CD Review: Standard Operating Procedure

By • May 20, 2008

Composer: Danny Elfman
Label: Varese Sarabande
Suggested Retail Price: $16.98
Grade: A

More than most composers, Danny Elfman has had a gleeful time exploring the worst of humanity – whether it is the serial killing of the Red Dragon, the murder-for-sex in To Die For, the merry mayhem of Freeway or the gory slayings that afflict Sleepy Hollow. Time and again, Elfman’s Grand Guignol melodies have made murder, madness and overall bad behavior into an enjoyable spectator sport for soundtrack fans, who can’t wait for the next bit of inspired nastiness he unleashes.

However, it’s doubtful more than a dozen of them will venture to see Standard Operating Procedure, which is undeniably the most disturbing and terrifying film that Elfman will likely put into his cavalcade of musical carnage. For what gives this film top ranking is that it’s all true, as documentarian Errol Morris brilliantly smashes the doors of Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison open in a way that Americans have never seen before, especially given how the media blotted out the torture photos’ nastiest bits, or refrained from showing them at all. There are no musically typical monsters or madmen here. Just American soldiers doing their “duty” in a way that will make even the biggest super-patriot question what the hell we’re doing in Iraq, not to mention what has become of their country’s morale to be better than what they’re fighting. No small amount of this film’s tremendous gut comes from Elfman’s near-continuous score, especially in how pleasantly it goes down. And in that way, the composer couldn’t be crueler, or more effective in getting across the outrage.

Composing requires the musician to watch a scene hundreds, if not thousands of times. And for that reason alone, I wouldn’t want to be in Danny Elfman’s shoes as he watched Procedure’s horrifically degrading photos pass by on his monitor. But while this is one film I can only bring myself to appreciate only once, Elfman’s terrific score holds up for many repeated listens. And if there’s a big compliment to be paid here, it’s that Standard Operating Procedure is probably the least “Danny Elfman” score the composer has ever done, as the many stories of degradation allow him to indulge in the kind of wild creativity that would be almost unimaginable in a mainstream superhero flick. There’s nothing remotely Standard about his work here.

An admirer of Errol Morris’ documentaries since his pet cemetery classic Gates Of Heaven, Standard Operating Procedure marks Elfman’s auspicious teaming with the director. And he’s obviously been paying attention to how effectively Morris has used music to bind his surreal imagery, from Caleb Sampson’s “mad science” score in Mr. Death to Philip Glass’ hypnotic repetitions in The Thin Blue Line and The Fog Of War. And it’s the former that Elfman’s approach often recalls here, with deceptively soothing, neo-classical string lines, piano and brass creating a hypnotic wash over the Abu Ghraib MP’s recounting how they “softened up” suspected terrorists by any means necessary, short of murder – at least at their hands.

Morris’ tactic at reaching the audience is telling one unfathomable story after the other with imagery at once dream-like and horrible, the music, imagery and words coalescing to make his point. That it’s a period instead of an exclamation remains a measure of Morris and Elfman’s terrific subtlety. Given the soldiers’ ages, Elfman’s combination of bells with anguished strings and brass in “S.O.P. Theme #1,” or the music box rhythms of “Oli’s Lullaby” show how easily youthful innocence can get corrupted in the worst of places. But the darkness here is more about the soldiers’ loss of self than the brutality they diligently inflict. At other times, the music takes on the lethal vocal whimsy of an Elfman score like To Die For in such cues as “Photos,” the composer’s telltale sound of darkness playing the imagery like a carnival in hell. The funhouse sound gets even more psychedelic with the playful organs of “The Table Breaker,” giving the film its bit of bizarrely ironic comic relief.

Any good composer has got to hit the emotion, and here Elfman turns it repeatedly on a dime to hit our most astonished and outraged nerve centers. “The Shooter” has a sorrowful sense of growing outrage, while fury is in your face with “Dogs.” Slavering German shepherd jaws are accompanied with neo-techno rhythms and a relentless orchestral build. The mood can also be darkly contemplative in “Saddam’s Egg,” or play like a mini symphony in breakneck piano and string movements of the main title sequence “Vacation In Iraq.” Then in “Unusual, Weird & Wrong,” halting, trembling strings tell us of the soldier’s epiphany at just what they’ve done, that a wave started from on top of the military chain of command will end up washing their lives away while leaving the true instigators untouched.

It’s probably a sad, if expected reality that this is one soundtrack that will easily outgross the film it accompanies. Listeners will probably never want to confront themselves with the images, and ongoing reality of what Abu Ghraib embodies about our endless war in Iraq. But they can be assured that the anger and pain of its images are alive in Danny Elfman’s music. They’ve given him the kind of inspiration no composer should want. And the fact that he’s scored them with such poignant, mesmerizing cruelty should count as a truly patriotic service.

Listen to Danny Elfman’s heart of human darkness here.

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