Reviews - Sommersby

Review #1 by the Groovy Yak

Just when people thought that Danny Elfman was type-cast as an action/horror film composer, he gives his critics and fans Sommersby- one of the most romantic and tragic film scores I've ever heard. This is the score I usually play for someone when they tell me that they can recognize Elfman's music instantly. The usual response is, "Wow, I can't believe Danny Elfman wrote THIS."
Sommersby shows us the composer's more tender side. This film, about the love between a woman and her impostor husband set after the Civil War, relies heavily on the impact of a romantic score. The tears shed by the female (and possibly male) viewers of the film during the tragic finale is attributed not only to the visuals but to Mr. Elfman's skillful use of the strings.
Sommersby isn't completely emotionally motivated. Elfman has a lot of fun with folk instruments and folk-like tunes to paint a picture of post-Civil War America. Some of the cues get rather fast-paced such as "At Work" or "Return Montage." There are also some cues that seem quite subdued. "Alone" is uncharacteristically Elfman with its long-lasting and soft string textures that seem to drag along rather than push forward. Cues like "Alone" are a perfect example of Elfman's growth as a composer.
Sommersby's main theme works well within the film, but is also a joy to listen to. There really is two main themes that Elfman uses. (Perhaps this has to do with the multiple themes he used for each character in Batman Returns, scored a year before this film.) Elfman oscillates between major and minor chords for a "main statement" of a very long theme A. Then there's a more lyrical theme that is simply gorgeous when played on the acoustic guitar. It's somewhat of a theme B that fits nicely as a contrasting section to theme A.
Elfman juggles the two themes around throughout the entire score. There's not a minute of the score where we don't hear a fragment or a statement of these themes. I could tell you that it's very monotonous, but it's not. At about every statement of the theme, Elfman changes the instrumentation or makes a variation in the rhythm to make the entire score a very interesting musical experience.
Elfman's score, for the first 13 tracks, is one of those that is great to listen to while doing something else. It's great background music. However, when you reach track 14, I'd advise you to stop what you are doing and just listen. The grip that Elfman puts on your soul is incredible. I'd be surprised if you didn't shed a tear by the time the soundtrack is over.
I strongly recommend Sommersby to anyone who wants to hear an emotional score filled with some of the most beautiful writing I've heard in a film score. Sommersby marks a new plateau in Elfman's career as a composer. This is a must-buy.
Rating: * * * *

Review #2 by Ian Davis

The opening of this film is both visually and sonically well crafted. The lack of any dialogue whatsoever (a voice-over would have killed it) provides Elfman with the perfect opportunity to help set up the evocative background of the film. We have three basic ingredients: 1. "Open spaces" music. Very southern U.S., especially to a foreigner like myself; lots of wide sound with solo brass etc. 2. Mystery. More of that later (much, much more). 3. The romance. This is one movie where the composer provides us with a rolling theme that just washes you away to that place. Empathy with the film before you have even met the characters.
The seamless, magical shift from "spaces" music in duple metre to the full-blown Sommersby music in triple time propels film into a sense of continuous but slow momentum, rather than leaving it as a static mood-movie for fans of the stars. In other words Elfman gives the beginning a sense of the end, a direction, structuring the film in places which could otherwise have failed to engage the audience's emotions or even interest. Once this has been duly noticed then Elfman's true worth to the film is realized.
Of all the ingredients of the music, it is the "mystery" element (the tentative warmth of its romantic string texture, subdued minor-dominated harmonies) that manages to say all that isn't immediately apparent in the shared looks and subtle leading phrases.
The soundtrack isn't all marvelous mood music, however. It avoids outstaying it welcome by including liberal amounts of music designed to give short term relief from the oppressive tensions created between characters etc. The emphasis here is on carefree work/dance accompaniments (often, perhaps always due to its alien style?, implying that it is heard by the characters as a kind of source music). Examples of this are tracks 3 (folksey strings, pizzicati, harp, happier trumpet...), 5 (piccolo too; this music is reprised in track 16); 7 (c3'45-4'15), 10 (? Begins with old US militaristic overtones, masculine, forthright), 11 (the later celebration dance). Elfman is also sparing in his use of music in the court proceedings. Maybe it could have helped, but in my opinion the composer/director was wise to avoid the cliched mush-and-moral accompaniment unavoidable in this situation.
[WARNING. Spoiler alert. This paragraph gives away details of the plot that could hamper the initial impact of the film.] Elfman's most artful and effective stroke is, in my view, at the very end of the film, where the broadening of the musical sound at the camera's final sweep of the village (NOTE: The film ends as it began: a wordless story told by camera and music.) does not reach a high point. This comes after the camera blacks out on the grave of "John Sommersby". As the titles rise the music swells with all the passion Elfman can muster. One of the most unforgettable tear-jerkers, ironically showing the full extent of the film's power only after it is effectively over. Tension and sadness are consumed in a bittersweet passion worthy of Herrmann (may his soul rest in eternal peace and tranquility!) at his most romantic.
Over all, this soundtrack is a welcome part of Elfman's career. It presents (so far) perhaps one of the closest examples of a lack of his usual insincerity. The script and acting (mostly) are beautifully understated, allowing the music to speak the intimacy, the grandeur, and those magical moments when both happen at once. A classic score perfectly complimenting a more than decent film.
Rating: * * * *

