Home > Greatest Scores of the Twentieth Century, Reviews > EDWARD SCISSORHANDS – Danny Elfman


January 14, 2019 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Craig Lysy

Director Tim Burton related that, as a teenager growing up in Burbank California, he felt estranged, isolated and misunderstood. A drawing by him of a solemn man bearing long sharp blades spoke to his inability to form and retain friends. The drawing served as inspiration for his film Edward Scissorhands, where he sought to explore a young man dealing with feelings of isolation and self-discovery. After reading First Born, a 1983 novelette by Caroline Thompson, he was sufficiently impressed to hire her to write the screenplay for the film. Burton and her sought inspiration from the classic monster movies of the past including The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Phantom of the Opera, and Frankenstein, as well traditional fairy tales. The project was very personal to Burton, and Thompson relates she wrote the screenplay as a love poem to the director. 20th Century Fox acquired the film rights, and given Burton’s stunning commercial success with Batman in 1989, gave him complete creative control. He assembled a fine cast, including Johnny Depp for the titular role. Joining him would be Winona Ryder as Kim Boggs, Dianne Wiest as Peg Boggs, Anthony Michael Hall as Jim, Kathy Baker as Joyce, Robert Oliveri as Kevin Boggs, Alan Arkin as Bill Boggs, O-Lan Jones as Esmeralda, and Vincent Price in his final screen role as Edward’s creator.

For our story, Burton eaves a modern fairytale and takes us on a magical journey, which follows the life of Edward, an artificially created human. His creator, the inventor, constructs him, schools him as a son, yet tragically dies before completing Edward’s last phase of construction, which was to replace his scissor hands with real human hands. It comes to pass that Peg Boggs, an Avon door-to-door saleswoman, discovers Edward in his foreboding gothic mansion. She befriends him, and takes him home to meet her family. He bonds with the family, the community, and especially daughter Kim, which arouses the jealousy of her boyfriend Jim. Eventually jealousy spawns conflicts, which force Edward to flee from the community. Unwilling to let things go, Jim attacks Edward in his mansion and is killed. Kim realizes that love is not enough, kisses him goodbye, confessing her love as she departs. She safeguards his future by providing an alibi to the police and neighbors. Edward thereafter lives out his days in isolation as Kim, now a grandmother tells his story to her granddaughter. The film was an impressive commercial success, earning $86 million, or four times its production cost. Critical reception was good, but the film received only one Academy Award nomination for Best Makeup. Despite this, both Tim Burton and Danny Elfman consider the film their most personal and favorite collaboration.

Although Burton had collaborated with Danny Elfman on three prior films, including the stunningly successful Batman his initial choice for composer was English singer-songwriter and musician Robert Smith of The Cure. Smith, who was busy recording his new album “Disintegration,” declined the offer, leading Burton to offer the assignment to Elfman. Upon reviewing the film Elfman understood that this was a magical fairytale with a unique and very special soul, an innocent to which his music would need to speak. To create the fairy tale wonder, magic and mystery that was Edward, he infused his gossamer like music with a delicacy and etherealness born by boys and women’s choruses, celeste, piano, metallic percussion, and harp. Once Edward joins the suburban community, Elfman speaks to his quirkiness and scissor trimming talents with exotic Spanish auras and rhythms, replete with castanets.

The score is underpinned by two primary themes and a motif. The Main Theme serves as Edward’s identity, and speaks of his innocence, feelings of isolation, and quest for self-discovery. It emotes as a gossamer-like valser delicato carried by celeste, chorus and pizzicato strings. In a masterstroke of conception, Elfman with this theme captured the emotional core of Edward. The second theme is dichotomous in that it offers a Love Theme that speaks of Kim’s feeling for Edward, yet for me it is also the Story-telling Theme, which supports the tale of Edward, and well as his personal quest for self-actualization, of finding his place in the world. This theme, so full of yearning, is in my judgment perhaps the finest in his canon. What is instructive is how Elfman subtly informs us that Kim and Edward’s love will never be consummated. For all statements except that of the “Grand Finale”, the melody never finds resolution, instead ending on one aching note, so full of longing. When the theme is finally unleashed, empowered by full chorus, its articulation achieves the sublime, offering a breath taking statement which overcome us, eliciting a quiver and a tear. The Suburbia Motif is effusive quirkiness at its finest. Carried by saxophone and propelled by highly rhythmic prancing energy this motif speaks to the faux veneer of pleasant normality of suburban housewives that belies the dysfunction and unfulfillment within.

