Reviews - Instinct

Review #1 by Ian Davis

Instinct is Elfman's Article 99 of recent years. Like its predecessor it is a clumsy hotch-potch of stylistic references to other scores, none of which appears strong enough to help a film which quite frankly is past saving from identity crisis (I would guess it was about family, but the wild character has no thought for his daughter; perhaps it is fantasy - as he never gets hurt by wild animals and the plot holes are considerable; the pacing is remarkably poor, etc. etc. A film with a decent premise and good central acting, but poor direction, would be my guess). Harmonically and, to a great extent, over-all stylistically, its origins are in Good Will Hunting, a score which, although fresh and touching on film, is soon rendered tiresome on CD. In my view GWH is one score which mostly deserves its lack of representation, and the widespread 'promotional' release seems more than enough to keep hard-core fans scrabbling in the dust for the odd gem.
Instinct, however, combines this style with samples of so-called ethnic percussion, an idea which is as disingenuous as it is poorly realised in practice. The sampling method is very obvious on film and on CD, and this isn't helped by the treatment (think Wisdom, and then check Groovy's star rating) and, for that matter, some of the samples themselves, resembling that of the far superior Mission: Impossible. The string writing, already hampered by its treatment in GWH style thinness, is almost ruined by its high tessitura and still more by an apparent disinterest in the recording stage. Brass writing is limited for the most part to mournful solos recalling Americana trumpet melodies in Article 99, Sommersby, and (most damagingly for me) in certain moments of Mars Attacks!.
Much of the blame for the flatness of the score should be aimed at the film itself, which fails to deliver on moral or dramatic fronts, but there is little to forgive the composer his shameless trademark use of chorus, which is needlessly overused and ruins the effect of more subtle handling in other scores. Once more Elfman's hidden trademark - that of ending his scores on a half-hearted sigh rather than a resolution - leaves the CD release high and dry, and there is no excuse here because no song follows in the End Credits. A few times used, this feature can be eerie or thought-provoking, but I wonder whether a change might induce a more violent effect - for Elfman fans in particular.
In conclusion the middle-of-the-road (for soundtracks) running time is merciful but not biting enough, and had I been a powerful Hollywood composer I would have pressed for a retrospective release coupled with GWH (or from a relevant backer studio/album company). There are a few tracks only which make the score sound as if, perhaps after all it might have made good, the best of which is most definitely the opening of track 8, where the previously disheveled stylistic threads gel for a short time. Something magical happens, but with so much magic to choose from, why starve yourself?
Film Rating: * * 1/2
CDRating : * 1/2
(For Dolores fans who might think I didn't cram in a mention in this review, you can actually hear a quotation of its main theme in track 8, c5'30!!).

