This dissertation was written for my BA(Hons) degree at Bretton Hall University, England in 1997. Node your homework
When words are not enough
An examination of how Danny Elfman uses specific compositional techniques in order to fulfil the storytelling function of a film score.
With specific reference to Batman and Edward Scissorhands.
1.1 Definition of terms
In this dissertation I am using the phrase "specific compositional techniques" to refer to the particularities of the process which separates the initial conception of a piece (before any actual musical material is realised) and the final product. Included within this description are such varied things as the inspiration that produces the initial themes, the techniques used to transmute and recombine these to form new themes, how they are orchestrated, articulated, dynamised and otherwise treated. The whole process of composition is the fusion of imagination and technique;
Technique is present at the very beginning, and the creative imagination keeps on working to the very end. The two move hand in glove all the time, and are indeed nothing other than two different functions of the same faculty1
The "storytelling function" of a film score is quite simply its raison d'être
. Film music exists to provide atmosphere to the visuals, and sometimes to comment on the events depicted. The purpose of any film is to tell a story, and when music is used to either aid this process or even takes on this role by itself, it is fulfilling the storytelling function.
As part of my research for this dissertation, I played various extracts from Danny Elfman's scores to a variety of people, mainly musicians, without any reference to the films themselves. I then asked them to complete a questionnaire to determine their emotional response to the music. The responses they gave are referred to herein as belonging to my "sample audience". This term simply refers to the people involved in this research.
1.2 Regarding filmic structure and the role of music
In 1986, Alex North received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In his acceptance speech, he stated that he viewed the film composer's role as someone who must meet the
demands and needs of the story ... and ... the inter-relationship of the characters involved2. I contend that Danny Elfman's film music goes beyond this, becoming not only an integral part of the overall film, but also an integral part of the storytelling process, a part of the narrative line.
Films exist essentially to tell stories, and many things come together to make up those stories; plot, characters, dialogue, action, and in the case of film, images and music. There is a somewhat flexible hierarchy within these elements, where some take precedence over others. A talented director will keep this relationship fluid, so that at any time an image can be dwelt upon rather than a character, an action scene will interrupt the plot briefly, or the music will make way for some moving dialogue. With Danny Elfman, especially when he is working with the director Tim Burton, the music becomes as central to the film as any of the other elements, without upstaging them, but at certain key moments the music is the element that is carrying the story. These are the areas that this dissertation will focus on; the points in Danny Elfman's films where the music takes over. These are the places where his is able to fulfil the storytelling function of the film better than any of the other elements, where catharsis can best be achieved through the musical medium.
1.3 Brief biography of Danny Elfman
Daniel Robert Elfman was born in Amarillo, Texas, on May the 29th, 1953. He grew up in Los Angeles, but went to live with his older brother Richard in France when he was in his late teens. He played in a theatre group called Le Grand Magic Circus whilst in France, before going to live in Africa. He enjoyed his time there immensely, referring to it as the best experience of his early life, but was forced to return due to contracting malaria and hepatitis. He formed a band, the "Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo". Mr. Elfman got his first film scoring job on his brother's film Forbidden Zone, in which he also played the Devil. He then went on to score Pee Wee's Big Adventure in 1985, which brought him widespread acclaim. He now lives in South California with his two daughters, Lola and Mali.
There are many films which Danny Elfman has scored which are not referred to in this dissertation, notably Pee-wee's Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Dick Tracy, Darkman, Sommersby, Black Beauty and Mission: Impossible. This is not because I place little or no importance on these scores, nor because they do not help fulfil the storytelling function of the film. It is simply because I feel that the evidence presented herein is substantial enough, and possesses sufficient depth, to carry my argument. Danny Elfman's film scores, utilising many different compositional techniques, are effective in their role as storyteller.
2.1 Analysis : Opening credits
The main (opening) titles ... (are) in a position to make substantial comment with lasting effect3. They are also a place where the composer usually has quite a free rein, and is able to express a considerable amount about what is to follow. Danny Elfman places a lot of importance on his opening credits, even going so far as to state that he
never start(s) a score before (he has) finished a main title4. The purpose of the opening titles is to prepare the audience for what they are about to see, yet at the same time it is
essential not to give away anything that (is) going to happen5. This apparent dichotomy is often solved in interesting ways. The composer must make a decision about how much he is prepared to give away, and it is this decision the affects how the audience will receive the rest of the film. A measure of how much has been revealed can be made by comparing the opening credits with the closing credits. By the end of the film, as there is nothing more to hide, the composer can use musical material relating to any of the events in the film. If this music is substantially different from the opening credits, the argument follows that the opening credits were keeping things hidden, whilst at the same time preparing us for the film. The following analyses illustrate this process, and other salient points, in the films Batman and Edward Scissorhands, whilst mentioning notable features on other Elfman-scored films.
2.1.1 Batman (Opening credits analysis)
This music consists of virtually nothing other than the repetition of, and variations on, the main Batman theme. The theme appears in a variety of different rhythms, sometimes being extended to form a modulatory passage, or continued into a descending tonic arpeggio, but each statement contains the basic theme. The melodic content of this theme is of great interest, as the intervallic tensions inherent in it suggest very powerful emotions.