“Introduction” is a score highlight where Elfman brilliantly sets the tone of the film, and in a masterstroke of conception and execution, captures its emotional core. Elfman introduces his Main Theme, which is rendered fully and supports the flow of the opening credits. The music is carried by celeste with gossamer like delicacy against the flow of gothic castle imagery, and a parade of children’s toys and playthings. We close with snow-flurried images of the Inventor, and what Edward covets most – human hands. The ethereal wordless chorus creates a sense of wonderment, mystery and otherworldliness, a realm unknown, hidden and separate from humanity. For me this cue offers one of the finest film openings in Elfman’s canon and cinematic history. “Storytime” offers a score highlight, which graces us with the magic and wonder of the Story-telling Theme. The film opens with Kim gazing out a window through falling snow, at a distant hilltop mansion. Her granddaughter begs her to tell her a bedtime story, and Kim relents and begins to tell the tale. She relates that long ago an old man called the Inventor created a son, but died before he could complete his assemble, leaving him with scissors for hands instead of real human hands. When asked what was his name, Kim replied, Edward. As she tells the tale the Story-telling Theme unfolds atop twinkling celeste, joined warmly with strings tenero and woodwinds delicato. We are carried gently and effortlessly like a leaf atop a flowing stream. A transfer of the melody to ethereal wordless chorus empowers the theme’s articulation and carries us outwards, through the snow swept skies aloft to the distant mansion. We partake in a magical journey filled with mystery and wonder, which ends abruptly without resolution as we gaze through one of the mansion’s open windows.

“Castle on the Hill” offers the score’s longest and most complex cue where Elfman must speak to a broad spectrum of emotions. Peg, an Avon door-to-door saleswoman is having a bad day. She happens to glance at the gothic mansion in the distance and decides to make a calling. A harp rendered mysterioso carries her progress. Fragmentary phrases of the Main Theme, which never coalesce, sow unease as she drives through the broken gate and up the overgrown driveway. Orchestral auras kindred to the Main Theme, replete with tolling bells support her arrival. As Peg walks through the fence and enters a garden sanctuary at 1:37, the music softens atop celeste, violins and boys choir, evoking a sense of wonderment, as she observes countless beautifully sculpted bushes and manicured flower gardens. At 1:39, a nascent fragment of the Story-telling Theme alludes to Edward’s discovery. At 2:02 we transition to a mysterioso after a fleeting glance of Edward looking through a window, and Peg walking to the front door. As she knocks and then enters the castle at 2:23 the mysterioso darkens and becomes eerie as she enters the dimly lit and decrepit main hall with its grotesque cobweb draped statuary. The mysterioso is sustained at 4:01 with a violin ascent that joins with a fragment of the Main Theme to carry her up the long main stairway to the second floor. At 4:29 the music softens and becomes tender as she comes across a straw mattress bed in the hearth that is decorated with old magazine photos and mementos. She turns to observe a figure in the shadows at 5:15 and the music darkens, becoming more threatening as Edward emerges from the shadows bearing sharp scissors for hands. Peg is fearful, yet overcomes this to greet him. We end with auras of uncertainty as she soothes him, befriends him and resolves to take him home with her.

In “Beautiful New World” Peg is driving Edward back to her home supported by happy, bright, and carefree travel music with and incredible lightness of being. The music speaks to the sense of wonderment we see in Edward’s eyes. At 0:31 we segue into “Home Sweet Home” atop refulgent violins and kindred strings tenero with harp adornment, as Edward observes her family photos on the mantle. As he gazes on a photo of Kim, his eyes are captured by her beauty, which Elfman supports with a tender rendering of the Love Theme. “Esmeralda” was dialed out of the film. Elfman conceived a grim statement by pizzicato strings and accordion to inform us of her insufferable sanctimonious animus. “Ballet de Suburbia” offers Elfman quirkiness at its finest. It reveals the neighborhood housewives assembled on the street gossiping about the man Peg brought home. Elfman weaves a comic prancing piece carried by sax, piano, pizzicato strings, trilling woodwinds and muted trumpets, which speaks to the ridiculousness of the moment. At 0:32 we have an accelerando as the women run back to their homes to greet the arrival of their husbands, which are all coming home at the same time! “The Cookie Factory” features one of the score’s more quirky and creative cues. Edward has a flashback as Peg uses an automatic can opener. We see a bizarre mechanized conveyor belt with robotics mixing cookie dough in the mansion as the Inventor watches with glee. Elfman takes us on a quirky tuba propelled ostinato with woodwinds animato that mimics the mechanistic movement of the conveyor belt. The Main Theme enters on horns draped with choir as the cookie dough enters the oven. At 1:50 the music softens on oboe delicato, celeste and boys choir as the Inventor take a heart shaped cookie and places it over the chest of an inanimate robot. We close with a warm rendering of the Story-telling Theme, an allusion of the inventor’s planned creation.

