Reviews - Sleepy Hollow

Review #1 by the Groovy Yak

Exhale a sigh of relief. Our Danny’s back.
Ok, he never really left us, but after films like Good Will Hunting, A Civil Action, and Instinct, you’d have to admit we all wanted him to get back to more Elfman-suited material- and Sleepy Hollow is about as Elfman-suited as you can get.
Tim Burton’s loose adaptation of Washington Irving’s story sets Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) as a constable out to solve the mystery behind the beheadings in the town of Sleepy Hollow. However, Crane finds more than he expected once he gets closer to the truth- the town is haunted by a headless Hessian soldier. Depp is in top form as Crane, (I found his performance to be more entertaining than even the exciting action scenes.) and is joined by an equally talented cast. (Although I must add that Christina Ricci was somewhat of a disappointment.) But as with most Tim Burton films, the acting and the plot take a backseat to the sets and production design. If Halloweentown from The Nightmare Before Christmas were to become real, it would look exactly like the foggy and overcast town of Sleepy Hollow. From the giant windmill to the lifelike scarecrows to the Crane’s odd tools and inventions, one can’t help but be fascinated by Burton’s world.
The same holds true for Danny Elfman’s sound-world. Elfman always does his best work for Tim Burton and once again, in Sleepy Hollow, it shows. Sleepy Hollow is one of Elfman’s biggest film scores ever. He must’ve used at least 500 musicians to record the score. Besides the standard orchestra, Elfman uses male and female choirs and a boy’s choir. (Much like Nightbreed, except without the ethnic instruments.)
Now, I could go on for pages talking about the references to other Elfman scores that you’ll find in Sleepy Hollow. People claim to hear Nightbreed, The Frighteners, Darkman, Mars Attacks!, and Edward Scissorhands just to name a few. The two scores that I hear the most of in Sleepy Hollow are Dolores Claiborne and the track "Edgar’s Truck/A New Man" from Men in Black. There aren’t really that many score quotations in Sleepy Hollow, though, as there are Elfman trademarks that make the score instantly recognizable as a Danny Elfman score. Bells and celeste play lullaby ostinatos in Elfman’s soundworld. The woodwinds hiss at you (flutter-tonguing) while the low brass snarls and growls. There’s lots of string harmonics, brake drums clanging, cricket shakers (a perc. instrument), trumpet triplet figures...if you’ve heard it in another Elfman score, it somehow finds its way onto Sleepy Hollow’s 68 minute album. Oddly enough, Elfman leaves his keyboard unplugged for Sleepy Hollow. There’s few, if any, MIDI samples found within this score. In terms of orchestration- the old Danny has returned...
But, in terms of compositional style- Sleepy Hollow is clearly NEW Danny. Sleepy Hollow doesn’t rely on themes to steer the boat. There’s only one major theme. It does function as backbone to the score- a piece of clay that Elfman molds to give different meanings throughout. This is one of the more brilliant aspects of Sleepy Hollow- the one theme masks itself as other themes. Confused? Elfman uses the Sleepy Hollow theme to give the town of Sleepy Hollow a feeling enchantment and mystery. He uses it again to underscore the relationship between Crane and Katrina Van Tassel. He uses it in the action cues where the Headless Horseman is decapitating yet another innocent soul. Then, he uses it triumphantly at the end when the sun comes out of the clouds and the Headless Horseman is no more. So much mileage out of one theme! It’s the mark of a master composer. Besides the Sleepy Hollow theme, there’s also two little 4-note and 3-note motives that function as Headless Horseman themes- although they’re really more like themes to underscore fear and dread.
In old Elfman scores, it was the themes that were the stars of the score. Now (as was in A Simple Plan,) the instrumentation is the main attraction. To keep with theme of "heads" in Sleepy Hollow, Elfman uses a very large amount of vocal sounds. Most of cues feature voice- whether it be adult choir, boy’s choir, or solo boy or adult. There are few film composers in the industry better at using voice than Elfman. Sleepy Hollow is definitely a treat for those who loved the choral music of Edward Scissorhands, Nightbreed, or Men In Black. Tracks like Into the Woods even blaze new trails in Elfman’s choral music. The soloist changes from "ooh" to "aah" in the middle of a note- creating a weird but interesting effect.
