Because of the generic action and horror fodder Jerry Goldsmith scored during his final 10 years, it’s actually quite startling to hear a full-throttle orchestral score that isn’t goosed with sequenced synthetic percussion, drippy electronic tones, and a regurgitation of motifs that made scores such as Deep Rising and Air Force One (both 1997) fairly generic.
It’s not that Goldsmith wrote bad music during the nineties, but the selection of films tended to address his best-known skills – action – and those projects offered little new to inspire. Producers also wanted a specific sound, so not unlike Hans Zimmer, there wasn’t a strong voice to extract something that was musically fresh.
First Knight, as a film, hasn’t aged too well over the years, but the score has withstood the movie’s uneven tone and clichés (not to mention casting issues), and features a romantic Goldsmith as filtered through more contemporary ears. His gilded theme “Does It Please You / Look at Me” (oddly similar to Basil Poeldouris’ heroic 1997 Starship Troopers theme) begins with a strong, almost tuneful melody, and chords reminiscent of his meditative style in more superior nineties works such as The Russia House (1990) or his 1986 re-recording of his seventies masterpiece, Islands in the Stream (1977).
Strings are layered to leaden the romantic struggles between the three main characters – Lancelot, Guinevere, and King Arthur – whereas deep brass naturally enhance action and combat sequences, but rather than score the scenes with overtly modernist concepts, Goldsmith sticks to a more classical epic style. When he adds percussion, it’s orchestrated for maximum impact, be it for moments of heroism (“Promise Me”) or frenetic combat with large banks of heroic brass cascading in dance-like motions (“Night Battle”), although the brief “Gauntlet Drums” provides a nice blend of minimal percussion instrumentation to evoke a steady unnerving tension through repeated rhythms.
In the original soundtrack album, Goldsmith did his usual thing by compacting the score into a 40 minute suite, with cues re-ordered to create a more fluid listening experience. La-La Land’s CD includes both the full score (CD1) and original soundtrack album edit (CD2), each offering different listening experiences. The strong emphasis on themes within the 134 mins. film reinforced characters and recurring concepts, but there is some repetition and redundancy in the early part of CD1 – good for the fans, but others may find the score’s first third lacking a diversity in variations.
Like Legend (1985), Goldsmith relied on Alexander Courage (TV’s Star Trek) for the score’s orchestrations, and First Knight is an elegantly conceived work where every single instrument flows through moods and theme statements. Superficially, and upon its first playback, the score sounds a bit simple, but it doesn’t take many listens to realize the intricate orchestrations which ensured every note comes through crystal clear. Coupled with flawless engineering, this 2-disc set provides a fine showcase for Goldsmith’s superb skills in crafting long-form, epic musical narratives.
Even fans of his seventies sound will be pleased at the recurrence of multiple actions – percussion, intersecting theme statements – which spiral off and blend together to coordinate with onscreen montages. Goldsmith was a master at grasping multiple actions within a montage, and isolating specific sounds to maintain continuity for audiences. The result, as a music cue, yielded diverse rhythms, and powerful orchestral colours which often nailed a sense of desperation, near-disaster turns, or brutality by oppressors in hallmark scores such as The Boys from Brazil (1978) or one of his last great works, The Edge (1997).
Jeff Bond’s liner notes provide a solid overview of the film’s production and scoring stage, with detailed notes for unedited and original album cues, and CD2 also features almost a half hour of alternate and draft cues.
This release was clearly produced as a labour of love, with longtime Goldsmith audio engineer & producer Bruce Botnick (Poltergeist) and soundtrack producer Mike Matessino making sure this release is a definitive example of the composer’s brilliance during his late career. Written the same year as Congo, First Knight is clearly illustrative of the composer’s absolute maturity and mastery.
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan