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TULIP FEVER – Danny Elfman

September 19, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The tale of Tulip Fever is a long and sad one in terms of the way the film has been treated by its distributor. It’s an adaptation of the enormously popular novel by Deborah Moggach, directed by Justin Chadwick, and written by the great Tom Stoppard. Set in the Netherlands in the 17th century, during the period of the tulip mania (when the Dutch economy was almost ruined by the enormous inflation, then the sudden collapse, of the price of tulips), the film tells the story of an impoverished artist who falls in love with a young but unhappily married woman after he is commissioned to paint her portrait by her husband, a rich and powerful flower merchant. The film stars Dane De Haan, Alicia Vikander, and Christophe Waltz, and was originally scheduled for release in late 2015, in order to prime itself for a run at that’s year’s Academy Awards. However, for some reason, the film was delayed and delayed and delayed by the distributor, Harvey Weinstein. Release dates came and went until the film finally dragged itself into cinemas in a limited release in August 2017, almost two years after it was first scheduled to appear; virtually no-one went to see it, and it was a critical disaster, with one writer memorably describing it as ‘a floral-scented fiasco that is so lifeless you can barely feel a pulse.’

The score for Tulip Fever is by Danny Elfman, who actually wrote it back in 2014, meaning that it pre-dates scores like Goosebumps, Alice Through the Looking Glass, The Girl on the Train, and the Fifty Shades movies. Ironically, considering just what a shambles the film turned out to be, the score is one of his loveliest in quite some time. It’s a highly classical work, very different from the more modern electronica-enhanced pieces he has been writing over the past couple of years, which plays as a sort of combination between the romantic lyricism of something like Sommersby, the orchestral minimalism of his Errol Morris documentary scores Standard Operating Procedure and The Unknown Known, and the European classicism of someone like Alexandre Desplat. It is arranged mostly for a full orchestra with emphasis on strings, piano, and light metallic chimes.

And, really, that’s all you need to know about the score. It adopts a fairly consistent tone throughout virtually the entire running length, and maintains a fairly consistent sound throughout too. Emotionally, it speaks of romance, longing, passion, but also frustration, and it’s to Elfman’s credit that he manages to weave all these emotions together to create a score which feels solid and whole. The main theme, “Sophia’s Theme,” dominates much of the actual melodic content of the score, and it’s a beauty, filled with rhapsodic piano writing, searching strings, occasionally quite turbulent orchestral percussion, and a hesitant, distant female voice to capture the soul of the woman at the center of the film’s love triangle.

Several other cues stand out as highlights. “Lost” has a forlornness to it that is quite powerful, in its quiet and intimate way. There’s a playful inquisitiveness to “Willem” in its pizzicato string writing and pseudo-classical pastiche woodwind lines. “The Unveiling” has more of a sense of dramatic urgency, with more vivacious solo violin writing and more prominent rhythmic writing for wooden percussion.

The two “Streets” cues have a touch of the renaissance to them through their inclusion of a classical guitar in the orchestrations, and are very pretty as a result (although the theme within them is distractingly similar to the old English folk song “Scarborough Fair”). Possibly the only outlier is “Nailed,” which for some reason offsets the orchestral lines with an exceptionally modern electronic rhythmic undercurrent, which is fine in and of itself, but sticks out like a sore thumb in this context.

“Devastation,” as the title suggests, is the score’s most serious cue, in which the orchestrations are given a darker hue through the use of a glass harmonica whine, restless rattled percussion, and more prominent brass; this type of writing continues on into the subsequent “The Orphanage.” Conversely, “Maria’s Theme” is an ocean of calm, featuring light, lyrical woodwind writing of great delicacy. “The Wait” revisits the solo female vocal again to excellent effect, and becomes quite strident and dramatic in its second half. “The Grand Finale,” as one would expect, presents the largest and most sweeping statement of the main theme, offering several moments of emotional catharsis.

If you had played this score to me back in the late 1980s and told me it had been written by the man behind Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice I would have laughed in your face, but there has been an astonishing progression in terms of Danny Elfman’s capacity to write rich classical music over the intervening 25 years or so, and Tulip Fever proves just what a superb, intelligent composer he has become over that time.

In terms of its relationship to other Danny Elfman scores throughout the years, Tulip Fever is a comparatively minor work, without the thematic prominence or memorability of his more famous scores to help it stand out from the crowd. Furthermore, it has the potential to get lost in that sea of ‘prestigious arthouse Euro-drama’ scores that often come out towards the end of the year, and for which composers like Alexandre Desplat and Jóhann Jóhannsson have received multitudes of Oscar nominations. Despite this, as regular readers of this site will know, I often find myself being drawn to ‘arthouse Euro-drama’ scores, and Tulip Fever is no exception. It’s probably my second favorite Elfman work since Alice in Wonderland, some seven years ago, surpassed only by The Unknown Known.

Buy the Tulip Fever soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Sophia’s Theme (3:51)
  • Lost (2:21)
  • Willem (0:44)
  • The Unveiling (2:49)
  • The Streets (0:50)
  • A Storm Is Coming (1:34)
  • Ultramarine (1:13)
  • Nailed (1:31)
  • The Reveal (1:37)
  • The Streets, Pt. 2 (1:56)
  • Devastation (3:51)
  • Maria’s Theme (0:57)
  • The Wait (3:28)
  • It’s Done (1:58)
  • The Orphanage (2:31)
  • The Grand Finale (6:41)
  • Happy Family (2:24)
  • Sophia’s Theme (Reprise) (2:32)

Running Time: 42 minutes 57 seconds

Sony Classical (2017)

Music composed by Danny Elfman. Conducted by Rick Wentworth. Orchestrations by Steve Bartek, Marc Mann, Edgardo Simone, David Slonaker and Edward Trybek Recorded and mixed by Peter Cobbin. Album produced by Danny Elfman.

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