When it comes to Jerry Goldsmith's remarkable list of accomplishments in the world of film scoring, his soundtrack for Basic Instinct must rank near the top of the list. Released to a storm of controversy (and subsequent box office success) in 1992, Paul Verhoeven's film explores the intense sexual relationship between troubled cop Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) and novelist Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone) – the key suspect in a gruesome murder investigation where the victim has been stabbed to death with an ice-pick. The twist is the murder directly mirrors that described in one of Tramell's books – something that gives the alluring and potentially dangerous femme fatale the perfect alibi. Goldsmith's Oscar-nominated score was his second for Verhoeven, following the terrifically exciting Total Recall in 1990. The composer went on the record numerous times in describing the Basic Instinct score as his most difficult one to write, Verhoeven continually rejecting Goldsmith's material until he happened upon a musical sequence in an underscore cue. This subsequently became the film's celebrated main theme, and the basis on which Goldsmith's ground-breaking soundtrack was built.
What the composer achieved was nothing less than a reinvention of the erotic thriller soundtrack, comparable to John Barry's earlier achievement with Body Heat in 1981. Musically, the genre had often been afflicted with the most tepid and naff kind of synthpad/saxophone combo, a cheap and lazy device for cheap and lazy films. Goldsmith however was always one of film music's great innovators and wasn't about to rehash the same tired clichés. Inspired by Verhoeven's deft riffing on Alfred Hitchcock, he came up with an alluring yet unsettling score – attractive yet menacing, beautiful yet dangerous, brilliantly embodying the contradictions inherent in the Catherine Tramell character.
These qualities become immediately apparent in the famous "Main Title" track, a sensual and slithery piece for soft woodwinds and strings augmented by the subtlest of electronics. It's both appealing and terrifying at the same time, beckoning the listener to come closer whilst also warning of the danger if they do so. That Goldsmith is able to depict these contradictions so seemingly effortlessly is one of the many reasons why the score is so revered.
The main theme weaves its way through the score, as does a secondary theme depicting the extent to which Nick is becoming personally involved with Catherine. A sneaky and deceptive piece for wandering strings, it leads the listener on a merry dance – just as Catherine does with Nick in the film. One of its most memorable appearances comes in the notorious "Crossed Legs" sequence, the mischievous woodwinds reflecting the teasing quality of Tramell's seductive character. Both themes are apparent on the standard 1992 Varese Sarabande CD release but get a greater chance to breathe on the 2004 Prometheus album, released in time for Goldsmith's 75th birthday. The latter contains several tracks not included on the earlier CD and is the one reviewed here.
Following the intoxicating main titles is the previously unreleased "First Victim" track. It's a piece that builds tension before erupting in sudden and shocking musical violence to accompany the film's blood-soaked opening sex/murder combo. The secondary theme then gets a bewitching airing in "Catherine and Roxy", the mysterious strings hinting at the tantalising mystery where the answer remains just out of reach.
Other noteworthy pieces include the cold and brutal "Beth and Nick", where a rumbling piano accompanies a physical, borderline assaultive sex scene between Nick and his therapist Beth (played by Jeanne Tripplehorn); the thrilling action of "Night Life", which adds Goldsmith's brassy/drumpad-led orchestrations into the mix; and the sheer orgasmic qualities of "Pillow Talk". The latter accompanies the pivotal and much-discussed lovemaking scene between Nick and Catherine, Goldsmith's increasingly piercing orchestrations transforming the act from something sensual into something violent and brutal (it also cleverly mirrors the development of the opening "First Victim" track, suggesting that Nick will meet a similarly grisly fate). Taken on its own terms the scene in the film is gratuitous – with the addition of Goldsmith's score, it suddenly takes on added dimensions, the mark of a truly brilliant composer.
Throughout Goldsmith's incredibly intricate orchestrations never cease to beguile, whether it's the deceptively playful back and forth of "Don't Smoke" and "Kitchen Help" or the rumbling piano of "She's Really Sick" – indicating the deranged psychosis of the killer at the heart of the story. Further shades of Total Recall shine through in the exciting "Roxy Loses" and "Games are Over", Goldsmith pushing the National Philharmonic Orchestra to its limits as only he could whilst dynamically mixing both live and electronic percussion. The steady escalation of dread in the latter is especially noteworthy, synthetic swirling eventually exploding into a hugely fraught and exciting piece for hammering pianos, xylophones and frantic strings.
The score then reaches its stunning conclusion in the lengthy "Unending Story/End Credits", which begins with a superb noirish trumpet (hearkening back to the composer's classic Chinatown) before moving through the increasingly ecstatic lovemaking music that builds to a brutal note of percussion-laden uncertainty during the film's final reveal. The end credits portion of the track then climaxes, in a smart bit of musical symmetry, with a reprisal of the "First Victim" material, all of which is designed to get the listener guessing – did Nick make it out of the film alive? Goldsmith isn't about to provide any answers but his diabolically clever music lingers in the mind nonetheless.
When it came to providing outstanding scores for trashy films, Jerry Goldsmith was top of the heap – and they certainly didn't come trashier than Basic Instinct. But Goldsmith was a rarefied breed of composer: one who was able to see beyond the fabric of the film and amplify its emotions though the music, in the process elevating the entire project with his astonishing capabilities. Had Basic Instinct been burdened with yet another clichéd soundtrack, it's probably not remiss to say that the film would have lost most, if not all, of its impact. Add Goldsmith's score into the mix however and the film is suddenly transformed from torrid, titillating sleaze into something creepier and more sophisticated. By zeroing in on the "is she/isn't she" enigma of Sharon Stone's character Catherine, Goldsmith is able to conjure a score that is both rapturous and unnerving in the extreme – like the blonde bombshell herself, it conceals hidden depths that frighten, astound and delight.
It's a pity that Goldsmith's association with director Paul Verhoeven only extended to three films – they were clearly excellent collaborators and Verhoeven himself deserves a great deal of credit for encouraging his composer to go that extra mile, something that is becoming an increasingly rare occurrence in the modern age of film music. Nowadays, a great many film scores are all surface – if the film gets louder and faster, the music follows suit; likewise, during a poignant moment, the music will quieten down. Goldsmith was always head and shoulders above such a simplistic approach – he had the rare ability to give a filmmaker what they wanted whilst also adding extra layers of intelligence. He also had the skill to structure his soundtrack albums in such a way that they communicated the narrative of their respective film when listened to in isolation. Basic Instinct is a classic case in point – one of the greatest scores of the 1990s and one of the greatest of Goldsmith's extraordinary career.
Both the original Varese Sarabande album and the 2004 Prometheus album are available as an MP3 download and CD release on Amazon as follows. The original 1992 album is at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com while the 2004 album is at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.
*indicates previously unreleased track
**indicates extended film version of track