Musical example 1 - www.timcardingallen.plus.com/filetransfer/elfman/example1.bmp
There is a strong link between this and the opening to a popular song by Irving Berlin, Let's face the music and dance.
Musical example 2 - www.timcardingallen.plus.com/filetransfer/elfman/example2.bmp
The lyrics to this song begin;
There may be trouble ahead, but while there's moonlight and music and love and romance, let's face the music and dance. The story of Batman includes
trouble ahead (the conflict between Batman and the Joker, involving the death of many inhabitants of Gotham City),
moonlight ("Did you ever dance with the Devil in the pale moonlight", and the scene with the Batplane silhouetted against the moon),
music (the score itself, the musical references to Beautiful Dreamer, the Joker's ghetto blaster and the ambiguous source music / non-source music scenes),
love and romance (both Batman and the Joker attempt to woo Vicky Vale), and
dance (the choreographic nature of many of the Joker's scenes, and especially the climactic dance sequence with the Joker and Vicky, interspersed with the highly choreographed fight between Batman and various henchmen).
Danny Elfman's response to this similarity was that he did not know any of Irving Berlin's music, and he certainly did not intend to quote him. He points out that
there are (only) so many ways ... that you can combine notes in a diatonic scale6, but I feel that there is a link between these pieces, and that this link is a 'plugging in' to the basic emotional content of the pitch material they both used. Danny Elfman speculates that he would probably recognise Let's face the music and dance
in a second, and perhaps this is due to the way in which they arrived at their respective themes, through
an unconscious creative reshaping of already existing materials7. In other words, perhaps Mr. Elfman, and Irving Berlin, were calling on their subconscious storehouse of previously heard musical phrases, connecting this theme with the emotion that they were trying to express, and hence producing very similar end results. If this sounds far-fetched, consider the following. Wagner, in Parsifal, uses the following motif at a point where Parsifal has just been kissed by Kundry, thus sealing his fate.
Musical example 3 - www.timcardingallen.plus.com/filetransfer/elfman/example3.bmp
Also, in Otello, when Othello is looking down at the sleeping Desdemona, determined to kill her despite his love for her, Verdi uses almost exactly the same melodic material8.
Musical example 4 - www.timcardingallen.plus.com/filetransfer/elfman/example4.bmp
This connection surely shows that here Danny Elfman's theme is continuing a long tradition of expressing grief and anguish in a particular way, using a particular musical technique. Cooke analyses this theme, comparing it to its many uses in Western art music, and concludes that composers have consistently applied it to situations required a
powerful assertion of fundamental unhappiness, a protest against misfortune coupled with intense anguish9. When we look at the events that follow this opening music, we can see a direct correlation between the emotional impact of the music and the emotions evoked by the story.
As a parenthetical note, Danny Elfman won a Grammy award for these opening credits in 1989.
2.1.2 Edward Scissorhands (Opening credits analysis)
Edward Scissorhands opens with mysteriously charming main titles, evocatively orchestrated to establish the mood of the film. The prominent use of the celeste is one of the many features that attempt to awaken in the audience a sympathetic reaction, conjuring up emotions that have been associated with past experiences of those musical features. I see this stimulative quality of the music as a way of latching into the audience's cultural memory. The tinkling of a celeste, played in the manner that appears in Edward Scissorhands, brings into the imagination images of fairy castles, snow-covered landscapes and dancing ballerinas. When I questioned a sample audience on the emotions evoked by this music, words such as 'enchanted', 'yearning' and 'innocence' were used, and I contend that these emotions were caused by the use of familiar orchestrational devices triggering associated emotions. Steve Halfyard points to the use of a celeste in "Hushabye Mountain" from the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as an example of this surfacing in another genre10. Indeed, several of the members of my sample audience referred to the similarity between Edward Scissorhands' opening titles and Tchaikovsky's "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" from The Nutcracker. Surely the strong subconscious connection between this orchestrational device and certain quite specific emotional responses must be due to some kind of shared musico-emotional experience, more commonly known as cultural memory.
The opening theme, once the celeste has made its presence known, is presented by boys' voices, another orchestrational device commonly associated with Elfman's scores. Using Cooke's analysis of the emotional connotations of the various degrees of a chromatic scale, this theme represents flux, stoic acceptance, finality and aspiration11. If we compare these emotional states to the events in the film, we see the correlation between flux and the changing nature of Edward's relationship to the other characters in the film (changing from curiosity to acceptance to revulsion), between stoic acceptance and Edward's attitude to the adversity he faces throughout the film, between finality and the end sequence where so many things are concluded (Jim's life, Edward's acceptance by society, Edward and Kim's relationship), and between aspiration and Edward's constant striving for love, especially as displayed in the ice carving sequences. The fact that all these qualities are present in the main theme is a tribute to the creative power of Mr. Elfman's inspiration.
