There can be few musical collaborations worth getting excited about these days. That of Williams with Spielberg perhaps. There remains a swell of longing for another John Barry Bond score. I await James Newton Howard's next score for Shyamalan's The Village. Cronenberg's use of Howard Shore is always to be admired.
Yet perhaps the most vital and surprising treasures are to be found in the ongoing musical 'marriage' between director Tim Burton and his maestro Danny Elfman. Elfman has scored most of Burton's oeuvre and the pleasures have been abundant. Darkness for Batman and it's only true sequel; magic for the sublime Edward Scissorhands and much fun along the way (Mars Attacks, for example). Planet of the Apes, their last venture, coasted somewhat, as did the film, but was never less than interesting. While Burton developed this latest labour of love, Elfman produced what I was forced to conclude was perhaps the best score of last year for The Hulk. On the heels of this, comes the wondrous Big Fish.
A sweet and sentimental (in the best sense) film about a man's relationship with reality and fantasy as recounted in his dying days to an estranged son. Albert Finney excels as the older hero, Edward Bloom, while Ewan McGregor is the other half of the twin spirit of this film, as Bloom the younger. Burton weaves the Autumn years of this larger-than-life Southern character seamlessly with his own characteristic wonderland of Bloom's stories.
The album is perhaps slightly marred by the incongruous (out of context of the film) mix of songs which precede the instrumental tracks. That minor gripe out of the way, however, there are riches to come.
The thematic balance of the film is nigh on flawless and Danny Elfman mirrors this with a score anchored onto two themes of heart-rending beauty. These represent the two women in Bloom's life; his sweetheart and now wife, Sandra, and the ethereal and wistful almost-love, Jenny. 'Jenny's Theme' is presented towards the end of the album in its pure form. It most recalls the fairytale ambiance of Edward Scissorhands, managing to be in turns dripping with sadness and soaringly noble. The theme re-occurs throughout the score. It book-ends Bloom's departure from and later return to the strange town of Spectre, in which Jenny plays a pivotal part, first as a young girl and then the woman who seems to draw Bloom throughout his life, but whom he must remain tragically but honourably distant. Departure and return; youth and old age; birth and death; innocence and horror (Jenny as the story-witch). The symmetry is so subtle as to be elusive on the first captivating viewing, but is deeply moving on reflection. 'Underwater' sees the most metaphorical use of Jenny's theme as Bloom's submerged car is circled by a beautiful, naked girl. The wonder of his fantasy existence is exemplified wonderfully here.
'Sandra's Theme' is equally accomplished but not quite as affecting, arguably as the tragic element is missing. All the same, it is breathtaking to experience the ease with which Elfman effortlessly conveys the soaring ambition of true and loyal love and its most profound resolution. Elsewhere, the atmosphere of the story's setting is expertly captured with a haunting solo fiddle which also serves to characterize the Fish of the title. Timeless and Celtic in nature it reflects one man's life distilled into a pursuit which is symbolic of the pursuit inherent in all lives, in one form or another.
There is Elfman and Burton's evergreen spirit of fun to be found in tracks such as 'Shoe Stealing' and 'The Growing Montage', and these join the love themes in a sweeping and majestic 'Finale' that references the whole score before ending in a resolution seldom heard since Williams' Close Encounters of The Third Kind.
This is a true labour of love and a monumental achievement in film for the director, who has seen his most important collaborative relationship reward the trust it has been given over nearly twenty years. Likewise it is a triumph for one of the most innovative and tirelessly enthusiastic composers we have. This is not only a score which evokes an enchanting and memorable film, but one with a magical life of its own. Surely the very most a movie soundtrack can aspire to.
Mark Hockley adds:
Big Fish is another memorable collaboration between long term associates Danny Elfman and Tim Burton, a relationship that has spanned almost twenty years of feature films. Looking back over their work together it is easy to see why Burton considers this composer to be such a vital contributor to his productions, as Elfman consistently produces music of great beauty and power, adding subtext and impetus to Burton's distinctive storytelling style. Even when the films themselves are disappointing, the scores never are and there seems to be an extra incentive when Danny Elfman approaches the latest cinematic venture of this particular director. Perhaps it is because their sensibilities are so well matched or maybe they just have a hell of a time working together, but whatever the case, with this latest offering on Big Fish Elfman once again demonstrates his great understanding of lyricism and wonder.
The single biggest element that makes Elfman such an outstanding composer is the emotional resonance he imbues his music with. It is there for all to hear, permeating his work and here with this score it underpins every note. The lovely 'Sandra's Theme' with its gently charming melody and the alternately understated then spirited 'The Growing Montage' with a brief burst of those instantly recognisable choral effects that mark Elfman as a true original, hail this soundtrack as a masterfully diverse and enjoyable listening experience.
Elsewhere there is the subtle darkness of 'Leaving Spectre' and 'Return to Spectre' interlaced with a kind of folk lament and the colours of the score shift and change throughout creating a thoughtful canvass of poetry and drama. The folksy elements also feature heavily in 'Rebuilding', among others, and this adds a certain charm, although the best of the score is to be found in cues such as 'Finale' which has that elusive, poignant quality that is at the heart of so much of Danny Elfman's best work. Add to this a large number of pop songs which here, unlike in many cases on soundtrack CDs, are well chosen and add to the overall enjoyment (my own favourites being 'Dinah' by Bing Crosby and 'Everyday' by Buddy Holly) and you have a strong offering that is well worth seeking out.
Another fine example of Elfman magic that will linger in the mind and demand many repeat plays.