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BASIC INSTINCT – Jerry Goldsmith


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Basic Instinct was one of the most commercially successful but socially controversial films of 1992. A murder-mystery thriller with strong sexual content, the film was written by Joe Eszterhas and directed by Paul Verhoeven. Michael Douglas starred as San Francisco police detective Nick Curran, who becomes involved in an intense sexual relationship with Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone), a mysterious and confident novelist, despite the fact that she is the prime suspect in the murder of her wealthy rock star boyfriend, who was stabbed to death with an ice pick while in flagrante. The film, which co-starred George Dzundza and Jeanne Tripplehorn, was controversial for several reasons – for its depiction of the ‘heroic detective’ as an amoral cocaine addict, for its brutal violence (including the opening murder and a subsequent rape sequence), and especially for its explicit sexual content, which included the now notorious scene where Sharon Stone flashes her vagina at police officers during an interrogation. Of course there had been successful mainstream erotic thrillers before – Dressed to Kill, Body Heat, Nine ½ Weeks, Fatal Attraction, and Jagged Edge, which Eszterhas also wrote – but Basic Instinct caught a wave of popularity and social zeitgeist, becoming one of the biggest grossing films of the year, and catapulting Sharon Stone to stardom.

The score for Basic Instinct was by the great Jerry Goldsmith, who had previously worked with Verhoeven on Total Recall in 1990. Goldsmith often described Basic Instinct as one of the most difficult scores he had ever done, saying that Verhoeven “had a very clear idea of how the woman should be, and I had a hard time getting it” – almost to the point where Goldsmith nearly walked off the film in frustration. We must all thank the film music gods that he didn’t, because the final product was groundbreaking.

Prior to this score, erotic thrillers were often scored with jazz. From the early days of Hollywood through to the peak of film noir, the sound of jazz often accompanied visual stories about femmes fatale – think of Adolph Deutsch’s score for The Maltese Falcon, or Miklós Rózsa’s Double Indemnity – all the way up to John Barry’s scores for Body Heat and Jagged Edge in 1981 and 1985, respectively. What Goldsmith did on Basic Instinct was completely reinvent the sound of the genre. Instead of sultry jazz tones for saxophones, Goldsmith used icy, serpentine strings to give musical voice to Catherine Tramell’s dichotomous personality – cold, detached, coolly calculating, but also given to snakelike duplicity and moments of intense passion and powerful sexuality. Goldsmith’s music somehow allowed the film to rise above its pulpy potboiler origins and become something significantly classier and more sophisticated, and this inarguably made the film better – in fact, one could argue that Goldsmith played a substantial role in giving the film the erudite sheen that allowed it to connect with audiences and critics alike.

Everything in the score originates from the main theme initially heard in the “Main Title,” which uses sensual, twisting strings in combination with soft woodwinds and subtle tick-tock sounds, backed with an iridescent and ghostly electronic shimmer. The way that Goldsmith captures the essence of Tramell in this music is simply remarkable – she’s enticing and alluring and impossibly sexy, but also clearly dangerous and perhaps a tiny bit unhinged. The fact that Goldsmith captures these conflicting emotions and personality traits in a single piece of music, while also making it thematic and melodic, memorable, and musically literate is nothing short of astonishing. Elements of the main theme are present in almost every part of the score in one form or another, whether as essentially straight restatements (such as in “Kitchen Help” or “Morning After”), as little deconstructions (as in “Catherine’s Sorrow”), or as more understated allusions to the tempo and orchestration.

“Crossed Legs” introduces a secondary theme relating to the relationship between Nick and Catherine, a sly piece for meandering strings, hooting woodwinds, and little xylophone textures that has something of a ‘cat playing with its food’ quality to it, as though Catherine is somehow amused by her relationship with Nick – enjoys teasing him, seducing him, then casting him aside on a whim. The scene itself is the notorious interrogation scene, which highlights Catherine’s shockingly forthright sexuality, and it cleverly blends the Nick and Catherine motif with the elongated string chord progressions of the main theme, reduced to its bare bones but creating some clever musical linkage between the different ideas.