Musical example 5 - www.timcardingallen.plus.com/filetransfer/elfman/example5.bmp
This opening theme is closely associated with the character of Edward throughout the film. In the opening titles, however, it yields to a passage for celeste and pizzicato strings, hinting at the delicate, easily ruptured nature of this fairy-tale environment. A lush, romantic section for the strings suggests the epic nature of the film, dealing as it does with such universal issues as prejudice and societal rejection. This builds, fittingly, into a recapitulation of Edward's theme in a higher key. This drifts dreamily into the ending, utilising the opening three notes of the theme as a winding-down mechanism, presenting them in augmentation before finishing on a Ic-V cadence that leaves the audience in an expectant state, wondering what is going to happen next. As such, it has fulfilled its function of preparing the audience for the film.
2.1.3 Other films (Opening credits analysis)
Strong opening credits are a hallmark of Danny Elfman's scores, and Mars Attacks! is no exception. It presents the two main themes of the film clearly, and then goes on to show them in a variety of different guises, establishing some of the different musical styles used in the film. The orchestration is typically innovative, with the main Martian theme (three notes, the first and last identical, with the second a minor ninth higher) played on the theremin, giving an un-Earthly feel to the score. Voices are prominently displayed, treated as instruments as they often are in Elfman's scores, and the jazz-orientated brass lip trills are perhaps a nod towards his days in Oingo Boingo, where he and Steve Bartek orchestrated the horn parts. The second theme, representing the inevitable approach of the UFOs, is very similar to the music used in Batman, when the Dark Knight is taking Vicky Vale on her first ride in the Batmobile, heading for the Batcave.
Musical example 6 - www.timcardingallen.plus.com/filetransfer/elfman/example6.bmp
As Mr. Elfman says,
Composers are always prone to imitating themselves, which is part of that subjective thing called one's style12.
Dolores Claiborne takes a completely different approach. When asked which films were the most challenging for Danny Elfman, Steve Bartek, his orchestrator, replied,
Personally, I think Dolores Claiborne was a big one for Danny, because he changed his palette13. Mr. Elfman himself has said,
The orchestration has a lot to do with the tone of the movie. If I can clearly identify what the tone of the movie is through the music, that far outweighs anything else I may or may not bring to the film14.
Dolores Claiborne uses a string orchestra almost exclusively. There are only three or four cues that use other instruments (brass, percussion and piano), and this limited palette is an unusual development in Elfman's writing. As he so obviously places a great deal of importance on the orchestration, this decision will not have been arrived at lightly, and so must have been influenced by the content of the film. Another film that uses a string-only orchestra, mentioned as an influence by both Danny Elfman and Steve Bartek, is the classic movie Psycho, scored by Bernard Herrmann. The limited palette afforded by this orchestration gives a sense of claustrophobia to both films, and it is no wonder that these scores are regarded as milestones in both composers' output.
The melodic material of Dolores Claiborne's opening titles is very limited, as the music relies on its orchestration and complex harmonies for its effect. It does manage to introduce one theme, however.
Musical example 7 - www.timcardingallen.plus.com/filetransfer/elfman/example7.bmp
There is also a descending figure on the piano that has thematic significance, as it is used quite prominently throughout the film. Many members of my sample audience described these opening credits as 'troubled' and 'unsettled', and this reflects the contents of the upcoming film very accurately.
2.2 Throughout the film
Obviously, music is used throughout these films, and here I deal with how this music serves the story. Particular areas within the films have been singled out for special attention in other chapters, but this chapter investigates the rest of the cues, those that carry the story between the climax points covered elsewhere.
2.2.1 Batman (Throughout the film)
Batman was originally a comic book character, and an area that is closely related to comic books is that of cartoons. Cartoons are very interesting from a musical point of view, especially when investigating the storytelling function of music. It is possible to listen to a cartoon score and get a good idea of what the story is, and also what actions are being taken by which characters. This is an area where music is fulfilling the storytelling function completely, especially in cartoons such as Tom & Jerry where there is no dialogue, and hence film composers borrow some of the techniques employed in cartoon scoring in order to help this process. The most common technique used in this manner is known as 'hitting' or 'catching' the action, which is a term used to describe the duplication of an on-screen action with a similar musical gesture, e.g. rapidly descending scales representing a character falling off a cliff. Danny Elfman writes
When one is writing for a film like Batman … one is being more cartoonish with the scoring, meaning catching more of the action specifically15. This is evident in several places, notably in action scenes, where movements such as Batman's recovery from being shot or his defeat of the sword-wielding martial arts expert are underlined by appropriate musical gestures. This use of music, being
supportive of the action16, is one of the many ways that Danny Elfman helps to tell the story of the film.
When asked about planning and construction of themes, Elfman commented that
the best themes ... can be ... express(ed) ... with only a few notes17, and this is evident throughout Batman. Although the main theme has many variants, it is generally recognisable by its first five notes, and in the 'Raid on Axis Chemicals' cue, Batman's presence is hinted at many times with the use of just two or three notes. This aids the storytelling process in that the proximity of Batman is established, or emphasised, without the need to make this clear visually. Several times during the film, notably in the initial sequence with the thieves on the rooftop, during the raid on Axis Chemicals and in the final dance sequence, Batman passes across the background of the picture whilst the audience's attention is focussed on the foreground. This could go completely unnoticed unless the music helped to establish it, and it is in these places that just a few notes of the Batman theme are used, to aurally suggest that which is visually unclear.
