PEE-WEE’S BIG HOLIDAY – Mark Mothersbaugh
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Looking back at it now, thirty years into the future, it’s astonishing when you realize just what an influential film Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure was. It launched the career of Paul Reubens, the comedian and writer behind the Pee-Wee Herman character, which led to a second Pee-Wee film, and a classic Saturday morning kids show. It launched the career of director Tim Burton – we all know what happened to him. It also launched the second career of composer Danny Elfman – we all know what happened to him, too. Reubens’s career stalled after a rather sordid run-in with the law in 1991, but gradually he has been working his way back, initially as a jobbing actor, and now, after a successful Broadway show, resurrecting the Pee-Wee character for a third ‘big-screen’ film, Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday, produced by Netflix, and directed by John Lee. The film sees Pee-Wee being encouraged by his friend, actor Joe Mangianello (playing himself), to go on his first ever vacation to New York; on the way, Pee-Wee manages to get himself involved in a number of ridiculous adventures, crossing paths with a trio of female bank robbers, a travelling disguise kit salesman, a farmer who wants him to marry one of his nine daughters, the owner of a flying car, and the members of an Amish community.
Taking over the scoring reigns from Danny Elfman on Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday is composer Mark Mothersbaugh, who is himself no stranger to screwball comedy, having written music for everything from The Lego Movie to several Alvin and the Chipmunks movies, two Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs films, four Wes Anderson movies, and the massively popular Rugrats TV series. Mothersbaugh worked on the underscore for Pee-Wee’s Playhouse back in the day, which makes his presence here a natural progression, and marks another parallel between Elfman and Mothersbaugh, who are both self-taught musicians, and who both started in alternative pop and rock groups in the 1980s – Devo for Mothersbaugh, Oingo Boingo for Elfman.
Mothersbaugh recorded the score with a full orchestra, choir, guitars, and synths, at Abbey Road Studios in London, and it’s quite delightful, one of the most infectious and charming comedy scores in quite some time. Anyone who knows Danny Elfman’s Pee-Wee scores will recognize many of the instrumental and rhythmic touches that permeated those films, from the light oompah brasses, to the lively clarinet lines, and the madcap energy of the action/caper sequences. None of Elfman’s actual thematic ideas from either film are retained, which may be a little disappointing for fans of those scores, but the sense of fun and playfulness is most definitely there in large quantities. In addition to that, what Mothersbaugh’s score has in spades is heart, emotion, and sentiment, and this is the thing that people are most likely to take away from the music presented here.
For the most part the score is presented as a one-theme-and-multiple-variations work, but Mothersbaugh really puts that theme through its paces in a vast array of different arrangements and settings. The theme, a wholesome melody which captures Pee-Wee’s childlike wonderment and innocence, is present in virtually every cue in some form or another, which could either annoy the heck out of listeners, or become one of 2016’s most pervasive and enjoyable ear worms. Personally, I fall in to the latter camp; I’ve been whistling it for days.
The first performance of the main theme, in the opening “Main Titles and Farewell,” is absolutely gorgeous, presenting the theme with a lush sweep, accompanied by the full orchestra and choir, before segueing into a tender, almost lullabyish secondary theme which is really quite unexpectedly beautiful. “Pee-Wee’s Morning Routine” reworks the theme as a clear allusion to the mechanized stylistics of Elfman’s ‘Breakfast Machine’ from the original Pee-Wee score, or the ‘ Cookie Factory’ sequence from Edward Scissorhands, with a sense of frenzied energy and blustery orchestrations. In “Up in Smoke” it is wistful and full of regret, transposed to flutes and harp. “Memories of Salt Lake City” moves it to threatening-sounding brasses, accompanied by tremolo-heavy low strings. “The Choice” and “Getting Ready to Go” both have a vibrant, optimistic sense of bravado and enthusiasm, with brass fanfares… and on it goes.