Another star of Elfman’s Sleepy Hollow are the violins and violas. Forget Dolores Claiborne as Elfman’s greatest string score. Sleepy Hollow contains some of Elfman’s best string writing ever. From a brilliant imitative section between a solo violin and a viola (panned nicely on the album. Thank you Mr. Fernandez!) to a chase cue that features the strings at their most frantic, Sleepy Hollow lets the strings control much of the action in the score- rather than blaring trumpets and trombones. Don’t worry, though, brass lovers, there’s still plenty of fortississimo brass playing to keep you happy- and your eardrums bleeding!
Perhaps it’s the focus on instrumentation and lack of themes and structure that hold Sleepy Hollow back a little. It’s taken me many listenings to actually indentify which cue I’m listening to without the aid of the jewel case. In movies like Batman or Mars Attacks! the music had a structure, each cue almost had its own personality. In Sleepy Hollow- it’s really hard to tell what cue goes with its proper scene. There aren’t that many elements that tie the score up into one neat little package. Without the Sleepy Hollow theme, the score would almost seem like it’s a big heap of unrelated cues pasted together. Even the main titles have a difficult time really unifying the score. The End Titles, on the other hand, have a nice structure and are one of the best tracks on the album. (Love the woodblock!)
But then again, maybe we aren’t open-minded enough to Elfman’s new style of composition. Perhaps we’re too busy expecting a Batman clone- that we’re blind to the genius behind Sleepy Hollow. Sleepy Hollow marks another high point in Elfman’s career. I have a strong feeling that in 5-10 years from now, we’ll place Sleepy Hollow on a pedestal for being one of the best horror film scores ever composed.
Rating: * * * *

Review #2 by Ian Davis

This is Elfman's seventh collaboration with Tim Burton and when working with a director renowned for his visual flair at the expense of plot, action and characterisation (an unfair criticism, but some truth lies within), it is to Elfman's credit that he isn't wholly a tone-painter. Indeed, his experience outside this celebrated collaboration has enforced a sense of film scoring which desires voice in the cinema and on disc. In the case of Sleepy Hollow the generous running time (a feature which many I am sure would welcome with other scores) is a huge stumbling block to a soundtrack which was, after all, written for a film made up almost entirely of greys, with the odd dash of vivid red. First impressions must always count in such cases, as in the cinema there is often little else.
In theory, however, there is a preview of the score which many will have heard, and this is the trailer. Despite the traditional lack of an original score, the uses of tracks from The Frighteners and Jones's music for Dark City are in fact fortuitous choices. Whether or not Elfman was aware of them, it is surprising how well some aspects of his score match the coupling: the opening of The Frighteners, for example, although not used here, is perhaps the best previous example of rhythmic forces driving a dazzling orchestral array of dissonances; that used at the end of the trailer is from one of the child's-play spooky passages, which have some stylistic resonance in parts of Sleepy Hollow; the music used from Dark City is mostly notable for its now cliched take on 'Mars' from Holst's The Planets Suite – i.e. a variety of rhythms (usually including triplet and duplet) on a single note: very forceful, very war-like, and it is precisely this effect which opens the film. Indeed the most striking aspect of the main theme for Sleepy Hollow is its constant reiteration and revolutions round one note, but far from stagnating the material, it provides a link from rhythmic accompaniment to melody, and in various shapes can suffice in thrilling, majestic and tender moments of the film.
That Sleepy Hollow is a horror film is more than evident from the score: a more gritty, brooding, savagely violent 70 minutes of music is difficult to find, but it is leavened by the most angelic of moments (usually embedded with a fairy-tale sadness characteristic of Edward Scissorhands), mostly referring to dream sequences. It is more comfortable on CD than might be expected, perhaps more so when compared to the emptiness that such a transfer brings to recent scores such as A Simple Plan. In some respects Elfman has returned to thematicisism with a vengeance, but here his themes and motifs are more interconnected, and the opening theme dominates the film: tonally reminiscent of Extreme Measures in its fascination with the major/minor aspects of harmony, it is amenable enough to suffer numerous rhythmic and melodic alterations (including some very nice elaboration, truncation and subtle changes of harmonic colouring), and part of it serves as a recurrent Headless Horseman motif. Such is the flexible quality and melodic centering that it might be mistaken for 20th century plainsong chant (illustrated) in a-rhythmic form.

