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
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
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.