Reviews - Spy Kids

Review #1 by the Groovy Yak

Review originally appeared at
Perceiving film music as a viable artform, it's difficult for many of us to grasp this new concept popularized by Media Ventures of "composition by committee." Our favorites like Korngold, Rosza, Herrmann, Goldsmith, or Williams never (or hardly ever) collaborated with other composers. So, on the surface, it seems that scores written by large groups of people are inferior products. However, as seen with CHICKEN RUN and HANNIBAL and now with SPY KIDS, this couldn't be further from truth. (Of course, one could argue that there's still plenty of examples of musical trainwrecks out there composed by groups of musicians) Nine (9!) composers plus the group Los Lobos worked on SPY KIDS. And, as the liner notes dictate, they all worked together in different combinations on different cues. Danny Elfman is credited with coming up with the Spy Kids theme and the "Floop's Song" that is performed in the film. There's a few "Elfman only" cues, but most of the time he's assisted by John Debney. Hans Zimmer helped director Robert Rodriguez assemble some of his Media Ventures men for the score as well. Gavin Greenaway, guitarist Heitor Pereira, and Harry Gregson-Williams contribute material ("The Family Theme" is credited to Gregson-Williams). Composer and orchestrator Chris Boardman also worked on the film, adapting some of Elfman's material (namely the Floop song) for a couple of cues. Finally, the director himself- Robert Rodriguez, his brother Marcel, David Garza, and Los Lobos contributed. That's pretty insane, but oddly enough, it works.
The score is very much like a latin James Bond score. There's lots of acoustic guitar and Spanish musical idioms mixed with that classic spy sound. Thankfully for us, the score never panders to the kiddies and rarely enters into that obnoxious mickey-mousing territory that is common in scores for children's features. That's not to say that the score isn't bright or colorful, because it's exactly that. It stays very upbeat and lively for almost its entire running time.
The highlight of the score surprisingly doesn't come from Elfman, Debney, or Gregson-Williams, but from Robert Rodriguez himself. Track 3, "Spy Wedding" for the flashback sequence at the beginning of the film is the "worth-the-price-of-the-CD" track on the album. Apparently Rodriguez took some of Los Lobos work and wrote amazing choral and orchestra parts to augment their sound. It's an incredible track, and proof that Rodriguez is quite a multi-talented artist.
Elfman's "Floop's Song (Cruel World)" is pretty good. It sounds very much like his NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS and LITTLE DEMONS (un-produced musical) work with that grandiose whimsical sound. However, it would be so much better if only it were twice as long. 58 seconds is not enough. Alan Cumming does a superb job performing the song (he even sounds a little bit like Danny). If only they could've spent a couple more million (the films budget was a modest $36 million) and extended the sequence in the film by another minute or two. Elfman also pulls out some amazing cues that should make all of his fans salivate. "Buddy Pack Escape" is another highlight of the score with its fast brass passages, tubular bells, and that manic Elfman-brand action that harks back to his BATMAN days.
The other composers all do fine work as well. Gavin Greenaway does a great job with "Kids Escape House" (Note to Hans Zimmer: it's time for him to get his own film to score all by himself.) I also enjoyed Chris Boardman's arrangement of Elfman's Floop material in "Floop's Castle."
The only real problem with this album is that it's way too short. The score portion is just a shade under 30 minutes. By the time that the lame pop song at the end came on (obviously it was written for the 12 year olds who might get this album), I was still craving much more score. Nonetheless, I'm happy that at least there is a score release. SPY KIDS is still a great album for film score fans, despite the juvenile nature of the film. I recommend it to all film music fans (especially if you like acoustic guitar or fast-paced spy music.) if you aren't embarrassed enough to approach the checkout girl at your local music store with a copy in hand. Of course, that's what is for, right?
Rating: * * *

