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DEATH BECOMES HER – Alan Silvestri


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Although it may not seem like it today, Death Becomes Her was once considered one of the most groundbreaking visual effects films in the history of cinema. Directed by Robert Zemeckis from a screenplay by David Koepp and Martin Donovan, it’s ostensibly a satire of Hollywood’s obsession with youth and glamour. Meryl Streep stars as Madeline Ashton, a narcissistic actress, who conspires to seduce and marry wealthy plastic surgeon Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis), the fiancé of her rival Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn). Years later, and with her career, her marriage, and her looks in ruins, Madeline is shocked to discover that Helen has retained her youthful appearance, and jealously resolves to discover her secret. Eventually, Madeline encounters Countess Lisle Von Rhuman (Isabella Rossellini), a mysterious and wealthy socialite who specializes in rejuvenation; Lisle gives Madeline a magic potion that promises eternal youth – but before long the more negative side effects of immortality begin to emerge.

The comedy of the story comes from the relentless bickering between Streep and Hawn, who are forever playing one-upmanship games for the attentions of the increasingly weary and disinterested Willis. Meanwhile, the groundbreaking special effects are all to do with the effects of the potion on Madeline and Helen’s bodies – it essentially renders them immortal, but not immune to the physical effects of things that would usually kill someone, meaning that Madeline can survive her neck being twisted so that her head is backwards, while Helen can survive a gaping gunshot where her abdomen used to be. The film represented a major advancement in the use of computer-generated imagery, a won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects in 1992, even if some of it looks rather quaint and hokey by today’s standards.

The score for Death Becomes Her is by Alan Silvestri, and was the sixth career collaboration between himself and director Zemeckis, after Romancing the Stone, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and the Back to the Future trilogy. Silvestri’s inspiration for the music is from classic Hollywood, with an especially healthy dose of Bernard Herrmann, combined with references to the classical repertoire of both Camille Saint-Saëns and Charles Gounod as popularized by Alfred Hitchcock. Everything springs from the score’s main theme which is introduced right at the outset of the “Main Title,” a deliciously dark combination of Psycho-style strings and Danse Macabre scratchy violins, which eventually melt away into a piece of languid Hollywood jazz similar to the tone of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, full of sweet clarinets, muted brasses, and sparkling strings. Unfortunately, this jazz idea doesn’t recur at any point in the rest of the score, but it’s a fun interlude all the same.

The second cue, “Woman on the Verge,” introduces the score’s other main recurring element, a whirling, sweeping, intentionally melodramatic six-note motif for the ‘magic’ element of the story, which sees Silvestri’s imposing string orchestra surrounded by harp glissandi and glittering chimes. Some of the chord progressions and tone clusters here are vintage Silvestri – there are echoes of Back to the Future and even Predator in some of the writing, especially the classic Silvestri punchy two-note rhythmic devices, while other cues foreshadow things like Judge Dredd and The Witches . It’s all wonderfully old-fashioned and bombastic, and adds a larger scope and sense of magical power that belies the screenplay’s more comic sensibilities.

A more sinister string motif for “Lisle” herself appears in her titular cue, and then later cues like “A Touch of Magic,” “Now, A Warning,” and the bold and stirring “Sempre Viva” build on this with decadent, opulent results, and often sees the Magic motif and Lisle’s theme in rich, dark combinations amid a series of robust orchestral tones. All of this underscores the sequence where Madeline visits Lisle at her Hollywood mansion, which reeks of old money and faded grandeur, and makes the decision to drink the potion and seal her fate. This music is actually much more serious than the film itself, but this juxtaposition of stirring music against the comedy makes the whole thing funnier in context.

These two styles essentially dominate most of the rest of the score, combining in interesting ways and cleverly playing off each other. The chicken-scratch main theme comes back prominently towards the end of “Sempre Viva,” and then later in “It’s Alive,” “Helen Spies,” and “Another Miracle,” while “Another Drunk Driver,” “Helen Spies,” and “Loving You” all return to the magic motif in a more ominous way, often replacing the strings with moodier circular woodwind textures and an incessant but almost subliminal percussive beat.

Elsewhere, “Hurry Up, You Wimp” and “It’s Alive” come close to horror movie music territory, both containing a series of flamboyant string flourishes juxtaposed against dark brass outbursts to illustrate the revelation and terrible consequences of what Madeleine and Helen have done to themselves. Silvestri often underpins the rest of the orchestra with clattering piano clusters to really hammer this home. As I mentioned earlier, “Loving You” builds to a quite impressive and powerful finale, underscoring the life-changing decision Ernest makes when faced with a future of doing nothing but care for the increasingly unhinged and damaged Madeline and Helen.

The conclusive “I’d Rather Die” underscores the film’s climactic sequence in which Madeline and Helen chase Ernest over the rooftop of Lisle’s mansion, desperately trying to stop him from escaping with the last of their potion. There’s some seriously impressive classic Silvestri action music here, all of which is imbued with references to the main theme and the magic motif, and which builds to a thunderous finale. The six-minute “End Credits” offers a tidy summation of the score’s main elements, running through statements of the main theme, the magic motif, and Lisle’s theme with great power and flamboyance, before finishing with a ostentatious flourish.

One other cue is included on the soundtrack – a fantastic parody song called “Me,” written by Geoffrey Aymar with lyrics by screenwriters Martin Donovan and David Koepp, and which is performed with un-self-conscious gusto by Meryl Streep in character as Madeleine. It’s a wonderfully vain, self-indulgent song that starts as a piano ballad but eventually becomes a Broadway showstopper, incorporating elements from burlesque, funk, and disco along the way. Whoop whoop! It’s designed to be silly – and it is – but it has an infectious hook, and the lyrics are wonderfully conceited, a perfect representation of Madeleine’s toxic personality.

The album for Death Becomes Her is very short, just 32 minutes if you discount the song, and as such is a prime candidate for a specialty expansion. In the meantime, this remains a fun, easily enjoyable Alan Silvestri tidbit. The recurring main themes are memorable and catchy, the action and suspense music is compelling, and the whole thing is a fun, delightfully macabre tribute to Bernard Herrmann and the over-the-top sound of classic Hollywood melodrama.

Buy the Death Becomes Her soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (1:36)
  • Me (written by Geoffrey Aymar, Martin Donovan, and David Koepp, performed by Meryl Streep) (2:55)
  • Woman on the Verge (1:01)
  • Lisle (1:04)
  • A Touch of Magic (2:18)
  • Now, A Warning (0:49)
  • Sempre Viva (1:47)
  • Another Drunk Driver (2:10)
  • Hurry Up, You Wimp (1:59)
  • It’s Alive (2:43)
  • Helen Spies (2:03)
  • Another Miracle (2:26)
  • I’ll Be Upstairs (0:43)
  • Loving You (3:12)
  • I’d Rather Die (2:43)
  • End Credits (5:46)

Running Time: 35 minutes 53 seconds

Varèse Sarabande VSD-5375 (1992)

Music composed and conducted by Alan Silvestri. Orchestrations by William Ross. Recorded and mixed by Dennis Sands. Edited by Kenneth Karman. Album produced by Alan Silvestri.

  1. chloetalksfilm
    July 23, 2022 at 4:22 pm

    Hilarious movie! One of my favorite comedy films of all time!

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