Where Mothersbaugh gets really clever is in his arrangements of the theme into vastly different styles. The jazzy, caper-like version in “Bank Robbery” uses the theme as the basis for a knockout action sequence, complete with wailing John Barry brasses, tom-toms in the percussion section, and electric guitars giving it all a contemporary kick. Later, “Pee-Wee Meets Pee-Wee” moves the theme to sultry, almost dirty-sounding muted trumpets. In “The Farmer’s Daughter” he enlivens the proceedings with country arrangements and a performance of the theme for a vibrant fiddle, while in “Flying Car” he has the different parts of the brass section toot their own horn, before presenting a wonderfully open version of the theme to celebrate the freedom of aviation. Possibly best of all, however, are “Escape from the Church” and “On to New York,” in which Mothersbaugh pulls out all the stops, initially emulating both Elmer Bernstein and Ennio Morricone with all their cowboy western hallmarks, and later tipping his hat to George Gershwin.
There is one secondary theme, for Pee-Wee’s home town of Fairville, a delightful little march first heard in “Welcome to Fairville” via an orchestra augmented with everything from guitars to castanets to pizzicato strings, and which re-occurs later in the snazzy and finger-snapping “The Diner”. A sweeping, romantic interlude briefly enlivens “Pee-Wee’s Dreams,” and there’s even a show-stopping version of Lionel Newman’s song “New York, New York” from the soundtrack to the 1953 film How to Marry a Millionaire, with new, sardonic, Pee-Wee-specific lyrics. But these little diversions are just that, diversions, which don’t really reflect the score as a whole.
One thing I have often heard from contemporary film music fans is that music for comedies, or music that actually tries to be funny, tends to be a turn-off. Too much mickey-mousing, too little substance, and not enough depth. Fortunately, these are pitfalls which Mark Mothersbaugh almost entirely avoids during this score; only pieces like “Traveling Salesman” really go for the funny bone in an egregious way, and even then it’s only briefly, with some horse-neigh trombones and the like. Instead, for almost its entire running time, Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday is a lively, light-hearted, surprisingly rich and boisterous orchestral score, anchored by a truly memorable main theme. If the main theme doesn’t connect with you, then you’re going to be in trouble, because it’s everywhere in the score, but if you’re like me, and it captures you from the opening bars, then you’re going to have a blast with Mothersbaugh’s intelligent and inventive treatments, his respectful channeling of Danny Elfman’s original sound for the character, and his defiant sense of fun and optimism.
Buy the Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Main Titles and Farewell (3:49)
- Pee-Wee’s Morning Routine (2:55)
- Welcome to Fairville (1:15)
- The Diner (0:54)
- Up in Smoke (1:05)
- The Milkshake (1:32)
- Memories of Salt Lake City (1:00)
- The Choice (2:13)
- A Perfect Start (1:17)
- Getting Ready to Go (1:16)
- Bank Robbery (1:47)
- Pee-wee Meets Pee-wee (1:45)
- Traveling Salesman (2:19)
- Pee-Wee’s Dreams (2:19)
- The Farmer’s Daughters (1:26)
- Night Visitors (1:31)
- Escape from the Church (1:32)
- Hairmerica (1:35)
- Operation Helicopter Head (0:55)
- Flying Car (1:03)
- Pee-Wee Poppins (0:52)
- Horseplay (0:45)
- Amish Village (1:02)
- On to New York (1:09)
- Pee-Wee Says Goodbye (1:37)
- New York! New York! (music by Lionel Newman, adapted by Mark Mothersbaugh, lyrics by Paul Rust, performed by Paul Reubens) (3:18)
- Hallucinations (1:47)
- Joe Rescues Pee-Wee (2:27)
- We Are the Party (2:45)
- Something Different (2:00)
Running Time: 50 minutes 20 seconds
Varese Sarabande 302-067-426-8 (2016)
Music composed by Mark Mothersbaugh. Conducted by James T. Sale. Orchestrations by Christopher Guardino and Jeffrey Schindler. Recorded and mixed by John Kurlander. Edited by Andrew Dorfman. Album produced by Mark Mothersbaugh, Cary Mansfield, Bryon Davis and Bill Pitzonka.