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SOMMERSBY – Danny Elfman


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Sommersby is an English-language adaptation of the 1982 French film Le Retour de Martin Guerre, which was itself based on a real-life event that happened in the 16th century. The film was written by Nicholas Meyer, Sarah Kernochan, and Anthony Shaffer, and was directed by Jon Amiel; it transposes the story from medieval France to post-Civil War Tennessee, and stars Richard Gere as Jack Sommersby, a man who returns home from the conflict, six years after he was presumed dead. Jack’s ‘widow’ Laurel (Jodie Foster) has already moved on, and is planning to marry farmer Orin Meacham (Bill Pullman), but Jack’s return home throws her life into turmoil – not least because Jack appears to be a changed man, and is no longer the unpleasant and abusive husband he was when he left. As time goes on, Jack proves to be a hugely positive force for the community, and Laurel begins to fall in love with him again, but something in the back of her mind keeps nagging at her, and she has doubts as to whether the new and improved Jack really is who he says he is – doubts which become stronger when men from Jack’s past appear, and accuse him of murder.

Sommersby is an excellent film – one part romance, one part courtroom drama, one part exploration of identity and existentialism – with some added issues relating to racism and life in post-Civil War America. It’s anchored by two outstanding performances by Richard Gere and Jodie Foster, with Gere especially giving what I personally believe is the best, most nuanced, and most sympathetic performance of his career. The supporting cast is excellent too, especially James Earl Jones as a black judge who has to fight for respect in an all-white southern town, and the attention to authentic period detail from the creative crew is excellent. The film was popular at the box office at the time, and received generally positive reviews from critics, but in my opinion was somewhat unfairly overlooked in the end of season awards.

One of the elements that should have been in the conversation for awards is the score, which was written by Danny Elfman. Sommersby came right in the middle of what I consider to be the best period of Elfman’s career – it was immediately preceded by masterpiece scores like Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, and Batman Returns, and would be followed by other such outstanding works as The Nightmare Before Christmas and Black Beauty. It marked the only collaboration between Elfman and director Jon Amiel (whose subsequent regular composer would be Christopher Young) – but what a score! It sees Elfman reaching down into his familiar bag of musical tricks and emerging with a score that combines a sense of dark, yearning, romantic beauty with influences from classic Americana and Civil War folk music that is just outstanding.

The score is performed by a full orchestra, with special focus on solo performances for fiddle, guitar, and other country instruments, and weaves several recurring thematic ideas into its narrative. The central theme, presented in full in the “Main Titles,” remains a career high for the composer; it is rich and powerful, underpinned with tragedy, but also gloriously melodic in a way that immediately transports you to a place in time. The theme is mostly carried by alternating statements for strings and brass, but the depth of the orchestration of the theme is what sets it apart – the bold, warm horn countermelody could have come directly from a John Barry western and is just beautiful, while the ethnic flute trills will be familiar to many movie-goers as they subsequently became the logo music for Arnon Milchan’s Regency Enterprises production company well into the 2010s.

This undulating main theme anchors much of the score’s most dramatic moments, but Elfman intelligently offers enough subtle and tonal variations of it that it never wears out its welcome or becomes repetitive. Subsequent standout performances include the one at the end of the “Return Montage,” the more eerie and slightly anguished version in “Mortal Sin” (which takes some of its textural ideas, including the slithering string figures, from the darker parts of Batman), and the wonderfully dynamic and exciting “Going to Nashville,” which blends the ravishing brass performances with strident, powerful, slashing strings. Malcolm McNab’s solo trumpet performances in this cue are also notably outstanding. I also like the gently sorrowful, poignant version for guitar and ethnic woodwinds that runs through a lot of “Townsend’s Tale,” as the tragic backstory of Jack’s past is revealed, and devastating truths are uncovered.

A lilting secondary theme that represents the rekindling of the relationship between Jack and Laurel is also introduced in the “Main Titles,” but it is more prominent in later cues, including the pretty and delicate “First Love,” the gorgeous guitar-heavy “Return Montage,” the bold and majestic “Baby,” and at the outset of the heartbreakingly poignant “Death,” but more on that later. Even Elfman’s more muted pieces of underscore – cues like “The Homecoming,” or “Alone,” or “Homer”– are beautifully tonal and appealing when they could have easily been anonymous, and contain lovely, lush details in the orchestration that maintain the interest.