“Etiquette Lesson” reveals Edward in bed having a flashback to the Inventor educating him on proper etiquette. We see images of the Inventor’s design schematics for Edward as he reads to him from first the etiquette book, and then a collection of poems. Elfman supports the scene with a tender and heartfelt rendering of the Main Theme, which speaks to the genuine father son affection felt by the Inventor. In “Edwardo the Barber” we are treated to one of the score’s most creative and fun cues. The neighborhood discovers that not only can Edward sculpt plants, but also dogs! They bring their dogs for his unique talents and one by one they are transformed. Elfman animates and propels the scene with a spirited horns and bubbling woodwinds animato. At 1:00 we shift to a faux Argentine Tango, replete with castanets as Joyce insists that Edward cut and style her hair. As he begins an accelerando is unleashed on frenetic strings and accordion, which race with an almost manic energy. As other women take their turn, the Tango returns, informing us of their ecstasy as his scissors unleash their transformative magic. We close at 2:55 on lush strings, tender and full of affection as Peg sits down for her styling, closing with a sweet flourish. “Ice Dance” offers one of the score’s supremely beautiful highlights. As the Peg prepares the tree for their annual Christmas party, Kim walks out to the front yard and discovers it is snowing! Edward is sculpting a massive ice angel and the shavings sweep upwards and descend as snowflakes. The moment is rapturous for Kim, and Elfman creates a perfect synergy of film and music with a magical rendering of the Love Theme, which abounds with wonder. The melodic flow is severed when Edward in dismounting the ladder accidentally cuts Kim’s hand, which results in a bullying push back by Jim.

“The Tide Turns” supports multiple scenes, which are not connected sequentially. We begin with Jim duping Edward into breaking into his father’s sound studio so he can steal the system and sell it for profit. We open with the house break-in where Edward unlocks the front door. Elfman provides suspense texturally and rhythmically with pizzicato strings, chattering xylophone and staccato horns. At 0:20 a harsh string ostinato begins churning with growling horns and fierce percussion as the alarm sounds. Jim and friends flee as the trapped Edward frantically tries to open the locked door. The police arrive at 1:22 and a plaintive, and increasingly stressed variant of the Main Theme plays as Edward walks out and is ordered by the police to drop his weapons or be shot. Fortunately he is saved by the neighbors who convince the police to hold their fire. Later in the film at 2:10 Kevin is walking home as a drunken Jim and his friends drive the van in search of Edward. A low register string sustain portends danger as the swerving van heads down the street. We build slowly on a dark crescendo as the van heads for Kevin. Edward leaps to push to safety, but in the aftermath accidentally cuts Kevin’s face, which is misinterpreted by Jim and the neighbors. Elfman supports the drama with a tortured diminuendo of pain, which reflects Edward’s distraught and the neighbor’s collective anger. At 4:07 horns brutale and fierce drums propel Jim who jumps on Edward and begins bashing him against the ground. As Edward slashes Jim’s arm the police arrive. Kim tells him to run home and a chorus, full of anguish carries him home to safety.

