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Medicine Man
  • Composed by Jerry Goldsmith
  • Varèse Sarabande / 1992 / 50m

John McTiernan’s unloved 1992 film Medicine Man stars Sean Connery as a scientist who believes he has found a cure for cancer deep in the South American jungle, but he has to battle first his unbelieving assistant (Lorraine Bracco) and then the onslaught of nasty white men chopping the rainforest down to build a road.  I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for the film, which is nowhere near as bad as its reputation would suggest; in fact it’s pretty entertaining and Connery is as watchable as ever.  His “ageing hippy” hairstyle in the film was inspired by none other than Jerry Goldsmith – Connery saw him after The Russia House, when Goldsmith had just grown his ponytail, and said “Jerry, I want your hair!”  “Well, you can’t have it,” replied Goldsmith.  But he did have it, and Goldsmith receives an amusing “Hairstyle designer” credit in the film.

Goldsmith’s other service to the film came in writing its score, which is wonderful.  It came in that period of his career (by which I mean after 1983) when if you believed the majority of film music writers, virtually everything he did was terrible.  Looking back now it’s very hard to understand why so many people reached that conclusion and Medicine Man is an excellent score bolstered by a number of very strong, very memorable themes, plenty of emotion and excitement and above all, oodles of fun.

Jerry Goldsmith

Jerry Goldsmith

The score opens with “Rae’s Arrival”, presenting the chirpy theme for Bracco’s character, which has a vaguely Caribbean feel with what sound like synthesised steel drums.  It’s a fabulous theme, one you’ll probably find yourself whistling for hours every time you hear it.  The cue also introduces the score’s main action theme, a strident horn theme usually accompanied by an array of percussion both real and synthesised.  For this first appearance it’s dramatic, but nowhere near as dark as it will become later in the score.

“First Morning” sees Goldsmith introduce a lovely theme representing the tribal village where the western scientists live, synth effects adding considerable flavour to the expressive orchestra.  “Campbell and the Children” briefly reprises that theme before the score’s real pride and joy is heard for the first time, a beautifully expansive theme which is used in the film to represent the two loves of Connery’s life – first the rainforest itself then, later in the film, Bracco.  This theme is heard at its best in the incredible “The Trees”, which begins with the secondary part to the melody heard with various rainforest-like synth effects (water droplets and so forth) before the primary melody soars away in the strings, reaching monumental proportions at one point.

“Harvest” sees a return first for the village theme before a brief passage for guitar brings in a reprise of Rae’s Theme, this time complete with synthesised pan pipes.  It sounds awful when I write those words, but really, it works brilliantly.  Things go darker in “Mocara”, the action theme heard in its serious guise for the first time, then a contemplative passage filled with real sadness and an unmistakable feeling of regret.  The same melody that appears in action theme is then heard in a radically different guise in “Mountain High” – this time it’s light, airy, soft, gentle, playful, delightful.  “Without a Net” by contrast is for its first half dark, tense and unsettling before the playful music returns for its second.  “Finger Painting” returns to the glorious love theme for a while before the action theme is heard again, this time with a great added sense of mystery, representing dark tribal shenanigans.

A dynamic energy is added to the village theme in its appearance in “What’s Wrong?” (synth pan pipes again!) – then it gets a more ethereal feel in “The Injection”, hints of the action theme playing in counterpoint.  “The Sugar” brings in first the love theme before a more dramatic passage of material leads into a delightful little cameo for guitars and pan pipes.  “The Fire” is by far the darkest cue of all, a full-bodied and energetic arrangement of the action theme.

The lengthy, eight-minute finale “A Meal and a Bath” reprises all of the score’s major themes and is a perfect way to end the album.  Medicine Man is one of those albums that it’s hard to imagine people not liking, but which perhaps people don’t think is “serious” enough to warrant a mention when they list their Goldsmith favourites.  I think it’s one of the most satisfying works of the last decade or so of his career, built from a wonderful core of memorable thematic material and I suspect even the crusty curmudgeons who dismissed everything the composer did in those days would change their assessment if they heard it today.  The same year, 1992, he wrote the brilliant Basic Instinct (which really was given the praise it deserved at the time); Medicine Man is of course completely different but similarly brilliant, showing that even at this point in his career, Jerry Goldsmith was actually still producing hugely varied and diverse output.

