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CORPSE BRIDE – Danny Elfman

September 16, 2005 Leave a comment Go to comments

corpsebrideOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

With the possible exception of Steven Spielberg and John Williams, Tim Burton and Danny Elfman have by far the most creatively positive composer/director relationship in Hollywood. One glance at their mutual filmography – everything from Pee Wee to Beetlejuice to Batman to Edward Scissorhands and Sleepy Hollow – proves beyond doubt that they are a pairing in perfect synch with each other’s way of thinking, of what one needs from the other to excel. Their latest collaboration, Corpse Bride, takes inspiration from the wonderful 1993 stop-motion animation The Nightmare Before Christmas, and tells an equally beautiful and tragic tale of love, loss, longing, and unfulfilled dreams.

Victor Van Dort (voice of Johnny Depp), a painfully shy young man, is arranged by his nouveau riche parents (Tracey Ullman and Paul Whitehouse) to be married to the equally shy Victoria (Emily Watson), the daughter of the snobbish, aristocratic, but financially destitute Everglots (Joanna Lumley and Albert Finney). After making a fool of himself at his wedding rehearsal, Victor flees to the woods near his home in shame; practicing his lines out loud, he inadvertently reanimates the corpse of the long-dead Emily (Helena Bonham-Carter), and is quickly whisked into the underworld, the unwitting victim of an ancient curse whereby he finds himself married to the cadaver. Meanwhile, as Victor desperately tries to find his way back to the land of the living, the upcoming wedding finds itself without a groom – at least until the arrival of the preening, vaguely sinister Lord Barkis Bittern (Richard E. Grant), who seems unusually eager to accept Victoria’s hand…

Musically, as well as visually and dramatically, the comparisons with The Nightmare Before Christmas are unmistakable, from the neo-gothic grandeur of the orchestral performances, the toccata-and-fugue orchestrations with prominent harpsichords, the delicate fairytale interludes, and the rather unexpected inclusion of a great deal of New Orleans-inspired jazz and blues. Elfman always seems to be in his element when dealing with subject matters which are subtly subversive, and give him the chance to explore his darkly romantic persona. Corpse Bride gives him this opportunity and then some, resulting in a score which contains some of the most purely beautiful music he has written in a while, probably since Black Beauty and Dolores Claiborne in the early 1990s.

However, unlike a great deal of Elfman scores which are forlorn but generally upbeat, there is a definite sense of pervading sadness to a great deal of Corpse Bride. The melancholically beautiful “Victor’s Piano Solo”, which underscores the first meeting between Victor and Victoria, is a musical reflection of the way Burton sees the land of the living: a place where things are dark, dreary, gray and depressing, but with just the merest hint of potential happiness peeking through the gloom. This musical way of thinking continues through later cues, notably “Casting a Spell”, the evocative “Moon Dance”, “Victor’s Deception”, the second “Piano Duet”, and the melodramatic “Victoria’s Wedding”, while the expansive “Into the Forest” sequence is the closest Elfman comes to genuine action and horror scoring, using scary choral performances and dense, apocalyptic orchestral passages to capture Victor’s fear and confusion at being acosted by a newly-revived stiff.

In complete contrast, the land of the dead is a place of vibrant colours and freewheeling musical expression, where jazz, swing, and big band are the order of the day. Cues such as “New Arrival” and “The Party Arrives” wholeheartedly embrace this musical style, giving Elfman the opportunity to break out his saxophones and his rhythm section and let them rip. Once again, although they work in the context of the film, they are less successful terms of a pure listening experience, coming across a little jarring when programmed in between Elfman’s more introspective orchestral passages. The final four tracks on the album also embrace this style, being pieces performed by Bonejangles and his Bone Boys (in reality Elfman and his gang), which are used as source music in the underworld sequences.

