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DARKMAN – Danny Elfman

September 3, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Having gained cult popularity and success as a result of his influential horror movies The Evil Dead and Evil Dead II, writer-director Sam Raimi was given his first crack at a major studio feature towards the end of the 1980s. The project he chose was Darkman, based on a short story he wrote years earlier as an homage to Universal’s horror films of the 1930s. The film stars Liam Neeson, in what was essentially his first leading role after spending the 1980s putting in impressive supporting performances in films such as Excalibur, Krull, The Bounty, The Mission, Suspect, The Dead Pool, and others. Neeson plays Peyton Westlake, a scientist who is developing a new type of synthetic skin to help burn victims. Westlake’s life is changed forever when his girlfriend, attorney Julie Hastings (Frances McDormand), finds incriminating evidence against corrupt property developer Louis Strack (Colin Friels). Strack hires ruthless mobster Durant (Larry Drake) to ‘send a message’ to Julie, which results in Westlake’s lab being burned to the ground and Westlake himself being disfigured and left for dead. However, Westlake miraculously survives the attack, and uses his synthetic skin treatment to treat his own injuries – the only drawback being the unintended side-effects, which give him super-human abilities, but also render him mentally unstable, borderline psychotic, and bent on wreaking vengeance on those responsible for his disfigurement.

The score for Darkman was by Danny Elfman, who by this point in 1990 was an old hand at super hero scores, having scored Batman in 1989 and Dick Tracy earlier in the year. It also marked the first collaboration between Elfman and director Raimi, who would later go on to work together on A Simple Plan in 1998, Spider-Man in 2002, Spider-Man 2 in 2004, and Oz the Great and Powerful in 2013. In the notes for his CD release ‘Music for a Darkened Theatre’ Elfman describes his score for Darkman as “old-fashioned and melodramatic, but in a way that I’m crazy about,” and says that Raimi “has a wonderful visual style that lends itself easily to music”. Elfman also commented on how “it was an enormous relief writing long, extended musical sequences, something which is very rare in modern films.”

In a nutshell, Darkman is a combination of the scores for Batman and Big Top Pee-Wee, mashed together as a Frankenstein musical score where huge Gothic themes, overbearing marches, and bombastic action, competes with raucous circus music and fairground madness and insanity. Unlike his one for the dark knight, Elfman’s main theme for Darkman is a little bit more of a slow burn, a repeated four note motif that lives down in the lower registers of the brass and woodwind sections. As heard in the “Main Title” it is often accompanied by chords on a church organ to give it a classic horror movie feel, swirling strings, and hooting clarinets, before it eventually morphs into a march, with rhythmic percussion patterns driving the theme along. Interestingly, the call-and-response nature of the theme (two sets of four notes, one for brass, one for low woodwinds) is intended to illustrate the duality of the main character – half Peyton, the brilliant scientist, and half Darkman, the demented and tortured vigilante.

The Darkman theme is everywhere throughout the score, anchoring it in place and giving it a clear identity. I have always felt that the Darkman theme is probably the weakest of Elfman’s main themes from this early period – it pales in comparison to things like Batman, Beetlejuice, Dick Tracy, and others, in terms of memorability and impact – but in context it certainly gives Peyton’s story an appropriate brooding, tragic quality. Interestingly, in “Rebuilding/Failure,” Elfman strips the theme down and allows it to become pensive and inquisitive, while in “Creating Pauley” Elfman introduces a rhythmic tick-tock idea under the theme, jumping between harps and bassoons, to speak to the concept of how Peyton’s synthetic skin treatment is unstable and deteriorates after 99 minutes, at which point ‘Peyton’ literally melts away and becomes Darkman once more.

Of course, action music plays a major role, and much of it can be described as ‘Batman-lite’. Cues such as “Woe, The Darkman… Woe” and the anarchic “Double Durante” adopt many of the stylistic mannerisms of the action music in that score, and are awash in melancholy brass fanfares, punchy and staccato string passages, swirling woodwind accents, bombastic percussion, and crescendos of great power and darkness. This is counterbalanced by moments of tragedy featuring the first hesitant performances of the love theme for Peyton and Julie, a mass of elegiac strings with a hint of Bernard Herrmann in the phrasing. Later cues, including the “Love Theme,” parts of “Julie Transforms,” the end of “The Plot Unfolds (Dancing Freak),” and especially the anguished lament in “Julie Discovers Darkman” paint their relationship as a doomed endeavor, as a solo violin version of the love theme gives the whole thing a tortured quality.

Speaking of tortured, the most bizarre portions of the score deal with Elfman’s musical depiction of Peyton’s increasing madness and mental instability, and it is here that the composer breaks all the barriers of taste and decorum and descends into a carnival of lunacy. “Rage/Peppy Science” features demented cackling voices within a rampaging orchestra, a bonkers flavor of some of the ideas he would return to later in The Nightmare Before Christmas, while the aforementioned “The Plot Unfolds (Dancing Freak)” and “Carnival from Hell” see Elfman really tapping into his inner little demon, and emerging with a truly bizarre twist on the circus/carnival sound he used so creatively in Beetlejuice and the Pee-Wee scores.