At certain key points in the film, Stephen Foster's Beautiful Dreamer is heard, and the correlation between this music and the dramatic situations where it occurs warrants it to be considered a theme. It is not really the Joker's theme, as it is only associated with him after he has seen Vicky Vale. Rather, it is a theme representing his infatuation with the enigmatic photographer, and hence is not used in conjunction with other aspects of the Joker's personality. The use of the melodic material from this particular song leads us to form connections between it and the dramatic context in which it is used. It works on several different levels, from the simplistic notion that the Joker is dreaming of something beautiful, to the more cynical, ironic and altogether more Burtonesque view that it is the Joker who is seeing himself as beautiful, and wanting Vicky to see him as such, hence falling for him and placing herself in a position where the Joker can cause her to become as 'beautiful' as himself. Whilst psychoanalysing the character of the Joker would be very revealing in the context of the music associated with him, it is beyond the scope of this dissertation.
2.2.2 Edward Scissorhands (Throughout the film)
The score for Edward Scissorhands, although using orchestration to identify with characters and situations, relies more on the use of thematic links to bring out the
supra-reality18 of scenes. This essential aspect of film scores, the ability to point the audience's attention towards an implicit rather than explicit dramatic line, is utilised to great effect in several scenes. When Peg first brings Edward into her house, he notices some photographs of her family and goes to look at them. Peg delivers a commentary on these images, mentioning her husband's bowling skill, a fishing holiday with her son, and the current whereabouts of her daughter. Although the images hint at some kind of affection for Kim being awakened in Edward, it is the lyrical and romantic "love theme" that amplifies this into becoming an important moment in the dramatic structure of the film. This melodic idea becomes a running theme, always being used to signify Edward's love for Kim. The last bar, harmonised as a Ic-V progression, demands resolution, but this never occurs. This is an embodiment of the whole film, a microscopic reflection of the macroscopic ideals that guide the film to its ultimately unsatisfied end. It is interesting to note the reaction of my sample audience to the end credits, heard without reference to the end of the film. They described the ending as "unsatisfied, uncomfortable, compromised, sad and yearning", a marked contrast to the happy ending expected in most commercial films. This 'compromised' end to the film is a perfect description of the final cadence of the love theme, this being the strongest approach to a perfect cadence, one that cries out for the final chord. Rather than provide this satisfied ending, or even twist it to an unexpected chord, Danny Elfman simply leaves it hanging, a poignant reminder of the infinite quality of love.
The character of Esmerelda appears only briefly in the film, and yet she has a musical character all her own. She is normally seen sitting at her electric organ, struggling through appalling arrangements of popular songs. On her second appearance however, as we watch the neighbours gathering outside her window, there is a most curious piece of music. Although it is very whimsical in its orchestration, relying heavily on an accordion, the melodic material used is intensely sinister. There are two main melodic ideas, the first being five notes of a chromatic scale, alternately descending then ascending. This is very similar to the main theme of Andrew Lloyd-Webber's musical The Phantom of the Opera, in which it represents the demonic force of the Phantom. The second melodic idea is a falling tritone, the diabolus in musica, which has been used throughout the ages to represent
devilish and inimical forces19. The connection between these diabolical musical phrases and the overtly Christian persuasion of Esmerelda makes it a very powerful statement on the self-righteous aspect of Christianity. In this scene, it is the music that makes the connection between Esmerelda and unholiness, as the visuals merely display her watching the neighbours gathering, and make no judgement of her at all. Even in the later scenes where she condemns Edward, the music plays a large part in reinforcing the cynical view of the director.
The scene in Edward Scissorhands in which the music plays the most vital role is probably the climactic dance sequence. Just previous to this, Kim stands watching Edward prune roses, and the love theme is hinted at, but now its meaning has been changed; the direction of the love is reversed. Kim is watching Edward and beginning to feel the first awakenings of love herself. Then comes the scene in which Kim looks out of the window and sees snow falling. She goes outside to investigate, and comes across Edward carving an angel out of ice, sending chippings flying in the form of snow. Kim is taken aback by the beauty of the scene, and dances slowly as the 'snow' settles in her hair. The music is an outpouring of emotion, reflecting the interior feeling of Kim as she realises just how much Edward means to her. The melodic material for this moving scene is a joining together of the happier portion of Edward's theme and the love theme that was hinted at in the previous scene. This highlights the importance of that scene, as without it we would only connect the love theme with Edward's feelings for Kim, not the reverse. This is a case where the dramatic and musical needs are being served in the same way. When we get to the dance sequence however, it is the music that carries the emotion. It is the first time we have heard a complete statement of the intertwined love themes, the first time that Edward and Kim meet on equal terms. It is characteristic that this cue ends in the same manner as all the optimistic musical phrases in the film; with a Ic-V cadence, in this case being abruptly interrupted by Jim's entrance. The brief silence here aids the dramatic line immensely, as it gives the audience time to realise the impact of Edward slashing Kim's hand before the ominous timpani begin to take us into the next cue, where Edward is driven away by Jim.
