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THE WOLFMAN – Danny Elfman

February 12, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The story of the creation of the score for The Wolfman is a long and arduous one. Danny Elfman was attached to the project pretty much from its inception, and wrote a fully orchestral, Gothic horror score at the request of the film’s director, Joe Johnston. Originally scheduled to be released in November 2008, the film suffered numerous problems in post production, and was pushed back and back in the calendar; eventually, so much re-editing was done that Elfman’s score no longer fit the timings of the movie, meaning that much of it had to be re-written. However, a scheduling conflict with Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland meant that Elfman could not undertake any re-writes, and with time running out the original score was rejected. Austrian composer Paul Haslinger was brought in to replace Elfman, but following its recording his primarily electronic score was deemed ‘wrong’ for the picture, and Elfman’s original score was restored. However, Elfman himself was still unable to re-work his music to fit the new film, so several other composers and orchestrators – including Conrad Pope and Edward Shearmur – were brought in to re-track the music, write additional cues, and basically finish off the project before its February 2010 release. It’s a mess of quite horrific proportions, and one can only hope that debacles like these are avoided in the future.

The film itself is a remake of the classic 1941 horror film of the same name, and stars Benicio Del Toro as Shakespearean actor Robert Talbot who, after returning home to Victorian London for the funeral of his brother, is attacked and bitten by a mysterious wolf-like creature. Before long, Robert finds himself turning into a wolf-creature himself, afflicted with a lycanthropic curse. The film stars Anthony Hopkins as Robert’s father Sir John Talbot, Emily Blunt as his dead brother’s fiancé Gwen, and Hugo Weaving as the Scotland Yard inspector investigating the grisly deaths that lie in Robert’s wake. The film boasts handsome cinematography, sumptuous Victorian Gothic production design, and of course Elfman’s score, which despite its torrid past, is still wonderfully atmospheric and enjoyable.

The first thing experienced listeners will recognize about the score for The Wolfman is its blatant similarity to Wojciech Kilar’s 1992 score for the film Bram Stoker’s Dracula (there are also a few vague similarities to James Newton Howard’s King Kong score, but these are merely coincidental). In interviews Elfman admitted that he was inspired by the Pole’s music, and was attempting to recapture the sense of romantic classicism and lush horror that Francis Ford Coppola’s film contained. In every sense, he has succeeded; The Wolfman is a wonderfully expressive, deliciously dark score that captures the period setting, the moody atmosphere, and the combination of horror and romance inherent in the story. Written for a full orchestra with heavy emphasis on bold, emphatic strings, Elfman’s score is a delight from start to finish, reveling in cue after cue of creepy glory.

The opening two cues, comprising a 10-minute “Wolf Suite”, act as effective summaries of the score as a whole. The clear Kilar similarities come by way of the string phrasing and the chord progressions, and although the origin of the sound is immediately apparent (listen to the first cue of the Kilar album to compare the two), Elfman dresses it up and changes it enough for it to be properly considered a homage, and not a case of a director being too in love with his temp-track. The bold four-note Wolfman motif anchors both pieces, jumping from violins to cellos, and as the cues progress they gradually grow in size and scope, adding in a brass counterpoint, a heavy percussion element, a subtle synth pulse, and even a choir, adding to the grandeur of the piece as it builds to a grand conclusion.

Once the score itself begins, the Wolfman motif continues its prominent presence, appearing in one form or another in virtually every cue thereafter. In cues such as the opening “Prologue” it has a call-and-response echo with the brass section, which gives the motif a more threatening demeanor, while in cues such as “Dear Mr. Talbot” it is performed mainly by strings, with the solo violin element alluding to the traditional fiddle music performed by the mysterious gypsy folk who appear prominently in the film. The interplay between different parts of the string section is one of the score’s defining characteristics; deep cello chords and ground basses add depth and weight to the score, while the more elegant violin performances bring a hint of exotic moodiness. The grand performance of the theme in “The Funeral” is as emotional as one would expect, while the chorally-enhanced versions during “The Healing Montage” and the sumptuous “Traveling Montage” are both beautiful and chiling.

As one might expect, dissonance and action music also plays a fairly major part in the score, and in cues such as “Gypsy Massacre”, “Country Carnage” and the “Finale” Elfman lets fly with his orchestra, picking up the pace, giving his string section a vigorous workout, increasing the percussion section, and peppering his music with powerful, menacing statements of the Wolfman motif. The two transformation cues, “First Transformation” and “Reflection/Second Transformation”, generate a real cacophony of noise and energy which is tremendously effective at capturing the pain, confusion and terror suffered by Lawrence during his lunar nightmares. Later, “The Madhouse” has a grinding, buzzing bass note under the rest of the orchestra with gives the cue a twisted, unsettling feel, and which later plays in ghostly juxtaposition against a solo female vocalist and skittering deconstructed instrumental performances of the main theme, jangling the nerves of the listener.

The budding romance between Lawrence and Gwen is hinted at through a couple of lovely romantic interludes, notably “Wake up, Lawrence”, “You Must Go” and “The Antique Shop”, in which Elfman introduces a calmer set of orchestrations – solo piano, soft oboes, more lush strings – to temper the hairy onslaught from the rest of the score. Even here, though, the ominous specter of the film’s hirsute anti-hero is never far away, with Elfman continuing to teasingly introduce more performances of the Wolfman motif, insinuating that poor Lawrence’s fate will be sealed despite the intervention of a corset-clad beauty.

Although the film itself has suffered the indignity of appalling reviews, and may be dead on arrival in the waters of the box office, Danny Elfman’s score will likely be remembered as one of the best things about the entire project. How much of the music heard on this CD actually remains in the film is unclear – following the massive re-writes and heavy editing, in terms of percentages there is apparently more Conrad Pope music than Danny Elfman music in the final cut – but what is certain is that this soundtrack album is a gem. Once you understand, and can look beyond, the Wojciech Kilar allusions, The Wolfman turns into an enjoyably over-the-top Gothic delight, with a strong and prominent theme, and a welcome classical feel. One could say that, as a score, The Wolfman has ‘teeth’ where the film itself does not, but that might be taking things a little too far.

Rating: ****

Buy the Wolfman soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Wolf Suite, Part 1 (4:12)
  • Wolf Suite, Part 2 (5:55)
  • Prologue (2:57)
  • Dear Mr. Talbot (1:45)
  • Bad Moon Rising (0:59)
  • Gypsy Massacre (2:24)
  • Wake Up, Lawrence (5:17)
  • The Funeral (4:13)
  • The Healing Montage (2:50)
  • First Transformation (3:30)
  • You Must Go (3:46)
  • The Antique Shop (3:32)
  • Country Carnage (2:31)
  • Be Strong (2:31)
  • The Madhouse (5:32)
  • Reflection/Second Transformation (4:12)
  • The Traveling Montage (4:27)
  • The Finale (4:11)
  • Wolf Wild #2 (1:27)

Running Time: 66 minutes 11 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD-7010 (2010)

Music composed by Danny Elfman. Performed by The Hollywood Studio Symphony Orchestra. Conducted by Pete Anthony. Orchestrations by Steve Bartek, Rick Giovinazzo, Conrad Pope, Edgardo Simone, David Slonaker and Clifford J. Tasner. Additional music by Conrad Pope, Edward Shearmur, Paul Englishby and T.J. Lindgren. Recorded and mixed by Robert Fernandez and Alan Meyerson. Edited by Bill Abbott, Jay Duerr, Alex Gibson, Barbara McDermott, Chris Newlin, Shie Rozow, Jason Ruder and Scott Stambler. Album produced by Danny Elfman.

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