Reviews - Good Will Hunting

Review #1 by Ian Davis

The film Good Will Hunting can be summed up in two words: "therapy session." The story about why the world's next mathematical (and everything else under the sun) genius is cleaning floors rather than wooing lecturers, and how he is eventually helped to resolve his inner conflict--is tactfully and entertainingly (thought perhaps too neatly) dealt with. The script, acting, and directing are superb, in seamless combination adding up to a film which is probably not a classic, but the closest cinema is likely to come to it this year. It presents an intimate, appealing and moving contrast to the bombast and tacky melodrama of the other big oscar nominee, Titanic. (Whoops, I'm in for it now!)
Danny Elfman's role in the success of this therapy is as great as anyone's. For the opening titles as well as at other key moments throughout the film the music melts us into the psychiatrist's chair. We are comforted, relaxed, and we sink into a dream of childhood. For some of us this may seem less needed (childhood not being too far distant for myself) but this is no ordinary psychological frame of mind: the "childhood" is an idealized innocence laced with a trace-like quality which rids us of physical adult stresses.
The film itself explores violence, hot tempers, dirty jokes and personal tragedy but behind it is this "state" which Elfman's music for the most part presents to us.
The CD currently available has just two tracks of Elfman. Track 7: "Main Titles" (2'41"); Track 15: "Weepy Donuts"--the latter obviously some kind of in-joke with director Gus Van Sant, as a track with the same title appears in their last collaboration, To Die For. Unlike that film, however, Danny is in rare non-circus, non-gothic, non-cynical mode. Once more bereft of Tim Burton and the wilder fantasies, he is able to cover less expected territory.
The Main Titles present us with the entire sound world of the film music, barring the songs ("Between the Bars" being the most notable). The "trance-like state" is created partly by harmony and melody, partly by orchestration (Steve Bartek once again in collaboration). The former construct is based around one continuous note (the "tonic" E), the harmonies swirl around it and the melodic fragments always touch on it and move round it. The result is a kind of blurred stasis which is heightened by the orchestration without reducing the idea to banality. An Irish-sounding whistle theme (perhaps metaphorical rather than--in the case of Titanic--literal?), the use of the oboe (pastoral sound?), acoustic guitar (country sound?), wordless voices (religious/ethereal?), soothing strings (reminiscent in places of Dolores Claiborne, track 1...), swelling but untroublesome brass, and even a sitar-like drone sound...all help to create an atmosphere of enchantment. This is no tragedy--this is something positive. There are no baddies, certainly no aliens, and the main character, unlike John Travolta, does not possess mysterious powers. This is the kind of film that embraces everyone like a mother; it's the kind with which you want to take your shoes off and paddle in. And Elfman has set the scene perfectly.
A few passing remarks before the final verdict. First, "Weepy Donuts" is of a more "incidental" nature--without compromising the mood of the Main Titles. Its central note (now a C#) is bolstered even closer by melody. Also I confess that the lack of contrasting moods in that track (and I heard little of it when watching the film either) convinces me that a separate Elfman-only soundtrack is not urgently required. Us enthusiasts may get some enjoyment out of a more extended reading, but surely there are Elfman scores more deserving of such treatment. Views please on a postcard.
Second, I cannot make up my mind whether Elfman is in any way paying homage to The Mission (1986). The film itself has a great many psychological issues fundamental to its dramatic power (Robert DeNiro's character in particular goes through mental crisis and repentance). I make the connection not just through the unhurried beauty of Ennio Morricone's music (with emphasis on the oboe), but also with a theme of his from track 2 ("Falls" 1'53") and elsewhere, which occurs as a motif in Elfman's score.
Closing judgement. The music in context of the film is a magical *** out of four (can Danny go wrong now?). On CD it is given rather brief airing (and forking out the money may seem a bit of a waste, so = ** is really all I could recommend) but it is long enough for those of us who want to hear Elfman in serious and intimate vein. I might add that he also wrote the "orchestral arrangement" of the "Between the Bars" song (track 1).
Rating: * * * (as heard in film) * * (soundtrack release)

