Reviews - A Civil Action

Review #1 by Ian Davis

It was always going to be an uphill struggle to make this a decent listenable soundtrack. Courtroom dramas (i.e. where the courtroom scenes take up the vast majority of screen time) are a thankless task for the composer in comparison to fantasy, sci-fi, some thrillers and horror. Elfman's problem is that his mass fan reputation (particularly post-MIB) does not allow scores such as this to disappear without trace in the CD market, like so many other frankly dead-end scores.
The problem isn't so much with the film but with the attempt to spark any interest away from visual media. Elfman may have had some limited success, but it is just that. Tracks are either too short, too repetitive or too self-plagiaristic. It's as if Elfman is treading musical water, borrowing styles and instrumentation from his scores for Good Will Hunting and Mars Attacks! (especially Martian Madame) in particular. Track 18 (Water#2) has I suppose some originality to it, and is the pick of a lackluster collection of directionless moody tracks.
There are, however, some small nuggets awaiting us. The only track which surely deserves attention as a new contribution is track 12's "Why?". Reprised in Track 20 it uses Elfman's trademark voiceless choir to a most ambient effect, developing hymn-like (perhaps more of a carol?) into a rather less satisfying close.
The final track is called End Credits Suite, and sums up most of the rest of the score (somewhat better, I might add) and could have been used, in my view, as an entry in a new Elfman compilation, but for its appalling "unfinished" ending. Why does he edit it like this on so many CDs?? Verdict: Nice try for what it's worth, but it isn't worth all that much.
CD Rating only: *

Review #2 by The Texas Ranger

Note: As of yet, I have not purchased the score to A Civil Action. This review is merely a critique of how the music performed within the context of the movie.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Elfman’s score to A Civil Action. With the exception of Sommerseby, Elfman has kept himself out of the “courtroom drama” genre. So I entered the theater as a skeptic - prepared to withstand a multitude of musical clichés. To my delight, the movie and the score had very little in common with the average courtroom tear-jerker. The score reflected the very subtle approach of the film. Instead of the melodramatic, weeping strings of Sommersby; the audience is dished a quiet, electronic ensemble. Some would argue that this betrays the emotion that circulated throughout the film, yet it doesn’t.
To begin with: the movie (while containing plenty of emotion) is not centered on the death of innocent children, but the corrupt world of the United States justice system. Elfman reflects this attitude in numerous scenes. The best example is during Schlittman’s (Travolta) explanation of the legal declaration of war. As the camera pans through busy legal offices and towering building directories, Elfman uses bizarre percussion and a voiceless choir to underscore the scene. The result is a piece that, like Edward Scissorhands' “Beautiful New World,” transports us into an entirely alien world. During the spying scene, where Shlittman stealthily happens upon a chemical plant, Elfman combines both the percussion and an electric bass beat to create a James Bond feel. This surreal, working man’s theme is reminiscent of the quirky Martian Lounge theme from Mars Attacks. Many scenes follow these unorthodox examples, as Elfman interjects short whispers of choir at the mention of the dead children (instead of musically embellishing on the emotional aspects). This subtle pattern continues throughout the entire movie.
I was shocked at the remarkable restraint Elfman showed throughout the film. The death of a client’s son retained the inherent creepy factor from Mission Impossible’s “Betrayal,” yet never dominated over the dialogue. The “court in now in session” scene would have elicited a large, militaristic response out of most composers. Yet Elfman only uses long, heavy string chords to underscore a couple of trumpets! Other scenes play on the psychotically calm Dolores Claiborne motif - using piano, strings and soft wind instruments to brood with the main characters. In addition, there is the touching final send off from the choir, as Shlittman pleas to the EPA for help. This mini finale works well in creating a last stand feel, while the camera flies over Fenway Park and into the office of Shlittman’s opposition. Finally, a special distinction must be made to whoever decided to include “The Little Drummer Boy.” Whether it was Elfman or not, that person has a very satirical, if not macabre, sense of humor.
Those expecting an Elfman blockbuster score will be sorely disappointed. While the remarkable restraint Elfman showed works well in the film, I can assume it will not be as remarkable on the CD. The score lacks the excitement to attract Elfman action fans, and the unparalleled beauty that attracts Elfman’s drama/fantasy fans. The potential fans for this score would most likely include those who enjoyed the goofy Martian Lounge theme, the calm electric pieces of Men in Black, and the brooding sounds of Dolores Claiborne.
In addition, there is no main theme! The opening and end credits were comprised of two pop songs. This may be a sizable problem, especially considering the main theme usually comprises the absolute best Elfman has to offer a score! Without a main theme, the amount of music on the CD may be far less than some fans are used too. Of course, all of this is merely speculation, but I don’t think I’m that far off.
A score that fits the movie with remarkable restraint. Unfortunately that restraint may turn off some hard core Elfman action fans. It can be argued that there is nothing truly special about it. In the end, A Civil Action is a civil score. Blessed are the meek. . .
(Old Rating: * * * 1/2)

Review #3 by Pedestrian Wolf

There is a popular excuse that Elfman's fans protect Elfman with on the rare occasion that he composes a mediocre score; "The score may not sound great by itself, but it works well in the film". This is sort of a ridiculous statement, in my opinion, because music can range from brilliant to lackluster and still technically "work well in the film." What makes the greatest scores so brilliant is that they not only work as sufficient background music, but also enhance and sometimes even create the film's emotions and themes. Unfortunately, the score for A Civil Action, for the most part, works merely as sufficient background music. It may technical work in the film, in that it doesn't hurt the movie, but it does little to help. Elfman rarely gives the film the powerful musical drive it needs, and instead, dwells on cutesy piano and synthesizer melodies. The main theme in particular, seems far too cute for the tone of the film. Elfman does give us some semi-errie synthesizer themes to portray the modern court system, but they aren't nearly as brilliant as they could be, and come off as dull.
To be fair, I must admit that this doesn't hold true for the whole score. There are moments in the film where the music enhances the film perfectly. The two "Water" tracks (8 and 18) may not hold much interest by themselves, but they work as beautiful underscore in the film. Elfman also gives us a beautiful choral theme, first introduced in the track 12, entitled, "Why?" "Why," as in "Why didn't Elfman use this theme to drive the score instead of that cutesy "Civil Theme"? The choral theme fits the film's message perfectly, and yet Elfman only uses it in two tracks (well, three if you count the end credit suite). It's a beautiful hymn, and captures the beauty of the hero's newfound ideals flawlessly. We hear it first in track 12, a theme reminiscent of Edward's love theme, but with sort of a gospel touch, if that makes any sense. But the hymn doesn't really pack a wallop until track 20 ("The Letter"). It starts out as a gentle reprise of track 12, but just as it seems like it's finished, the choir explodes into one of the most poignant musical moments in Elfman's recent musical cannon. The scene involves a monologue from Travolta reminiscing on his apparent failure on his case and what he's learned from it, so far as I can recall. As he finishes his monologue, the camera sweeps over the courthouse, when the choir explodes into the bittersweet melody that never fails to bring a tear to my eye. The music turns his apparent failure into a bittersweet victory, as if to say that he's lost his career but found his soul.
Unfortunately, a few great moments can't make up for the fact that the rest of the score sort of fails to enhance the film. The score isn't a complete failure, but as a whole, it just lacks in the emotional involvement that Elfman usually brings to the films he touches.
Film Rating: * *
CD Rating: * *

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