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MIDNIGHT RUN – Danny Elfman


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Midnight Run was one of the best buddy action comedies of the 1980s, and was one of the first films to showcase the hitherto untapped comedy potential of the great dramatic actor Robert De Niro. De Niro plays Jack Walsh, a bounty hunter working for bail bondsman Eddie Moscone (Joe Pantoliano), who is hired to find mob accountant Jonathan Mardukas (Charles Grodin) in New York and bring him back to Los Angeles; Mardukas had embezzled $15 million from Chicago mob boss Jimmy Serrano (Dennis Farina) before skipping on the bail Moscone had posted for him. What initially appears to be an easy task – Mardukas is annoying but generally compliant – quickly turns into a nightmare when Serrano’s henchmen, FBI agent Alonso Mosley (Yaphet Kotto), and rival bounty hunter Marvin Dorfler (John Ashton) all converge on Walsh, wanting Mardukas for themselves. Thinking on his feet, Walsh finds himself taking Mardukas on an epic road trip, trying to stay one step ahead of his pursuers, while keeping ‘The Duke’ under control. The film was written by George Gallo and directed by Martin Brest, and was a critical and commercial success, with special praise being given to the chemistry between De Niro and Grodin.

The score for Midnight Run is by Danny Elfman, who in 1988 was still very much a rock musician dabbling in film music rather than a film composer; Oingo Boingo were still releasing popular albums, and Elfman’s film music repertoire still comprised mostly of quirky comedies such as Beetlejuice, Back to School, and the Pee-Wee Herman movies. As we all know, things would change in 1989 with the release of Batman, so in many ways Midnight Run is interesting as it finds Elfman on the cusp of greatness. Midnight Run is also interesting because, for anyone used to Elfman’s Gothic orchestral sound, this score’s stylings may come as a surprise – although, of course, considering Elfman’s background, this should not be the case at all. It’s a country rock and blues score, and Elfman’s instrumental ensemble comprises vibrant brass, guitars, electric bass, acoustic bass, drums (performed by Oingo Boingo’s John Hernandez), various other additional percussion items, piano and keyboards, an accordion, and a harmonica, backed by a moderately-sized string section.

Even at this early stage in his career, Elfman understood the value of themes, and Midnight Run contains several of them. The main theme, as introduced in the “Main Titles,” is one of my all time favorites from Elfman, just because it’s so different. It’s an effortlessly catchy, funky piece, infectious and upbeat, featuring some wonderful writing for a bank of trumpets, jazz piano, and electric bass. It has been pointed out to me that the actual melody is somewhat reminiscent of the classic Stevie Wonder song “Superstitious,” and this is true, but the resemblance is only fleeting, and what Elfman does with it more than makes up for any similarities. It appeara in several cues thereafter, notably in “Mobocopter” where the main theme is carried by a more prominent electric guitar, and in “Desert Run,” which begins with a deconstruction of the main theme rhythms backed by the string section, but gradually builds into an expansive statement with a hard southern rock flavor.

Robert De Niro’s character, Jack Walsh, gets a theme, first heard in the opening cue “Walsh Gets the Duke.” Walsh’s theme is a bluesy guitar piece with an extended drawl and a ton of surly attitude, perfectly encapsulating the world-weary no-bullshit persona of the character. Several subsequent cues feature Walsh’s theme prominently including “J.W. Gets a Plan,” which is a variation on the theme’s brusque twang augmented by bubbling slapped bass, jazz piano, and ticking percussion; “Drive to Red’s,” which is a fun, cool variation on the theme with a more melodic vibe; and the penultimate cue “The Longest Walk,” which reprises the theme almost verbatim. The theme for Charles Grodin’s character, The Duke, features prominently in two cues, “In the Next Life” and “Walsh Frees the Duke”. The Duke’s theme is a bluesy piece for piano and vibraphone, which comes across a little more sentimental and emotional than anything else in the score, and also makes the fullest use of the orchestra.

Other cues worth noting include “Dorfler’s Theme,” a languid comedy bluegrass piece for the schlubby, perennially disheveled, and unashamedly underhanded rival bounty hunter, which features an accordion/harmonica melody backed by piano, guitar, and drumkit. There’s what appears to be a rhythmic piano motif for Alonso Mosley at the end of “F.B.I.,” and there are a number of action cues that use the country rock arrangements to underscore the chase sequences, fight scenes, and narrow escapes. “Stairway Chase,” “Gears Spin I,” “Package Deal,” “Freight Train Hop,” “The River,” and “The Wild Ride” are all a ton of fun in this regard.

The album is rounded out by an original song, “Try to Believe,” which is officially credited to Mosley & The B-Men, but is actually a Danny Elfman original, and it subsequently appears on the 1990 Oingo Boingo album ‘Dark at the End of the Tunnel’. It’s a genuinely great song that riffs on the film’s main theme and features a Gospel backing vocal, and for my money it is one of the band’s most under-appreciated efforts of the period. I have always liked Elfman’s timbre as a rock vocalist, and when he was doing straight rock-and-roll, like he is here, he was as easily good as anyone of his generation.

The physical album for Midnight Run has long been out of print, but it appears to be available on most streaming platforms, and I heartily recommend it for anyone who has only ever really known his music post-Batman. No-one is ever going to place Midnight Run in the top pantheon of Danny Elfman’s works – it’s not even his best score of 1988 – but what I like about the score is that it reminds us who Elfman was before he was the king of the super heroes, the dark lord of gothic melodrama. This is Elfman cutting loose with his rock buddies, and having fun with a series of seriously impressive country-and-blues flavored instrumentals that happens to also double as good film music.

Buy the Midnight Run soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Walsh Gets the Duke (1:47)
  • Main Titles (2:21)
  • Stairway Chase (:54)
  • J.W. Gets a Plan (1:41)
  • Gears Spin I (:54)
  • Dorfler’s Theme (1:24)
  • F.B.I. (1:16)
  • Package Deal (1:07)
  • Mobocopter (2:42)
  • Freight Train Hop (1:18)
  • Drive to Red’s (1:04)
  • In the Next Life (1:06)
  • The River (1:19)
  • The Wild Ride (1:31)
  • Amarillo Dawn (:26)
  • Potato Walk (1:09)
  • Desert Run (1:09)
  • Diner Blues (1:19)
  • Dorfler’s Problem (1:01)
  • Gears Spin II (1:30)
  • The Confrontation (2:30)
  • The Longest Walk (1:32)
  • Walsh Frees the Duke (2:44)
  • End Credits: Try to Believe (written by Danny Elfman, performed by Mosley & The B-Men) (4:16)

Running Time: 38 minutes 00 seconds

MCA Records MCAD-6250 (1988)

Music composed by Danny Elfman. Orchestrations by Steve Bartek. Recorded and mixed by Dan Wallin and Bill Jackson. Edited by Bob Badami. Album produced byDanny Elfman.

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