Review #2 by The Texas Ranger

I hate it when I’m forced to rip into a score. Oh sure, truth be told, I’m a total jerk and I usually have no problem with ripping into practically anything. However, because I appreciate the art form of film scoring so much, it just hurts me when I don’t like a particular piece. Sometimes I feel it’s unfair to both the composer and the form to shred a score to pieces based on its solo performance. This is why whenever I hear a score that I dislike on a CD release, I always try to catch the film - so at least I can say, “Hey, it was a good score which works so well that you can’t separate it from the film.”  Then there’s Instinct.
The problem is this: should I praise Instinct for its “attempt” at a unique sound? Or should I dislike it because, all together, it’s not that great of a score (both in the film and out)? I’ve spent months on this thing - putting my brain hard at work (something I do only when I’m REALLY desperate) and listening to the damn thing over and over and over again on my Discman. With every listen, my own instincts would beat the living crap out of each other in an attempt to give me a clear decision. Anyway - one broken Discman, one blown out headset, and hundreds of migraine headaches later, I have finally come to the conclusion that while it has good intentions, the score just doesn’t work.
Instinct’s problems lie in its inability to decide on a format. This is a problem that Elfman has had in his post Mars Attacks days - especially with action music. Now I have no problem with abstract New Music - I love Kubrick’s sounds in The Shining and Friedkin’s certain pastes into The Exorcist. I even caught a concert at the Chicago Museum of Modern Art and was floored by the performance. However, I don’t have a problem with the classical leitmotif approach, either. Yet, Elfman seems to want it both ways. While this has lead to some successes (A Simple Plan, Sleepy Hollow), it can also lead to a score like this, which is simply just a mess.
I’ll admit that I’m totally unoriginal in saying this, but this score really is just a series of Elfman leftovers. There’s the piano from Black Beauty, the dissonant strings from Delores Claiborne, the synthesized effects from Mars Attacks/MIB, the crazy choir from To Die For, and the alto flutes from A Simple Plan. Do they amount to a good whole? Well, sort of. The sound is interesting, but the writing lacks decisiveness.
This is where my largest problem with the score lies: it doesn’t satisfy either the thematic lovers or the new age atonal/athematic lovers. The music is all over the place. Oh there are themes and melodies, but they are constructed in a haphazard way. I’m a lover of the atonal approach, and yet, this score seems too structured and melodic to be called purely atonal or athematic. The result is simply an average - a kind of mediocre blend of both styles. I’m not saying that to attempt to mix both approaches is inherently bad, but it is very risky. Elfman has won some and lost some. A Simple Plan worked because it had two simple concrete themes which Elfman used as a base, and then let lose by covering them in musical atmosphere. Sleepy Hollow works because, while the themes aren’t especially strong, there are nearly a dozen leitmotifs that he can use to achieve an atonal “effect” without destroying the theme lovers need for structure.   Unfortunately, Instinct has no strong little leitmotif themes, but some structure.Thus, both fans can easily become disappointed, if not frustrated.
Of course, this is all forgivable if it works in the film.   Sadly, in my opinion, it just doesn’t.   First, I think the approach was not sound. It could either have been a misjudgment by Elfman or the director, but I think the score is actually too surreal for a film that takes itself that seriously (the “buzz” was this would be an Academy Award Winner, but the film was awful). For the first time in awhile, I think a more classical approach would have benefited more than Elfman’s approach. Second, the score violates Herrmann’s greatest rule: “Never make the score be known - a good score works without the viewer even realizing it.” This score draws attention to itself far too often. The worst offense is the addition of the electronic bass beat. Why is it there? Does it help the film to establish a certain aura? Not really. Is it annoying and distracting when hearing it set against a mostly choral and orchestral ensemble? YES! The choir itself is also quite distracting. When I first saw the film, I wasn’t even paying attention to the score until I heard the choir chirp in. Elfman is a genius with choir, but despite it being such a wonderful signature, I think he should have used some restraint this time. In the end, Instinct is one of those few films where I can watch the images without the score. I put the television on mute during many moments and notice little difference (save for less distractions from the orchestra).
Okay, so I’m sure you’re wondering - then what is the CD good for? A drink coaster? A Frisbee? A bookmark? Actually, one of the few things Instinct has going for it is the “sound.” And what a sound! It’s unique, refreshing, ethereal, and reminds me just why Elfman spent so many years in Africa. This is a surreal fusion of Western music and African rhythms. It’s a sound I’ve never truly quite heard before, and I’d love to hear it again. Sure, John Williams attempted it with The Lost World, and came up with a totally serious approach (which provided for a lackluster score within the film, but a wonderfully interesting composition and listen on the CD). In Instinct, though, Elfman just throws out convention and goes all out to create a weird soundscape more off beat than Williams attempt. Main Titles is an experience all its own. The Riot (Track 6) and The Killing (Track 5) are appropriately dark, savage, wild and contain music that (while melodically devoid) you’re not likely to forget. My favorite, though, is still Into the Woods (Track 2). Elfman captures the very essence of nature in this piece (if only he’d leave that damned bass beat out of it!). Into the Woods is filled with wonderment, curiosity, mystery, and dark savagery lurking underneath every note. True, I would have preferred it if Elfman could have made up his mind. A little more atonal/athematic, or a little more classic/thematic material could have sealed this score as a near solo masterpiece. Instead we still get mediocrity and leftovers - but the sound is so unique that it almost warrants buying the CD.
I use the term “almost” very carefully. The amount of music on the CD is adequate, though a little more might have been better. In essence, if you a lover of PURE classical thematic treatments with massive orchestras and spelled out melodies, then this one might not be for you. If you are a PURE atonal person who enjoys a total lack of structure without a single melody and only scattered sound effects, then this one might also not be for you. I think this CD might be for the person who is looking for a little of each. It might be best for those willing to forgo all of the score’s problems in order to hear one of the most unique sounds to come out of Hollywood in the last few years.I could be wrong, though.If ever there was a release that required listening to sound samples, this is the one! Check before you buy!
In the end, Instinct has a lot of good intentions, but just can’t make it due to Elfman’s cautious writing and misjudged approach. In the film, it was a bit of a disaster - too surreal and too off-beat for a drama that takes itself way too seriously. Now that I look back on it, I think somewhere along the line a lousy agent, or postal worker, delivered the wrong assignments to the wrong composers. I feel that John Williams should have scored Instinct to give it the more classical, psychological, serious approach it so desperately needed. In essence, the more serious mainstream ethnic jungle motifs would have fit better for Instinct than for Williams’ The Lost World. Danny Elfman should have been handed The Lost World, to give it the ethereal, technology meets savagery, eccentric score that it so desperately needed. Both these great composers had the right ideas and some great compositions, but the wrong films to apply them too. Sometimes fate deals a lousy hand.
Hopefully, though, Elfman will not abandon this sound.It’s too unique to give up on.He has proven that he can write this type of music.Now, in the coming years, he needs to be more decisive and refine this skill.He needs to pick a definite path (thematic or athematic) and stick with it - or pray to God that his latest experiment in combining the two will work.Right now this music has slight bit of a cheap New Age quality, but it can become truly avant-garde as Elfman progresses. I’m sure he can do it - the artist never ceases to amaze me. He shouldn’t give up on it, nor should his fans dismiss this score too easily despite its setbacks! I truly hope to hear this sound again in a film. According to current sources, Proof of Life just may do that. Who knows? My instincts tell me only time will tell.
Music as heard in the Film: *
Amount of music on the CD: *** + Music as heard on the CD: ** = average of * * 1/2

