Spring 2005 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Marc Bridle
Managing Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

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A Light in the Dark:
Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
 
Music composed, produced, and conducted by Thomas Newman
  Orchestrated by Thomas Pasatieri
  Available on 2004 Sony Classical (SK 93576)
Running Time: 68:47
Crotchet   Amazon UK   Amazon US

There’s something about black comedy (humor) that appeals to both children and adults... well, certain types of children and adults. Not everyone can laugh at the miseries in life, but when angst becomes an overwhelming factor in any person’s reality, what else can be done to stay sane? Well, what else... but laugh?

As we have it, Daniel Handler, the author of the bestselling line of children’s books, A Series of Unfortunate Events, is very apt at unfolding quirky narratives. His unhappy stories follow the lives of the three (fictional) Baudelaire orphans; after the untimely deaths of their parents, the precocious trio (fourteen, twelve, and a baby of unspecified age) must survive an onslaught of never-ending disasters by their skills, luck, and courage. With “Lemony Snicket” as his nom de plume, Handler writes twisted morality tales in the vein of renowned black humor luminaries such as Roald Dahl and Edward Gorey — two of his primary inspirations. The literary flow is elegant like the style of Dahl while the tone and imagery are as austere and wry as Gorey’s macabre, Gothic illustrations. However, without acknowledging the intrinsic poetry of prose, conceptualized wit, or understanding greater themes, this assessment can seem pretty bleak… even calamitously wrong to thin-skinned audiences. But more tragic than such perception is the conversion of the first three books in A Series of Unfortunate Events to a black comedy/action flick. Directed by Brad Silberling, the adaptation was presented with unfortunate results seeing as how it now resides in a limbo that is neither abysmal failure nor great success.

Perhaps Silberling was chosen to direct this morbid children’s movie due to his past work on Casper or the quiet success, Moonlight Mile (a comedy/drama written and directed by him about death, grieving, and surviving loss). Nevertheless, much like the director’s remake of Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire (the travesty known as City of Angels), Lemony Snicket further exposes his remarkable penchant for interpreting the obvious… When emotions are the most prevalent feature of any piece, they frequently become the first target directors and screenwriters wish to exploit. In Lemony Snicket, the palpable character emotions are meant to be secondary to the ever-constant humor derived from dark, situational comedy.

Should anyone have to ask, humor (a source of laughter) is widely considered to be a product of thinking. So, a logical conclusion is that in order to appreciate humor, one must be able to think, and by applying thought, one manages to grasps concepts. Despite the incredible dedication to detail, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events-turned-massive-Hollywood-production fails to become a genuinely solid and endearing film due to its utter lack of the abstract. Humor itself is based on the abstract or conceptual understanding of the concrete (translation: anything perceived by the five senses). But when bound to the tangibles or ensconced in any system of belief, one that hasn't yet been pondered thoroughly to its source(s) in reality, the point of humor is often missed. Two concretes are heavily relied upon by the director in the re-envisioned Series of Unfortunate Events: firstly, visuals; with such phenomenal attention to and care of details, the stunning designs only become a rough shorthand to convey to audiences the absurdity or severity of the bleak, quasi-gothic milieu and, secondly, the actors.

The movie’s black comedy arrives via the myriad tragedies that befall the siblings and in the many forms of Count Olaf (a perfectly cast Jim Carrey), the thespian relative and one-time guardian who hopes to steal from the children their rightful inheritance. In this reality, Handler’s sense of poetic justice balances the insensitive and senseless adversities the children must overcome. And regardless of their individual idiosyncrasies, the Baudelaire trio is the author’s and audience’s litmus test for lunacy in the outside world. They are purposefully created somewhat two-dimensional for the part of comedic straight men so the silliness of their world bounce and play off of their sincerity. Silberling ignores this original setup (i.e., the focusing on situational/character interplay) by fleshing out flat characters, allowing others to “do their own thing”, and concentrates almost entirely on world-building. (Even Jim Carrey’s incognito-Count performances are a direct result of the director’s inability to harness the vortex of comedic genius.) Handler’s whimsical tones quickly fade when the film’s stark isolation of one too many elements make the atmosphere, acting, and disjointed storytelling immensely oppressive. Fortunately though, the intuitive score provided by Thomas Newman prevents the whole from becoming a tragic farce.

Suitably dark and characteristically exotic, this near seventy-minute, Academy Award-nominated score is a spectacular accomplishment. With his trademark instrumentation and hodgepodge sound design, Newman’s wonderfully rhythmic élan brings to the fore the pure essence of Handler’s series. Most everything is saturated with gloom in the world of Lemony Snicket, but the use of eclectic instrumentals for the various shades of gray keep the music from feeling as bogged down or extreme as the onscreen visuals. Through subtle layers of sound, he never lets listeners forget that hope — no matter how distant or tenuous it may seem — is still there if one looks hard enough. A whole slew of unique shapes and familiar textures from his previous scores (i.e., Meet Joe Black, Road to Perdition, American Beauty, Shawshank Redemption, Angels in America, Six Feet Under, bits of Finding Nemo and In the Bedroom) somehow make their way into what may be Newman’s most mature and complex album to date.

There is no one better suited to the task than Newman to depict the warped, thick air of Victorian Gothic romanticism — especially since nothing is too weird for this quirkier than quirky genre. However, the road to success could not have been easy with so many unnecessary obstructions. Being unable to grasp the intricacies of black comedy, the director leaves the Lemony Snicket tapestry full of holes; the film may look Gothic, but it’s only a dazzling trompe l’oeil at the very least. From the page to screen, plot devices become distracting, awkward segues and what few, but vital descriptions personifying the characters are relegated to brief camera cuts, sloppy, out of place idioms, or monumental repetition of gestures. The experience of the film becomes rather empty and even distorted halfway into the storytelling. But paralleling the ever-present gumption of the Baudelaire brood, Newman’s score inevitably becomes one of the most focused aspects in the film.