Review #2 by Ian Davis

Even anyone not new to the idea of more than one person involved in scoring film music might balk at the list of contributors to the Spy Kids score. The situation is not so much a score-by-numbers affair as joining-the-dots. What give this distance-learning approach to collaboration its centre (at no time did all composers work together on the score) is not (no matter what the director might claim in the CD liner notes) Elfman's goofy "Floops Song" (track 12, although Chris Boardman's "Floops Castle" track 17 is most evocative and even suggests Edward Scissorhands too), but more the film's own reworked generic centrality. This is a "spy film", and as such is heavily dependent upon the influence and foreknowledge of the Bond canon. This works well in terms of scoring, because there is consolidated precedent which allows Elfman, for example, to shift his cool-but-heavy Men In Black style of writing towards Bond-tours-Latin-America.
... Which picks up on the second important stylistic corner in the musical jigsaw puzzle: Antonio Banderas [note previous films such as The Mask of Zorro and Rodriguez's own Desperado] and the geography. There appears to have been an agreement to facilitate the plucking and (most effectively) strumming of acoustic guitars, which gives the whole film a sense - at least the illusion - of uniformity. This gambit is particularly successful in marrying the contributions of Gavin Greenaway, Heitor Pereira and Harry Gregson Williams (eg. track 1) with Los Lobos and Rodriguez (eg. track 3).
Despite the balances of the above, however, the true motivation behind the success of this score - and success it is - is the current situation of the action movie genre. The music for films like James Bond may have required a sense of togetherness in terms of thematicism and orchestral colour, but the reality left to us by the '90s is that the average action film can be backed almost continuously by a succession of music from totally different artists, so long as a quasi-Mickey-Mousing element is adhered to (rule one: fun action scenes do not get backed by Enya). The pop song trend of the '60s became in the '90s a more integrated affair, and with films such as The Matrix and Charlie's Angels, the use of heavy rock or equivalent for some of the more exhilarating action sequences appears to a contemporary audience highly appropriate. Both films (as do others) of course mix this with original orchestral and synthesized music of varying quality and quantity, but the action score is now so firmly rooted in the "sequence" as opposed to the "plot" in terms of audience consciousness, that the mere juxtaposition of the work of a variety of competent-to-talented composers in a reasonably pigeonholable movie sounds wonderfully integrated to the average cinema-goer from the MTV generation and beyond, most especially when these contributions are mixed in a way which mirrors the on-scene presence of various characters (eg. even when Elfman does not score for Floop, the music generated is often of a similar dark/comic style).
So from this angle we can view the patchwork in terms NOT of "how successful the collaboration" (as this is both established and relatively unimportant in the case of Spy Kids as a take on the spy/action genre group), but on how various composers and arrangers interpreted the image as and through sound.
To briefly cut a swathe through the other composers, the work is to say the least, a joy, particularly in terms of a children's movie. Like the film itself there is little time given over to the saccharine sweetness of your average Disney live-action (remember that Rodriguez has risen gradually to the challenge of the children's movie via his entertaining fantasy-Scream, The Faculty), and although the sleeve notes give the impression that Gregson Williams, Greenaway and Pereira are Zimmer-puppies on work experience, their combined style rapidly departs from the overblown dramatic theme of the opening of track 1 and gives over to the fun of making varied and involved music. Despite this, though, first prize for sheer effect on disc is the Los Lobos/Rodriguez contribution to track 3, "Spy Wedding". It is direct, tuneful, and foot-tapping in exhilarating flamenco style. So how does Elfman manage to fit into an opening like this? Well, in fact Spy Kids has not one but three beginnings, where the back story of two spies who fall in love and give up their jobs to have kids leans so far into the Bond pre-credits sequence notion that MGM should be suing. Despite the obvious worries about having three consecutive openings scored by different composers or composer groups, the direction and editing is so swift and sure, and the musicians so confident and obviously enjoying themselves that all is pulled off with panache:
1. the opening of the film: us flying across the water and arriving in that oh-so-twee scene of family bliss, where kids with problems say good night to parents and ask for "the story"
2. the story about two spies who fall in love (Elfman - more below)
3. the wedding (where Los Lobos and Rodriguez step in and do their Zimmer-does-Zorro magic
I leave further comment on the other composers to other reviews and move on to Elfman's work. Despite a total of just under 10 minutes of music this is still an Elfman fan's must-have, and not just for completists. I wouldn't have recommended a purchase on the strength of "Floop's Song" ("Cruel World", track 12), which is less than a minute of quasi-Jimmy Callicut nonsense sung by an Alan Cumming very successfully mimicking Elfman's vocal style. One might also be put off by the fact that four of the eight Elfman tracks are actually written in collaboration, as although John Debney's role appears to have been more of an orchestrator/arranger, the impression given by the sleeve notes is that at this point Elfman had little or no involvement in the synching of music to film, so Debney and others had a relatively free creative hand. And it shows, I think - which actually helps the score integrate further with cues written by Rodriguez and co.
Where Elfman's involvement is most recognisable - and most odd - is where he is given sole responsibility. Track 15 is throwaway, but track 10 is a gem of Elfman crazed irrepressibility: it runs across the score picking up and throwing away instrument groups (including saxophones) in mere seconds, making every moment precious. Track 2, "My Parents Are Spies" wraps up the parcel, making an enjoyable score and Elfman must-have: the Men In Black style pushed forward diluting the Tarantino-meets-Banderas touch with whimsy and finally giving way to setting the scene for the spy romancing.
The real reason for Elfman fans buying the score, though, should be to listen to track 10 again and again and try to work out how this masterpiece of miniaturisation could be expanded into a full score for the film. I'm convinced it's possible. Elfman packs a full hour's worth of instrumental timbre and thematic development into a minute and a half. The track is hidden away bang in the middle of the CD but pick it out and you'll find the jewel in the crown to Spy Kids. As much as I admire the Los Lobos / Rodriguez "Spy Wedding" set-piece, Elfman's "Buddy Pack Escape" cue hints at how his fans missed out on the Elfman score of the year. Bar none.
Rating for Elfman music in film: * * - hardly a chance to find out
Rating for Elfman music on CD: * * - let down by brevity and dilution

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