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SLEEPY HOLLOW – Danny Elfman

November 19, 1999 Leave a comment Go to comments

sleepyhollowOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

Good news, folks! Danny Elfman is back with a vengeance, delivering a score for Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow which will have fans nostalgic for the Batman days and those in love with his new, more mature works shaking with delight in equal measure. Tim Burton has, of course, always been the greatest musical inspiration for Danny Elfman, who wrote four of the finest scores of his career for his films: Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas. Sleepy Hollow not only joins that illustrious list of credits, but in many ways surpasses it, because despite not being as thematically memorable, the new score is certainly the most satisfying in terms of orchestration, cue construction and intelligence.

Sleepy Hollow is based on the classic story of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman, written by Washington Irving as a cautionary tale for children who venture too far from their homes after dark. Burton’s version, however, is most definitely not for children, displaying a hitherto unheralded bloodthirstiness in the director’s work. Depp stars as Crane himself, a police constable from 19th century New York city, sent upstate into the rural farming community of Sleepy Hollow to investigate a series of mysterious murders in which the victims were all beheaded. As Crane delves deeper into the circumstances surrounding the terrible deaths, he finds himself immersed in sinister goings-on involving unspeakable acts of betrayal, lust and witchcraft.

Just to make it absolutely clear, Sleepy Hollow is most definitely not another Batman, although it does go some way to recapturing the glory years of the early nineties. Instead, Sleepy Hollow could be seen as a “best of both worlds” score, combining the thematic content and raw power of those earlier triumphs with the orchestral complexity and experimental nature of his more recent efforts. Many have lamented the fact that Elfman does not write as he used to, myself included, but having now heard this score, I feel that Elfman’s intentions are clearer in my own mind. It’s not that Elfman cannot write like that any more; he has simply moved on, and outgrown the comic book fantasies of old. But, when the situation calls for it, he can still deliver the goods if he so chooses.

Mixing a large symphony orchestra with a mixed choir and a boy soprano soloist, the main thematic content of Sleepy Hollow comes by way of a five-note motif for the Horseman himself, performed mainly by brasses whenever the decapitated devil is on screen. It receives a large, expansive statement during the ‘Introduction’ and ‘Main Titles’, and makes significant appearances in many cues thereafter, notably in the action material. Interestingly, Sleepy Hollow also contains some of the most conventionally beautiful heard from Elfman in a while. An unexpectedly lyrical string bridge pops up two minutes into the ‘Main Title’, never to be heard again, while a stunningly beautiful romantic motif for Ichabod and Christina comes sweeping to the fore in ‘The Gift’, ‘Tender Moment’ and ‘Love Lost’.

A boy soprano intones the sub-theme for Ichabod’s mother, seen in flashback and heard in cues such as ‘Young Ichabod’, ‘Sweet Dreams’ and ‘More Dreams’. There are vague thematic links between Christina’s love theme and the theme for Crane’s mother, strongly hinting at the possibility of witchcraft elements inherent in both characters, and the resulting connection with Ichabod. This is where Elfman’s experience and intelligence in structuring his scores is most apparent – ten years ago, without wanting to sound unkind, Elfman would never have thought of creating these clever yet totally subliminal musical references. Here, at the beginning of the year 2000, these melodic intricacies more than adequately illustrate Elfman’s growing stature as a deep-thinking composer.

And then there is the action music… oh, the action music! This is where Sleepy Hollow really shines, putting the orchestra and choir through its paces with a series of stunning chase and fight cues that revel in immense brass fanfares, sweeping string lines, rolling percussion and the subtly unsettling wordless tones of Metro Voices. Cues such as ‘The Story’, ‘Masbath’s Terrible Death’, ‘The Church Battle’, ‘The Windmill’, ‘The Chase’ and ‘The Final Confrontation’ simply throb with seething orchestral power, a mass of dissonant yet highly structured carnage, regularly punctuated by the menacing Horseman motif.

Much of Elfman’s action music is heavy on the bass content – he used a bank of six bass trombones in his brass section – and throughout each of these cues you can sense the low, seemingly impenetrable pedal underpinning everything else. ‘The Tree of Death’ is another excellent example of this – a nightmarish, nine-minute cue which emanates a series of throbs and groans from deep in the bowels of the orchestra, before erupting into life as the Horseman emerges from tree’s twisted roots. One other cue, ‘The Witch’ stands out as being completely different from all the others, presenting a skittish, high-pitched violin solo to underscore the scene of Ichabod’s encounter with a wizened old crone deep in the Western Woods.

It is pointless to continue the arguments about Danny Elfman “recapturing his glory days”, because it’s not going to happen in the way the fan-boys would like. As all composers do, Elfman has developed and refined his style as the years have passed, and I am beginning to come around to the fact that, although his works are not as gleefully enjoyable as they once were, they are “better” scores in their make-up. I would not be overstating things if I were to say that this is by far Danny Elfman’s best score since Sommersby in 1993, and it’s well within the top five or six of his career achievements to date.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • Introduction (4:15)
  • Main Titles (3:09)
  • Young Ichabod (1:20)
  • The Story… (4:28)
  • Masbath’s Terrible Death (1:35)
  • Sweet Dreams (1:11)
  • A Gift (2:26)
  • Into the Woods/The Witch (3:32)
  • More Dreams (1:42)
  • The Tree of Death (9:36)
  • Bad Dream/Tender Moment (3:33)
  • Evil Eye (3:43)
  • The Church Battle (3:33)
  • Love Lost (5:16)
  • The Windmill (6:18)
  • The Chase (3:11)
  • The Final Confrontation (4:16)
  • A New Day! (1:29)
  • End Credits (3:17)

Running Time: 68 minutes 02 seconds

Hollywood Records 0122622HWR (1999)

Music composed by Danny Elfman. Conducted by Allan Wilson. Orchestrations by Conrad Pope, David Slonaker, Albert Olson, Steve Bartek, Mark McKenzie and Marc Mann. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy, Jonathan Allen and Robert Fernandez. Edited by Ellen Segal. Mastered by Andy Van Dette. Album produced by Danny Elfman.

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