The sequence encompassing Edward's return to the house and the flashback to the Inventor's death uses music simply to highlight the emotions inherent in the images and dialogue already present. It is integral to the unity of the film to having moving music at this point, and the cue that Elfman provides is certainly moving, but in essence this is amplifying the story rather than adding anything new. There are some nice touches here, such as the appearance of Edward's theme as the Inventor presents him with human hands, infused with a sense of wonder by the choral interjections, but this wonder is already present on Edward's expressive face, and is merely underlined by the music. The change from a major chord to a minor one points the Inventor's death effectively, but it is hardly original, and the same can be said of the recapitulation of the love theme when the film cuts back to Edward and Kim's embrace. However, it is important to understand why Mr. Elfman took these slightly predictable options rather than pursuing his usual innovative course. To be presented with anything unexpected in the score at this point would only serve to distract the audience's attention from what is happening on the screen, from the story that it has been trying so hard to support. This would obviously have been undesirable, and so Elfman provides us with a highly effective, if slightly simplistic, solution to this particular compositional problem.
2.2.3 Other films (Throughout the film)
One of the main cues in Mars Attacks! is the sequence involving the first landing of the UFO. It opens with the 'Martian approach' theme , which signifies the insidious and yet almost comic approach of the Martian fleet. Another function of this cue is to help establish the various different characters in the film, by associating them with musical motifs or styles. The 'New Age' character has a highly distinctive passage in this cue, consisting mainly of material played on sitar and tabla. The use of these instruments here is interesting in that it hints at India, and the piece of music that leads to the eventual demise of the Martians is Slim Whitman's rendition of Indian Love Call. As the UFO appears, the instrument with which it is associated throughout the film, the theremin, plays ascending octaves. The prevalence of synthesised sounds in this score is a two-fold reference; both to the technological advancement of the Martians and to the sound of 1960s science-fiction films, on which the film is based. The insistent use of the snare drum throughout is a testament to the overt military presence.
Orchestration is a distinctive element of The Frighteners, a film concerned with ghosts and spirits of the supernatural world. The score makes great use of the harpsichord, an oddly inexpressive instrument due to its inability to vary its dynamics to any degree. This leads to a clinical sound and a level of precision unrivalled by any other analogue instrument, and it is precisely for this inexpressiveness that it is used in this film, for it symbolises the inhuman nature of the subject matter. In this respect, it is very similar to Eliot Goldenthal's score for the film Interview with the Vampire, although here it is also used to identify with the Baroque period.
This is the part of a film where the climax is reached, where
the conflict is completely out in the open20 and demands resolution. I extend the meaning to cover the initial resolution of this conflict, but not the 'wrapping-up' that generally occurs at the end of films.
2.3.1 Batman (Denouement)
This, the climactic moment of Batman, begins when the Dark Knight arrives on the top floor of Gotham City Cathedral, and continues through the various fights that ensue, including the Joker's demise, ending on the shot of the Joker's dead body with manic laughter emanating from the green silk bag in his pocket. It is here that the music has the most substantial effect on the viewer's perception of the story, as it fulfils two quite distinct functions. The Viennese waltz that accompanies the Joker and Vicky Vale's dance highlights the Joker's insanity, whilst simultaneously providing 'hits' for the fight scene between Batman and the Joker's henchmen. This combination of musical functions perfectly complements Tim Burton's interweaving of two separate events within a single scene, emphasising the separation in ideologies between Batman and the Joker. It is of importance that there is a hiatus in the music when the two main characters finally meet in this scene, providing an aural space in which Batman can deliver his incisive line
Excuse me. Do you ever dance with the Devil in the pale moonlight?.
The use of 'negative accents' in this scene is compelling, as it highlights certain events, giving prominence to these elements of the story. A negative accent is achieved by a slight build in the music, then a sudden drop to pianissimo or even silence at the climactic moment. It is mainly done to add tension to a scene, and is a subspecies of the 'catching' technique mentioned earlier. Notable examples include the moment when Batman supposedly falls down the bell-tower shaft, when the Joker falls off the cathedral just before dragging Vicky and Batman down to join him, and when Batman and Vicky are saved from their plummet off the cathedral by Batman's ingenious cable.
The preponderance of the Batman theme in this sequence is interesting, as it points towards the ascendancy of the Dark Knight in this battle, sublimating the Joker's maniacal waltz and finally winning the day. It is also interesting to note what Elfman does with the shot of the dead Joker. Throughout the film we have been repulsed by the Joker's ambition and lunacy, yet when he is gone, a broken rendition of Beautiful Dreamer is heard, the theme representing his love for Vicky Vale, as though attempting to rouse some small amount of pity in the audience at the same time as the hysterical laughter of his last novelty gadget is revolting them. The music can almost be seen to be saying "Look what his 'beautiful dreaming' has done for him".
