The relationship between music and the moving image can be a contentious one, and for evidence of this, one need look no further than the tortured post-production on Alien.
In 1979, Ridley Scott’s science-fiction/horror masterpiece galvanised the genre, steering away from the smash success of Star Wars and adding potent elements of Freudian, sexual anxiety. The story has become legend: the crew of the spaceship Nostromo, Sigourney Weaver’s epochal Ellen Ripley among them, answer a distress call on a distant planet. On arrival, John Hurt’s crew member is impregnated by a tentacled facehugger and once back on the ship, effectively gives birth to a vicious beast which proceeds to slaughter the rest of the crew one by one.
Shot entirely on soundstages at London’s Shepperton Studios for maximum claustrophobic effect, and making exquisite use of HR Giger’s biomechanical/sexual artwork, Alien maintains its status as one of the most atmospheric movies ever made. It’s essentially a B movie, but is elevated by the strength of the performances and Scott’s artistry behind the camera. However, one aspect of the film that continues to court controversy is the musical score.
Scott signed Jerry Goldsmith to compose the music, a wise move given his experience in the genre (in the same year, Goldsmith would write the groundbreaking, Oscar-nominated music for Star Trek: The Motion Picture). One of film music’s great pioneers, Goldsmith embellished the National Philharmonic ensemble with an assortment of unusual instruments to better capture the horrifying essence of the beast on-screen, including the Serpent (a 16th century bass woodwind instrument) and an Echoplex to add further depth to the pizzicato (plucked) strings.
However, it soon became clear that composer and director were at loggerheads about which direction the music should take. Goldsmith’s intention was to introduce a dignified theme for the vast emptiness of space and then deconstruct it through the encounters with the Alien before restoring it to full romantic glory at the climax as Weaver’s Ripley makes her escape. Scott, however, favoured something more textural and ambient, with a less obvious thematic base.
Goldsmith’s full score as he originally intended it can be heard on the 2007 CD release from Intrada Records and it’s an extraordinary piece of work. Blending the avant-garde textures of Planet of the Apes with the more romantic aspects of his Oscar-winning Omen score, Alien is inarguably one of the finest horror scores of all time. The ‘Main Title’ is incredible, placing emphasis on a solo trumpet to suggest the cold yet romantic loneliness of deep space, and Goldsmith puts this central theme through a number of rapturous variations, notably in the ‘Landing’ sequence where it builds to thunderous heights, and the aforementioned, beautiful ‘End Title’.
For the most part, the score isn’t outright scary, more skin-crawlingly creepy, and it’s in these dissonant sections where Goldsmith’s enviable talent for innovation comes to the fore. ‘The Skeleton’ puts plucked strings through the Echoplex, adding further depth to the soundscape, while later on, the chilling ‘Here Kitty’ adds skittish, slithery orchestral effects to Brett’s (Harry Dean Stanton) iconic death scene. There are moments of explosive shock in Goldsmith’s finest style, ‘The Droid’ in particular throwing the orchestra around in terrifying fashion.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of the latter track (as well as several others) wasn’t used in the film, and this leads onto the heated topic of how Goldsmith’s score was ultimately treated in the final edit.
Competing with Scott, Goldsmith was forced to re-work his original, romantic Main Title into something more uncomfortable and dissonant, a situation which the composer wasn’t happy with. Moreover, entire sections of his music were replaced with the temp-track by Scott and editor Terry Rawlings: the encroaching horror of Goldsmith’s unused cue ‘The Shaft’, built around an 8 note stalking motif in the brass section, was replaced wholesale by a cue from the composer’s own score for Freud. Similarly his End Title piece was replaced with one by classical composer Howard Hanson.
However, painful though it may be for a Goldsmith fan to admit, the minimalist application of his original score (and several others) as heard in the film does build a sense of menace. It simply seems that Scott went about it the wrong way (Goldsmith later stated that Scott wasn’t able to communicate his needs effectively).
It could be argued that Goldsmith was over-thinking the movie, and that a score with a strong thematic base simply wasn’t needed. However, by the same token, some of Scott’s decisions do seem idiotic: the decision to replace Goldsmith’s End Title is bizarre considering it achieves the same cathartic effect as the Hanson piece eventually used.
It’s a situation that continues to divide fans to this day but two things can’t be argued: firstly, that Goldsmith’s score as heard on its own terms is tremendous, and secondly, that the music as heard in the film is brilliantly effective. Goldsmith was one of the greatest film composers of the 20th century, and listening to the score away from its original context reveals a staggering amount of nuances, whether it’s the rising strings giving way to the ‘awakening’ of the main theme in ‘Hypersleep’ to the horrifying brass effects crawling throughout the orchestra in ‘Parker’s Death’.
Far be it to make unfavourable comparisons but the score is leagues above Marc Streitenfeld’s dramatically simplistic work on Prometheus (oddly enough, the main theme for that film wasn’t composed by Streitenfeld but by Harry Gregson Williams). The latter is content to operate as a wall of noise for the most part whilst accentuating the scare moments with loud stingers but there’s none of the innovation heard in Goldsmith’s work.
He was able to invest even the quietest moments with interesting textures and instruments, always enhancing the drama. Scott for his part may not have understood how to best treat the score (his and Goldsmith’s next and last collaboration, Legend, was even more disastrous) but the music endures as a sci-fi/horror masterpiece.