Review #3 by Pedestrian Wolf

Instinct tells the story of an eager young therapist's attempt to cure an abused mental patient, a male Dian Fossey imprisoned in the asylum for murdering gorilla poachers. It's a decent movie, fueled by Hopkin's powerful screen presence, but it borrows too much from better films, and is ultimately forgettable.
Elfman's score is very much the same. Instinct is second in a trilogy of sentimental Elfman scores (A Civil Action, Instinct, and Anywhere But Here) that had most of his fans very nervous until Sleepy Hollow soared in to save Elfman's soul. As sappy scores go, Instinct ranks above A Civil Action but bellow Anywhere But Here. It's a pleasant listen, but it adds almost nothing new to Elfman's musical cannon. Among the instruments Elfman recycles are the woodwinds from A Simple Plan, the children's choir from Edward Scissorhands, the melancholy strings from Dolores Claiborne, the synths from Wisdom, the blaring horns from The Frighteners, and the twinkling piano melodies from A Civil Action. Like Thanksgiving leftovers, these elements are still tasty the second time around, but they also lose much of their flavor. Still, Instinct is a unique Elfman score in one paradoxical way: in Instinct the parts that work best on the soundtrack are the parts that work worst in the movie, and vice versa.
Elfman's score to Instinct can best be divided into two acts. The act is the mysterious Dolores Claibornesque underscore that fills the first act of the movie taking as Cuba Gooding Jr.'s therapist attempts to get a reaction from Hopkins. In the film, it is very effective, and Elfman displays great musical restraint, avoiding the missteps that a lesser composer or a younger Elfman might have taken. Elfman never lets himself Mickey-Mouse the action, and keeps the music from overshadowing the dialogue, or anything else going on on-screen. This subtlety is also the music that hold up the worst on its own, and as a result very little of it appears on the soundtrack.
The second act involves Hopkins emerging from his silent shell, as he guides his therapist through his African flashbacks with the gorillas. It is at this point in the movie where Elfman looses it. His music for the African flashbacks and the scenes that follow trips and falls into the trap of misplaced sentiment. Elfman saturates his score with children's choirs and twinkling piano notes, enjoyable to listen to on the soundtrack but misplaced in the film. Hopkins describes the gorillas as majestic entities full of philosophical wisdom, but the music that accompanies this narration portrays the gorillas as giant Disney creations. This is the point in the movie where the music really has the opportunity to sing, but Elfman wastes it by taking a sappy Bambi approach, rather than the John Barry/Dances With Wolves approach the film so desperately cries for.
The rest of the second act is more-or less the same; sentimental where it needs to be powerful. To be fair however, the piece of music that accompanies the third flashback scene is the one truly excellent moment in the score. It opens with sentiment, but the sentiment is a little more excusable this time, as Hopkins is cuddling a baby gorilla on screen. Anyway, the sentiment suddenly dies when a group of poachers burst into the scene, driving Hopkins into a murderous rage. This is a very manipulative scene, but it had power over me for three reasons: 1. Hopkins, as always gave a powerful performance. 2. Killing animals is a very easy way to bring me to tears. 3. Elfman keeps a steady finger on the horror and the trauma in this scene, with wailing brass and choirs scoring the murders and mournful strings scoring Hopkins' failure to protect his family. It is Elfman's best moment and almost makes up for the sentiment he drags the film down with in the other scenes.
Despite it's pitfalls, Instinct isn't a horrible score, and on the CD I found myself falling in love with it. But falling in love with it takes effort, and people who aren't die-hard Elfman fans won't be willing to try that hard. On the whole, the only people I would really recommend this score to are the people who will buy it no matter what I say in this review. Everyone else should spend money on Elfman scores much better and less forgettable than Instinct.
Film Rating: * * 1/2
Film Rating: * * 1/2

Back to the Score Profile