Reviews - Milk

Review by Bluntinstrument

Elfman's work on Milk followed an intensive run of scoring including action for Wanted and fantasy for Hellboy II. In comparison with these audio-heavy projects, Milk comes as a delicate touch of relief. Having previously worked with director Gus Van Sant on Good Will Hunting, (both films incidentally handed Elfman an 'Oscar' nomination), and two other films, he felt comfortable with this project. His interviews during scoring attest to this, and to his admiration of both director and actor Sean Penn. Penn plays out the political and personal life of Harvey Milk, America's first openly gay male elected official, from his plunge into a new life in San Francisco and the discovery of open prejudice in one of the few safe places for openly homosexual people, through his battles for gay rights, right up to his assassination at the hands of an embittered colleague. Van Sant's film goes very much for a straight story, with a few arty touches, but nothing too broad or fantastical that could detract from the central performances. Elfman heads almost entirely for the subtle underscore, occasionally dovetailing the styles of other music from the film's soundtrack (contemporary songs and a few directorial choices), such as a slight mimic of the Swingle Singers' style, and some electric guitar and saxophone undercurrents. There is very little to draw its attention to the viewer, however, and the CD reflects how few of Elfman's cues cover extended scenes. He never over-eggs the drama; indeed, the lightness of touch in the texture of the music suggests he is deliberately holding back, whilst at the same time exploring new combinations. The main title (track 8) is a case in point. One of only four cues that last more than two minutes, this short item alchemises disparate elements of glissando solo cello, sitar-like synths, electric guitar, piano and improvisatory saxophone along with barely audible strings and brass. It sounds so ordinary and forgettable, but the moment the listener stops and delves into the depths, there is hidden treasure waiting. It feels both modern and allusory to both the 70's and the 80's - yes, perhaps a little too far forward for the movie, and pushing it slightly into feeling like a television movie, but, again, the touch is light, the impression intended to render the central characters real and accessible, the situation positive and upbeat even though the reality was most likely both more mundane and more threatening. Van Sant plays his characters straight, almost understated, and Elfman follows suit by muting his exuberances without actually removing them. It is surprising how many of his cues feature fast-moving ostinatos, but with such low dynamics he holds all in check.
Verdict: There is a very clear motive behind the understatedness of this score. On film it is virtually invisible but it lifts the drama out of depression; on CD it is hard to love because it feels too fragmented and the thematic material is too nebulous, but it deserves praise for its understated attention to detail. This reviewer contests its right over Elfman's other scores of the year to an Oscar nomination, though.
Score rating: * *
CD release rating: * *

Back to the Score Profile