Review #3 by the Texas Ranger

Okay, who gave Danny Elfman permission to score this film? Seriously, who had the conscious thought: "Hmm. . .this southern Romance could really use the talents of that little red-haired gnome - you know, the guy who does all of those Burton horror flicks!" Giving Elfman this assignment at the time would be the equivalent of handing John Williams a job to score Spice World after just completing Schindler's List! Iím surprised it never occurred to some producer that this could be a major recipe for disaster. Thankfully, it didnít, and Elfman was given the chance to prove that he could fashion a score as lush and melodramatic as any John Williams masterpiece.
Now, when I use the word melodramatic, I literally mean overemotional. While the themes and instrumentation may differ, I am reminded of the approach taken in Max Steinerís Gone with the Wind. Both use lush scores that seem to capture and create the emotion rather than merely complement it (Steiner's score occasionally would drown out the dialogue!). In fact, this score is literally a poor manís Gone With the Wind. As the score to Gone With the Wind reflected the grace and elegance of the Old South trying to survive the Civil War, Sommersby reflects the simple beauty of a bizarre romance taking place in the poverty stricken ruins entirely AFTER the War. This setting, and the film's plot, allows for quite a bit of musical diversity. Elfman combines the melodrama of Williams and Steiner with the soft, subtle understatement of the oft-times romantic Bernard Herrmann while mixing a touch of Americana from Aaron Copland. The result is a sweeping, over the top, romantic spectacle of a score interspersed with mystery and a good, old fashioned, rural Southern fun.
The interesting innovation that sets this score apart from his earlier works is that Elfman accomplishes this almost entirely through the strings. Unlike many of his other works (where the strings and winds are used as accompaniment in order to compliment the motion of a scene through unending stabs and arpeggios), the strings function here in more of a driving, chordal fashion. Sure there are those complex little rolling fiddle movements in the ethnic pieces (Tracks 5, 7, 11, and 16), but for the first time in an Elfman score, the strings sweep entirely in the foreground - slowly moving the main melody along in wave after wave of ascension and descent. Throw in some lukewarm brass (as well as some soothing guitar strums), and the theme takes on a slow, harmonious quality that perfectly complements the humid, lazy feel of a Southern afternoon.
The main melody remains relatively unchanged throughout the score. Though, like a snowflake, you never see (or hear, in this case) the same piece twice. While some of the differences may seem minute, Elfman does use slightly different accompaniment and orchestrations to guarantee that there is no absolute redundancy. He tells the story through the music by using counter melodies, harmony, and different instrumentation to convey the emotion of a scene while keeping the main melody unchanged (a technique he used to a greater effect in his score for Sleepy Hollow). It works beautifully and is best showcased in Death (Track 14) and Finale (Track 15). In these two pieces, the strings play the all too familiar main melody while a sad, solo trumpet adds a nice counter melody that musically indicates this is a tragic scene. The same musical story telling technique is used throughout the entire score - covering a wide range of emotions; from reminiscence (The Homecoming - Track 2) and intimate romance (First Love - Track 4) to delicate parental wonderment (Baby - Track 11) and fierce, militaristic, determination (Going to Nashville - Track 10). All of these vastly different emotions are dispensed through only two variations of the same theme! In this respect, the score becomes the ultimate symbol of the historical Southern psyche: warm, reflective, isolated, nostalgic, and ultimately resistant to change.
