Home > Reviews > STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE – Danny Elfman


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Watching Danny Elfman grow into a sophisticated and technically excellent film composer over the last few years has been one of the most satisfying parts of reviewing soundtracks. His score for Standard Operating Procedure – a devastating documentary by Errol Morris about the appalling events surrounding the Abu Ghraib prison torture abuse scandal in Iraq in 2004 – is probably the most mature and intellectual film score of his entire career.

Morris usually hires Philip Glass to score his films, so it perhaps comes as no surprise that a shorthand way of describing Standard Operating Procedure is ‘Elfman doing Glass’, but should in no way insinuate that Elfman is merely copying Glass – the writing is unmistakably Elfmanish throughout. Like much of Glass’s work, much of the music is built up around little motivic cells, repeated textures and thematic fragments, which gradually combine and interweave to form an impressive, cleverly-structured work.

The music is almost wholly orchestral, with emphasis on strings and piano but encompassing all parts of the ensemble at different times; unlike many documentary scores, Elfman’s music has a driving, rhythmic quality, usually accomplished by churning bass and cello passacaglias. Cues such as the three “SOP Theme” pieces and “Birdies” are hypnotically fascinating in the way they move around the orchestra, while pieces like “Saddam’s Egg” are noteworthy for their seriousness and dark, brooding intensity.

One or two of the cues are taken directly from, or at least derived partly from, his 2006 classical piece Serenade Schizophrana, notably the brilliant main title, “Vacation in Iraq”; indeed, anyone who has heard that work will be able to spot stylistic similarities to it throughout Standard Operating Procedure, making them almost companion pieces, at least in tone and style. Cues like “The Infamous Pyramid” have an ominous heaviness to them which is quite palpable, while cues like “Photos”, “The Table Breaker” and the mechanical “Oli’s Lullaby” have a superficial lightness and flightiness accomplished through circus-like rhythms and twinkling orchestrations that clearly stand in painful juxtaposition to the subject matter at hand.

Occasionally, Elfman injects some electronic tension into his music, notably during the grating, menacing “Dogs” and “What Is Going On Here?”; elsewhere, cues like “Gillian” employ a slightly warmer orchestral sound, although even here the intended effect is likely to be one of ‘playing against type’ rather than romanticizing or glossing over the subject matter.

Standard Operating Procedure is an excellent, intelligent, creatively written and hugely enjoyable score that is made all the more appealing due to the fact that it is Elfman’s who has written it. He has come a long way since the days of Pee Wee, Batman and Beetlejuice, and although occasionally the intervening years have been frustrating, he has emerged as one of the most skilled and creative composers working in Hollywood. Standard Operating Procedure is probably the best documentary score I have ever heard, and one of the best scores of 2008.

Rating: ****½

Track Listing:

  • SOP Theme #1: Standard Operating Procedure (5:56)
  • The Infamous Pyramid (3:48)
  • Photos (2:56)
  • The Shooter (3:26)
  • Dogs (3:42)
  • The Wolf (1:11)
  • Saddam’s Egg (3:30)
  • Main Titles: Vacation in Iraq (2:07)
  • SOP Theme #2: Amnesty (1:33)
  • What Is Going On Here? (2:32)
  • Gilligan (3:02)
  • Story of the Ants (3:36)
  • The Table Breaker (1:01)
  • SOP Theme #3: Feelings & Facts (5:26)
  • Unusual, Weird & Wrong (2:32)
  • A Bad Feeling (2:22)
  • Birdies (1:38)
  • S.O.P. End Credits (1:26)
  • Oli’s Lullaby (2:00)

Running Time: 53 minutes 50 seconds

Varèse Sarabande VSD-6897 (2008)

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