Music Webmaster Len Mullenger


Danny ELFMAN Music for a Darkened Theatre (Vol II). OST MCA MCAD2-11550  

Music from (CD1): Edward Scissorhands; Dolores Claiborne; To Die For; Black Beauty; Batman Returns. Music from (CD2): Mission Impossible; Sommersby; Dead Presidents; Nightmare Before Christmas; Freeway; plus Television odds and ends: Amazing Stories - "Family Dog"; Amazing Stories - "Mummy, Daddy", Nike Commercial; The Flash; Pee Wee's Playhouse; Beetlejuice Animated TV Series; Plus This Is Halloween (original demo for Nightmare Before Christmas)  


Volume II of Music for a Darkened Theatre dates from 1996 and is very much the mixture of Volume I only this time the excerpts are more considerable and spread over two CDs. Like Volume I, the thrilling Batman music is a strong feature with a close-on-sixteen-minute suite from Batman Returns; this is the film that starred Danny De Vito as the Penguin and the gorgeous Michele Pfeiffer as Catwoman. The music is even more darkly Gothic than for the original Batman film. The suite commences with a deep organ swell, the music not only subterranean befitting the cavernous, watery home of Penguin, but also portraying his clumsy gait and expressing the tragedy of his fate, plus his thirst for vengeance. The female voices express not only Catwoman's tragedy and vulnerability before her transformation, but also her dark powers and her feline allure afterwards. You can really feel those claws being flexed; there is such vividly evocative violin writing here. Then, of course, we have Batman's own powerful theme, imaginatively developed here to show him pitted against both of his foes, together with bat-like screechings. Listen out for Bernard Herrmann influences in the harp figures and love music.

For me, the standout score is Edward Scissorhands which opens the programme. Elfman, himself, still considers it to be his favourite score and it is certainly very imaginative - brimming with colour and extraordinary but trenchant effects. The early music expresses Edward's allure for all those suburban women, with romantic, hot-house music for orchestra and wordless women's voices. It all perfectly portrays Edward - his wild hair, pale appealing looks, the mute charm shining through those dark-coloured eyes and, above all, the potential to make his ladies look and feel glamourous with a few dexterous snips of those scissor-hands. In the middle of "Suite", the music moves into another dimension, those scissor-hands now sound mechanical, robotic, unfeeling, sardonic and threatening. The music, grows wilder and more grotesque, passing through numerous styles including a passionate, sexy tango before peace, and the warm romantic music which reaches towards ecstasy, is restored in "The Grand Finale".

Dolores Claiborne (played by the impressive Kathy Bates) was the film based on the Stephen King novel about a dowdy middle-aged domestic serving woman who is suspected of killing her richer employer/companion and, years before, her husband. This bitter-sweet score manages to tell us the truth about the long-suffering Dolores long before we discover it for ourselves. "Vera's World" is edgy music for piano with violins in neurotic mode, perfectly describing Dolores's suspicious, unforgiving daughter. For the scene in which Dolores gets her brutal husband drunk and goads him into chasing her so that he falls to his death down the cunningly-hidden well, Elfman provides really powerful, suspenseful heart-bursting material - you get a whiff of Lucifer in The Devil's Trill Sonata and Liszt's Todtentanz references. Another fine score.

To Die For was "pure wicked fun" according to Elfman. The score is as wild and wicked but great fun. It suggests the Nicole Kidman character's child-like, "acting-the-innocent" manner that hides a ruthless ambition to become a someone on television at all costs even murdering her young husband who might hold her back. The music combines women's voices again, this time in pouting panting alluring "come-to-me-but-it-will-cost-you"-mode plus electronics and wild rock music as well as conventional orchestral music - all as breathless as Suzie's driving ambition.

Black Beauty is a more conventional, sentimental girl's horse story. This lovely, warm-hearted music is in the English/Irish pastoral tradition and it is very reminiscent of Vaughan Williams.

CD 2 begins with Danny Elfman's score for Mission Impossible which is darker again, metallic and abrasive with only a hint of Lalo Schifrin's original score. Here jagged dissonances hold sway in a harsh, gritty yet varied score (there is even a whiff of Arabia) which is ambiguous and unsettling reflecting the enigmatic screenplay where nobody or nothing seems to be what they seem to be.

Sommersby is a good old fashioned romantic wallow. It begins quietly in elegiac mood with an off-stage "fanfare" and mourning for the dead after battle. Has Sommersby survived and is Richard Gere he? And is Jody Foster sure it is he, or is she thinking what she wants to think and feel? This is an appropriately romantic score sometimes gentle sometimes passionate and at one point deeply affecting. It is contrasted with western folk dance material. Pass the Kleenex!

