There are film composers and then there’s Elliot … Goldenthal

By Ray Bennett

Oscar-winning American composer Elliot Goldenthal, who turns 70 today, said that the first time he saw the sheet music for Krzysztof Penderecki’s ‘Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima for 52 Strings’ when he was 17, he turned pale and started to tremble. ‘It was a deep moment. I realised that I had seen my first real film score.’ 

Speaking at the 2018 Krakow Film Music Festival, with the venerable late Polish composer sitting next to him on a speaker’s panel, he described spending an afternoon at Penderecki’s home with its bucolic surroundings. ‘We didn’t exchange many words but the silences – in music we call them rests – the rests were more poignant,’ Goldenthal said. ‘He has the ability to inspire. His music goes out, he doesn’t know where the wind will take it. For me, it took it to Brooklyn when I was growing up.’

Goldenthal occupies a special place among my favourite providers of film music. I have spent time with him and his life partner, director Julie Taymor (pictured below with Elliot and me), at Abbey Road during recording sessions for her movie ‘Titus’; talked to him at length about his scores for other films of hers such as ‘Frida’, ‘The Tempest’, ‘Across the Universe’ and ‘The Glorias’ and joked and laughed into the night over drinks at the World Soundtrack Awards in Gent, Belgium, and the FMF in Krakow, Poland.

Elliot won the Academy Award for ‘Frida’ and he was nominated for best score for Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘Interview with a Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles’ and Neil Jordan’s ‘Michael Collins’. He scored Jordan’s ‘The Butcher Boy’ and ‘The Good Thief’ amid a range of films that include ‘Alien3’, ‘Batman Forever’, ‘Batman & Robin’ and ‘Heat’. Busy in the concert hall, Goldenthal composes chamber music and writes symphonies, ballets and operas. As well as the Oscar, he has won two Golden Globes, three Grammy Awards and two Tony Awards.

Robin Williams once told me that there were movie stars ‘and then there’s Jack’, as in Nicholson. At the 2014 FMF in 2014, a special concert showed that there are film composers and then there’s Elliot, as in Goldenthal.

He created for the festival a stupendous 20-minute piece titled ‘Grand Gothic Suite’ with cues from ‘Batman Forever’ and ‘Batman and Robin’ performed during the ASCAP 100th Anniversary closing gala in the vast central hall of an enormous building once called the Vladimir Lenin Steelworks. 

It remains a functioning factory known as the Tinning Plant of Arcelor Mittal Poland. For the festival, it was converted to a concert hall with four thousand seats, a stage big enough for full orchestra and chorus and a giant movie screen. What the venue lost in acoustics, it more than made up for in atmosphere.

Played with evident joy by the Beethoven Academy Orchestra and Polish Radio Choir conducted by Diego Navarro, the suite soared and danced and rampaged and almost blew the roof off the Tinning Plant venue not because it was loud but because it was so enthralling. It stopped the show. 

Audience and orchestra leapt to their feet and demanded that Goldenthal (in the centre of the photo above) go to the stage for a prolonged standing ovation.

As Julie Taymor, told me afterwards, the suite showed that dumb action movies can have scores that are created with classical orchestral foundations. Goldenthal has an extraordinarily rich musical vocabulary and he employed it fully in the ‘Grand Gothic Suite’. It was so vividly descriptive and evocative that you didn’t actually need to see the movies.

Two-time Oscar-winner Hans Zimmer had to follow that with a suite from Christopher Nolan’s hit movie ‘Inception’ suite and later he recalled ‘the great and redoubtable Elliot Goldenthal completely and utterly wiping the floor with us with his extraordinary, brilliant “Batman” suite! I just love that man’s music… and he triumphed that night!’

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