The third recuring idea in the score is introduced in the excellent “Night Life,” and is a sort of ‘travelling’ motif for undulating strings and the chilly woodwind textures, but also some more dynamic and imposing brass chords underpinned with the electronic drum pads, metallic percussion, and clattering xylophones typical of Goldsmith’s writing in the period. This sound is vintage Jerry – there are echoes of earlier scores like Inner Space, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, and Total Recall, while also foreshadowing things like Malice, The Shadow, and even First Knight.

“Pillow Talk” is an important variation on the main theme. It underscores the passionate but increasingly violent lovemaking scene between Nick and Catherine, which ends with Nick being tied to Catherine’s bed in a way similar to the film’s original murder victim. Goldsmith cleverly follows the ‘will-she-won’t-she’/‘is-she-the-killer’ element of the sex scene with several variations on the main theme, which begin with a tone of sensual passion but quickly become fierce and vicious and dangerous, and eventually rise to a vivid crescendo which misdirects the audience into thinking that Nick is about to suffer the same fate as the hapless Johnny Boz. I love the moody rumbling piano clusters that play under the violins, how the rocking motion of the strings seems to move in time with their throes of passion, and how by the cue’s climax Goldsmith’s strings are almost shrieking in a combination of anguish and orgasmic ecstasy. It’s all brilliant.

Two superb action cues dominate the score’s final third. The first one, “The Games Are Over,” begins with a sense of steadily increasing tension and anxiety, eerie strings and more of that inside-your-skull tick-tock percussion, before the whole thing explodes into a frantically exciting piece for pounding low-end pianos, shrill strings, and yet more xylophones dominating the percussion section. The subsequent “Roxy Loses” underscores the famous San Francisco car chase as Catherine’s jealous lesbian lover tries to murder Nick by running him over with her Lotus sports car, but ends up suffering the fate herself. The cue is another tremendous example of Goldsmith’s dense 1990s action writing, an array of swirling strings, clattering percussion, dense brass clusters, low-end pianos, and electronic pulses, which again has echoes of scores like Total Recall in its construction. I also adore how Goldsmith still manages to make constant allusions to the main theme throughout all this mayhem, either in the tempo of the strings, or in the chord progressions.

The conclusion of the score, “An Unending Story,” begins with an outstanding trumpet-led variation on the ‘travelling’ motif that recalls the composer’s classic noir score for Chinatown from 1974, before moving on to a second version of the ‘pillow talk’ variation on the main theme as Nick and Catherine make love in his apartment. The cue reaches its ecstatic climax as the camera pans down to show an ice pick lying nonchalantly under the bed – once again casting doubt on her guilt or innocence. The final statement of the main theme as the end credits begin is rich and alluring, and ends the score on a perfect note of eroticism and uncertainty.

The original album – and the version reviewed here – for Basic Instinct was released by Varese Sarabande and is a tight, enjoyable 45-minute presentation of the most important parts of the score. An expanded album was released in 2004 by producers Ford A. Thaxton and Luc Van de Ven for Prometheus records, which increased the running time to over an hour, and included several excellent previously-unreleased cues including an early introduction of the ‘travelling theme’ in “Catherine & Roxy,” additional seductive tension in “Don’t Smoke,” intense music for the vivid sexual encounter between “Beth & Nick,” and some elegant piano performances in the lovely “It Won’t Sell”. Then in 2015 Spanish label Quartet Records released a 2-CD set of the score produced by Neil S. Bulk and Bruce Botnick which combines the expanded release with a re-mastered version of the original program and some bonus tracks, presented in a handsome package featuring liner notes by Daniel Schweiger.

Basic Instinct is a masterpiece score by Jerry Goldsmith, one of the best of 1992, and one which earned him a deserved Academy Award nomination, although he lost to Alan Menken and the all-conquering Disney juggernaut Aladdin. It wouldn’t be overstating things to say that much of the film’s allure and success was down to the intensely erotic sound Goldsmith brought to the film, and this is evidenced by the myriad of copycat scores that accompanied almost all of the similar films that followed in Basic Instinct’s wake – one or two of which, like Malice, Goldsmith even wrote himself. It’s a clever depiction of the duality of Catherine Tramell – misunderstood victim, devilish sexual partner, or psychotic killer? In Goldsmith’s hand’s she’s one, or more, or all three of these things simultaneously, and that’s what makes the score so compelling.