Dead Presidents is a very unusual and very intense driving score that heavily employs synthesisers A quieter section for piano and orchestra with a significant role for celeste is a welcome interlude. Jazz features prominently with much use of electric guitars accompanied by sinister brass snarlings.

Nightmare Before Christmas begins with fun and frolics on a sleigh ride but this is soon chased by the usual Elfman ghoulies and ghosties in the guise of exotic variations on dear old Dies Irae. Haunted house music and giant footsteps (a dressed up bassoon) together with groanings and grumblings and sultry excesses (how did belly dancing get in here?) abound plus a little sentimentality - yes, it's another ridiculous fun-filled brew.

Freeway is funky electronics with childish choruses - weird and devilish. It seems Danny has thrown everything at this one including the kitchen sink! "Shrunken Heads" - No one can Voodoo like you do, Danny!

In a collection of television odds and ends, there are two short excerpts of material for Amazing Stories: Family Dog (chasing after the postman and hunting for that lost bone?) and "Mummy Daddy" (hill-billy Munsters relatives?); a Nike commercial - all pounding and sweating; The flash - part Flash Gordon and part Star Wars; Pee-Wee's playhouse is bring-the-house-down chaos with a side trip to Hawaii, and the fairground once more; and, finally, in Beetlejuice, the animated TV series the ghosts are in party mood

The double album concludes with another comic-scary piece for chorus this time with words for This is Halloween which was originally a demo for Nightmare Before Christmas. In total maybe too much of a good thing nevertheless hugely enjoyable


Ian Lace

And Paul Tonks adds

So few composers get a solitary standalone collection of their work made available, let alone a second volume. Mr Elfman kept his fans more than happy with this follow-up though. A lavishly packaged two disc set with quite a few rarities. In fact, an official voting system was set up on the Internet for fans to make requests - so they had no excuse for not being happy ! Again, the chronology of projects as released is all over the place. The first disc seems to have gone for a smooth listening experience, but the second is more of a free-for-all than the first volume was.

So to the first disc of suites - or 'excerpts' as they are credited. Starting with 5 tracks blended together from Edward Scissorhands was always going to be a great idea. I remember a horror movie magazine reviewing the disc at the time alongside the latest heavy metal releases. It insisted its readers rush out and experience this unique new sound. That was pretty much the reaction all round really. It seemed Elfman re-invented himself from the bottom drawer of superhero and/or supernatural projects. The bittersweet use of strings and choir caught audiences unawares, and is a sound constantly re-used in film and television (especially commercials, where Elfman has occasionally relented and scored in the style himself to stave off the annoyance of hearing someone else do it).

You'll hear a faint re-use of the choral sound in the next suite from Dolores Claiborne (and again later in Batman Returns). Five years actually separate the films, and the intriguing part about it being sequenced next is that it was recognised as being another of the gear shifts for the composer. There is a dryness to the score - almost a rawness. Having been pegged as a tunesmith capable of memorable theme tunes, here was the starting point at which much of his atonality and percussive experimentation crept in. Subsequent features (Extreme Measures particularly) owe a lot to whatever inspired him to be in turns dense and sparing in this one score. The edgy tone nicely prepares for the kitchen sink approach of To Die For. There was in fact a completely different score for this first collaboration with Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting and Psycho have followed), but the flexible potential of the script's structure called for a different approach when heavy re-edits were made. The "Main Titles" are a heady mix of sweet and light with thrash metal (!). This rather unsubtly depicts the double life of TV worshipping Nicole Kidman, who's Suzie gets an infectious "Theme" comprised of 'pah pah' vocals, harp figures, and pizzicato strings.

It's a trip to kiddie town for Black Beauty the film, which dares to present a film narrated by the horse itself, but is rather poorly sequenced - something the kids mind not a bit. Making it a little more bearable for adults (but no less saccharine an experience) is the frolicking yet gentle score. Piano features strongly for Beauty's own theme, and there are some wonderful uses of flute and piped instruments. "Happy and sad to the extreme" affirms Elfman in his booklet notes, and the film's chop-chop pace frequently calls for both within the space of a single cue. The great shame of the score is that it followed so closely to Sommersby, and the undeniably similar style of the two has meant this has often been overlooked.

