For more than twenty years Danny Elfman has composed some of the most recognizable scores in film and television. While it would be easy to say he just simply has a gift for musical accompaniment, he takes his job extraordinarily seriously. Likewise, he continues that, “Working closely with a director is the main job a film composer. Interpreting what he perceives as a color, an emotion, or mood is very abstract. A director tells you something he wants and then you have to run back to your music and respond with, ‘I think he meant something like this.’”
The self-taught musician who first picked up an instrument at the age of eighteen would eventually grow into the multiple Oscar nominated and Grammy Award winning Danny Elfman. Having dropped out of high school and followed his older brother to France prior to journeying to Africa, Elfman managed to absorb musical styles from every place he’s lived which is evident in every one of his eclectic, offbeat, and memorable scores including Wanted which is his best in years.
From his beginnings as a rock musician in the band Oingo Boingo to becoming a frequent collaborator of director Tim Burton — his main musical Batman theme from Burton’s 1989 film marked the very first time I became aware of the art of film scoring. In fact, I was so distinctly affected by it that I begged for the sheet music and tried to learn it on the piano myself, but only managed to make it through a page and a half. And although he’s provided such instantly recognizable and remarkable scores for Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and the theme songs for TV’s The Simpsons and Desperate Housewives, among others, he was the cruel subject of much unfair criticism and speculation when he first made headlines.
After being snobbishly charged by academics that a rock star couldn’t move into scoring and insinuating that perhaps Elfman wasn’t the brains behind the music in the earliest part of his career, Elfman fired back by defending himself and others with similar backgrounds as well. However, the best revenge was the quality of the work itself, going on to move endlessly from one high profile project to another.
Spending more than a dozen hours a day on any given score, seven days a week for several months, the prolific Elfman, who also composed the music for three additional films this year aside from Wanted, including Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Standard Operating Procedure, and Milk, seems to take a Batman-like approach to making music. Retreating to “his basement musical laboratory,” he compares his work to screenwriting, telling the L.A. Times that, “a movie starts with a writer alone in a room conjuring something out of vapor… And it ends with a score composer talking to himself in a little room, conjuring something out of vapor.” And when it came to crafting the music for Russian director and Night Watch series creator Timur Bekmambetov’s Wanted, based on JG Jones and Mark Millar’s graphic novels about a cubicle nerd who quickly discovers his fate to join an elite squad of assassins, Elfman was able to use an approach that was deeply personal to him and incredibly beneficial to the Russian filmmaker. Having told the Jewish Journal that he finds himself “drawn to [his] Russian and Eastern European musical roots,” since he considers that his “strongest link to [his] Jewish background is musical,” he admits that although he’s never been there, “I feel a kinship with Russia,” which is “very much a part of.. [his] consciousness.”
You hear this fairly quickly into the roughly fifty minute running time of Wanted’s Original Motion Picture Soundtrack. Consisting entirely of Elfman’s music, the phenomenal score opens with the musician’s first vocal performance in three years (since Burton’s Corpse Bride) with the catchy, masculine and guitar fueled vehicle “The Little Things.” Launching right into a heavily techno and eclectic, largely Russian and Eastern European influenced score, he follows up “The Little Things with fourteen instrumental tracks guaranteed to hook you on the first listen alone and Wanted just gets stronger with repeat plays.
While usually with films scores, one main musical theme or motif gets recycled ad nauseam throughout or some songs are so ridiculously short (like 45 seconds), repetitive and dull that it’s fairly easy to spot the stand-outs. As far as Wanted is concerned, there isn’t one track that sounds out of place. Much more successful in this film critic’s opinion than the film itself, Wanted is Elfman at his very best and you can see a brief interview with the graphic novel creators, Elfman and journalist Rebecca Murray.
Building towards the intensity to come with his sweeping orchestral track “Success Montage,” that’s fairly heavy on the use of strings until more than halfway through it’s infused with some electronic techno, it alternates between the classic and the modern in a way that sets up what’s to come. We hear some of the hook from this track throughout the album although he slows down the pace with what sounds like Monks chanting in the aptly named “Fraternity Suite,” and mixes things around considerably until the immediate four-star track, “Fox in Control.”
Nearly painting the action with the music itself, it makes the ideal counterpart to Angelina Jolie’s tough but sexy character Fox and flows very well into “Welcome to the Fraternity,” which is uniformly excellent but ultimately serves as a bridge into the album’s change-of-pace track “Fox’s Story.” “Story” begins with a melancholic and somber opening but adds in beautiful female vocalization past the one minute mark that’s deceptively angelic and precious. Later, we realize that despite Fox’s surface beauty, there’s a deadly woman underneath who is revealed musically after three minutes when the violent sounds of the electric guitar come in.
“Exterminator Beat,” picks up on the more masculine and firm sounds evidenced earlier on in “Success Montage,” and others with its techno and electronic heavy sounds until strings work in and it feels like a call and answer between old and new, very similar to the fraternity of assassins themselves. Additionally, in its own way, it felt reminiscent of some of the thematically similar compositions of Clint Mansell on his score for Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream.
And while the rest of the album is solid, Elfman really cuts loose on the addictive track “Revenge,” breaking out strings, guitars, techno, and more in the frantically paced rock 'n' roll, no-holds-barred sounds of one of Wanted’s most superlative tracks after “Fox in Control” and “The Little Things.”
And although one may say in the end it’s all “The Little Things” Elfman manages to mix together in his masterful approach that make Wanted a true-standout for the composer both musically and personally, as it feeds into his own kinship with his Russian Jewish roots, there’s nothing little about the album nor the man who’s been quietly composing some of the most extraordinary film music in the past few decades.
1) “The Little Things”
2) “Success Montage”
3) “Fraternity Suite”
4) “Wesley’s Office Life”
5) “The Scheme”
6) “Fox in Control”
7) “Welcome to the Fraternity”
8) “Fox’s Story”
9) “Exterminator Beat”
11) “The Train”
13) “Fox’s Decision”
14) “Breaking the Code”