Still, for those who feel that swooning love themes are not a favorite form of music, Elfman also provides a set of upbeat, rural celebration pieces. In Work (Track 5 and End Credit Counterpart in Track 16), a series of guitars, banjos, fiddles, flutes, and percussion unleash a swinging little dance piece that is just pure, country fun. Coincidentally, in its more bombastic moments, Elfman's Work theme sounds suspiciously reminiscent of Aaron Copland's "Cowboy Hoe-down" from "Rodeo." In addition, he also colors Return Montage (Track 7) with his typical rolling string arpeggios and some other clever country motifs. I must admit, though, that those who are not in the mood to relive "Hee-haw: The Glory Years" may find these tracks to be a little silly. Still, lovers of Gaelic Storm's Irish folk party-music (from Titanic) definitely should look into these pieces. In addition, the inclusion of the mystery element allows for some disturbing tone setters (Tracks 8 and 13) that should satisfy the more morbidly cultured Elfman fanatic.
If there is one problem with this score, it is that it always draws so close to becoming a cliché. Those who despise Williams' melodramatic style may have trouble coping with (what some might call) the "sappiness" of this score. Still, it must be said that Elfman never seems to cross that line. Despite the surprising universality of this score, this is still 100% Elfman's baby. Having listened to his work for ten years now, there are subtle clues that indicate his involvement - the very particular type of string arpeggios used in the lively pieces (Tracks 5,7,11, and 16), the string dissonance in Track 13 that would become a precursor to Delores Claiborne, the delicate Pizzicato oscillations (straight out of Edward Scissorhands) used in Track 11, and other subtle recurring Elfman motifs. These giveaways, and Elfman's obvious desire not to become a part of "The Establishment," ensures that no matter how sappy the piece, the listener will not be hearing a pathetic TV-Movie score or typical courtroom drama sap from THIS composer! This is not to say that Sommersby doesn't have a "mushy" factor to it.
Yes, Sommersby is syrupy. Indeed, it is unabashedly a sappy romance at heart. Undoubtedly, it is a gooey tear-jerker in the end. Yet, films are like pancakes - they all need syrup. And like all pancakes, each film is different. Some require composers to lay it on thick. Both Gone With the Wind and Sommersby required buckets of it! Fortunately, though, it was just the right amount. So why not indulge on some sweetness for once? Trust me, it's worth it!
The Good:
Lush, huge, symphonic, romantic, tragic, and fun in the same spirit as Gone With the Wind. Using pure Southern Americana, Elfman once again blends his unique brand of scoring with classic techniques and fashions a romantic masterpiece on the same level as Williams and Herrmann. Fans of Sleepy Hollow's softer side and Edward Scissorhands should buy this one NOW!
The Bad and the Ugly:
For the morbid Elfman fan, this could be viewed as sappy, melodramatic, mush. Those who crave the macabre, dislike folk tunes, have no room for Southern music, and abhor all things romantic may be turned off by Elfman's brief stint with pure sentimentality. But come on guys, it's a TRADEGY!
Ranger's Verdict:
Even for the dark Elfman fanatics, like myself, this score is a wonderful experience that shouldn't be denied. Romantic scores like this are a rare breed in this day and age. Sadly, it's a shame to think that this score is so often ignored/forgotten by both mainstream and Elfman fans alike while light hearted fluff, like Horner's Titanic, seems to draw undeserved attention. Perhaps THAT is the TRUE tragedy of Sommersby!
Music as Heard on the CD: * * * *
Music as heard in the Film: * * * *
Amount of Music on the CD: * * * 1/2

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