Review #2 by the Texas Ranger

GOOD COMPOSER SHAFTED
Okay, how did this score lose the 1997 Academy Award for Best Score to James Hornerís Titanic!? While I am a Horner fan and not ashamed to admit it, Jamesí score was "TV Movie" material that should never have seen the golden light of a nomination! I have thought long and hard about how this travesty could have occurred - and have come up with these eight disturbing observations:
    1. Elfman is hated by the Academy.
    2. Until recently, The Academy at large was biased toward non-experimental, large, cheesy, epic, melodramatic scores -- just look at John Williamsí 8 Billion Nominations (admittedly, many of them deserved).
    3. The Academyís nominations for Best Score and Best Picture always tend to be synonymous with each other. This, in part, is due to the fact that obsessive advertising is the only way to get a film and/or its score noticed.
    4. Following observation 3, Elfman received the nominations in the first place merely because they were both well advertised and/or associated with films up for Best Picture and Best Comedy/Musical.
    5. Titanic was a much more popular film (a downright phenomenon!) than Good Will Hunting.
    6. The Titanic score was much more popular (another downright phenomenon!) than Good Will Huntingís score.
    7. Titanic won best Picture while the much better film, Good Will Hunting, did not.
    8. This leads us to the obvious conclusion that Titanic - a cheesy, melodramatic, epic, publicly popular score, associated with a film nominated for Best Picture, and NOT written by Elfman - was destined to win best score. Meanwhile, the superior Good Will Hunting was lost in the doomed shipís gargantuan wake.
All I can say to this is: God bless American Cinema because it REALLY needs some divine intervention!
Two years after seeing the film and witnessing the resulting Titanic coup deítat, Iíve managed finally to listen to the filmís soundtrack alone. At first, I was shocked to hear how much this score was the precursor to A Simple Plan (perhaps more so than Delores Claiborne and Sommersby!). Its use of guitars, a sparingly used wordless choir, an electronic base beat, and sharp/oscillating harmonies occasionally played by (what seems to be) a de-tuned electronic keyboard, leads me to believe that the experimentation in this score eventually would lead to the surreal musical world of A Simple Plan. Though, I must admit, this score has a "feel good" philosophy that his later score for Raimiís film could never have gotten away with! In addition, I also was shocked to hear how blatantly Irish it was! The use of Irish motifs and instrumentation certainly fits the South Boston setting - but it still caught me off guard. Perhaps it is because Elfman rarely has experimented with Irish sounds in both Black Beauty and (very scarcely) in Sleepy Hollow. These motifs and influences create a unique Elfman experience that has yet to be repeated: A Simple Plan and Black Beauty crossbreed - an interesting approach.
The approach Elfman took proves that while he was distancing himself from the more classical, Herrmannesque SOUND, he certainly was taking on a more Herrmannesque APPROACH. In this score, he maturely began to truly capture the psyche of the filmís characters through the music. To fully understand Will Hunting and the approach taken in scoring his character, I must point to a pivotal scene in the film where his psychiatrist asks - "What do you want to do with your life?" Will has no answer, for he is an aloof character that remains suspended -- floating from job to job, emotion to emotion, and dream to dream. I have no doubt that Elfman picked up on this absolutely key character flaw, and complemented it through the music. His Main Theme (Track 7) is less of a theme and more of a collection of motifs that seem to flow, instead of drive. Like Huntingís life, it remains in a constant dream state, never sticking with a particular melody long enough to establish a presence (a clever musical reference to Huntingís "pushing away" defense mechanism). While it does summarize all of the motifs used in the film, it never dwells on a specific one but merely suspends itself and rotates around the E note. Itís as if Elfman wrote a coherent, consistent theme, and then cut and pasted its four melodies in a nonsensical order. Still, Elfman takes the process one step further by blurring the line between accompaniment and lead. There is no specific instrument or instrumental group that takes center stage in this theme. It gives the theme little purpose and creates an atmosphere that is neither truly uplifting or truly depressing - it merely exists like (what Ian would call it) a "therapy session." This lack of decision perfectly captures the troubled indecisiveness of the good-natured but flawed Will, while also emphasizing the surreal, almost hallucinatory opening credit sequence.
