Home > Reviews > FIFTY SHADES OF GREY – Danny Elfman


February 17, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

fiftyshadesofgreyOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

Fifty Shades of Grey is one of the most unexpected cultural touchstones of recent years. A badly written ‘romance’ novel originally conceived as a piece of Twilight fan fiction, the story somehow became an unstoppable phenomenon, despite receiving scathing reviews from every respected literary critic, catapulting author EL James onto Time Magazine’s list of the 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2012, and bringing bondage into the mainstream. The story involves literature student Anastasia Steele, who is asked by her roommate to interview a handsome young billionaire, Christian Grey, for their university newspaper. There is an immediate and fiery attraction between the shy, inexperienced Ana and the confident, intense Christian, and the pair begins a relationship, but there is a twist in the tale: Christian’s sexuality involves a healthy dose of kink, and before long he is introducing Ana to his world of BDSM – bondage, dominance, sadism and masochism. The film is directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson, stars Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson in the lead roles, and has a score by Danny Elfman.

That a film like this should get a score by Danny Elfman is, on first impressions, unusual, but when you consider the film’s pseudo-highbrow intentions – which stand at odds with its salacious origins – it actually makes perfect sense. The film’s director, Sam Taylor-Johnson, has been a critically acclaimed fine art photographer for years, and is a contemporary of fellow groundbreaking British artists such as Tracy Emin and Damien Hirst. The screenwriter, Kelly Marcel, has a pedigree that includes the screenplay for Saving Mr. Banks. The film has a clean, impressive visual style that emphasizes a particular color palette and contemporary architecture. The final film might not quite reach the lofty heights the filmmakers had in mind – you can only do so much when your source material is as awful as Fifty Shades’s is – but you can certainly see where they wanted to go with it. Taking inspiration from this, Elfman’s score is filled with simple lines, stripped-down orchestrations that emphasize rhythm and instrumental color over recurring themes, and contains a slight sense of coolness and disconnect that tries to capture the not-quite romantic relationship between Christian and Ana.

Elfman uses an instrumental palette featuring a string orchestra, piano, electric and acoustic guitars courtesy of George Doering and Bryce Jacobs, metallic percussion items, and a modern rock drum set. As a comparison, one could describe it as a combination of the magnetic string writing from documentary scores like The Unknown Known or Standard Operating Procedure, coupled with the more contemporary pop sounds heard in scores like Taking Woodstock and Silver Linings Playbook. It’s not a style we often hear from Elfman, who of course is much more famous for his large-scale orchestral writing these days, but the more intimate nature of the music here is appropriate for the project.

As I mentioned, the score is light on thematic ideas. “Ana’s Theme” is not really much of a theme at all, being little more than a collection of wispy undulating string lines, synth notes and dreamy piano chords, which go some way to capturing Ana’s quixotic demeanor, but it never really becomes a defining characteristic of the film as a whole. The theme returns once in a while in later cues, notably “Then Don’t!,” “Where Am I?,” and the dramatic and anticipatory “Show Me,” but for the most part tends to be a little underused. Instead, much more prominent is a secondary theme, a three-note motif for guitars underpinned by chugging strings, which seems to represent the developing relationship between Ana and Christian, and plays strongly in cues such as “A Spanking,” “The Contract,” and especially in the significant soft rock of “Ana and Christian” and the extended “Variations on a Shade”.

The slightly humorous, playful nature of parts of Ana and Christian’s relationship is conveyed with light pizzicato strings, precise rhythms, twinkling xylophones and a mischievous air in cues like “Going for Coffee” and “The Art of War”. Conversely, the more erotically-charged and sexually adventurous elements of the story feature harsher sounds, including more industrial-sounding electronic elements, deeper electric guitar writing, and some of the bass-heavy synth pulses that Alexandre Desplat favors so much. Cues like “The Red Room,” the aforementioned “A Spanking” and “The Contract,” and “Did That Hurt?” showcase this style strongly.

Elsewhere, cues like the opening “Shades of Grey” play up the film’s classical pretentions with rolling, romantic piano lines offset by more urgent string rhythms and soft, bubbling electronic effects. “Clean You Up” has an unusual, wavering processed vocal effect underpinned by more piano writing that is appealingly mesmerizing and soothing. “Bliss” is one of the standout cues for me, mostly for its excellent use of a searing cello melody and a softly cooing female choral element that sounds like a host of heavenly post-coital angels.

