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THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN – Danny Elfman

October 11, 2016 Leave a comment Go to comments

girlonthetrainOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

The Girl on the Train was one of the best-selling and most controversial novels of 2015, a psychological thriller about the murder of a beautiful young woman, and the mystery surrounding her death; the inevitable film version stars Emily Blunt in the lead role as Rachel Watson, whose life fell apart when she separated from her husband Tom (Justin Theroux), due to a combination of his infidelity, their inability to conceive a child, and her increasing alcoholism. A year later, Tom is happily re-married to Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), and has a young daughter; Rachel, however, is unable to let go, and repeatedly turns up at her old house, which she passes every day on the train during her morning commute. Rachel also fantasizes about Megan and Scott (Haley Bennett and Luke Evans), a seemingly perfect couple who live two houses away from Tom and Anna, and who she also sees from her train carriage. Things come to a head when Megan disappears and Rachel, who blacked out from drinking on the day of her disappearance, genuinely believes she may have had something to do with it. The film was directed by Tate Taylor, written by Erin Cressida Wilson from Paula Hawkins’s novel, and has an original score by Danny Elfman.

It’s interesting how, in recent years, Elfman has basically developed a two-pronged scoring career. He still scores a fair amount of fantasy blockbuster movies – things like Oz the Great and Powerful, Goosebumps, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Alice Through the Looking Glass – but in parallel to this he has also been scoring a number of smaller-scale dramas and documentaries like The Unknown Known, Fifty Shades of Grey, and others, which often adopt alternative, unconventional scoring techniques. Personally, I find Elfman’s efforts on these films much more interesting, from an intellectual point of view, mainly because they force Elfman to compose in a way he usually does not. Elfman knows how to write music for monsters and super heroes; he’s been doing it for more than thirty years. The voice, and approach, for something like The Girl on the Train, is less obvious, and as such I think it stretches Elfman as a composer and a dramatist much more than another studio blockbuster tentpole does.

You may remember, in my reviews of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s scores for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl, I wriote about how director David Fincher had collaborated with composers like Elliot Goldenthal and Howard Shore in the past and how, given the same palette of musical instruments and the same over-arching tone, the same sort of dark, brutal, brooding, menacing music could very easily have come from the pen of either of those men, and the music would have had a much more rich and fulfilling compositional language at the same time. The reason for this is that Shore and Goldenthal are *composers* and *storytellers* who understand technique and orchestration and counterpoint and harmony, but also understand how to convey difficult dramatic ideas in the narrative to the audience through their music. The Girl on the Train is exactly the sort of score I was talking about when I wrote that; the instrumental ensemble is small, limited mainly to strings, electronics, guitars, metallic percussion, and prepared piano, and the tone is dark, mysterious, and a little disorienting, but somehow Elfman’s music stays within its instrumental and tonal boundaries, while simultaneously being interesting music in its own right, and also conveying the film’s main dramatic conceit: that of the unreliable narrator.

The opening cue, “Riding the Train,” introduces the score’s key elements in terms of the instrumentation, from the rhythmic application of the percussion, the string washes behind, the slow, morose piano lines, the guitar chords, and the vast array of electronic pulses and buzzes which move around and across and through the music. It’s quite unlike anything I have heard from Elfman – in fact, it sometimes seems closer to something someone like Alexandre Desplat or Thomas Newman would come up with, especially the synth writing, which has some similarities to the score for Birth, and the use of marimba-like textures, which seem to want to hint at the same darkness behind the white picket fences we found in American Beauty. The overall sound has a sense of movement that is almost hypnotic, perhaps like the rocking of a train, but has enough harshness to keep the listener uneasy.

In “Something’s Not Right” the guttural sound of a ground bass collides with a prepared piano, harsh electronic effects, and de-tuned guitars, giving the score a disorienting and hallucinatory atmosphere. The character theme for the missing girl, “Megan,” is a lighter, more upbeat piece of electronica (and is revisited later in cues like “Touch Myself”), while the subsequent “Rachel” clearly earmarks that character as damaged goods, taking some of the ideas from the opening two cues but giving them a sense of fragility and uncertainty. The interplay between the chugging strings, eerie electronics, and rhythmic pianos here is excellent.

