Composer Elliot Goldenthal on Finding a Sound for Gloria Steinem With ‘The Glorias’ Score

Django Reinhardt and Ornette Coleman touches and '70s funk were among the unexpected elements making their way into the score for Julie Taymor's film.

Dan McFadden

The Glorias,” now streaming on Amazon Prime, tells the story of feminist icon Gloria Steinem, her troubled home life as a child, her travels through the decades, and her rise to prominence as a leader in the women’s movement.

It fell to New York composer Elliot Goldenthal to musicalize that journey. The director, Julie Taymor, is his longtime partner, and he has scored all seven of her films, winning a 2002 Oscar for the Mexican-flavored music of “Frida.”

Surprisingly, electric guitars are featured throughout the score, although there are moments of jazz and orchestral textures as well. The composer was inspired by Taymor’s images of the bus carrying young Steinem out west. “The big sky, the stretched-out highway, and these really simple, major-chord guitar strums” felt to him like a modern-day version of Aaron Copland’s symphonic Americana of the mid-20th century.

Goldenthal turns to jazzier sounds, notably a Django Reinhardt/”Hot Club of France”-style guitar for an early scene featuring Steinem’s ne’er-do-well father, a theme that returns later in melancholy piano form; and Ornette Coleman-style free-jazz saxophone as Steinem’s New York journalism career gets underway.

The composer injects a touch of ’70s funk for Bella Abzug (Bette Midler) and an Indian clay-pot drum for young Gloria (Alicia Vikander) visiting India’s poor in the 1950s. “And, at the end, I depart from the guitar somewhat and have large orchestral colors, a majestic theme,” he says, “and even there I bring back the sustained, amplified guitar.”

Taymor’s surreal, fantasy moments get the full Goldenthal treatment. “Julie wanted the audience to have fun,” he says, so the witch-and-tornado sequence features “a tarantella-like rhythm going into a super-fast change of tempo, [a piece] that runs the gamut from gypsy music to orchestral and circus music, all at once.”

Goldenthal visited the sets during filming in Georgia but he prefers to compose after seeing a cut of the film. “The most informative thing for me is late in the process, where I can see what Julie is after… the performances of the actors, their eyes, the reaction scenes.”

He recorded the score in New York late in 2019, before the film’s mid-January Sundance debut and just before the pandemic. But both may have been infected with COVID-19 there. “After I left Sundance, when I got off the plane, I couldn’t breathe,” he recalls. “For a number of weeks in New York, I was struggling for air and I had a low fever.”

Taymor had similar symptoms but her doctor diagnosed it as flu. Goldenthal didn’t see a physician and says “I’ll never know whether I actually had COVID. Shortly thereafter I quarantined myself; I didn’t want to get anyone sick. It started to clear up in March.”

Goldenthal, whose “October Light” Adagio for orchestra was debuted in December by the Pacific Symphony, is working on a song cycle for soprano and orchestra (on poems by Polish poet Barbara Sadowska) to debut next year in Krakow.