In terms of orchestration, the composer has clearly been given orders to deliver on the most lavish of scales: a sign perhaps that his contribution to its successes was being taken seriously. An orchestral tour de force is evident in Elfman's employment of a great number of his favourite instruments and instrumentations, not least among them them organ, and voices. Orchestral style is an aspect of writing with which Elfman and his cronies excel (perhaps to the understandable infuriation of more 'learned' colleagues), although it is unnerving to note that there are no less than six orchestrators acknowledged in the credits. Still more so is the fact that the composer's usual collaborator, Steve Bartek, receives curiously little attention. Whether these peculiarities are the mark of studio tampering or the director's cutting of the film (or perhaps some other reason) is unclear to me, but the result is no less pleasurable for all that. Elfman opts for dark tones with some small points of light for the few bright scenes. The thickness of texture (vertical, not horizontal) is very similar to that of MIB, yet the string writing is brought a little more to the fore, and woodwind writing is suppressed. String writing may have similarities in terms of experimentation with Dolores Claiborne, but there is a richness (even in the more brutal moments such as the end of track 8 with string quartet) that sets it apart. Although perhaps Dolores suffers from a rather dry recording, some of the string writing in it sounds quite a challenge to string players; in Sleepy Hollow the impression is that the writing has improved enough to balance properly in tone with the brass. There is a proliferation of swirling string passages which hearken back to MIB, but have their roots in the descending arpeggios of Elfman's earlier scores. The difference is that the arpeggiation was more suitable for woodwind writing, despite its striking effect with violins.
The Frighteners may not bear particular resemblance to Sleepy Hollow – at least not in terms of theme or orchestral peculiarities (Frighteners throws itself between violence, comedy and harpsichord background tapestry) – but both films are very aware of their generic history. Sleepy Hollow capitalises on several features which The Frighteners only began to explore: dissonance is certainly one, and another is the use of voices for atmosphere. In a further stylistic recognition, Elfman's score exhibits one of horror's growing cliches: the choirboy voices. The use of voices as an eerie effect in 90's big-budget horror (in films such as Interview with the Vampire, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Alien3 et al ) is in opposition to the horror films of the 50s in which some of the least subtle shock music ever was written. An undercurrent of this tendency, however is the Hollywood composer's leanings towards vocals in film scores in general, perhaps because of its novelty (unlikely by now), perhaps because the genre might require it (the chorus as 'operatic' cliche levels itself at fantasy in particular, as well as some sci-fi, curtesy of John Williams and a few others), and perhaps because when a film has a decent music budget ... well, why the hell not? Elfman certainly leads the way by using vocal effects of varying descriptions in virtually all his works for film, and in most cases he finds appropriate, if not always essential, cues. Perhaps it may be said that when he is at his most restrained he comes up with the best results (such as at the crux of the plot in Mission: Impossible (CD track 10)), thus it may be said that quality and not quantity rules this writing in terms of film technique. However, in this instance the use of adult and children's voices is an integral part of the score's identity.
Sleepy Hollow is a more unified score than The Frighteners – a development indeed – in terms of both thematic and orchestral usage. One of the main complaints levelled at Frighteners is its schizophrenic pose, its refusal to remain in a consistent style for more than a few seconds. Elfman, I think, perhaps tried too hard in following the contuours of the action (shocks, chases, visual gags, and the like), and although Sleepy Hollow is itself a far more coherent film in terms of visuals and atmosphere (the period setting helps), Elfman has also matured. The handling of athematic scoring and dissonance has vastly improved, and experimentation is bold yet controlled: the result is less cluttered and represents an effective ally to Burton's set-pieces.
The secret behind the success of this score, though, is its momentum. Rhythmic muscularity (a staple of the Classical Style as advocated in the music of Haydn, Mozart and, most of all, Beethoven – but note that momentum does not imply speed) is returned to in gargantuan forces for the first time since Batman, and Elfman's experience over the decade shows. He delivers a score where rhythm drives the dissonant fast episodes and where harmonic venture and progression sustain interest in lyrical moments. All is bound by a main theme in various states (it is altered, extended and fractured in harmony, orchestration, rhythms, speed and notation, etc. – owing much to ye composer's motivic experimentation in Batman Returns, and the more subtle approaches of Dolores Claiborne and A Simple Plan. Unlike much of Batman there is no perpetuum mobile – the orchestra rarely drives the music; instead the music is more of a (mostly) unified collection of episodes. This is far more successfully captured than in MIB as its more heavy-handed, though no less interesting, kin.