What happens thereafter is that Elfman, basically, deconstructs all this music, making it slurred and blurred, mimicking the vodka-induced haze through which Rachel sees the world. It’s like the different instrumental and rhythmic ideas are the fractured parts of Rachel’s life, with thepiano representing one part, the guitars another, the electronics another, the strings another, and they all shift and move around one another in a blur of Smirnoff. Cues like “3 Women,” “All Fucked Up,” and “The Perfect Couple/Password” present a number of interesting rhythmic ideas, while cues like “Wasted,” “Missing Time,” “Uncertainty,” “I’m Sorry,” and “You’re Always Wasted” are more angrily abstract and challengingly dissonant, the musical embodiment of an alcoholic’s pain and lack of self-control. The ghostly overlapping vocal effects in “Missing Time” are an especially nice touch.

It is only during the last six cues, the final reel of the film, that Elfman finally begins to re-connect the dots and de-fragment his music, again mirroring the numerous revelations Rachel experiences with regard to Megan, and her relationships with the other men and women at the core of the story. “Memory” brings the fluidity of Megan’s electronic theme more sharply into focus, offsetting it against some smooth string writing, before returning to the harsh textures from “Something’s Not Right,” planting a seed in the audience’s mind that something’s not right regarding Rachel’s memories of Megan. Cleverly, in the first part of “Really Creepy,” the prepared piano appears to gradually regain its tonal center, slowly shedding the off-kilter, warped sonic quality that defined Rachel’s world-view as the character’s own mind becomes clearer. The cooing female vocals return in “Self Defence” – a musical acknowledgement of female empowerment – while in the conclusive pair “Resolution” and “The Girl on the Train – Main Titles” Elfman finally throws off his self-imposed musical shackles and allows the voices and the now fully re-connected piano to explore a melodic idea that is warmer, more determined, and just a tiny bit optimistic.

What I like the most about The Girl on the Train, beyond the actual music itself, is the obvious intellectual thought Danny Elfman put into his score, its application, and its dramatic development. The sounds he uses are harsh, abrasive, and sometimes irritating, but they are intentionally designed to be that way; each sound has a point, a reason for being, and is applied at a precise moment in the film to give the audience some subliminal clues about what’s happening, and why, and to whom. This is the very nature of film music; sometimes music which you don’t actually like can be tremendously effective when you understand the reasoning behind it, and this is why this score succeeds and why scores like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl failed so utterly. The Girl on the Train won’t appeal to a large number of people by its very nature, and will most likely alienate people who only enjoy Elfman in super-hero mode, but for me it stands as a perfect example of how to write modern, minimalist, electronically enhanced suspense music without sacrificing compositional intelligence or purposeful dramatic application.

Buy the Girl on the Train soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Riding the Train (4:05)
  • Something’s Not Right (2:31)
  • Megan (1:45)
  • Rachel (2:32)
  • Stolen? (0:46)
  • 3 Women (1:35)
  • All Fucked Up! (2:28)
  • Wasted (2:11)
  • Missing Time (2:04)
  • Day One (0:47)
  • Deviled Eggs (0:57)
  • Touch Myself (1:37)
  • Uncertainty (0:57)
  • The Perfect Couple/Password (2:46)
  • I’m Sorry (5:03)
  • A Sad Liar (1:38)
  • You’re Always Wasted (2:10)
  • Memory (6:19)
  • Really Creepy (4:03)
  • Just Desserts (0:59)
  • Self Defense (2:21)
  • Resolution (1:13)
  • The Girl on the Train – Main Titles (1:10)

Running Time: 52 minutes 07 seconds

Sony Classical (2016)

Music composed by Danny Elfman. Conducted by Pete Anthony. Orchestrations by Steve Bartek, Edgardo Simone and Dave Slonaker. Recorded and mixed by Lawrence Manchester and Noah Scot Snyder. Edited by Bill Abbott and Nic Ratner. Album produced by Danny Elfman.

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  1. BT
    March 24, 2017 at 9:35 pm

    I enjoyed the soundtrack to GOTT immensely, assuming at the time of viewing that it was by Trent Reznor. Mr. Elfman completely ripped off the style and brilliance of a trent Reznor soundtrack. Unbelievable.

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