. May 28, 2020 at 8:53 am

    Jon, you don’t mention the 2-disc edition later released by Quartet containing even more additional music? Its even better than the Varese deluxe.

    • May 30, 2020 at 2:50 pm

      Yeah, I intentionally didn’t mention it because I don’t have and have never heard that album, so there’s no good basis for comparison.

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