Reviews - Music for a Darkened Theater Volume One

Review by Heath Chamerski

Music For A Darkened Theatre Volume I is quite simply, the best CD I own. Crammed into its 74 minute running time is Elfman's genius and magic, and this release features music from his best works. While I am still a fan of his work past 1990, I still feel he was at his peak when scoring Tim Burton films and other films with his traditional and original style. Elfman still remains one of the most original and daring composers in the history of film, and is also one of the most copied. Elfman got me hooked on film music with two of his scores (Pee Wee and Beetlejuice) and this compilation is heaven for any Elfman fan, as there is not a bad track at all.
The CD gets off to a brilliant start by going back to Elfman's first real movie score - Pee Wee's Big Adventure. This music is a joy to listen to, and Elfman obviously still looks back fondly at this score. Elfman really made this film come alive with his original and infectious score. The track "Breakfast Machine" is absolutely amazing, it combines the Pee Wee theme with crazy orchestration and makes for great listening. The thing I most love about the Pee Wee music is that it is so creative and different. One of the best aspects of the score is that while most of it is happy and light music, there are still many dark moments which pop up here and there, shown in this compilation with the track "Clown Dream". Elfman shows here what an expert he is at combining the light and the dark, often at the same time in his scores. This track is far too short, as the Pee Wee music is addictive to listen to, but it gives you a good idea of what the score is like overall.
The next track is music for the original Batman. While most Elfman fans cannot speak highly of this score, I feel that Elfman has done much better than this. While the "Main Titles" are perfect, some of the other moments in Batman left me cold and I don't rank this as highly as say, Edward Scissorhands or Flubber. Elfman chose a good range of tracks to include on the album. The Main Titles were a must, as they are easily Elfman's second most recognizable piece of music (The Simpsons theme is the first). The second cue "Up The Cathedral" is good, but I would have preferred "Waltz To The Death" which is pure Elfman brilliance. The third cue "Descent Into Mystery" is superb however. The voices build up gradually with the music to create the most powerful moment in the film, thanks to the music. The Batman track at 8:23 is a little too long, but most Elfman fans can't get enough Batman music, so it won't upset many people. I still think Elfman's score for Batman Returns was a lot more effective. Still, I acknowledge how much this means to most Elfman fans and how important this score was to Elfman's career as a composer.
Dick Tracy is one of Elfman's weakest efforts. There are two good tracks on the original release of Dick Tracy. One is the "Main Titles" cue, the other is the old fashioned "Crime Spree". The "Main Titles" cue is changed and is so slow on this compilation, and "Crime Spree" isn't even used. I think the main problem with this score was that Elfman was unsure about how to score this film. At some points it sounds like his typical Batman/Darkman score, at others it is old fashioned and romantic. This leads to the score sounding disjointed and messy. There are just too many different styles to this score to make it cohesive, but as far as the "Main Titles" cue goes, it is slow and unmemorable. This is one of the weakest tracks on the album.
Putting Dick Tracy next to Beetlejuice means that you can listen to one of Elfman's poorest themes and his absolute best theme. I would go as far to say that the Beetlejuice theme is my favorite piece of music ever. Never have I been so hooked on a piece of music. I could listen to this theme again and again. This theme is what got me hooked on film music forever. I remember walking out of the theatre after seeing Beetlejuice, and just amazed at the effect the music had on me. I'd seen films before with brilliant music (Star Wars, E.T) and never been effected like this. For some reason this theme connected with me, so I am very biassed towards this track. I doubt Elfman will ever write a piece of music that will top this. This track moved me and made me appreciate film music more than anything in Batman did, however the rest of the score to Beetlejuice could never live up to the quality of the "Main Titles" and it doesn't. The track "Laughs" from the original release is excellent, but doesn't make it onto this release. The Beetlejuice track however gives us the two main themes (the secondary theme is also excellent) and gives us a chance to hear Elfman at his very best.
Next comes one of Elfman's underrated classics, for a film which was also underrated. Nightbreed was an excellent film, and the score fits it perfectly. The score as a whole is heavily influenced by Batman, but you can't really tell from the tracks chosen for the compilation. The "Main Titles" start very ominously, but then the mood lightens and the main theme appears. It is odd for a horror film to have such a romantic main theme, but somehow it works. There are still traces of the darkness in the main theme that Elfman has made his trademark, but that's all they are traces, the main theme keeps a solid theme all the way through. My favorite tracks on the original release were "Dream" and "Into Midian" which are typical Elfman tracks, whereas the compilation focuses on the Main and End Titles, with the track "Meat For The Beast" breaking up the two. The "End Titles" are excellent with Elfman's choir making an appearance, and as always the choir is amazingly effective. If you listen closely to the "End Titles" cue, you can hear traces of the theme for Mars Attacks!, which came six years later. All in all, a very solid effort from Elfman, but for the compilation I would have preferred a few darker tracks to be included.
Darkman is still one of my favorite Elfman scores, but like Nightbreed this track chooses to include slower, more dramatic cues. The track "Woe...The Darkman...Woe" is excellent, but the album really starts cooking whenever a track like "Rage/Peppy Science" and "High Steel" appears. This music is as intense and fast paced as any I have ever heard by any composer ever, and they are absolutely riveting listening. Darkman makes scores like Batman look slow by comparison, but the track "Woe...The Darkman...Woe" doesn't really show it. Darkman is another of Elfman's scores which is heavily influenced by the success of Batman. The "Main Titles" are effectively dark and brooding, but this is one Elfman score where the title theme is not as memorable as the other cues he wrote for the rest of the film.
Finally a score to lighten up things a bit, as Back To School appears at the right time. This score is really good, although I would have liked the "Main Titles" to appear, as they are excellent and extremely catchy. The "Study Montage" cue is probably the second best track on the album, and it gives a good rendition of the theme. I think the score was of a good enough quality to include both of these tracks on this compilation.
