Saturday, June 13, 2015

Elfman Snippets

A while ago, I wrote about Danny Elfman's score to the film Sleepy Hollow, music I'd (re)discovered after attending a concert of Elfman's music from over a dozen Tim Burton films. Sleepy Hollow was just one of the soundtracks I felt compelled to hunt down after the concert; another was Edward Scissorhands.

I absolutely loved the movie when I finally saw it for the first time a few years ago, and it's apparently a favorite of both Tim Burton and Danny Elfman as well. Elfman has said it boasts one of his most personal scores. It was the grand finale of the entire concert. For that performance, Elfman actually revisited the music -- nearly 25 years later -- and wrote additional material exclusively for the live show. (It was a spirited fiddle solo played by a young female who skipped around the stage like a sprite, dressed in "Edward couture.")

Listening to the soundtrack album, it's easy to understand Elfman's attachment. It may not be the most innovative of his scores -- indeed, the wasn't until the late 1990s that he seriously began to explore beyond his signature sound. But even if Edward Scissorhands sounds in places like other Danny Elfman music, the one thing it does better than those other scores is actually tell the story of the movie.

On films like Beetlejuice and Batman, Danny Elfman's music is simultaneously dark and fun, like the music for a wild and demented carnival. The same sensibilities exist in his Edward Scissorhands music, but almost completely separated from each other like oil and water. The opening three tracks of the album (and film) set up the character of Edward and the world he comes from. It's all written in 3/4 time, airy and filled with fantasy. It's earnest, and above all, pure. This is the sound of naive, unspoiled Edward before he encounters the world outside. The land of surburbia, in sharp contrast, gets a manic theme quite reminiscent of Elfman's title for The Simpsons, using similar instruments and rhythms.

As Edward's relationship with Kim (Winona Ryder's character) develops, the waltz time of Edward's music falls away and a new melody develops... yet still the music retains the light sonic palette of Edward's world. It reaches a pinnacle in "Ice Dance," a marvelous track where the choir soars through a delicate and sentimental melody.

Then things start to sour. "Death!" is a cue that seems at first to belie its serious name, starting in Edward's soft soundscape. But it turns dark in its final minute, demonstrating how he's unprepared to grapple with the harsh realities of the world. And from there, the soundtrack embraces Danny Elfman's more expected approach. Throughout "The Tide Turns" and "The Final Confrontation," a sinister undercurrent infects the music. Much of it is still in 3/4 time, but there's little or no trace of Edward's traditional melody. He can't change the world; the world is changing him.

Things resolve in the perfectly bittersweet "Farewell....", before the unspoiled Kim/Edward melody returns for "The Grand Finale." The story has come to an end, and the music has echoed its emotional arc at every step of the way.

While on the journey, the listener gets a few fun treats as well. "The Cookie Factory" is a track that underscores a Rube Goldberg-like contraption in the film. This wasn't the first (or last) time Tim Burton put such a machine in one of his movies, but Elfman's music here is still distinct and quite different from, for example, his music from Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. Then there's "Edwardo the Barber," my favorite track on the album. It opens with the Simpsons-esque surburbia theme, but quickly cuts loose with a flamenco-tinged movement in tango rhythm. Then even that is supplanted by one minute of furious fiddling (the basis of the expanded live music I mentioned earlier). It's the most carefree and experimental piece on the album, and I really can't get enough of it.

Really, I have just two complaints about the soundtrack album. First, it's not the complete score. To my knowledge, no soundtrack-specializing company has released one. And the album seems to rub this in your face by including the cue "Esmeralda," which is less than 30 seconds long. Why bother including that fragment of music if you're not including everything? And then there's the inclusion of a Tom Jones song at the end of the album, "With These Hands." I've got nothing against Tom Jones in general, but divorced from the film's context, this song comes off far less genuine than Elfman's score. It's more schmaltzy than catchy, and definitely to be skipped.

Still, the Edward Scissorhands soundtrack has become a new favorite in my collection. I give it an A-, and I'll certainly pick up an expanded edition, should one turn up.

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