Reviews - To Die For

Review #1 by Groovy Yak

1995 was a slow year for Elfman scores. (It was an important year for Elfman though. Oingo Boingo performed their last concert on Halloween of 1995.) Besides the percussive Dead Presidents, Elfman's only other score that year was for Gus Van Sant's "To Die For." It's a slightly bizarre film, but is still quite interesting. It's the story of a media-obsessed airhead who tricks some local trailor-trash teens into murdering her husband so she can get her career off the ground as a famous news anchor. Nicole Kidman really establishes herself as a good actress. (She got nominated for a Golden Globe for the role.) It's a dark comedy, but it's hard to tell without the music. Elfman's score really adds a third dimension to film.
This score is definitely different from Elfman's music up to that date. This is the score where Elfman's music reached a turning point. His style changed to favor more percussion and synthesized music. To Die For, was in essence, an introduction to what was to come- his fantastic score to Mission: Impossible, which gave us the "new Elfman sound." To Die For is quite schizophrenic. The main titles are a lot of fun to listen to. Elfman bounces back and forth between a sweet, pitzicatto tone and a harsh, heavy metal tone. It's fun and serves the film well, although it may feel a tad unmusical. A highlight of the score is Suzie's Theme, which is performed by small male and female choirs and strings. It's lively cue that sounds like an old radio advertisement from the 1940's. It's a perfect depiction of Susanne Stone-Maretto, who is over-ambitious and extremely dim-witted.
While most of the tracks on the album are somewhat dramatic, it's Elfman's music that really establishes the comedic tone of the movie. The over-dramatic nature of the music adds to the comedy. A perfect example of this is the cue Weepy Donuts. (The name must be some sort of in-joke.) The cue features a wonderful female vocalist performance. Another highlight of the score is in the track called Murder. At the point in the film where the murder takes place, Elfman adds in choir. However, the twist is that they're singing in a major key. That's not something you'd expect to hear in a homicide scene.
Overall, To Die For is decent, but is not Elfman at his most exciting or beautiful. If you own Music for a Darkened Theater Volume 2, you already own most of the score and all of the good parts, with the exception of Murder. Half of the soundtrack contains pop music that's not as entertaining as the score.
Rating: * * *

Review #2 by Ian Davis

There is a big problem with this CD. That problem is the film: for Gus van Sant Elfman wrote a score of extreme absurdity and cynicism which works so closely with plot and character that on disc there is nothing to hope for but disappointment. Yes, the CD recording allows us to revel in outlandish contrast (both to comic and eerie effect), but it's true meaning is lost when separated from the film.
The song tracks used to fill in the gaps that the 20 minute score leaves are of somewhat ragbag nature, but they avoid for the most part the mush of recent film songs for romantic comedies [why are there so few straight romances now without having to mix in comedy or action or thriller?] and the big noise of blockbuster film songs. At the same time they all actually play a part in the film--and the guitar accompaniment to "All by myself" (performed by Eric Carmen, track 11) is perhaps referred to (in minor key) by Elfman in track 8.
Back to the score: The music of To Die For is pure psychology. An Elfman dream, coming a close second (in my view) to Michael Keaton's Bruce Wayne. From the start the pathetic kitchness which backs Suzie/Kidman's dialogue shouts unhinged temperament. It represents the mystical make-believe of media and stardom absorbed into her persona.
The electric guitar, ultimate opposing style, is the totally mad side that opens up the world of confidence and manipulative deviousness. It also represents animal attraction and youthful rebelliousness. The roles of this second sonic device are often blurred--and here is where characters and plotline suddenly become a logical and believable as a weather forecast. Certainly the film would have had trouble coping with disbelief without the music.
The stylistic mix is that frission, that dangerous chemical reaction. All other parts of the film, where we are separated from the inside of Suzie's head and the aura of her personality, are shot without music (with the exception of background radio sound, songs etc). "Television footage" especially is given that extra nudge of reality through implication of that absence.
There is no stretch of the imagination by which you could describe To Die For as "real life". Whatever the realities of media, of ambition, of psychosis, this is fantasy, and Danny Elfman's music has the privilege of communicating this to us, leaving the characters serenely unconscious of the betrayal.
To go into detail with this score would be to trivialize much of what Elfman tries to do here. Music for some films is that ephemeral substance that we can notice without being absolutely conscious of it--and its true power in this medium lies in that transient place. My suggestion in this "review" is that anyone who knows nothing about To Die For should go out and watch the film. [To give a taste I might pick two points near the end of the film: when Phoenix/James is describing his love for Suzanne Stone, Elfman evokes an eerie reminiscence of her characteristic sound. The result is a reflection of her personality minus many of the freakish quirks and certainly without the brutishness of the guitar (which is as much associated with his own character). This is his Suzie, the clean Suzie who brought sex and fairytale fantasy to an otherwise unstimulated/ing character.] Forget the soundtrack until you've experienced the music in it's most communicative state.
This is not to criticize the CD, as it makes for fascinating listening. The juxtaposition of styles is handled very well, and the themes are never lost when the composer experiments with new textures and sounds.
DOZING? On disc we have eccentricity. On film we have delicious, subversive, angel-faced devilry. I recommend both for Elfman fans.
Rating: * * *

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