2.3.2 Edward Scissorhands (Denouement)
Beginning as Kevin walks home and ending on the death of Jim, Edward Scissorhands' denouement is a complex mixture of action and emotion. Its opening is a classic case of music providing a 'supra-reality', an element to the film that is simply not present in the visuals. Kevin says goodbye to his friend and begins to walk home, when an ominous low string pedal enters, with a threatening presentation of the Edward theme, slow and deliberate. All that is happening on the screen is that Kevin is walking home, and yet the music gives a sense of extreme uneasiness. This is borne out as Jim comes close to running Kevin over, and he is only saved by Edward's fast reaction. As the events unfold and Edward's role as a victim of circumstance becomes increasingly clear, the music takes on a more symphonic nature, culminating in the tragically grand music accompanying Edward's retreat back to the castle.
As Kim hurries to get to Edward before the neighbours do, we hear a statement of the theme in diminution, adding to the sense of urgency she feels here. A return to the love theme is inevitable when she reaches Edward, and its interruption by Jim is emphasised by a change in musical style. The fight between Jim and Edward has typical action-style music underneath, but here Danny Elfman uses the 'catching' technique that was so obvious in Batman. This is the only point in Edward Scissorhands where he elects to emphasise an on-screen action in this manner, and he chooses to do it as Jim beats Edward across the back with a wooden beam. It is the only intentional violence in the film, and it is underlined by semiquavers on the snare drum leading to each hit. When Edward finally succumbs to the desire to hurt Jim and stabs him in the stomach, the rising tension in the music gives way to a sustained minor third high in the voices, pianissimo, highlighting the horror inherent in this action. Edward, the eternal innocent, has struck the killing blow, and all the music can do now is press home the enormity of this action by sounding Jim's death knell.
2.2 Closing credits
As the end of a film is reached, the necessity of imparting a sense of closure is obvious. The way in which this is achieved is of great interest, for, in a way, this is a summation of the story, a chance to reflect on what has passed and make a final comment. As mentioned previously, end credits often make use of material from throughout the film, combined in a way that gives an air of finality. Danny Elfman's talent for this is evident when the responses given by my sample audience are considered; every response mentions a feeling of 'satisfaction', 'completion' or 'triumph'.
2.4.1 Batman (Closing credits)
Batman's closing credits evolve out of the music for the final scene, and it would be unfair to consider them separately. The music begins as the searchlight containing the Batman logo is turned on, and this symbol of Batman's triumph, not only over the Joker but also over society's rejection of him, is emphasised by forceful major chords. These dwindle to the background to allow the final dialogue between Vicky and Alfred to be heard, but then, as the camera pans up the Gotham City skyscrapers, we hear a statement of the Batman theme in a major key, jubilant in its boldness, and then, as the camera settles on Batman, silhouetted in the light of the Batsignal, the music closes with a IV-V-I harmonic progression.
Musical example 8 - www.timcardingallen.plus.com/filetransfer/elfman/example8.bmp
This final triumphant major chord, played by full orchestra replete with church organ, is quickly twisted to the minor in order to accommodate the beginning of the closing credits. These are an exact repetition of the opening credits, without the tentative introduction. This build through the final sequence, with mainly major statements of the theme (although there is a poignant minor statement on our first view of the Batlogo projected onto the clouds), gives us the sense of triumph so evident in the score at this point.
Cooke's analysis of the tonal tensions of the chromatic scale, when applied to the new major variant of the theme, concerns itself with its outgoing nature (constantly ascending), and its preponderance of major thirds, whether functioning as the third of the key or the third of the chord. The use of tubular bells here, pealing as a celebratory church bell would, is significant, as it links into two distinct areas of cultural memory. The first of these is that of the church bell as a calling to worship, a means of gathering together the community to celebrate their salvation, as the community of Gotham City has gather to give thanks to Batman. This, although less relevant in today's society, is an integral part of our cultural memory, a sound subconsciously linked with an emotional experience. The second connection is that with Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra. The IV-V-I progression, along with the orchestration, has great similarity to bars 18-20 of this work. The connection here is more complex, as the allusion is both to the ideology of the book upon which this classical work is based, which deals with the notion of the Übermensch, the Superman, a creature which is to man as man is to ape21 (and as Batman is to mere mortals), and to its significance in popular culture as an icon utilised in Kubrick's epic film 2001 : A Space Odyssey as a celebration of dawn and power. This is particularly important in the context of what follows, as its transformation from the powerful assertion of joy on the final major chord to the tragic majesty of the minor, followed by the Batman theme, could lead to some confusion as to what is actually being conveyed. If the Strauss quotation is a linkage with the dawn, the question arises as to what follows the dawn, i.e. what kind of day is the dawn shedding light on? To refer to Halfyard's interpretation of this scene22, this is the
dawn of a new (k)night, not day, and the light which is illuminating it is a moon-like spotlight, not the sun. The duality of night and knight is of particular importance, as the 'dawn' theme of Strauss' makes way for the Batman theme, the light is falling on the Dark Knight, and he will continue to fight against the
trouble ahead inherent in his existence (and hence his theme) for the rest of eternity.
