CD Review: Wanted and Hellboy II

By • July 29, 2008

Composer: Danny Elfman
Label: Lakeshore / Varese Sarabande
Suggested Retail Prices: $12.97
Grade: A

You could say that composer Danny Elfman first got into musical gunplay with his surreal score for DEAD PRESIDENTS. But when it comes to dealing with the kind of over-the-top characters that link the blazingly eccentric action of WANTED and HELLBOY II, Elfman’s had those straightjacket types on his resume since he first scored Pee Wee Herman. And that’s mentioning the lunatic darkness that’s been part and parcel of his genre work in such scores as DARKMAN, BATMAN RETURNS, PLANET OF THE APES and SLEEPY HOLLOW. Now Danny Elfman’s two summer offerings can join his Wack Pack with pride, as WANTED ups the action ante to delirious heights, and HELLBOY II plays a monster mash with uber-geek enthusiasm.

Percussion has always been the name of Elfman’s game since his long-missed days fronting Oingo Boingo. And WANTED is a terrific madhouse of all manner of groove, with drums, rock guitar and brass blasting away with the rat-a-tat of its super-assassins’ weaponry. Yet for a film so obsessed with stylistic action, it’s a small miracle that themes really stand out here, beginning most unusually with the Russian-like dance rhythms of “Success Montage.” However, that’s more of an unconscious nod to Elfman’s family tree than a 21-gun salute to the Slavic heritage of WANTED’s director Timur Bekmambatov. And hearing this classical, celebratory approach as the nerdy office worker Wesley gets his aim helps to contribute to the gloriously unhinged, what the f tone of Elfman’s work here. Yet there’s a real construction to Elfman’s score, as the “training” music dynamically segues into WANTED’s other driving motif, a mean descending pattern of five-notes that capture the Wesley’s unavoidable plunge into the questionable morality of killing for the greater good.

For a “Fraternity” of assassins who’ve been around since fate-knows-when, Elfman uses monk-like voices, accompanied by another surging motif. Indeed, the music never sits still here, percolating with gnarly guitars and black-humored string lines, all reflecting its hero’s agitated state in a whole new bloody world, courtesy of the suitably named Fox. Then in the soundtrack’s best cue “Fox in Control,” Elfman launches into dynamic action that sounds like his own warped take on a 60’s jazz-spy theme, the music boasting of feminine machismo, with a danceable beat. However, the somber strings and voice of “Fox’s Story” give her a tragic humanity as well. Adrenalin and emotion also combine for “The Train.” Elfman has once again boarded an out-of-control passenger car after scoring similar scenes in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE and SPIDER-MAN 2. Here relentless brass builds with anger and speed, as catastrophic collateral damage serves as a vehicle for Wesley’s payback against dear old dad. WANTED ultimately becomes one of the best examples of that cinematic chestnut of a hero breaking into a warehouse and to kill everyone in sight, allowing Elfman to unleash a groovy cacophony of acoustic feedback that combines Guns N’ Roses metal licks with dynamite orchestrations, neither sound getting lost in the mix as it combats the sound effects for supremacy. At least on this album, Elfman’s devilish joy of the kill wins hands-down.

Leave it to the demon to be the “nicer” hero in HELLBOY II, as Elfman takes over the musical reigns from Marco Beltrami. While that composer had also done an excellent job, his HELLBOY was a bit scarier than this equally terrific sequel, which goes more for family-friendly spectacle. That’s certainly Elfman’s department as such scores as EDWARD SCISSORHANDS and A NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS can attest to. While few composers are able to convey that mix of whimsy and the supernatural like Elfman, HELLBOY II mostly hearkens back to Elfman’s score for the sadly maligned NIGHTBREED. For that film’s cavalcade of creatures, Elfman used lurching orchestrations and “monster ethnic” percussion, both of which strut their stuff here in spades.

Right from the score’s “Introduction,” Elfman fans will immediately know they’re smack dab in his wondrously creepy land of choruses, tragic violins and hellzapoppin’ brass, yet with a more comic, romantic and somehow sweeter tone than what’s gone before. Though there are tons of beasties here, Elfman does much to differentiate their sound, from the Japanese percussion of the Elric-like faerie prince Nuada to the lumbering, massive string movements of his golden army. And when it comes to their supernatural action, Elfman is there to hit every beat like a twisted version of Carl Stalling, strings angrily fluttering about for tooth faeries, or drums, brass and strings making mincemeat for Nuada’s sword. When it comes to Hellboy himself, Elfman has a goofball sense of whimsy that you wish there was even more of. Big Red takes a “Hallway Cruise” to a 50’s Theremin beat that could be straight out of MARS ATTACKS. The “Teleplasty” of gasman Johann Kraus is even goofier in its ooo-weee-oooo electronics as he temporarily revives a Tooth Fairy. Once could easily imagine this music gracing the opening of a “Creature Feature” tv show, circa 1978. The Teutonic bravado of the scene-stealing Johann even gets a German march for the hilarious “Mein Herring.”

When Hellboy and company visit a “Troll Market,” the rambunctious wailing and bright, brassy clanging are some of Elfman’s coolest monster stylings since exploring Baphomet’s underworld in NIGHTBREED. Yet for all of Elfman’s sound and fury, there are some beautifully tender moments for the romance of Abe Sapien and Princess Nuala, and the magical, funereal regret that Hellboy has over plastering “The Last Elemental.” Voices also work magic for the relationship between Hellboy and the fiery Liz Sherman, Elfman’s melodic emotion helping to cement the characters’ unlikely bond.

As HELLBOY II reaches its amazing climax, Elfman uses his brass to convey a crushing sense of weight, especially as the Golden Army’s “Doorway” opens with the kind of groaning power that Bernard Herrmann used to accompany the colossus Talos in JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS. Then after an evil, silky-stringed “Choice” that Liz must make to save Hellboy, it’s off the pulverizing battle “In the Army Chamber,” as lumbering, clanking percussion and a galley-of-the-damned chorus becomes the infernal robots, swirling rock and roll strings playing a demon with an attitude’s desperate attempts to smash the uncrunchable, as well as his unlikely acrobatics while combating Nuada. It’s Elfman at his wildest and most creative, music clashing uncontrollably as the universe hangs in the balance.

HELLBOY II is full of the visual, and musical stuff that great comic book films are made of. And Elfman’s been lucky enough to work on one or two of them in his career, especially this popcorn season. Yet beyond these films’ commonality in big-ass guns and unhinged good guys who tread on the very dark side, WANTED and HELLBOY II can rejoice that their soundtracks have been given their sweaty all by Hollywood’s prince of musical darkness- a musician who seems to view crafting their melodies as far more of a personal calling than a job. And it’s exactly his identification in the eccentric that’s created increasingly crazier, and craftier scores to reckon with.

Find yourself on Elfman’s WANTED list HERE, and the smoke a stogie with HELLBOY II’s soundtrack HERE

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