Gremlins Week: Exploring The Music

Image for Gremlins Week: Exploring The Music

*“I’ve never done anything like this before. It starts out sweet and gentle… then all of a sudden, BANG! You find out the Gremlins are these nasty little buggers and so the music takes on a totally different tune."

*Jerry Goldsmith, the Gremlins souvenir magazine, 1984.

Jerry Goldsmith

Gremlins wasn’t the first time Jerry Goldsmith created musical mayhem for Joe Dante. In 1983, Goldsmith composed the score for Twilight Zone The Movie, the Steven Spielberg-produced anthology film based on the cult ‘60s Rod Serling series. John Landis created the story of a racist (Vic Morrow) who is sent back in time to be persecuted. Spielberg crafted a sentimental story about OAPs who get to be young again for just one night. George Miller put a mischievous demon on the wing of an aircraft, who could only be seen by John Lithgow. And Dante himself spun a typically surreal yarn about a boy (Jeremy Licht) with a vivid and controlling imagination. A huge fan of the composer in general and his Lonely Are The Brave score in particular, Dante was left to supervise the scoring of all the segments and a solid musical bond between director and maestro was formed.

Jerry GoldsmithJerry Goldsmith

“We got on great during The Twilight Zone and I thought he’d be perfect for Gremlins,” remembered Dante. “He signed on to do the movie before he saw it. When you read a script, it’s not necessarily what your impressions of the film are going to be once it’s finished, and I think the movie turned out to be a lot more cartoony than the script.”The results, especially if you take Gremlins (1984) and Gremlins The New Batch (1990) together, are as entertaining as Goldsmith’s music gets, and a huge factor in why Dante’s nutzoid vision works so well. Using a seamless blend of small ensemble, electronica and what can only be described as special effects, Goldsmith’s music is witty enough to heighten the laughs but still sincere enough to create thrills, chills and drama, at once a hymn to small-town Americana and the holiday season, but at the same time slyly hinting that there might be darkness lurking in the happy facades (Gremlins’ version of Silent Night played over Kate’s explanation of why she hates Yuletide is the most morose, desolate use of a Christmas carol depicted in film).

Gremlins represents a tipping point in Goldsmith’s exploration of electronic instrumentation — it was not long before he produced his first entirely electronic score for Runaway. “There would be more and more Yamaha equipment,” remembers Dante. “It got to be like a maze where you couldn’t get through the door without climbing over all this equipment.” Perhaps it’s for this reason that Dante gave Goldsmith a cameo in the background of the inventors' convention. Yet importantly Goldsmith doesn’t give up traditional instrumentation entirely. There is something quite apt about this mix of the old and the new for Gremlins, the tradition of Mr. Wing (Keye Luke) who steadfastly follows the rules and the hip irreverence of the Gremlins themselves, who wouldn’t know a rule if it hit them between the pointy ears.

After Twilight Zone The Movie and the two Gremlins pictures, Dante and Goldsmith worked together on six further flicks; Explorers, Innerspace, The ‘Burbs, Matinee, Small Soldiers (which is Gremlins 3 in everything but name) and Looney Toons Back In Action, which was Goldsmith’s final completed work. “I used him on every picture I could afford him on,” remembered Dante, who described his partnership with the composer as “one of the most treasured relationships of my career”. But the zenith of the collaboration remains the Gremlins pictures. We look at some of the key themes and motifs that helped ensure the films' abiding comedy-horror classic status….

Gremlins, Carol-Singing

The Gremlins Rag... “In those days Jerry used to play the themes on a piano and whenever directors listened to the first stab of a composer, you had to try and do a tremendous amount of processing to try and figure out how that was going to translate into an orchestrated piece,” recalls Dante. "So when he first played the Gremlins rag, it just sounded like honkytonk piano and it was hard to figure out how it was going to fit into the movie – it just sounded like something out of a Western to me. But then as he developed it, it became very appropriate because it was the anarchy of the music that fit into the picture.”

It may take a while to reveal itself, but The Gremlins Theme or Rag is Goldsmith at a) his most catchiest and b) his most downright fun. The use of the Rag form — a kind of syncopated jazz melody — is sloppy and loose enough for the brand of chaos the Gremlins wreak, boasting a kind of big-top, high-wire, circus-y feel that screams fun in danger/ danger in fun. Because Dante cuts between scenes so quickly, you don’t really get a chance for it to play out over any length of time; that pleasure comes in the end credits.

The Gremlins Christmas Carol...
If that isn’t enough, Goldsmith uses synthesised Gremlin yowls throughout the score, a series of electronic cat mewls that musically bring the creatures to life. This has a precedent in Goldsmith’s work — the Brazillian drum that created ape imitations for Planet Of The Apes, the growls and howls to signify the demons in The Mephisto Waltz, the shouty choral stylings of The Omen — but here the technique takes on a comedic bent as the Gremiins mow-mow-mow their way through the rag dressed up as a Christmas carol.

Nightmare At 20,000ft...
Gremlins isn’t strictly the first piece of music Goldsmith has written about a gremlin. George Miller’s episode for Twilight Zone, Nightmare At 20,000ft, centres on a nervous flyer watching a creature wreaking havoc on the wing of an aircraft — the term Gremlin is often associated with the mechanical failure of aircraft — and to accompany them, Goldsmith composed an abrasive but delirious theme for solo violin that feels like an early sketch for his Gremlins work.

Scratchy Strings For Stripe...
Strings in the Gremlins musoverse are very rarely lyrical or sweeping. Instead, they are plucked or scraped, a scratchy irritant on the ear to match the carnage on screen.