The fact that the remainder of the closing credits are exactly the same as the opening credits is an anomaly, as one would expect them to be twisted in some way to reflect the change in the status quo effected at the end of the film. Perhaps there is an element of explanation for this in the fact that the end credits music only covers a few minutes of the actual credits, with the remainder being accompanied by a Prince song. Also, I suspect that the schedule was very tight on this film, leaving Mr. Elfman very little time to compose original end credits music, and so he felt it necessary to re-use the initial credits with no adjustments.
2.4.2 Edward Scissorhands (Closing credits)
The techniques used in the closing credits of Edward Scissorhands are quite different from those used in Batman, but achieve equally dramatic results. The key to an understanding of this film's music lies in its orchestration. My sample audience were emphatic about the importance of orchestration in this score, with every single response mentioning the nature and quality of this as an important and striking feature. Danny Elfman's own view is that orchestration
defines the heart of the movie23. Ryan Michaels, in his homily to Elfman's music, goes as far as to say that
sometimes (Elfman's) music is so powerful that it becomes a major character in the film. Case in point, Edward Scissorhands24, and I contend that it is the orchestrational devices he utilises that really establish this characterisation. This is clear throughout the film, but in these end titles all the different threads come together, resulting in a montage of the characters and events of the film, neatly wound up with the now-familiar extended Ic-V cadence, prolonged still further by the addition of an ascending octave figure (based on the dominant) on the celeste. The other instruments diminuendo to silence on their last dominant chord, leaving the celeste to play the final ascending octave, as though asking the question "What next?".
The credits only begin after an extended final sequence, lasting from Kim's departure from the castle through the dialogue between the older Kim and her granddaughter, the ice sculpting in the castle and the flashback to the dance sequence. This extended ending is an opportunity for a powerful evocation of the love Kim and Edward shared, and it is only after this that the end credits can roll, and Danny Elfman's score can begin to reflect on all the events of the film, beginning with the cheekily innocent opening celeste theme. The music then progresses through most of the orchestral textures that have been used in the film, with each one reminding us of a character or scene.
If we look at some of these orchestral textures and individual instrumental associations, we will see how subtly Mr. Elfman is telling his story through sound. Although the bass clarinet only makes a minor contribution to the score, its impact is immediately felt, and our imaginations are cast back to the anthropomorphic machines working in the castle under the supervision of the Inventor. High strings, vibraphone, celeste and fluttertongued flute conjure up the atmosphere of a dream-like descent into troubled water approximately two minutes into the cue, reflecting Edward's journey into crime, led by his loyalty to Kim. This is never violent (although there are a few mildly snarling brass chords) as the music underscoring Edward's capture is, as now we can feel nothing but sympathy and pity for Edward, and stirring up the negative emotions associated with Edward's capture would only spoil the sense of loss prevalent at the end of the film. The use of boys choir, high strings and harp to evoke Edward and Kim's love creates such a transparent texture that it almost shines, whilst at the same time referring back to the music of the dance sequence.
2.4.3 Other films (Closing credits)
The end credits of Mars Attacks! are interesting in that they begin in a grandiose fashion, with the 'approach of the Martians' theme, and incorporate all the Martian elements (synthesisers, theremin, ascending and descending minor ninths, Martian Madame bass line) in the first three minutes or so, and then go on to end with music highly reminiscent of the Indian Love Call that finally defeats the Martians, combined with the tabla of the New Age character's music. This music hence is a summation of the plot in miniature, a reminder of what has gone before. There is a hint of the destruction of the Martians in the way the opening theme is presented, however, consisting of a descending chromatic scale in the female voices. Cooke's analysis of this phrase is that it represents
life ebbing away altogether25.
Dolores Claiborne's end credits evolve out of the music for the final scene, and act as a continuation of this, slowly transforming the melancholy of Selina's farewell into a partial triumph. Members of my sample audience described this music as evoking feelings of 'loneliness, tension, uneasy peace, limited satisfaction and triumph through struggle'. This is another case of the end credits presenting the emotions of the plot in microcosm. The meandering, complaining theme from the opening titles is given a more hopeful ending here, by extending the upward movement of the last few notes to suggest an aspiration that all the characters lacked at the beginning. The recapitulation of the music representing Dolores' frantic search through the kitchen is effective in reminding us what the hearing was truly concerning itself with, and the fact that it gives way to slightly more comfortable music is a testament to the success of Dolores and Selina.
2.5 The Nightmare Before Christmas : A special case
The Nightmare Before Christmas is a film to which Danny Elfman made a huge contribution. He is considered by some to be
as much the author of the film as Tim Burton26, a considerable compliment as Mr. Burton directed the film. The film itself is strange, being a stop-motion animated musical dealing with the antics of Jack Skellington in a fantasy land known as Halloween Town. The 'musical' format places great demands on the composer, especially in a film musical such as this, as the music is present almost constantly through the film, and must make seemingly effortless transitions from underscoring to fully fledged song. On top of this, Mr. Elfman also provided the singing voice for the lead character. The result is a film that engages the audience on many different levels, and a score that is absolutely inseparable from the visuals. Richard Zoglin claims that
Elfman's witty, melodically intricate songs drive the action forward as surely as does the animation27, and that is the crux of this dissertation. However, it is the songs which
drive the action forward, not the music. The storytelling function is being fulfilled by either dialogue or lyrics, and the music is merely underlining or amplifying what is already present. That is why, approaching this film as the epitome of musical storytelling, one is liable to be disappointed.
