DANNY ELFMAN; "Music for a Darkened Theatre: Film & Television Music Volume One" (MCA Records). * * * 1/2
Movies, especially those we don't know a lot about, appeal to us for any number of reasons. Among the lures are a film's stars, of course; the genre or what little we know about the story, or because we read the book; and sometimes the director, the scriptwriter - even the soundtrack composer.In only five years, Danny Elfman, sometime-leader of the band Oingo Boingo, has established himself as a musician who can tip the balance, enticing some of us into a theater or to settle deep into the sofa in front of the TV simply because his name's among the credits. Korngold and Herrmann and Rosza could do that in the old days, John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith do it still, and Elfman is the crown prince.
But you don't have to be a movie buff to be interested in MCA's new Elfman anthology, "Music for a Darkened Theatre." Check out the titles. You've likely heard - and remembered (if not hummed) - his playfully manic or darkly dramatic themes for movies like "Batman" and "Beetlejuice," or TV shows like "The Simpsons" and "Tales From the Crypt."
Elfman's gift, and that's not an inappropriate word for it, was unveiled delightfully in "Pee-wee's Big Adventure," the 1986 flick that also introduced us to quirky director Tim Burton. The marriage of Burton's cartoonish vision and Elfman's music was made, if not in heaven, in a fantasy wonderland like Oz. Their partnership has now been showcased in several movies and even a few TV outings.
A second, lesser-known teaming also deserves mention, for while Elfman is the fount of concept and melody, Steve Bartek is the orchestrator of his film scores. Without knowing much about their methods, it's difficult to say who deserves what portion of the credit for their engaging orchestral treatments, but Bartek undoubtedly plays a crucial role.
Appropriately, "Music for a Darkened Theatre" opens with four impish snippets from "Pee-wee's Big Adventure." "This was my first orchestral film score," Elfman says in his notes for the collection, "and my first time working with director Tim Burton . . . a very lucky break for me. Although I was absolutely terrified at first, by the end of the project I knew I was addicted to film music for life. Hearing the second part of this suite (the `Breakfast Machine') played by a full orchestra is still one of the most thrilling experiences of my life."
The "Pee-wee" suite sets up the routine for most of the album, which presents generally one to four sequences each from 17 films and TV shows. Unfortunately, it also shows a few of the anthology's minor weaknesses - background noise (performers bumping music stands, unedited clicks and clacks), quick fade-outs and occasionally awkward transitions between themes, all a result of the tracks being taken from live soundtrack recording sessions.
Next up is "Batman," and if the spirit of film composer Bernard Herrmann, in particular, isn't sufficiently roused by the xylophones in the "Pee-wee" score, his ghost surely haunts the stirring themes for the Caped Crusader. This is especially true of the low-register, organ-and-brass-laced "Up the Cathedral," which is very reminiscent of Herrmann's "Journey to the Center of the Earth" score. Influences aside, Elfman's "Batman" is an outstanding action-adventure tone poem, at once movie-nostalgic and late-industrial dark.
The 1930s and George Gershwin - particularly the Broadway overtures - seem to be the standard for the mildly romantic but never-used main title melody Elfman wrote for Warren Beatty's "Dick Tracy." The eerie imaginings of directors Burton, Clive Barker and Sam Raimi sufficed to stir Elfman's netherworldly talent for "Beetlejuice," "Nightbreed" and "Darkman."
The "Back to School" montage, while not a major work, perfectly illustrates how Elfman and Bartek dexterously spotlight and interweave, in turn, perky brass, flighty woodwinds, tinkly piano and sweet strings, abetted by spare percussion. "Midnight Run" and, surprisingly, "Hot to Trot" reveal a different side of the composer: his toe-tapping, head-wagging work with a slicked up, plugged in, uptown blues-and-boogie band. The music for Emilio Estevez' "Wisdom" and an animated short, "Face Like a Frog," show Elfman on his own with a synthesizer - but the end result isn't nearly as appealing as his orchestral creations.
Other movies sampled include the childlike and at times lovely "Big Top Pee-wee" score, 1980's slight, pre-"Pee-wee" "Forbidden Zone" and a hefty eight pretty-to-ominous selections from "Scrooged."
Some might slam Elfman's scores for being unabashedly derivative of movie music past. But this young composer, like many of his generation - Steven Spielberg, Tim Burton and many others - is the talented product of an electronic age awash in images and steeped in sounds. "Music for a Darkened Theatre" is a testament to how deftly Danny Elfman takes the broadly familiar and gives it a playful twist or an entertaining edge.