What it has in common with A Simple Plan is its complete solemnity. Despite the forces at work there is a single-mindedness here, and this is perhaps the first fantasy score in which Elfman has held back so totally from "goofiness" and playfulness. In this respect it might linger in Batman territory, but even in that film the composer indulged in some clarinet footwork and an ironic waltz. Sleepy Hollow-the-score ignores the script's humorous touches and clunking dialogue and thunders towards a hoof-stomping climax (through tracks 15 and 16) undimmed. Verdict. Elfman's loudest, blackest, bleakest score yet for Burton. An achievement in itself and a credit to the film, but not quite as effective on disc. That said, the disc is recommended as it gives the fan ample opportunity to soak up some old-style Elfman with a mature twist. Just don't expect to live in the past with every score.
In film: * * * *
On disc: * * *

Review #3 by the Texas Ranger

For some bizarre reason, many Elfman admirers seem to be under the gross misconception that because he doesn't rely on thematic/melodic material, he has somehow matured. Time and again I've read remarks to something of this effect: "Elfman does not rely on a theme this time around, which shows how much he has matured as a composer." I have no idea where this misconception started, but it has to stop! The fact that Elfman does not rely on a major theme has absolutely NOTHING to do with his maturity as a composer. I have heard many theme-less scores that have been nothing short of a disaster (some by renowned film composers). In addition, I have heard many scores relying on "pretty melodies" and "grand themes" fall flat when listened to in the context of the film. Long ago we learned that Elfman COULD write a theme-less score. Still, the true question is whether he SHOULD. No, Elfman's abandonment of thematic material is not evidence of maturity. The REAL evidence is that Elfman is able to make the RIGHT decision as to WHEN he should use unthematic material. That being said, he truly made the correct choice with Sleepy Hollow - a score that is as convoluted and chaotic as the film.
Now the film itself was a total mess. It suffered from a nonexistent romance, convoluted plot, incoherent story, and one of the poorest performances by Christina Ricci I have ever seen. Yet, somehow, it still worked, and I will certainly see the film again. The score is also a mess - introducing little (if any) thematic material, whilst continually combining old "Elfman-isms" with bizarre choral chants and throwing them into some all encompassing witch's brew. Like the contrasting critical opinion of the film, this can be seen as an advantage or disadvantage. I tend to view it as an advantage, but others maybe put off by its inability to give them something to hum. One way or another, it cannot be denied that Elfman's mess is the perfect complement to Burton's mess. They merge in a symbiotic relationship and startle both the viewer and the listener, who become enveloped in the experience: marveling at how they can enjoy something that under most circumstances would seem so wrong.
The mess is perfectly demonstrated in the opening titles. There, Elfman uses a wide range of techniques to complement the massive range of sequences. The film opens with a lawyer imploring for help from New York - seeking an investigation into a series of beheadings. Elfman uses numerous powerful crescendos of strings and choir to supply the key importance the letter holds, and the impending danger looming in the next scene (very reminiscent of the ingeniously blunt score to Bram Stoker's Dracula). As the horseman makes his first appearance, the viewer is introduced to his motif - a combination of massive brass stings, loud adult choir bursts, and a small helping of anvil banging. All together, this provides the perfect setup for the second credit sequence - which is far more laid back in approach (Ichabod Crane journeys to Sleepy Hollow via old trails along the Hudson). At that point, Elfman introduces a combination of traveling music (used to add to the brooding atmosphere of impending doom) and the "Witch" motif (usually provided by an ethereal solo from a disembodied female voice). Together, these two techniques provide both the dangerous and mystical side of the film - a perfect way to musically sum up the battle between science and the superstitious.
As the film progresses, the viewer is dished a hardy helping of action music - almost all of it revolving around the Headless Horseman. Elfman uses the choir to his advantage, employing them as a macabre introduction to the ghost's presence. In addition, a stomping routine comprised of brass, anvil banging, and woodwind bursts (straight out of The March of the Dead theme from Army of Darkness) works well to accentuate the being's power and mighty stride. He also employs his classic wind and string arpeggios to complement the motion of the Horseman's ax-wielding murders. It's bold, brazen, terrifying and a true testament that Elfman can capture raw energy and pure motion in his scores. The best pieces are saved for the climax, though. It is there that Elfman pulls out all the stops. As is typical of his motion laden scores, he delegates the strings to a mid position - using them to reflect the speed with which the horseman travels. Like Sommersby, though, the strings have an ethnic feel (perhaps a reflection of the Dutch influence). They race with all the pace of Edwardo the Barber and all of the passion of Birth of a Penguin. The brass interjects as well, as do the woodwinds when the Horseman strikes. It's brilliant chase music the likes of which I haven't heard since the climax of Mission: Impossible (indeed, this piece seems like a symphonic version of Mission's synthesized sequence).