The other factor in the mediocrity of this film (it
was not a bomb, but it was not a blockbuster28) is the simplicity of the score. Whilst the choral sections certainly have their moments of intricacy, other films that Elfman scored in this period rank far higher in terms of musical merit. Admittedly, The Nightmare Before Christmas was aimed primarily at a younger audience, and hence unnecessary complexity would have been harmful to their understanding of the film, but in the last analysis, this film will not be remembered as one of Mr. Elfman's triumphs.
Go with the movie, wherever it wants to go, and don't fight it.29
These were the words with which Danny Elfman concluded his interview with me. They sum up his general approach to composing film music, as he sees it, and as such is a valuable insight into the way one film composer's mind works. In order to
go with the movie, a composer must have at his/her disposal a veritable panoply of compositional techniques, both mechanical and aesthetic, so that if the movie is leading in a particular direction, the composer is equipped to follow. These techniques range from the cartoonish 'catching' actions on-screen with matching musical gestures, through the use of themes to identify with particular characters and situations, to the point where the score bears the full responsibility for effecting the audience's cathartic release. From the analyses of his scores presented herein, it can be seen that Danny Elfman commands all of these techniques to great effect. The use of high string glissandi to represent cats meowing in Batman Returns, the evocative 'fairy castle' orchestration of Edward Scissorhands, the harmonic complexity of Dolores Claiborne as an analogy to the emotional complexity of the characters, the many variations of the Batman theme reflecting the many situations he finds himself in, the use of quotation to subconsciously evoke memories of parallel situations; all these things and more are used to tweak the audience's reactions until there is
a kind of resentment at the ease with which (the music) plays upon (their) emotions30. This analysis of the way in which those techniques are used goes some way to proving that the process is far from easy, that it requires a vast input from the composer. However, the end result will always be seen to be easy, as that is its function; to ease the telling of the story.
Please note that all links to websites and e-mail addresses are purely for reference purposes, and are not maintained. The author cannot be held responsible for out-of-date links.
- BEREBITSKY, Amber Biography of Danny Elfman (email@example.com, 14th April, 1997)
- BURT, George The art of film music : special emphasis on Hugo Friedhofer, Alex North, David Raksin, Leonard Rosenman (Northeastern University Press, 1994)
- COOKE, Deryck The language of music (Oxford University Press, 1989)
- COPLAND, Aaron Music and imagination (Harvard University Press, 1980)
- ELFMAN, Daniel Robert Interviews with (28th March, 2nd May 1997)
- GOOD, Craig Review of Batman (rec.arts.movies.reviews, 1989, downloaded 14th April 1997)
- HALFYARD, Steve Conversations with (18th February, 27th February, 12th March 1997)
- HINSON, Hal Review of Batman (Washington Post, June 23rd 1989)
- HOWE, Desson Review of Batman (Washington Post, June 23rd 1989)
- KENDALL, Lukas Danny Elfman – From Pee-wee to Batman to Two Films a Year (Film Score Monthly, October 1995, http://rhino.harvard.edu/dan/boingo/) (a)
- KENDALL, Lukas Interview with Steve Bartek (Film Score Monthly, December 1995, http://rhino.harvard.edu/dan/boingo/) (b)
- MICHAELS, Ryan Music for a Darkened People (http://members.tripod.com/~ELFMAN/content.htm, visited 14th April 1997)
- NIETZSCHE, Friedrich Wilhelm Also Sprach Zarathrustra (trans. W. Kaufmann, Viking Books, 1966)
- STRAUSS, Richard Also Sprach Zarathrustra (score) (Ernst Eulenberg Ltd., 1974)
- ZOGLIN, Richard Music from the Darkside (Time, October 11th 1993)
- Cooke (1989), pg. 214
- Burt (1994), pg. 3
- Burt (1994), pg. 4
- Elfman (1997)
- John Addison, quoted in Burt (1994), pg. 12
- Elfman (1997)
- Cooke (1989), pg. 171
- These examples, and hundreds of others, can be found in Cooke (1989)
- Cooke (1989), pg. 122, 146, 156-8
- Halfyard (1997)
- Cooke (1989), pg. 89-90
- Kendall (1995) (a)
- Kendall (1995) (b)
- Elfman (1997)
- Good (1989)
- Elfman (1997)
- Leonard Rosenman, quoted in Burt (1994), pg. 7-8
- Cooke (1989), pg. 90
- Burt (1994), pg. 184-5
- Nietzsche (1966)
- Halfyard (1997)
- Elfman (1997)
- Michaels (1997)
- Cooke (1989), pg. 166
- Kendall (1995) (a)
- Zoglin (1993), pg.80
- Kendall (1995) (a)
- Elfman (1997)
- Copland (1980), pg. 10