#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: *
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.
THE BAD AND THE UGLY
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
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)
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
Film Rating: * *
CD Rating: * *