Yet, besides the numerous action pieces, Elfman also adds a mystical touch during numerous dream sequences. The solo female voice is appropriately surreal, and seems to be a direct descendant of his manipulations in both Flubber and Mars Attacks!. In addition, he uses a children's choir, soft strings, and bells in the exact same manner as his Good Will Hunting theme. The effect can only be described as enchanting! In fact, one could even surmise that there is an Edward Scissorhands influence underscoring all of those fantasy filled flashbacks.
If there is one point where the film and score are lacking, it is in the romance department. Now, despite popular belief, I will NOT chastise a score for having unthematic material - my review of A Simple Plan provides plenty of evidence for that. Still, there is a time and place when a score needs a strong theme to help support scenes that are lacking in emotional depth. This was the case with Sleepy Hollow - where the romance failed utterly due to poor script writing and bad acting. I feel that had a stronger theme been placed in key moments, perhaps Elfman could have had the power to manipulate the scene and give the audience "a clue" as to what they were supposed to feel emotionally. He certainly proved he could accomplish this with Batman Returns - where the infamous Finale music alone told the audience how to perceive the passing of the fowl villain: Penguin. Had Elfman used that talent to his full advantage here, perhaps he would have been able to save the romance in ways Burton couldn't. Perhaps not. Unfortunately, "filler" music comprised of light strings and a flute didn't suffice without a descent melody.
That aside, Sleepy Hollow is as complex as it sounds. I now realize how foolish it was of us, the attendees at this site's messageboard, to try to pinpoint what the score truly sounded like from sound clips. Many claimed it was reminiscent of The Frighteners and Mars Attacks!. I claimed it had an influence from Darkman. The truth is, as much as I appreciate the dedication the author of this site has put into posting numerous sound clips, they just cannot do the score justice! Sleepy Hollow is an experience that must be listened to either in the theater, or on the CD. The sound clips perpetuate a falsity that the score sounds like a specific earlier work of Elfman's. In actuality, this score is the equivalent to his work on Men in Black. Whereas that score was a vast collection of every electronic stunt Elfman had pulled in the past decade, Sleepy Hollow is a collection of every symphonic trick he has used in his career. It is not merely reminiscent of ONE of his earlier works, but reminiscent of ALL of his earlier works. The long string passages from Delores Claiborne, the adult choir from Mars Attacks!, the bells and children's choir from Good Will Hunting, the anvil banging from Army of Darkness, the brooding heaviness of Darkman, the intensity of Mission: Impossible, the frenetic brass stings from Batman, and many more are all found within this score. That is why this score cannot be done justice through little snippets. It must be allowed to consume the listener in its world, and overtake the audience with its vast wealth of material and purely chaotic tone. Like the impressionist landscapes of Sleepy Hollow itself, any hint of reality is totally eliminated - leaving only the vast world of Elfman's long musical career as a guide. There's no escaping from his richly textured world of dark fantasy. This is Elfman as close as possible to the fantasy world of Bernard Herrmann since Edward Scissorhands.
In the end, Sleepy Hollow is not the true Burton classic we have all been waiting for. The same holds true for the score. They both come close to reaching that that state of pure perfection, but are never able to make the final trek across the covered bridge. That is not to say that they are poor examples of film-making or film-scoring. Both the film and the score are excellent, and certainly far above 99% of the mediocre tripe that Hollywood seems to dish the American public every year. Despite its negligible flaws, this score deserves an Oscar nomination far more than Good Will Hunting and Men in Black ever did. Though, those goons at the Academy wouldn't recognize REAL talent even if it burst in on horse-top, wielding an ax, and started indiscriminately chopping off heads.
The Good:
Finally, Danny Elfman provides a brassy and percussive theme-less score that is far superior to the lazy, downright sloppy action nonsense of Mars Attacks. Creepy, atmospheric, chaotic, and a combination of everything Elfman has had to offer symphonically for the past fifteen years; Sleepy Hollow is a massive score that is expertly performed by the Sinfonia of London and is one of the best dark fantasy scores in a long while. It TOTALLY envelops the listeners in Burton's world and won't let them go!
The Bad and the Ugly:
The romantic portion of the score is weak and added little to the film.
Ranger's Verdict:
Not the most magnificent Elfman classic, but truly one of the greater scores to be released in the 1990's. After the dismal failure of Mars Attacks, Burton and Elfman prove they still have the mystical touch.
Music as Heard in the film: * * * 3/4

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