Batman Returns is a very difficult score to encapsulate. Overall it is representative of a very worthy sequel from director Tim Burton. In many ways it succeeds the original. Yet despite the far darker humour to the script, Elfman's music rises above the gloom to be as floaty light as the perennial Gotham snow. Both The Penguin and Catwoman receive grandly tragic themes, yet none of the variations prove too solemn. The cat-call strings are undeniably effective, and are a humorous gesture in and of themselves. Even the fantastic "Batman Theme" gets upbeat treatment. Right from the sewer journey of the opening credits, the theme is stretched by the Scissorhands choral lowing, and even bongo drumming ! Condensed into the cues chosen for this suite, you'd be hard pressed to identify this as a superhero's musical accompaniment. There is plenty of the fairground to identify with The Red Triangle Circus Gang, but the most militaristic the score gets is for the army of missile-carrying penguins. The edits are quite sudden here incidentally. Although 4 cues are credited, several more are pinched from to pad it out.

The second disc is a composer's dream promo item. A wider range communicated in an hour and a quarter is hard to imagine. Like the first volume, this is perfectly suited to the 'random play' function of your stereo. It doesn't really matter that it opens on Mission: Impossible, but since it does you certainly get sucked into some high octane action to encourage you to stay with it. It is another bits and bobs suite really, since "Trouble" is the first credited cue but isn't a title from the actual score release. What we actually have are the build up of drums from the film's opening "Sleeping Beauty" merged into the way over the top Channel Tunnel adventure in "Zoom B". Lalo Schifrin's theme is missing - presumably due to this being all Elfman's work and nothing to do with licensing.

Having Sommersby next is proof positive of this being a free for all. If Edward Scissorhands had made an impression, this is the one score that should have won Elfman an Oscar ®. On a first listen - especially not knowing its origin - you would never be able to identify it as coming from the composer's pen. No other score can claim so individual a voice (even the R&B of Midnight Run was peppered with 'Elfmanesque' streaks). This is the most romantic he has ever been without crossing the line into sugar plum fairy territory. The use of brass is particularly new for him, and the country jigs are a one off wonder. Quite aside from just how different it is, the more important factor is just how perfectly it sat with the film. Every nuance of ambiguity was enhanced by the affecting theme.

There is one cut (the main titles) of Dead Presidents commercially available, but here you get an extended suite of unreleased material. Elfman cites "my old hero Jimmi", and that is very obvious in the cue "Montage". It is a heavily percussive score, and is frequently built around innovative samples - may of which keep creeping up in subsequent scores. The Nightmare Before Christmas is next, and probably needs no introduction. What is interesting is the absence of a single song in the 'excerpt'. Right at the end of the album there is a demo for "This Is Halloween", which has the curiosity value of featuring multi-layers of Elfman voicing the entire town.

You are unlikely to have seen the 90's take on Red Riding Hood in Freeway. It was a Direct To Video release outside of America, and is the reason for no prior availability of the composer's first improvised score. It is quite an oddball mix. The sound of a small choir sample calling 'Oh God!' repeatedly over guitars, whooping calls, and a pots and pans approach to rhythm is an acquired taste. "On the Road" is the best of the 3 cues, with a real sense of menace under the guitars plus some highly peculiar uses of choir voice. Another movie most missed was Richard Elfman's Shrunken Heads, which featured a score from Richard Band that often seemed like a cross between West Side Story and Edward Scissorhands. Brother Danny contributed a title theme which is most notable for its muppet-like vocals and bouncing beat.

In one final 11½ minute suite, we are treated to completely new material from "Television Odds 'N Ends". The first Amazing Stories episode - Family Dog - bears a strong resemblance to the combined sound of Pee Wee and Back To School (very noticeable since those two are doubled up for a Varese release). Mummy, Daddy immediately lets you know you are out in the sticks with twanging guitar, and then it too becomes a familiar take on the Pee Wee sound. Sharp contrast follows in the all-too-brief thunderbolts and lightning of one of many Nike Commercial pieces he has done. It paves the way for the following reason above all else that this album should be in your collection - the incredible theme to The Flash. This short-lived series always had a wonderful score from Shirley Walker, but the wonderful main titles were always worth sticking through for the heroic brass and snare drum posturing. This is even about 30 seconds longer, with an extended middle section. The only thing absent is the quality bass that propelled the theme in its TV version.

Then get ready for absolute insanity in Pee Wee's Playhouse - the TV version. In this small edit, Elfman regrettably chose to use pieces that include material he re-used from Face Like A Frog - a piece represented on the first volume. With a kids version of the Beetlejuice theme for the animated series, we come to the end of my over-long review. It's all fabulous material folks, so play it any way you want it.


Paul Tonks


Ian Lace

Paul Tonks

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