Reviews - Spider-Man

Review by the Groovy Yak

The holy trinity of comic book films has finally formed. First there was Richard Donner’s SUPERMAN in 1978, Tim Burton’s BATMAN in 1989, and now at last there’s Sam Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN in 2002. All three films were crowd-pleasing (and largely critic-pleasing) hits. All three had directors who identified and understood the original comic the movie was based on. All three had leading men who were absolutely perfect for their parts. Lastly, all three had incredible film scores with two of the three penned by Mr. Danny Elfman.
Elfman’s SPIDER-MAN is no re-hash of his BATMAN score, that’s for sure. Elfman had only gotten his feet wet in the film scoring pool when he started writing BATMAN. Now, fast-forward about twelve years. The Danny Elfman who wrote SPIDER-MAN is not the same Danny Elfman who wrote BATMAN. He spent the entire last decade shaping and re-inventing his sound and technique. The Rota-esque Pee-Wee stylings and wicked, macabre tendencies, and his dependency on “the theme” slowly turned into the harsh, dissonances of MARS ATTACKS and the focus on color and texture as can be found in just about every Danny Elfman score since MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE. Only in certain cases where it was almost necessary has Elfman written a big, lush theme in his modern scores. (THE FAMILY MAN) Now Mr. Elfman composes motives that serve as the bricks he uses to construct his score.
And that is exactly what he has done with his SPIDER-MAN score. There is a palpaple theme for Spidey (“Main Titles”, 1:47-2:32), but what Elfman seems to use as Spiderman material is a set of 3-4 small motives to identify the character. What I consider to be the theme for Spiderman appears only in its entirety in the main titles- the reason for this is because the melodic line is completely dependent on the chords underneath it. Small bits of melody are much easier to shape and develop. And boy, does he develop them. Like Elliot Goldenthal’s BATMAN FOREVER, Elfman shapes his themes in various ways, always playing with them and juggling them. (That’s why I find the accusation that there’s no themes in this score to be absolutely hilarious.) His main Spidey motive is always modulating, always in motion- much like how Spiderman is always moving, swinging from building to building. On the other hand, the theme of the villain of the film, the Green Goblin, gets treated more in the manner of Elfman’s BATMAN. It’s a longer melody than any of the Spiderman motives, and it often appears the same way each time, unaltered. There’s little development of the theme, other than the fact that it expands and contracts throughtout the course of the film from only one musical phrase to four. By the time we get to “Final Confrontation” Elfman presents us with a full Green Goblin theme that seems quite menacing compared to his Spidey motives.
In terms of energy, Elfman seems more virile than ever in SPIDER-MAN. Spiderman is not some brooding 30-something adult out for revenge- he’s a fun, smart-mouthed, energetic teenager with super strength and enhanced abilities- using his powers to protect the city. Elfman seems quite conscious of this fact as the score is bright, hip, and energetic. It’s a perfect blend of comic book camp and melodrama.
The orchestration in SPIDER-MAN is definitely worth talking about- it’s just as imporant as the thematic material. Again, Danny’s fixation on orchestral color really elevates the artistry and entertainment value of the score. All of the orchestral groups (including ethnic percussion and toys, choir, and electronics) get equal time in this score. The strings of course are the life-blood of the score, and they get to play a lot of the Elfmanian devices we know and love: the descending arpeggios, extended passages for tremolo strings, and Elfman’s favorite rhythmic figure (the sixteenth-dotted eigth) to name a few. The upper brass gets a workout with huge chords: the main titles alone are breathtaking. The low brass gets to play all the fun Green Goblin material. I especially enjoy a lot of the woodwind writing in the score. Gorgeous flute lines are featured in a lot of the softer moments in the score (mostly scenes with Mary Jane), and there’s a great little clarinet solo in a section of the score that is destined to be one of the greatest moments in Elfman’s canon. (More on that later). It’s interesting to note that Elfman uses full choir ONLY in the scenes where Spidey is swinging. (Yes, there is electronic choir in other scenes). The huge choral passages add much to these scenes- especially in the first major action sequence in the film (“Revenge”) where we get to see Spidey swing for the first time. Classic.
Spider-man is a masterpiece. This is the best score I’ve heard out of Danny in years. (Not to put-down his recent work at all.) The action music is absolutely exhilarating while the tender scenes between Peter and Mary Jane are filled with intimacy I haven’t heard since EDWARD SCISSORHANDS. I think Danny really relates to Peter Parker (as does Sam Raimi). Most boys do. Adolescense is a difficult time for most males- trying to discover who you are, dealing with your ever-changing body, and sorting out these new “feelings.” I think most of us understand Peter’s obsession with Mary Jane, as most of us have experienced unrequited love during the high school years. With this in mind, sections of the score like the latter half of “Parade Attack” (2:45 – 3:54) and Revelation (0:00 – 1:20) are so incredibly moving, knowing that Peter finally has the girl of his dreams in his arms. Elfman explored much of this territory in EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, but I think his love music here is even more emotionally charged. There’s nothing like “Alone” in Elfman’s early-90’s work. Not even in BLACK BEAUTY or DOLORES CLAIBORNE.
I’m quite glad (and thankful) Sony/Columbia decided to release a score album of SPIDER-MAN. The album, while coming in at an less-than-meaty forty-five minutes, captures most of the highlights of the score. There is, perhaps, too much Green Goblin material. “Parade Attack,” “Specter of the Goblin,” and “Final Controntation” contain a few too many variations on the theme. I would’ve liked to have heard the “First Wall Climb” cue or the “Baby Rescue” cue in place of “Specter of the Goblin” or “Getting Through.” Of course, in an optimal situation, I’d rather have the whole damn score, but we all know that’s usually not possible. The sound is pretty good- but not great. Some tracks contain a little hiss. But who cares? In my opinion, Spiderman is Elfman at his best. There are some who find this score disappointing- they were either expecting Batman or had pre-conceived notions of what Spider-man music should sound like. I, on the other hand, am caught up in a web of excitement for this score. Danny’s bitten me again.
Rating: * * * *

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