Rating: *****

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  1. Cyril Grueter (Reply) on Sunday 1 September, 2013 at 11:55

    I can’t agree more; “The Trees” is one of Goldsmith’s most melodically satisfying and emotionally compelling compositions. The rest is hugely enjoyable, but not quite on par with UNDER FIRE

  2. spielboy (Reply) on Tuesday 3 September, 2013 at 01:22

    >>”It came in that period of his career (by which I mean after 1983) when if you believed the majority of film music writers, virtually everything he did was terrible. ”

    1983? Really?? … Gremlins, Supergirl, Legend, Rambo, Explorers, Poltergeist II, Hoosiers, Innerspace, Lionheart, ‘Burbs, Star Trek V, Total Recall, Russia House… all composed post-1983 and pre-Medicine Man.

    His 90’s-00s, ok, lower standards… but his 80s efforts are mostly wonderful and never read people complaining.

  3. Jason Farcone (Reply) on Tuesday 3 September, 2013 at 07:48

    spieldog has a point… Gremlins ‘is’ the best film score ever written!#%*&)

  4. Jason Farcone (Reply) on Tuesday 3 September, 2013 at 09:31

    case in point:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wK30R1gsgGk

    case in point is that the phrase? hmm.

    OH GOLDIE

  5. Jason Farcone (Reply) on Tuesday 3 September, 2013 at 09:40

    I can’t even tell you (foLK) how traumatic Gremlins was for meeee as an 8 year old kid. I couldn’t even look at the VHS on the shelf we had because it would stir up such frightening thoughts. AND yet, it was still a childhood favorite. At any rate, Goldsmith’s screeching-ass violin’s certainly imbued much of that fear into mah little underdeveloped brain.

    I now think the film is probably about the (asian) communist infiltration (gremlins) upon an innocent, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’-esque suburb in mid-west White-Christian America. or maybe not……

    Still one of my favorite movies of all time. Doesn’t scare me any more, or disturb me, unlike say, The Exorcist.

  6. Jason Farcone (Reply) on Tuesday 3 September, 2013 at 10:21

    k i won’t post another thing for a FEW DAYS given this ferocious spam.

    WHERE’S JERRLDO?

  7. Jason Farcone (Reply) on Tuesday 3 September, 2013 at 10:24

    god no wonder goldsmith was a composer look at that attempt at acting%#!*!)(Y!)*Y)!(&%!)(&%!_*)(&%!()&%(!)%&*#!

  8. Christian K (Reply) on Saturday 7 September, 2013 at 20:56

    I think that the “hair consulting” credit for Goldsmith is more of an urban legend, because I couldn’t see it anywhere in the opening titles or the end credit roll when I watched the movie yesterday.

  9. Jason Farcone (Reply) on Sunday 8 September, 2013 at 21:04

    What Christian, you expected there to be a “Hair Consulting by” credit to fade in right after “Cinematography by” fades out during the dramatic opening of the film???#*)!*#!

  10. ANDRÉ - CAPE TOWN. (Reply) on Monday 9 September, 2013 at 02:06

    Jason, I’d forgotten how scary those images of the GREMLINS were…and then one of those demons had to morph into a MONSTER spider to get my adrenalin surging. And it was great seeing our Jerry at the ice cream bar doing his thespian thing. Thanx again for sharing the music & film links with us.

  11. Jason Farcone (Reply) on Tuesday 10 September, 2013 at 06:26

    my beloved pleasure andre my friend! (I love the bit in the gremlins 2 clip where the little furries are eating ice scream, then it splatters on his face;AND the hilarious(subtle) sounds the spike gremlin gets as he reaches out of the m&m’s and for the banana then pulls it back away. dante was a looney tune-esque master.

  12. Jason Farcone (Reply) on Friday 25 October, 2013 at 03:07