Evil Gremlins

Gremlins Menacing Theme...
If the Gremlins Rag represents the demonic glee of the Gremlins, Goldsmith also needed something to portray their more threatening, pernicious side, so he created a menacing tritone motif. It makes its first appearance as furballs start popping out of Gizmo, recurs when Mr. Hanson goes to take a blood sample from the mogwai — played underneath an ethereal take on Gizmo’s theme — but gets its most effective statement over the swimming pool boiling and bubbling as it turns into a Gremlin incubator. In this incarnation, it sounds like something cooked up for a '50s sci-fi B-movie.

Gremlins Tenacious Theme...
Goldsmith comes up with ANOTHER Gremlins theme that gets an airing as Kate and Billy try to escape in the car (they hole up in the bank) and reprises as Billy battles Stripe in the department store while Kate tries to hit the lights. It’s a pulsating, punchy little number that does interesting things with time signatures and is an exemplification of the relentless tenacity of the creatures.


Gizmo's Song...
The search to find Gizmo’s singing voice was a difficult one. “We brought in all these complicated things,” remembers Dante. “We brought in Diamand Galas and all these great opera singers to try and find a voice, and ultimately Jerry ended up using a 13 year-old girl from a synagogue.” Goldsmith recorded the girl’s voice in an isolation booth during the recording sessions. To get that tremulous vibrato to the Mogwai’s voice, sound-effects editor John Popisil put the recording through a harmoniser while supervising sound editor Mark Mangini painstakingly edited out her breaths between notes and replaced them with a purring effect to up the cuddly-critter factor.

Gizmo's Theme...
The theme itself is innocent, childlike and ridiculously whistleworthy. It creates an instant familiarity that makes it feel like it has always been with us.

Gizmo Toy Car

Gizmo's Heroic Theme...
Goldsmith makes the melody work overtime, as a fuller, more orchestrated version serves as a love theme for Billy (Zach Galligan) and Kate (Phoebe Cates), such as when Billy sits next to Kate at the bank or when Kate accepts Billy’s offer of a date. Yet this is not the only theme that Goldsmith created for Gizmo. To reflect the more heroic, resourceful side of the Mogwai, he adds a second, more brass-led, Errol Flynn-esque motif to accompany Gizmo’s derring-do in the toy department.

Gremlins, Billy

Billy's Theme...
As Dante edited Gremlins, he used sections of Bernard Herrmann’s score for Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry to accompany Billy Peltzer, late for work, running into the bank. This is Herrmann’s theme....

...And here is Goldsmith’s tune. His boisterous theme, with its fizzing plucked strings and muted trombones, is infused with a Herrmannesque sensibility. It’s a piece of music that has more personality than the character it is written for. As well as standing in as Billy’s theme, the tune also doubles as a broader motif for the town of Kingston Falls, evoking a light Capraesque sense of community spirit but with a slightly askew feel to suggest things are about to get seriously weird.


Gremlins, Mrs Deagle

For Mrs Deagle (first name: Ruby, played by Polly Holliday), the cold-hearted bank controller of Kingston Falls, Goldsmith creates his most out-and-out comedic cue: a small ensemble — strings and bass — underscoring an outrageous electronic waltz that is both funny and evil. Its nutty menace owes something to the Herbert Stothart theme for The Wicked Witch Of The West from The Wizard Of Oz but comes up with an off-kilter personality all of its own.

Gremlins: The New Batch

Gothic Gremlins...
The first thing that strikes you about Goldsmith’s music for 1990s Gremlins 2: The New Batch is how little it relies on the existing Gremlins material. Instead, just as the film takes the Gremlins and reorganises their DNA in unexpected and often funky mutations, so Goldsmith takes the Gremlins Rag, dismantles it and reworks its elements in different but complimentary ways. This cue to accompany Gizmo’s escape, is simultaneously gleeful but malevolent — the Gothic-y organ calling to mind a thousand horror flicks — but still has some of the sneakiness of the Gremlins rag.

It's A Good Life...
The sequel is more madcap than its predecessor, so Goldsmith gets even more playful with the instrumentation. This harkens back to his work on It’s A Good Life, Dante’s segment of Twilight Zone The Movie, in which he introduces a cowbell and whoppee cushion to accompany a hideous monstrous rabbit coming out of a magician’s hat.

Gremlins Cartoon FX...
New Batch takes the use of sound effects to whole new levels, throwing in car horns, train whistles and bells. Dante’s films can often be seen as live-action cartoons and Goldsmith’s scoring calls to mind the scores of Carl Stalling (Looney Toons) and Scott Bradley (Tom & Jerry) in their ability to spot outrageous music to match on-screen action.

Gremlins: The New Batch

Gremlins A Go-Go...
New Batch also comes in a period in Goldsmith’s career that sees him back off from completely electronic instrumentation and mix it with a more conventional orchestra set-up. From the opening fanfare that immediately announces we are in a Big City (and therefore a new movie) to the warm brass — reminiscent of Goldsmith’s work on First Knight — that gives the ending a new, seemingly-without-irony optimism, Goldsmith gives the entire orchestra a run for its money, at its best on this wonderful driving action cue that puts Malcolm McNab’s trumpet work to the fore and showcases the best new theme in all its dynamic glory.

Gizmo: First Blood Part 2...
Goldsmith also uses the orchestra for a charming point of self-parody, aping his own score to Rambo First Blood II to match Gizmo’s new found vigilantism. For the part when Gizmo actually goes full Rambo, Dante tracks in Goldsmith’s actual First Blood score.

Gremlins is available to buy on Film Score Monthly and is available to buy here. Gremlins 2 The New Batch is available to buy on Varese Sarabande and is available to buy here.


*Keep 'em peeled during Joe Dante