Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Seminal Scores: Edward Scissorhands (Danny Elfman, 1990)

To celebrate the imminent release of Tim Burton and Danny Elfman's 13th outing as a duo, Alice in Wonderland, here's a look back at their finest collaboration, a masterpiece of fairy-tale scoring. Are you sitting comfortably? Once, a long time ago, there was a man with scissors for hands...


Fresh off his 1989 megahit Batman, one which singlehandedly revived not only superhero cinema but the image of the Caped Crusader himself, Tim Burton then looked to a more personal project. It's not hard to see the director was speaking about himself in Edward Scissorhands, about an artificial man cursed with scissors in place of hands. At first welcomed by the local community living below his castle, eventually hatred and mistrust grows to such an extent that he is outcast, forced to abandon the local girl he has fallen in love with.

Burton's obvious compassion for the outsider lends Edward Scissorhands a heart-rending edge in spite of the many comic moments, complemented by his first outing with Johnny Depp in the title role. While that was the beginning of a wonderfully fruitful and eccentric partnership, encompassing roles from Ed Wood up to this week's Mad Hatter, it was the fourth between Burton and composer Danny Elfman, whose wonderfully madcap sense of the macabre is absolutely crucial in establishing Burton's sense of fantasy.

It was Scissorhands though that saw the two oddballs working at the absolute height of their creative partnership. Forgoing the terrific bombast of Batman (with Elfman similarly redefining the superhero sound as Burton had done with the visuals), here the composer looked inward and wrote one of the masterpiece scores of the decade, one that changed how audiences looked at fairy tales (and snow!) for years to come. For proof, just look at the pervasive presence of Ice Dance in this years Dancing on Ice series; film music has to strike a very special chord to penetrate that sort of collective consciousness.

Elfman's use of the dreamy, feather-light choir has never been more breathtaking than in Scissorhands (or indeed, in works by any other composer). It, combined with the gentle strings and tinkling music box, brilliantly personifies the delicate yet melancholy story-book world of the film. Also notable is the obvious care taken in constructing the soundtrack, which moves in two acts ('Edward Meets the World'/'Poor Edward') clearly approximating that of a children's tale, and ensuring real flow and clarity.

The score is overflowing with a tear-jerking sense of glacial beauty. The famous waltz-like 'Introduction' is in fact used more as a bookend, an identifier of the score's unique sound and the first stage in the story of Edward's life. It in turn also acts an intro to key components: choir, orchestra, music box and chimes. The spine-tingling 'Storytime' brings in the principal theme, again carried mainly on choir, for Edward, a truly moving piece that brims with sadness and anguish.

'Castle on the Hill' is marked by a tongue-in-cheek, quasi-Gothic sense of menace as Dianne Weist's kindly Peg discovers Edward at the start of the film. Moments of latent darkness subside as Edward's fragile, sensitive nature is uncovered, both in his topiary collection and his unveiling in the attic. 'Beautiful New World' is a more typical type of delightful Elfman scherzo, brimming with quirky optimism at Edward's exposure to suburbia before a haunting rendition of Edward's theme sees the track out. That is in fact symptomatic of much of the score's first half: upbeat moments contrasting with soaring beauty, as his love for Winona Ryder's Kim starts to unfold. The classic 'Ice Dance', for example, as beautiful a piece of film music as ever was written, contrasts with the witty, fiendishly intricate fiddle solo in 'Edwardo the Barber'.

The second half is where the sense of tragedy begins to take over, beginning with the heart-breaking 'Death!' as Edward and Kim's unconsummated love is carried on strings and choir. Its more eerie counterpoint, heard in the flashback to the death of Edward's inventor (Vincent Price in his final screen role), and also when vying with the more violent orchestra in 'The Tide Turns', emphasises the fragility of Elfman's musical tapestry, that prejudice and bigotry can shatter any notion of decency. The ferocious nature of the latter and 'Final Confrontation', bringing in strident brass, bells and rumbling piano, stuns the listener, having become accustomed to the ethereal beauty of earlier.

It's the climactic 'The Grand Finale' though that marks the score's most astonishing moment and possibly the pinnacle of Elfman's career to date, a heaven-sent, magnificent choral rendition of the main theme, indicating love will never die and Edward will live on forever in Kim's memory. We then return to the introductory theme, closing the book on 'The End' of Edward's story, the beautiful choir still lingering though in our memory.

Although Elfman has in recent years been understandably bracketed as a 'super-hero guy' (by virtue of his having scored everything from Darkman to Spiderman), in truth, he was never more intimate, careful or appealing than in Edward Scissorhands. The ability to, back then, take what we now see as cliches and spin them into moments of stunning power is likely his legacy to the film music world (despite the many fine scores he has composed since). Its neglect at any major award ceremony was shameful but then it reverberates in the listener's memory for a lifetime. Years later, we can still be seen dancing in it...

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