The conclusive cue, “Counting to Six,” is an excellent track that takes the score to its darkest places. It combines the three-note motif and the chugging strings with the heavier rock sounds, and a hint of a chorus, as well as the synth ideas from Ana’s theme, resulting in a piece that acts as a culmination of everything that has gone before it: Ana’s diminishing innocence, the climax of the Ana/Christian relationship, the high (or low) point of their BDSM play, as well as the choral orgasmic sexual bliss concept which can’t decide if it wants to emerge or not. All these different ideas and apparently conflicting emotions are expertly juggled by Elfman, who in this piece seems to understand the sexual dynamics in play much better than EL James does, and ironically affords the film more intelligence and thoughtfulness than it deserves.

In addition to Elfman’s score soundtrack, there is also a successful and popular song soundtrack album, which features two Elfman cues (“Ana and Christian” and “Did That Hurt?,” both of which are included on the score) alongside a number of popular songs and cover versions, including Annie Lennox’s new version of “I Put a Spell on You,” the stripped-down eroticized version of “Crazy in Love” by Beyoncé that featured heavily in the trailers, plus cuts by The Weeknd, Ellie Goulding, Awolnation, Sia and The Rolling Stones.

Let’s make one thing absolutely clear; Fifty Shades of Grey is not a good movie. Its dubious origins, its terribly written prose, and its ridiculously clichéd characters all carry forward from the page to the silver screen, where no amount of artfully framed cinematography or beautifully designed sets can cover its myriad of narrative flaws. It’s almost a shame that Elfman’s generally excellent music accompanies this film, because he actually seems to have understood what the film wanted to be, and has written music to accompany that best case scenario, rather than the tame and turgid melodrama the film actually is; as such, his contribution is likely to be tarred with a similar brush or – dare I say it – whipped with the same flogger. If you can put the fact that this is music for Fifty Shades to the back of your mind, there is a great deal of worthwhile music to be experienced here; better yet, if you do that, you won’t have to visit a red room of pain to punish yourself for buying it. Unless that’s your thing, of course…

Buy the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Shades of Grey (2:07)
  • Ana’s Theme (1:23)
  • The Red Room (3:26)
  • Then Don’t! (2:32)
  • A Spanking (2:32)
  • Going For Coffee (1:32)
  • Where Am I? (1:35)
  • Ana and Christian (3:24)
  • Clean You Up (2:43)
  • The Contract (3:27)
  • The Art of War (3:32)
  • Did That Hurt? (2:54)
  • Bliss (2:29)
  • Show Me (3:02)
  • Counting to Six (3:21)
  • Variations on a Shade (6:22)
  • I Put a Spell On You (written by Jay Hawkins, performed by Annie Lennox) (3:30)
  • Undiscovered (written by Emile Haynie, Devonte Hynes, Laura Welsh and Amanda Ghost, performed by Laura Welsh) (2:53)
  • Earned It (written by Abel Tesfaye, Stephan Moccio, Jason Quenneville and Ahmad Balshe, performed by The Weeknd) (4:10)
  • Meet Me in the Middle (written by David Okumu and Jessica Ware, performed by Jessie Ware) (5:08)
  • Love Me Like You Do (written by Max Martin, Savan Kotecha, Ilya Salmanzadeh, Ali Payami and Tove Nilsson, performed by Ellie Goulding) (4:10)
  • Haunted – Michael Diamond Remix (written by Jordan Asher and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, performed by Beyoncé) (5:08)
  • Salted Wound (written by Brian West, Gerald Eaton, Sia Furler and Oliver Kraus, performed by Sia) (4:30)
  • Beast of Burden (written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, performed by The Rolling Stones) (3:29)
  • I’m On Fire (written by Bruce Springsteen, performed by Awolnation) (2:34)
  • Crazy in Love – 2014 Remix (written by Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Rich Harrison, Shawn Carter and Eugene Record, performed by Beyoncé) (3:46)
  • Witchcraft (written by Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh, performed by Frank Sinatra) (2:51)
  • One Last Night (written by Barnabas Freeman, Benjamin Vella and Blythe Pepino, performed by Vaults) (3:19)
  • Where You Belong (written by Abel Tesfaye, Mike Dean and Ahmad Balshe, performed by The Weeknd) (4:57)
  • I Know You (written by Stephan Moccio and Holly Hafermann, performed by Skylar Grey) (4:58)
  • Ana and Christian (3:24)
  • Did That Hurt? (2:54)

Running Time: 46 minutes 27 seconds (Score Album)
Running Time: 61 minutes 55 seconds (Soundtrack Album)

Republic Records/Universal Music (2015)

Music composed by Danny Elfman. Orchestrations by Steve Bartek, Edgardo Simone and David Slonaker. Featured musical performances by George Doering, Mark Tschanz and Bryce Jacobs. Recorded and mixed by Noah Snyder. Edited by Bill Abbott and Angie Rubin. Score produced by Danny Elfman.

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