The Americana-flavored pieces, which tend to underscore the industrious scenes of life in Vine Hill, Tennessee, blend the orchestra with excellent solo performances for George Doering’s acoustic guitars, plus fiddles, harmonicas, pan flutes, and other specialty instruments, and create an evocative mood. There are clear influences from Civil War-era folk music, plus the more contemporary western writing of composers like Aaron Copland, but it’s all framed through Elfman’s maturing compositional sensibility. Cues like “Welcoming,” the dynamic and spirited “At Work,” parts of the “Return Montage,” parts of “Baby,” and the opening moments of the ”End Credits” are just superb, lively and effervescent, and when Elfman places fragments of one or more the main themes into this vibrant setting, the effect is excellent. Elfman has never explored this rich, folksy Americana style enough in his career in my opinion, which is a shame as he is so good at it.

The final three cues – “Death,” “Finale,” and “End Credits” – represent, for me, one of the standout musical sequences of Elfman’s entire career, almost 10 minutes of rich, glorious, darkly romantic melodrama. It’s been thirty years, and spoilers are moot at this point, so I think it’s fine to reveal what happens. Sommersby is convicted of murder, and the judge reluctantly sentences him to hang, but tells him that he would be spared the gallows if he reveals his true identity as someone other than Jack Sommersby. However, Jack refuses to do so, saying that the good he has done as ‘Jack’ – and the love he has earned from Laurel – would be for nothing if he simply reverted to his old name and his old ways. “Death” blends statements of the main theme with Jack & Laurel’s love theme as he is led up the stairs to the noose; there are imposing percussion throbs as he desperately looks for Laurel in the crowd, begging the hangman to wait, and as he does so Elfman’s music rises in intensity, searching, yearning, pleading.

Eventually, in the “Finale,” Jack sees Laurel and they lock eyes; comforted by her presence, Laurel’s loving face is the last thing he sees as the hangman drops a hood over his eyes and then, at the 0:24 mark, releases the trapdoor and he falls to his death. Elfman scores this devastating scene with the most beautifully anguished performance of the main theme – a mass of searching, soaring, cascading strings and the most gorgeous of horn countermelodies – and then segues into the film’s coda, which shows the result of all the positive changes Jack brought to his town, and shows Laurel with the child that Jack didn’t live to see born. The main theme, and Jack & Laurel’s love theme, resound again with sumptuous, lyrical beauty. This is Elfman at his very best, writing in a style I adore.

As good as Danny Elfman’s more recent dramatic work has been – and he has written some outstanding stuff – I have to admit that I greatly miss the overtly emotional, unreservedly lyrical style that he often adopted in the early 1990s, and that he specifically brought to Sommersby. This was a real departure for him at the time, and despite him having already worked his magic on his Batman scores and things like Edward Scissorhands, the fact that he had this level of drama and pathos and emotional depth was still somewhat surprising to those who still only knew him for his quirky comedies or from his Oingo Boingo rock band days.

Sommersby is a truly magnificent score and, for me, remains one of Elfman’s career best. The beautiful themes, the deeply moving orchestral performances, the rich vein of traditional Americana, the intelligent dramatic subtlety of the smaller scenes, and the soaring tragedy of the finale, are all worthy of significant praise. As Elfman himself once wrote about his own score: “muy romantico, but the kind of romance I love so dearly… slow and dark, with a hero hung by his neck at the end… joy!”

Buy the Sommersby soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Titles (4:41)
  • The Homecoming (1:58)
  • Welcoming (1:35)
  • First Love (3:55)
  • At Work (2:01)
  • Alone (4:22)
  • Return Montage (5:19)
  • Mortal Sin (4:38)
  • Homer (1:07)
  • Going to Nashville (1:43)
  • Baby (2:15)
  • Tea Cups (1:44)
  • Townsend’s Tale (6:09)
  • Death (2:12)
  • Finale (4:04)
  • End Credits (3:16)

Running Time: 50 minutes 59 seconds

Elektra 7559-61491-2 (1993)

Music composed by Danny Elfman. Conducted by Jonathan Sheffer. Orchestrations by Steve Bartek, Philip Giffin and Thomas Pasatieri. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Bob Badami and Ellen Segal. Album produced by Danny Elfman.

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