“Death!” support s a multi-scenic cue full of pathos and heartache, which offers for me the score’s most emotional cue. Edward returns home and Kim and he embrace, their unspoken love at last set free. Elfman supports the moment with a stirring, full romantic rendering of the Love Theme. At 1:17 Edward hesitates in his embrace and we flash back to a Christmas long ago where the Inventor presents Edward with a Christmas present, his new hands. The Story-telling Theme unfolds full of joy and wonderment to support the tender moment. Yet the music darkens and descends into heartache as we see life depart from the Inventor’s eyes, as he drops dead. The broken hands lay on the floor and as Edward caresses his father, he slices his face. We close again in the moment with Edward and Kim and see in his eyes the realization that he could never hold and embrace her safely. In “The Final Confrontation” the neighbors have descended into an angry mob, seek vengeance and storm the gates of the mansion, where Edward has fled. Grim low register horns and drums bellicoso drive their anger. A flurry of harp glissandi carries us to Kim, who is racing to Edward ahead of the mob. The Love Theme struggles to emerge, yet fails as a wounded chorus carries her progress. An orchestral ascent carries he up the grand staircase to him. At 0:57 the music softens as she finds him sitting on his bed and the Love Theme unfolds, yet it never blossoms as its articulation is violently severed at 1:33 by a timpani roll as Jim opens fire with a pistol, and then begins to beat Edward savagely with an metal post. Orchestral mayhem supports the brutality until at 2:03 Edward fatally stabs Jim. As he falls to his death tympani resound and portend his doom, culminating with tolling bells and chorus, which mark his death.

“Farewell…” offers the aftermath of Jim’s death as Kim and Edward realize they must be forever apart. As she kisses him and declares her love, he bids her a sad farewell. A final reprise of the Love Theme carries the heartache of the moment, never resolving as she flees below to confront the mob. Plaintive and tortured flight music carries her progress. She picks up a long discarded scissorhand and convinces the mob that Edward is dead. We end with unbearable sadness – a grim diminuendo crowned with a bell toll. “The Grand Finale” offers the score’s crowning moment where it achieves its emotional apogee, a testament to Elfman’s mastery of his craft. We return to where it all began in the bedroom where Kim relates to her grandchild that she never saw Edward again. When asked why she does not visit him now, she states that she wants him to remember her as she was in her youth. When asked how she knows he is still alive, Kim answers, because it snows. As we see Edward ice sculpting in the attic, the wind captures the flakes and bathes the land with snow. To support the heartfelt moment, Elfman graces us with a breath taking, resplendent full rendering of the Love Theme with all its wonder and magic. The music carries us into the End Credits, where it transitions seamlessly into “The End”, which completes the roll of the credits. The credits roll is supported by a reprise of the Main Theme, a mysterioso bridge passage, that concludes with a last refrain of the Love Theme.

This review used the original 1990 soundtrack release, which I believe contains the score’s essential and finest cues. Elfman’s early career canon often featured creative writing, which embraced innovation, quirkiness, and the unconventional. This score, more than any other in his canon revealed his gift to weave both quirky and thematic writing into a cogent, well-conceived and integrated score. This film offered the road less traveled, and in my judgment, Burton’s vision was fully realized because of Elfman’s brilliant conception, which in a masterstroke captured the film’s emotional core. Elfman’s score brought the fairytale of Edward to life anchored by two extraordinary themes. He created the magic, the child-like wonderment and empathy required of the film’s narrative. Also masterful is how Elfman captured the oddities, auras and quirkiness of Burton’s suburban vision. This score is in my judgment the best effort in Elfman’s canon, a Bronze Age gem and one of the finest in the fairytale genre. I highly recommend its purchase as an essential score for your collection.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a Youtube link to the score’s finest cue – the Grand Finale: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pIhh-iVsTgE

Buy the Edward Scissorhands soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Introduction (Titles) (2:36)
  • Storytime (2:35)
  • Castle on the Hill (6:25)
  • Beautiful New World/Home Sweet Home (2:05)
  • The Cookie Factory (2:14)
  • Ballet de Suburbia (Suite) (4:17)
  • Ice Dance (1:45)
  • Etiquette Lesson (1:38)
  • Edward the Barber (3:19)
  • Esmeralda (0:27)
  • Death! (3:29)
  • The Tide Turns (Suite) (5:31)
  • The Final Confrontation (2:17)
  • Farewell… (2:46)
  • The Grand Finale (3:26)
  • The End (4:47)
  • With These Hands (written by Abner Silver and Benny Davis, performed by Tom Jones) (2:43)

Running Time: 52 minutes 20 seconds

MCA Records MCAD-10133 (1990)

Music composed by Danny Elfman. Conducted by Shirley Walker. Orchestrations by Steve Bartek. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Bob Badami. Album produced by Danny Elfman.

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