The rest of the score follows a similar pattern, drawing upon the motifs and melodies presented briefly in the Main Theme. The darker, edgy use of the piano is used during Willís contemplative moments (similarly like Carter Burwellís "Barton Fink" score). The Irish motifs are used mostly when Will is hanging out with his friends - signaling a common Irish camaraderie. The guitar (which interlopes well with Elliot Smithís song Miss Misery), sitar, and chimes tend to be used during Willís more ingenious mathematical moments.
Never once does Elfman deviate from his established tone. He maintains his indecisiveness to the very end. In some respects, this allows the score to follow the more Wagnerian approach - two hours without a cadence! While I am exaggerating, it must be said this score never builds to a true climax but more of a swell. This is best demonstrated in the unreleased track, Whose Fault, and Weepy Donuts (Track 15). In the first case, Willís psychological dysfunction finally come to a head. The beauty is that it never becomes implied through Matt Damonís dialogue but through Elfmanís music. After a pinnacle, revealing session, Will sits and contemplates - never uttering a word. Here, Elfman musters all of the motifs and splices them together. This chaotic mess of melodies builds and builds, until, just when a crescendo seems imminent, it just exhales and slowly disappears into the audio background. Once again, Elfman never deviates from the theme of the story: the unresolved conflict and the eternal quest.
On Weepy Donuts (Track 15), Elfman eliminates most of the busy accompaniment. Once again, this fits the psyche of Will - for he is given a purpose to "Go see about a girl." Thus, the cluttered inner turmoil is resolved, but other adventures lie ahead. Following this final plot development, the music never comes to a full resolution, just a confined transition. Unlike other Elfman finales, this score seems to end on a transitory note, giving the score a purposeful, unfinished feel. My esteemed colleague, Ian, cites a lack of moods in this piece, but he fails to realize the music is representing the calm of a new dawn (literally and metaphorically) for Will. It remains somewhat more forceful but does not come to its apex until Willís friends finally leave his abandoned home for good. At that point, the Irish whistles finally take over as the South Boston gang rejoices at Willís departure, and the poor runt of the group finally gains the coveted spot in the front seat. Itís not a full conclusion, but thatís whatís so beautiful about it - Elfman gives the film exactly what is needed!
CONCLUSION
The Good
Good Will Hunting is an excellent score that certainly deserved its Academy Award nomination (no matter how insincere that nomination may have been). It provides an ethereal, folksy, Irish, easy listening experience that seems to be somewhere in between Black Beauty and A Simple Plan. In addition, it is one of Elfmanís few non-ironical forays into fantasy, and thus, a more unique experience for Elfman fans.
The Bad and the Ugly
Its reliance on motifs spinning around a constant E note may turn off many fans who crave the big, driving, Elfmanesque themes. In addition, the amount of actual Elfman music presented (a mere seven minutes) is scarce at best. This minute amount of music doesnít justify a cost of $15.00 for most of us!
Rangerís Verdict:
If youíre an Elliot Smith fan, or enjoy the other ensembles on the Soundtrack release, then go for it! If youíre not, then donít bother wasting so much money for so little. Once again, a great score marred by a horrible release!
Note: I agree with Ianís proposal that one of the major motifs of Good Will Hunting (specifically heard in Weepy Donuts but also used in the guitar accompaniment of the main theme) sounds exactly like Ennio Morriconeís "The Falls" theme from The Mission. Elfman, himself, claims that he only musically quotes from dead composers, so this presents a problem (since Ennio is quite alive at the time this review is written). There can only lead to two possible conclusions: 1) Coincidence or 2) intentional quoting i.e. plagiarism. I tend to give Elfman the benefit of the doubt, but unfortunately, these situations always leave astute listeners wondering.
Music as heard on the CD: ***
Music as heard in the film: ****
Amount of Music on the CD: *

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