Score Profile and Review

Reviews - Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Review by Blue Sky

My first thoughts upon hearing that Tim Burton and Danny Elfman were tackling a new adaptation of Roald Dahl's novel were ones of complete joy. I couldn't think of a better pair more suited to Dahl's own dark kookiness. Then, as the months passed and the first shots from the film leaked, I grew despondant and disheartened. That was the trouble; it was all too perfect for them. It wasn't going to be anything special; it was just going to be another film where Burton-does-Burton, and Elfman-does-Elfman. It wasn't going to be anything new or special or different or anything to get excited about.
And in many ways I was right. And in many ways I was completely wrong.
Talk about the original 1971 film with any person and they will invariably break out into one of the repetitive (but instantly memorable, if only because it gets sung fifty-gazillion times) Oompa Loompa songs. You'd be forgiven for thinking that Elfman would come up with something equally kooky in A Nightmare Before Christmas styled mould. "Well, I guess they'll be fun," I said to myself, "even if they're nothing particularly special." But who knew that they would turn out to be such a surprise?
'Wonka's Welcome Song' perked my interest on first hearing it in the - now infamous - teaser trailer (the one which caused my former housemate to come bounding shrieking down the steps, burst into the living room and demanding to know 'what the **** has Burton done now!!!'). A delightful song which defiantly crosses the border into a deliberately cringeworthy grating clichéd mess of synthesised fairground oompahing and smurftastic cries of exultation, it is by no means as musically interesting (or hilarious) as the main Oompa Loompa songs, but remains nevertheless a joyous curiousity designed to instantly seperate those people with a love of ironical cheese to those who clamp up like a prawn, sink down into their seats, and try to pretend they only came to see the film because of their small child (regardless of whether they actually own a small child or not).
'Augustus Gloop' (the first song, not the character) seems to tease the audience by starting with a single lined rhythmic cry of "Oompa Loompa!"; a direct hark back to the pieces in the original film. All seems well and good and back to normal so far in these first few seconds, but watch the look on a first-time-listener's face as each new element of the song falls into place one by one, from the over-the-top African tribal chanting and beat, to the seventies rock and strings, and - finally - the ska-esque horns, all complete with the monstrously tweaked multi-layered vocals of Elfman himself, the deranged likes of which we've only previously been privvy to in the original demo recording of 'This Is Halloween' (available on MFADT2).
And if you think that that's the funniest thing you've ever heard, wait until 'Violet Beauregard', which I can only describe as being an industrial-dance-sampled-techno-funk-jazz-R'n'B mini masterpiece. My life is now split into two; before and after I heard this song. And if someone knows how to get "chewing, chewing, all day long" out of my brain it would be much appreciated.
'Veruca Salt' is possibly the only song which Elfman explicitly uses the content (rather than the rhythms) of Dahl's lyrics to full comedic potential, with the disturbing and icky descriptions of the rotten and foul substances Veruca and her father will encounter on their journey down the chute juxtaposed humourously with the gentle and beautiful 70's styled ballad which contains echoes of Mike Oldfield, Paul McCartney, and Art and Garfunkel. This song in particular makes you fully appreciate the spot-on vocal work he delivers, which nails the breathy lilt required for the style perfectly.
It is only in the final song - 'Mike Teevee' that Elfman seems to flounder slightly, though admittedly his all-out pastiché of Queen (with a sprinkling of the Beatles) is perfectly executed, somehow it doesn't quite have the magic of the other songs. Luckily this is more than made up for within the movie itself as Burton puts to the song possibly the most surreal montage of bizarre imagery he's ever committed to film thus far.
I must admit that I cannot understand how any person with a sense of humour could not roll around on the floor in hysterics at just how funny these songs are; even Burton - who has never directed a musical before - manages to compliment them marvellously within the film, putting the icing on the cake with the almost-perfectly matched choreography and costumes. Not that anyone else in the 300+ audience at the cinema so much as smiled; rather, shifted uncomfortably, stared in glazy silence, or (as a few people did) walked out. The guy sitting next to me kept glancing sideways in annoyance as I writhed around in my chair clutching at my sides, before losing faith in the entire film and burying his face in his girlfriend's shoulder.
It is quite clear that a lot of time and energy was spent on these songs, which are all nigh on perfectly executed and full of rhythmic and motivic complexity, and all exhibit luscious arrangements and gorgeously layered orchestrations which stretch each of them almost to breaking point. It's just such a shame that this attention to detail apparently failed to go into the actual score.
It's not that there's anything wrong with the score, at all. But - for me at least - especially after the unexpected direction he took with the songs, it seems to just be paint by numbers for Elfman (as a lot of the film seems for Burton as well). The main titles exhibit a stock standard Red Dragon-esque opening into a Spider-Man reminiscent insistent string ostinato. An overly haunting and dangerous (considering the tone of the film) theme on the horns sits icy, distant, and overtly simplistic from the rest of the orchestration. And the piece just goes on; the theme is repeated in whole or part several times along with various other motifs already familiar as Elfman decoration from other scores. The only distinguishing characteristics are the horns (which as previously mentioned seem almost out of place somehow), some delightfully zany use of a theramin (or some other electronica) and some rhythmical Oompa Loompa styled warbling chanting (presumably Elfman's vocals) which compliment the thin layer of factory sounds accompanying the almost-Burtonesque-but-not-quite-because-surely-he-wouldn't-use-CGI? visuals during the opening credits.
After the quiet subtlety of Big Fish, and the complex motif usage in Spider-Man and Red Dragon, and especially the vibrancy humour and love which have evidently gone into producing the songs, the main theme to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory seems too safe and secure to get excited about, aside from some wonderful moments of zany orchestration. The haunting theme does get under your skin, but as nothing else within the film comes close to being as scary or eerie, it seems misjudged and out of place.
Unlike the Nightmare Before Christmas where the score and the songs go hand in hand and blend seamlessly in your memory, in Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory it is the songs which have the life and the score which will no doubt be overlooked and forgotten...however unfairly that may seem.
In-film: songs: Five of them Wonka marshmallow-delight bars which I don't remember the name of [insert correct name here] (* * * *)
In-film: score: Three and a Half sticks of Blueberry Pie chewing gum (* * * 1/2)
CD: * * * 1/2

