Reviews - Standard Operating Procedure

Review by Bluntinstrument

Reviewing a score soundtrack inevitably involves reviewing a film. This is a truism that really needs explanation: one's interpretation and appreciation of a film is inextricably bound to one's reception of its score, even when it feels possible to disentangle the two and weigh their merits in isolation, such as on a CD soundtrack, there is a colouring that can never be shed once the two elements have been experienced together. My approach to scores is often to hear the CD first, often simply because I am unable to see the film on release of the disc. Standard Operating Procedure is one such case and even with an understanding of the subject matter of the film, hearing the CD first was most instructive on how we reinterpret music in context of other elements. Here is the review I wrote at the time:
Despite the film documenting a particularly petty and sick event in colonialism's history by way of a patchwork of interviews, graphics and reconstruction, Danny Elfman's score is one of his smoothest and entertaining on disc for some time. Much of the reason for this is that he has tapped into the style of his Serenada Schizophrana, introducing a more chamber-like sense of texture (often feeling sparse despite using a reasonably expansive orchestra) underpinned by gentle clockwork ostinato figures (occasionally the instrumentation alludes to the mechanical). This, together with a slightly wayward approach to styles, stretching from tinkling lullaby to Kingdomesque contemporary synth by way of Philip Glass, makes even the shorter tracks worth listening to, if only to their attention to detail.
Thematically we are on home territory. A beautiful and touching main SOP theme (deserving of varied reprisals), is supported by other innately Elfmanic material: the clarinet theme in 'Photos' (track 3) harks back to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, for example, and a few more menacing themes come very close to those from Sleepy Hollow. Both films leaned toward the creepy and childlike, and it is therefore unsurprising that in the setting of his Serenada style the overall effect is a touch surreal. Oddly for Elfman there is no chorus, although there are chorus-like synthesized 'hoots' on occasion, and this is indicative of his willingness in this score to introduce synth elements which sound as such.
Within this bracket there is much to play with and each track feels fresh, showing a composer alive to his subject matter, and with the sense of flow comes a more graspable experience without the aid of the visuals. The downside of the influence of Serenada, though, gradually becomes apparent: rather than an influence on the score, in retrospect the score appears to have been written around Serenada, with fragments from two movements reprised with slight tinkering (tracks 8 and 16). This is a dangerous ploy, and one wonders whose choice it was. Elfman's music has already been adapted for the underwater journey Deep Sea 3D. Thankfully most of the score is inventive enough to broaden the horizons of the Serenada rather than be manicled to them, and the arrangement of the tracks on disc seems a deliberate ploy to shift the influence left of field, but it is a close thing since Serenada is, for the reviewer, the stronger work, and SOP's running time and patchworked styles eventually counts against it in holding interest.
I stand by everything contained above. However, the interpretation would have been very different had I been reviewing in context of the film, and on CD subsequently. My noted reactions during viewing were most instructive. At first I was diverted by how much more prominent the Serenada Schizophrena basis was, since it blatently opens the film. The opening of the Serenada is far more intense than the more sombre S.O.P. theme, and this causes a very discernible shift in one's view of the succeeding interviews, photos, letters and video footage. My reaction to the interviewees was more negative than I suspect was the intention of the director: the tasteful backing, careful makeup, everso slightly amused/smug faces, and causual language - all ways of making a good looking documentary, all ways for people to say and think about things that feel unreal in retrospect - feel false, and it makes me angry. Elfman's scoring intensifies this by leaping in the opposite direction, using for some of the early cues deliberately tinkly, childlike scoring, fantasy, simple nursery-style themes - the love affair story at 18'40" being one of them, using Olie's lullaby, a theme by Oliver Elfman - and again it feels wrong. What have these people got to hide? Their direct eye contact reminds me of school children caught doing something naughty and lying to their teacher. This music is nasty, these people are evil. It isn't until about the 1 hr point that the seeming approach of undercutting or subverting the evidence presented gives way towards underscoring and intensifying the interviewees' sense of frustration and dismay, and one's own sense of disbelief and ruvulsion in what is going on also shifts a little more to anger at what is being directed rather than the motivations of the human instruments showed in the photos.
I returned to the score and my reception of it was completely transformed. Elfman's music feels more surreal, the luridity clashes with the darker, maniacle strings. This isn't a funny score with links to fantasy films. This is acid, a smile through gritted teeth. The sweeter the flavaour the more powerful the poison, the smaller the scale the further Goliath has to fall.
But wait, there is a coda. I returned to the DVD and started listening to the director's commentary. Here we finally have a voice-over, something that interprets for us rather than allows us to make our own judgements based on the facts, cutting and music. Morris's views are more complex but also perplexing. He may be concerned with how a dangerous and alien situation and collective madness can corrupt the actions and reactions of young army recruits, but his anger is directed at the people who are barely mentioned, who 'remain out of shot', who dismissed so many elements of the Geneva Convention, placed political goals above ethics, and used and abandoned their own people. He has nothing but sympathy for the interviewees, and is perfectly persuasive. So, what is the difference between the two interpretations? One one hand 'Lord of the Flies' and on the other 'America's foreign policy'. And the difference, of course, is Elfman's score is almost muted, replaced by more old-style conventional documentary speech.
Now I return to the CD as I type, and it feels tragic. The sweeter the music, the sadder the musician; the smaller the ensemble, the more private the horror and grief. Naturally this is still more intense because Elfman's beautiful S.O.P. theme is topping as well as and tailing, with the oddity of the lullaby tagged on the end like something from another movie.
I do wonder, though, how much further my views would have shifted had I returned to the movie, and overlaid Morris's commentary with a much louder mix of Elfman's music. I suspect the two will not have married at all well. Interesting, then, how powerful an influence music can have on a fact-based medium where narrative is not in the hands of the trusted voice-over.
Original verdict: An interesting work and worth the purchase for all the disappointing self plagiarism.
Final verdict: A fascinating struggle between morality and madness. Abu Graib. Standard Operating Procedure. Elfman's film.
Score rating: * * *
CD release rating: * * *
On a side note this reviewer so grateful to Elfma in both The Kingdom and SOP for eschewing the 'ethnic' style tortured vocals and Enigma percussion. This has been criticised in the past but the effect is almost refreshing now that oud and wordless cries are used so often and lazily. Their use in Hulk, however, proved quite the reverse, being so evocative precisely due to its geographical/topical inappropriateness.

Back to the Score Profile