Steve Bartek and Shirley Walker’s orchestrations here are worth singling out for significant praise regarding their creativity; you never know what instrument is about to appear at any given moment, which is quite an exhilarating feeling, and the use of pianos, rattled percussion, church organs, and the entire brass section is especially excellent. The brief waltz at the end of “The Plot Unfolds (Dancing Freak)” is clearly a mirror of the cathedral scene at the end of Batman, and is actually surprisingly lovely. Meanwhile, the way in which Elfman continually injects intrusively dramatic, dissonant, twisted orchestral passages into the creepily upbeat calliope in “Carnival from Hell” is a clever way of showing the inner workings of a broken, paranoid mind.

The final action sequence, “High Steel,” underscores the film’s finale where Darkman fights Strack on the girders and scaffolding of one of his under-construction properties – with Julie hanging off it, in true damsel-in-distress fashion. This cue sees Elfman in full-on action mode, arranging the Darkman theme as a heroic fanfare, enveloping the action rhythms in huge roaring brass clusters and flutter-tongued horns, underpinning it all with impressive percussive might, and imbuing the whole with a sense of gothic grandeur and grand guignol. The terrific explosion of gallantry that begins at 3:04 accompanies Darkman as he swings through the air like a super hero on a crane cable, catching Julie as she falls, before swinging back to boot Strack in the chest and finally get his revenge by dropping him off the building. The “Finale/End Credits” offers a fantastic summary of the score’s main themes, beginning with a serious lament as Darkman slips on his ‘final shemp’ face and disappears into the crowd, and eventually offering several superb performances of the main theme to close.

This review is of the original 1990 album from MCA Records, which contained 40 minutes of Elfman’s score in a tight, easily digested package of highlights. In early 2020, to acknowledge the film’s 30th anniversary, those lovely folks at La-La Land Records put out an expanded 2-CD release of the soundtrack, including the full 76-minute score, and a digitally remastered version of the original release. The expanded album essentially offers a lot more of the same, including an interesting additional exploration of the love theme in “Persistence/Marry Me,” more howling vocal ideas in “Hospital,” a significant action sequence in “Yakitito/The Big Bang,” and a detached, brutalist musical identity for Strack in cues like “The Model” which does not appear prominently on the original album. The limited edition 3,000-unit album is produced by Mike Matessino and Neil S. Bulk, mastered by Matessino, and features exclusive liner notes by Daniel Schweiger alongside excellent (but occasionally somewhat gruesome) art direction by Dan Goldwasser.

As I said earlier, Darkman is on balance probably the weakest of Danny Elfman’s early super hero scores, but that doesn’t mean it’s a weak score overall – most scores would feel weak compared to Batman and Batman Returns. In fact, I like Darkman quite a lot, from the brooding main title to the surprisingly lovely romantic theme, to the mind-melting carnival sequences, and the impressively bombastic action finale. Anyone who fell in love with the dramatic, Gothic style that Danny Elfman embodied during the period of his career from Beetlejuice in 1988 through to things like The Frighteners in 1996 will find Darkman very much to their taste.

Buy the Darkman soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • ORIGINAL RELEASE
  • Main Titles (1:38)
  • Woe, The Darkman… Woe (6:09)
  • Rebuilding/Failure (3:15)
  • Love Theme (0:55)
  • Julie Transforms (1:10)
  • Rage/Peppy Science (1:36)
  • Cheating Pauley (3:19)
  • Double Durante (1:49)
  • The Plot Unfolds (Dancing Freak) (7:01)
  • Carnival from Hell (3:16)
  • Julie Discovers Darkman (1:58)
  • High Steel (4:18)
  • Finale/End Credits (3:39)
  • EXPANDED RELEASE
  • Intro/Three Fingers (2:56)
  • Snip, Snip, Snip (1:42)
  • Main Titles (1:41)
  • Peppy Science (1:19)
  • Persistence/Marry Me (0:42)
  • Love Theme (1:00)
  • The Model (1:41)
  • One Hundred Minutes/Peyton Gets Tromped (2:17)
  • Yakitito/The Big Bang (2:47)
  • Julie Transforms (1:17)
  • Hospital (0:39)
  • Rage (0:29)
  • Woe, The Darkman… Woe (6:17)
  • Rebuilding/Failure (3:24)
  • Waltz/Rage/First Blood (2:19)
  • Creating Pauley (3:25)
  • The Plot Unfolds (Dancing Freak) (6:25)
  • Finger Stinger (1:48)
  • False Durant (1:13)
  • Durant Stinger/Durant in Trouble (2:02)
  • Double Durant (1:54)
  • Carnival from Hell (4:06)
  • Julie Discovers Darkman (2:03)
  • Julie Stinger/City Stinger (0:59)
  • Peyton On the Run (2:09)
  • Darkman Stalks/Guzman’s Reveal (2:19)
  • Chopper Spree (1:18)
  • Shake Him (2:21)
  • Durant Bites It/Dead, Not Dead? (1:49)
  • High Steel (5:57)
  • Finale/End Credits (3:45)
  • Yakitito/The Big Bang (Alternate) (2:52) BONUS

Running Time: 40 minutes 09 seconds – Original
Running Time: 76 minutes 59 seconds – Expanded

MCA Records 9031-72793-2 (1990) – Original
La-La Land Records LLLCD-1503 (1990/2020) – Expanded

Music composed by Danny Elfman. Conducted by Shirley Walker. Orchestrations by Steve Bartek and Shirley Walker. Recorded and mixed by Robert Fernandez. Edited by Bob Badami. Score produced by Danny Elfman. Expanded album produced by Mike Matessino and Neil S. Bulk.

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