Review by Bluntinstrument

If ever there was a composer synonymous with wackiness, tackiness and all-round goofiness, that composer is Danny Elfman. No matter how many 'serious' scores he writes, a step into the wild luminous worlds he first created in Pee Wee's Big Adventure will always be seen as a return home. In his umpteenth collaboration with über-weird director-auteur, Danny is handed the ultimate vehicle for cheesy themes and luminous orchestration (anything goes, from sitar to theramin imitation), and while he lets himself go when given space to breathe, he is careful not to push his advantage to the detriment of the film.
On one hand he has the Oompa-Loompa songs, voiced by himself, each hitting on a different style (at a guess, a Flubber-esque mambo for Augustus Gloop, 70's funk for Violet Bauregarde, 60's boy band plus Abba for Veruca Salt, and anything from Boingo to Queen for Mike Teavee), and given early showing on the CD. This is a good choice: it is very much the selling point of the disc and is also a rather good setting of Dahl's text. And don't forget the yodelling Swiss cheese of 'Wonka's welcome song'! It is the perfect opener to a disc packed with the weird and the wonderful. It is preposterously cheap from its strictly-measured melody and unadventurous harmonies to its plasticky instrumentation and yodelling filligree.
On the other hand there is the less apparent "orchestral" score, starting with the 'Main titles' in track 6. We know already that this score has been given the composer's full attention from the variety of the songs. What we are ill-prepared for is the tone of this music: While the notorious trailer (including the 'Welcoming song' cheekily out of context) and marketing images of the film emphasized the oddness of Burton's new film, Elfman seems to have been keen to highlight a more exciting, even creepy, element in the crucial opening titles music, rather as he did in Mars Attacks! In interview, the composer often comments on how in this sequence he will often attempt to create expectations of the movie as a whole to enable an audience not to fret with any slow or inauspicious start to a movie. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is very much in need of such music: it grants the audience a sense of the mystery behind the factory... and its dangers.
And finally, to underscore scenes which involve Wonka's childhood or Charlie's home life, he hits on an understated melodic style honed in Big Fish.
One also cannot help hearing touches from Flubber and Men In Black 2 (MiiB), not only in the orchestration but also in some of the driving motion. Listen to 'Wonka's first shop' for the utterly committed dramatic underscoring style Elfman was so keen to employ as a hommage to Bernard Herrmann from Pee Wee's Big Adventure onwards. The opening of 'The Indian Palace' exults in cod-Eastern flavour, going straight for the sitar and tabla, ethnic flute, eerie chorus and filligree string writing, but by the halfway mark he knows the story is the important factor and is willing to shift straight on to thriller territory, bringing out a beautifully tortured triple-time melody that is at once associated with the heart of the film (much like that of Big Fish) and with celeste and chorus. It is used again almost immediately on disc for "Wheels in motion", but wait for the end of the track for a sensational succession of styles before ending in innocent repose.