Once the nefarious Lord Bittern has met his demise in “Barkis’s Bummer”, the three-minute “Finale” takes over, which sees Elfman in all-out audience manipulation mode, replete with heavenly female choirs, soaring strings, and sweepingly emotional crescendos. This one track is probably the closest he has yet come to recapturing the effortless beauty and magic of the finale from Edward Scissorhands, and is arguably worth the price of the album alone. I don’t mind admitting that, while watching the film in the cinema, this cue made me cry.

The only negative aspect of the whole thing are the songs, which are significantly inferior to those Elfman penned for The Nightmare Before Christmas, or even Charlie and the Chocolate Factory earlier this year. Elfman himself does a passable Cab Calloway impression during the swinging “Remains of the Day”, an obvious offshoot of Oogie-Boogie’s song from Nightmare, and Helena Bonham-Carter’s vocal performance in “Tears to Shed” is as raw and naturally emotional as Catherine O’Hara’s was in Sally’s Song a decade ago. However, the two ensemble pieces – “According to Plan” and “The Wedding Song” – suffer from confusing lyrics and a wholesale lack of singing talent, particularly from Tracy Ullman, Paul Whitehouse, Joanna Lumley and Albert Finney, whose vocal characterizations are intentionally off-key in context, but make for irritating listening. Enn Reitel, on the other hand, is hilarious doing a Peter Lorre impression as Emily’s maggot conscience – although he can’t sing either. Mercifully, there are only four songs in total, leaving the bulk of the album to concentrate on the score.

Ultimately, the overall effect of the Corpse Bride album is mixed and can be summed up thusly: below-average songs and a so-so jazz element, which is saved almost entirely by the brilliance of Elfman’s orchestral underscore. I anticipate that, in years to come, Corpse Bride will not be held in the same universal esteem as The Nightmare Before Christmas, but fans of Elfman’s style in that genre will surely find plenty to keep them entertained.

Rating: ****½ (for Elfman’s score) *** (for the album overall)

Track Listing:

  • Main Titles (2:06)
  • According to Plan (written by Danny Elfman and John August, performed by Tracy Ullman, Paul Whitehouse, Joanna Lumley, Albert Finney and Emily Watson) (3:45)
  • Victor’s Piano Solo (1:18)
  • Into the Forest (4:35)
  • Remains of the Day (written by Danny Elfman and John August, performed by Danny Elfman with Jane Horrocks, Paul Baker, Alison Jiear and Gary Martin) (3:27)
  • Casting a Spell (1:25)
  • Moon Dance (1:28)
  • Victor’s Deception (4:00)
  • Tears to Shed (written by Danny Elfman and John August, performed by Helena Bonham-Carter, Jane Horrocks and Enn Reitel) (2:45)
  • Victoria’s Escape (2:31)
  • The Piano Duet (1:53)
  • New Arrival (0:42)
  • Victoria’s Wedding (3:15)
  • The Wedding Song (written by Danny Elfman and John August, performed by Danny Elfman with Jane Horrocks, Paul Baker, Alison Jiear and Gary Martin) (3:01)
  • The Party Arrives (3:21)
  • Victor’s Wedding (2:09)
  • Barkis’s Bummer (2:07)
  • The Finale (2:35)
  • End Credits Part 1 (1:50)
  • End Credits Part 2 (2:33)
  • Ball & Socket Lounge Music #1 (Band Version) (2:15)
  • Remains of the Day (Combo Lounge Version) (3:06)
  • Ball & Socket Lounge Music #2 (1:10)
  • Ball & Socket Lounge Music #1 (Combo Version) (2:14)

Running Time: 59 minutes 38 seconds

Warner Sunset/Warner Bros. 49473-2 (2005)

Music composed by Danny Elfman. Conducted by Nick Ingman. Orchestrations by Steve Bartek, Edgardo Simone and David Slonaker. Recorded and mixed by Dennis Sands. Edited by Mike Higham and Shie Rozow. Album produced by Danny Elfman.

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