Midnight Run still sticks out as something of an oddity. It is like nothing else Elfman has ever written (it has a bit in common with Wisdom, but not much) and sounds a bit like some of the music he used to produce with Oingo Boingo. The guitar and instrumentation used are unique, and while this will never be remembered as one of the great Elfman scores, it is still interesting to listen to. My favorite track again was left out - "In The Next Life" which has a tender rendition of the main theme. However, this track makes for great listening to remind us how diverse Elfman is.
Next is Wisdom, which most people don't like. I would say that my least favorite Elfman score is Dick Tracy, and I would rank Wisdom above it simply because the music is offbeat and different. This score may not be thematically interesting or innovative, but the primitive feel that Elfman tries to bring to the score is interesting to listen to. This music sounds a bit like Elfman's work on Midnight Run, and while Wisdom won't be remembered as one of Elfman's greats, it is still a good score. The two cues chosen for the compilation "Change Of Life" and "Close Call In Alberqueque" are extremely complex and while they sound interesting and different, they are not exactly made for the most entertaining listening.
The next track Hot To Trot has a good main theme, but when compared to Elfman's other work, it seems pretty lightweight. The theme sounds a lot like Elfman's Pure Luck, but isn't quite as memorable. The second cue on this track "Wandering Don" is instantly forgettable, and makes one wish that they could have dropped this in favor of the Back To School "Main Titles" cue which is a much better example of Elfman's comic scoring.
More Pee Wee music is next, this time for the awful Big Top Pee Wee, which while Elfman composed again, Burton didn't direct. The music is fairly average compared to the brilliance that is the first Pee Wee score. The circus setting means that most of the music is inspired by circus music and this becomes a bit hard to listen to after a while (especially in the "Main Titles" cue). The cues in this track that are the most enjoyable are the ones which resemble the first film. "Rise 'n Shine" is excellent, but "Pee Wee's Love Theme" isn't really anything special. This track is ok, but the original Pee Wee music was infinitely better.
Next comes Elfman's second best theme ever - The Simpsons. This is easily his most familiar theme among the general public and deserves to be. His homages to the great animated themes of the past are easily recognizable and fun to listen to. Elfman himself stated that he wanted this theme to be a mix of the themes to the Flintstones and the Jetsons, and you can pick up traces of each theme in the Simpsons theme. The music sounds even better on CD than it does on TV, and this is definitely one track that you could listen to all day and not get sick of.
Next is music that I didn't even know existed until I got this CD, music for the TV Show Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I still haven't seen the episode in question that Elfman scored and Burton directed, titled The Jar, so I don't really know what context this music is used in the episode. The music on its own isn't brilliant, but pretty good. It was written in 1986 and shares a few similarities with Wisdom, in that it sounds vaguely similar, which was composed the same year. There are however, a few touches of brilliance that could only have been composed by Elfman, and they occur towards the end, with the music building up towards a good crescendo before ending. I would still like to see the episode before making a final call on this track.
More successful TV scoring is next as the Tales From The Crypt theme makes an appearance. Absolutely brilliant scoring and a very memorable theme is all I can say about this. When I first heard this theme years before I got the CD or had ever seen the program, I identified this as being Elfman music, it just sounds so much like his trademark style and is a perfect theme for the tone of the show, not exactly a straight horror theme, but at the same time, it isn't entirely comic. This theme deserves to more widely heard, as it is an excellent TV show theme in these times where most themes are old songs and not really themes at all.
Face Like A Frog is next, another track I had no idea existed before getting the CD. It's weird and certainly different. You can tell that Elfman must have had fun composing this. It kind of reminds me of Elfman's work on Freeway, it doesn't exactly sound like it, but both scores are crazy and have no real structure, they're just noise, and while most people would hate this, Elfman fans mostly embrace this odd style of scoring. Face Like A Frog also has small traces of a few notes from the Simpsons theme here and there, and is enjoyable to listen to and own, as it is a rare Elfman piece.
Forbidden Zone is a film I have never seen, but I am told it is quite strange. The music here - "Love Theme" sounds like a typical love theme and not like Elfman at all. I would have liked a track which would have typified the film better and maybe a bit more music, as the cue only goes for just over a minute. However, it's always enjoyable to hear some of Elfman's early work.
Saving the best (are rarest) for last, Scrooged closes off the album. I was always disappointed that there was not album available for the score but there was only 21 minutes of score in the film. It always seemed like there was more as the music was so memorable in the film. This track has eight different cues from the film and covers all the important scenes in the film. The "Main Titles" cue has always been one of my favorite Elfman pieces, with a driving main theme, and other cues like "Wild Cab Ride" are pure Elfman. The track finishes off on an excellent note with three brilliant cues "Luncheonette", "Asylum" and "Crematorium" which are used to score the dramatic scenes with the Ghost of Christmas Future. A lot has been said about the tone of this music and how it didn't really match the tone of the film, and how the tone of the film shifted late in production. However, I think that the music fits perfectly into the film, and works very much the way Elfman's score for To Die For worked, in that it is comic and serious, often at the same time which is a very difficult thing to achieve. Perhaps there could have been a bit more lighter music in Scrooged, but as it stands it is still a brilliant score to a very underrated film.
Once again, this CD is absolutely a must have for even the most casual Elfman fan and the die-hards like me should buy at least two copies (in case one is damaged, you'll have a back up ready to go). This album is a bit more impressive than the second compilation from Elfman, only because the music here is a lot better. I still wish this compilation could have been stretched over two CD's, but as it stands it is one of the best listening experiences I have ever had. With this compilation, Elfman reminds us time and time again why he is still the most impressive and creative composed working today.
Rating: * * * *

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