Buy the Basic Instinct soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (Theme from Basic Instinct) (2:15)
  • Crossed Legs (4:50)
  • Night Life (6:03)
  • Kitchen Help (3:59)
  • Pillow Talk (5:00)
  • Morning After (2:29)
  • The Games Are Over (5:36)
  • Catherine’s Sorrow (2:41)
  • Roxy Loses (3:17)
  • An Unending Story (7:56)
  • Main Title (2:13)
  • First Victim (1:39)
  • Catherine & Roxy (5:14)
  • Shadows (0:41)
  • Profile (0:49)
  • Don’t Smoke (2:26)
  • Crossed Legs (4:49)
  • Beth & Nick (2:21)
  • Night Life (6:03)
  • Home Visit (1:13)
  • Your Wife Knew (1:44)
  • Untitles (0:52)
  • That’s Real Music (0:27)
  • One Shot (1:27)
  • Kitchen Help (3:58)
  • Pillow Talk (4:59)
  • Morning After (2:29)
  • Roxy Loses (3:37)
  • Catherine’s Sorrow (2:41)
  • Wrong Name (2:22)
  • She’s Really Sick (1:31)
  • I Won’t Sell (1:02)
  • Games Are Over (5:53)
  • Evidence (1:39)
  • Unending Story / End Credits (9:23)
  • First Victim (Alternate Version) (1:34)
  • Main Title / The First Victim (3:45)
  • Catherine and Roxy (5:17)
  • Shadows / Profile (1:30)
  • I Don’t Smoke (2:48)
  • Crossed Legs (4:53)
  • Beth and Nick (2:24)
  • Night Life (6:04)
  • Home Visit (1:12)
  • Your Wife Knew (1:48)
  • What’s Between You? (0:55)
  • One Shot (1:28)
  • Kitchen Help (4:02)
  • Pillow Talk (5:04)
  • Morning After (2:32)
  • Roxy Loses (3:39)
  • Catherine’s Sorrow (2:44)
  • Wrong Name (2:24)
  • She’s Really Sick (1:33)
  • It Won’t Sell (1:06)
  • The Games Are Over (5:53)
  • Evidence (1:44)
  • An Unending Story / End Titles (9:08)
  • Main Title (Theme from Basic Instinct) (2:15) – Original Album Presentation
  • Crossed Legs (4:53) – Original Album Presentation
  • Night Life (6:04) – Original Album Presentation
  • Kitchen Help (3:59) – Original Album Presentation
  • Pillow Talk (5:01) – Original Album Presentation
  • Morning After (2:31) – Original Album Presentation
  • The Games Are Over (5:39) – Original Album Presentation
  • Catherine’s Sorrow (2:43) – Original Album Presentation
  • Roxy Loses (3:18) – Original Album Presentation
  • An Unending Story (7:58) – Original Album Presentation
  • The First Victim (R rated alternate) (1:37) – Bonus
  • Beth and Nick (R rated alternate) (2:13) – Bonus
  • Pillow Talk (R rated alternate) (4:51) – Bonus
  • That’s Real Music (0:27) – Bonus

Running Time: 44 minutes 06 seconds (Original)
Running Time: 73 minutes 06 seconds (Prometheus Expanded)
Running Time: 125 minutes 22 seconds (Quartet Expanded)

Varese Sarabande VSD-5360 (1992)
Prometheus XPCD 154 (1992/2005)
Quartet Records QR203 (1992/2015)

Music composed and conducted by Jerry Goldsmith. Orchestrations by Alexander Courage. Recorded and mixed by Bruce Botnick. Edited by Ken Hall. Score produced by Jerry Goldsmith. Varese album produced by Jerry Goldsmith and Robert Townson. Prometheus album produced by Ford A. Thaxton and Luc van de Ven. Quartet album produced by Bruce Botnick, Neil S. Bulk and Jose M. Benitez.

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