Unlike Silberling, he seems truly in tune to the undercurrents, nuances, and themes of the original material. The mood is, overall, dark and becomes increasingly wretched as the plot progresses, but like the sunlight after rain, there are few, but intermittent patches of genuine mirth (though slightly tinged with cynicism) throughout the film. To give the music some perspective, Newman seemingly scores from the point of view of the Baudelaire orphans. The author’s lack of full, three-dimensional characterizations of the children does not hinder the composition; the story may be told in narrative form, but all events are experienced first hand by the orphans. The music somewhat becomes the very identity or embodiment of the trio and expresses for audiences their morose trials, innate bravery, resourcefulness, few delights, and endless tribulations. By way of creative aural texturing, Newman is able to generate variations of rhythmic and reoccurring motifs to fit a number of instances; what passages work in one scenario can easily be recycled for another through a change in orchestration or technical arrangement. Consequently, he develops a sense of paradoxical continuity that reins in untethered bits of the film. And with added styles ranging from classical, antiquated music box (“VFD”), nebulously distinct ambiance (“Curdled Cave”), to Vaudevillian band (“The Marvelous Marriage”), it can be said that the film is virtually seen through sound.

As an intuitive composer, Thomas Newman consistently strikes a perfect balance between the abstract and concrete; instead of filling every quiet pocket with noise, his sophisticated styling brings to the raucous film much needed stillness through discreet arrangements. In “Resilience” and “The Letter That Never Came”, he is able to weave an enduring, tender atmosphere for the Baudelaire children through a piano solo. They are comforting, loving cues that imbue in the characters (and audiences) a modicum of hope for happiness in the future. Newman seems to understand perspectives, character eccentricity, quality, plot development, and most importantly, humor. (Those familiar with old school PC games may be reminded of the wacky music of Charles Callet for Sierra On-line’s Gobliins series.) Staying true to the film and comedy, the album includes a portion of “Loverly Spring” as a brief preamble to the opening sequence, but it’s soon scratched out. As a red herring mood-killer, it’s hilariously effective and sets the tone for the rest of the score.

Those intimate with the Lemony Snicket books will know that the wit is either deeply ironic or ham-fistedly absurd. Without words or visuals, Newman’s cues can aptly underscore the subtleties of innuendo, omnipresence of sleaze, or the irreverence of wry, tactless humor. The ominous cue, “Chez Olaf”, tracks the children's first encounter with their pending, off-kilter guardian; along with scene narration, an abundance of the Count’s shady and mischievous persona comes screaming through clear as day. (Apparently, some books can be judged by their covers if you know how and where to look.) But the violin solo in the track entitled “Verisimilitude” is equally telling and showcases the composer’s love for or expertise on the violin. The brief composition for the solo is both exciting to perform and to hear; the style in which the fiddle is played provides a plethora of texture, personality, and the very tone it establishes brings to mind a sense of Slavic/gypsy mystique. The cue is altogether twisted, almost a brooding czardas; it is though if you’re witnessing the suave, slick, inner-workings of a venomous scam artist... and you are! By illustrating the malice within, the music pierces the transparent façade of compassion to reveal the very... verisimilitude of insincerity; this is poetry the film itself inherently lacks.

Variations of inventive rhythms and motifs are performed in a number of styles in combination with samples throughout the score; strings, played pizzicato, marcato, staccato, or strummed, have markedly exciting passages almost always accompanied by piquant percussion, synth patches, and flavorful winds. This merging of designer sounds with acoustic instruments results in near endless and entertaining scenes for listeners. “Puttanesca” conjures up a brief, but clever, action-packed scene of complexity replete with the skirting of something unpleasant, due diligence, a bumpy climax, and eventually, a grand dénouement. When upheavals are heart-stoppingly twisted or discombobulating, his cues carry listeners further along, urging them not to dwell too long on ephemeral mishaps. In the world of Lemony Snicket, there is always much more than meets the eye.

The music is tasteful, never offensive, brash, or created for the sole purpose of flaunting special effects; even at its most perverse moments — for example, “Loverly Spring” (the film and album’s false claymation/animated intro) or “The Marvelous Marriage” — it is still well within the genre, charming, and often amusing. Make no mistake, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Event is also an action film, so requisite cues for crazy capers (e.g., “Hurricane Herman”, “An Unpleasant Incident Involving a Train”, “Regarding the Incredibly Deadly Viper”, “Attack of the Hook-Handed Man”, “Taken by Surpreeze” et al) are scattered throughout the album.

The problem with the film is mainly rooted in the director’s — and maybe the screenwriter’s — ineptitude in presenting this brand of comedy. So, much like other starkly isolated elements, the music is left to fend for itself as the film attempts to replace genuine emotions with vivid settings and empty histrionics. Newman’s score could easily be the personification of the dark subject matter and book series; however, its standalone quality prevents it from working completely in tandem with the events within the film. As for composer alternates, the exotic samples and phenomenal music weirdness that worked for Eric Serra (in Besson’s The Fifth Element) certainly cannot accommodate a less brash, visually consistent film. And the dark, playful constancy of Danny Elfman (à la Edward Scissorhands or The Nightmare Before Christmas) would only be functional, perhaps befitting, but nothing new or remotely timeless.

Nevertheless, distilling the delicate, pure essence of the original material and bringing it to life is Newman’s reigning achievement in A Series of Unfortunate Events. It is also exceptionally rare when every track in a score is neither filler nor inconsequential. So, if you’re eager to for a true to form rendering of the Lemony Snicket series, immerse yourself in this delightful Thomas Newman masterpiece.

Tina Huang

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