A quick note on the film. Bluntinstrument's verdict is wholly positive. Dahl's novels rely on a variety of strengths to appeal to their audience: creative imagery, moral text (normally extolling love, friendship or general goodness, without saturating the story with it), grotesque characters, and never talking down to the reader. Recognising the strengths in this philosophy and in Dahl's execution, Burton makes his tinkering minimal (adding Wonka's father figure, and thus the Burtonesque sad monster by extension, together with the usual flashbacks), and instead concentrates on keeping the action light and setpieces bubblegum, leaving Johnny Depp an open path for another powerhouse performance. Rather like Oliver in Oliver, Charlie is the conduit of the story rather than its epicentre, and the fact that film adaptations only accentuate Dahl's writing is merely because we lose out on Charlie's unspoken thoughts in the transfer.
It should be noted that the songs for Burton's movie were necessarily written first. It is the songs which influenced Burton's direction and Loompa choreography and not the reverse. Elfman was encouraged merely to have fun with Dahl's lyrics, and most Elfman fans will be left in no doubt that the composer threw caution to the wind and created a varied collection only he could have the audacity to undertake.
While Burton went away and started mixing chocolate rivers, Elfman was given leave to continue with other projects, completing his first 'mature' concert work, Serenada Schizophrana (does anyone hear the spirit of that score in bd17 of CatCF?). It is interesting in this work to see how comfortable the composer was with his style in this work - there is no self-conscious attempt at creating a new image for himself. The muse may have been different but the composer remains stylistically truthful. And so when returning to the film, the composer seems by no means altered by the experience: the score may sound very different, but he is reacting to very different stimulae (i.e. filmic action, not character assassination by text). Hence the almost shocking shift between the gleeful opening songs on the commercial soundtrack and the following orchestral score. Still, there are a number of elements which connect these two universes, and the first can be found in the soundworld: Elfman is keen to hint at vocals and cheesy synths, but also ensures they do not overpower Burton's film in the way he might have done at the time he scored Beetlejuice.
Another link is with the fundamental motif of the Oompa Loompas [ex1, below] (each mimed in bladder-busting dead-pan by Deep Roy): a tribal style of underscore, with the mantra of a rising minor third (characteristic of any 1930s voodoo-themed radio serial), over which Elfman adds a number of imposing countermelodies - a song for 'Augustus Gloop' (bd2, in inversion [clip, bd2] at first, but otherwise riddled through the track), an imposing brass melody (bd14 [clip bd14]), etc.
From a score-only standpoint, there is certainly a recognizable 'main theme' as exhibited in the opening titles [ex2], and it is fun to see it metamorphose from brass march to a sweet tripletime melody by the Finale [ex3; clip bd20a]. It's three-note shape is given pre-echoes in the beginning of the 'Main titles' cue [clip bd1], and at several points it turns into a spooky celeste motif reminiscent of one used by David Arnold in Godzilla. Incidentally, another theme prominent in the 'Finale' [ex4, clip bd20b]) is reminiscent of 'Sandra's Theme' from Big Fish, mostly through their triple-time metre, wistful melody and tendency to be associated with lighter instrumentation such as the flute.
In reading back on this review, the sheer enthusiasm of my response to this music both initially and after more careful consideration means I have no option but to give this score full marks on all counts. The orchestral score may not be as rewarding on disc, but perhaps this is because Elfman's showcase scenes of the film are mainly songs, but bowing to necessity hardly seems an excuse to dock even half a point when the experience as a whole is such fun. Elfman is right at home in Charlie's house.
Score rating: * * * *
CD rating: * * * *
Indian mystical versus Bollywood - the eternal cultural divide plundered for Elfman's wicked gains.

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